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Olympics Massacre: Munich - The real story

With Steven Spielberg's controversial film out next week, Simon Reeve revisits the events of 1972 - and reveals how they shaped the terror age

Sunday 22 January 2006 01:00 GMT

Shortly after 4am on 5 September 1972, eight heavily armed militants from Black September, a faction of the PLO, arrived on the outskirts of Munich and scaled a perimeter fence protecting thousands of athletes sleeping in the Olympic Village.

Carrying assault rifles and grenades, the Palestinians ran towards No 31 Connollystrasse, the building housing the Israeli delegation to the Munich Olympic Games. Bursting into the first apartment, they took a group of Israeli officials and trainers hostage: Yossef Gutfreund, Amitzur Shapira, Kehat Shorr, Andrei Spitzer, Jacov Springer and Moshe Weinberg.

In another apartment, they captured the Israeli wrestlers and weightlifters Eliezer Halfin, Yossef Romano, Mark Slavin, David Berger (an Israeli-American law graduate) and Zeev Friedman. When the tough Israelis fought back, the Palestinians opened fire, shooting Romano and Weinberg dead. The other nine were subdued and taken hostage. The Palestinians then demanded the release of 234 prisoners held in Israeli jails.

So began a siege and a tragedy that remains one of the most significant terror attacks of modern times. The assault, and the nature of the Israeli response, thrust the Israeli-Palestinian crisis into the world spotlight, set the tone for decades of conflict in the Middle East, and launched the new era of international terrorism. Olympic events were suspended, and broadcasters filled the time on expensive new satellite connections by switching to live footage from Connollystrasse. A TV audience of 900 million viewers in more than 100 countries watched with lurid fascination.

Initially the Palestinians seemed to relish the attention. They felt the world had ignored them for decades. But after a day of missed deadlines, "Issa", the Black September leader, wearied of negotiations. During the evening he demanded a plane to fly his men and the Israelis to the Middle East. German officials agreed to move the group in helicopters to Fürstenfeldbruck airfield base on the outskirts of Munich, where a Boeing 727 would be waiting to fly them to Cairo. Secretly, however, the Germans began planning a rescue operation at the airfield.

Zvi Zamir, the head of Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency, arrived in Munich when the plan was finalised and was flown to the airfield just ahead of the hostages and terrorists. "When we got to Fürstenfeldbruck, it was very dark," said Zamir. "I couldn't believe it. We would have had the field flooded with lights. I thought they might have had more snipers or armoured cars hiding in the shadows. But they didn't. The Germans were useless. Useless, all the way."

Just as the Palestinians and Israelis were about to land at Fürstenfeldbruck a group of German policemen on the 727 took a fateful decision and abandoned their positions. Five German snipers were then left to tackle eight well-armed Palestinians. The hostages and terrorists landed at the airfield at 10.40pm. Issa realised it was a trap and the German snipers opened fire, missing their targets. A gunfight began, and bullets sliced through the control tower where Zamir was standing. Then a stalemate developed and Zamir realised the Germans had no idea what to do.

An hour of sporadic gunfire ended when German armoured cars lumbered on to the airfield. The gunner in one car accidentally shot a couple of men on his own side, and the Palestinians apparently thought they were about to be machine-gunned. A terrorist shot four of the hostages in one helicopter as another Palestinian tossed a grenade inside. The explosion ignited the fuel tank, and the captive Israelis burned. Another terrorist then shot the Israelis in the other helicopter. Germans present at the airfield still remember the screams. Eleven Israelis, five Palestinians and one German police officer died during the Munich tragedy. The unprecedented attack, siege and massacre had a huge impact. In many ways it was the 9/11 of the 1970s. Suddenly the world realised terror was not confined to the Middle East.

For Israel, the sight of Jews dying again on German soil, just a few decades after the Holocaust, was simply too much. Israel struck back hard. Warplanes bombed Palestinian "military bases", killing many militants, but also scores of innocent civilians and children. Hundreds of Palestinians joined militant groups in response.

When Germany released the three Black September guerrillas who survived the Munich massacre, after a fabricated plane hijacking, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir then launched a secret operation, known by some as "Wrath of God", to hunt and kill those responsible for Munich. The exploits of the Israeli agents involved in Wrath of God are the stuff of legend and cheap farce. Over the next 20 years Israeli agents killed dozens of Palestinians. They hid landmines under car seats, devised ingenious bombs, and claim to have found and killed two of the three terrorist survivors of Munich.

The first to die was Wael Zwaiter, a Palestinian intellectualwho lived in Rome. On the evening of 16 October 1972, Zwaiter was ambling home to his flat in the north of the city and entered his block just after 10.30pm. Two Israeli agents emerged from the shadows and fired 12 bullets into his body at close range. Zwaiter died in the entrance hall.

The assassins then turned their attention to Dr Mahmoud Hamshari, the PLO's representative in France, who lived in Paris with his French wife Marie-Claude and their daughter Amina. Mossad agents have since claimed he was the head of Black September in France, but offer no real evidence. In early December 1972, while an Israeli agent posing as an Italian journalist met Hamshari in a café, at least two Israeli explosives experts entered his apartment and planted a small explosive device under a table by his telephone.

The next day, after Marie-Claude had left to take Amina to school, the "Italian journalist" rang Hamshari at his home.

"Is that you, Mr Hamshari?" asked the Israeli agent in Arabic. "Yes, I am Mahmoud Hamshari," came the response.

The Israelis immediately detonated their bomb. Hamshari was conscious for long enough to tell astonished Parisian detectives what had happened, but he later died in hospital.

Other Palestinians were eliminated in the following months, before the Israelis launched their most daring operation, sending an elite squad of soldiers into Beirut to kill three senior Palestinians. Ehud Barak, the leader of Sayeret Matkal, the Israeli SAS, and later Israeli Prime Minister, led the mission disguised as a woman, with a black wig and make-up, and hand grenades in his bra. "I wore a pair of trousers because the skirts in fashion then were a little short and narrow," Barak has said. "I also had a very stylish bag, big enough for plenty of explosives."

The killings went on for at least two decades. Mossad agents have tried to claim they targeted Palestinians directly connected with the 1972 massacre. But only a couple of the Palestinians shot or blown to pieces during the operation appear to have been directly connected with the Olympic attack. Instead the dead were mainly Palestinian intellectuals, politicians and poets. And the consequences of these so-called "targeted killings" for Israel have been appalling.

Assassination was not a regular Israeli tactic until Munich. Occasionally Israeli agents sent letter bombs to scientists developing rockets for enemy states, but it was Golda Meir who set a precedent for wholesale use of murder as a counterterrorism policy by authorising an assassination campaign in the aftermath of Munich. Since then assassination has been used to kill scores of terrorists and senior militants, including many of those responsible for major bomb attacks in Israel. In the absence of political solutions, the Israeli government and people have come to rely on targeted killings as their standard response to bombings.

However, many intelligence experts and senior Mossad officials privately admit targeted killings do not work. Assassinations spur revenge attacks on Israelis, and attacks can also go wrong. During Wrath of God, Israeli agents murdered an innocent waiter in Lillehammer, Norway. Several agents were captured and jailed. Then there are the moral and legal issues surrounding targeted killings. During Operation Wrath of God Israeli agents often killed their prey when alone. But since targeted killings became standard policy Israel has repeatedly fired missiles or dropped large bombs on targets, killing bystanders.

Until 11 September 2001, Israel was the only democratic nation obviously using targeted killings to counter terrorism. In July that year, the head of the Israeli army was forced to defend the killings after criticism from the Bush administration. But after 9/11 US policy shifted and Washington prepared a list of terrorists the CIA was authorised to kill. US officials even began studying Wrath of God for tips on how they could strike at al-Qa'ida. In November 2002, a senior al-Qa'ida commander was killed in Yemen when his car was hit by a missile fired by a pilotless US Predator.

Like their Israeli counterparts, American officials have found that once assassination is used as an occasional tactic it has a habit of becoming the norm. Predators have since been used in dozens of attacks in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and other countries. US officials have even responded to the quagmire in Iraq by proposing the creation of special elite squads, managed or assisted by US forces. Yet using blunt military force against terrorists does not work. Even the supposedly clinical killings conducted by Israeli teams in response to the Munich massacre did not stop terrorism. Israelis are still dying in terror attacks.

Spielberg's Munich movie is unlikely to have much of an impact on the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. But it might help to remind people that state-sanctioned assassination campaigns have failed as a tactic against terrorism. Perhaps the film could also make audiences realise that if serious action had been taken after Munich to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, then 9/11 would probably never have happened.

Simon Reeve is the author of 'One Day in September', the full story of the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre, Faber & Faber, £6.99

Big Screen: Fact, fiction and the art of film-making

The Munich massacre seems an unlikely subject for Steven Spielberg to choose as the basis for his new blockbuster.

Observers had long thought of the director as a great friend of Israel. Yet with 'Munich' Spielberg has managed to anger the Israeli government, former Mossad agents, and Palestinian militants from Black September.

Spielberg's failure to contact a number of key figures while making the film has not helped. Nor has his choice of source material. The provenance of 'Vengeance', a book by the Canadian writer George Jonas, has been questioned since it was first published in 1984.

Last summer Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, discovered that Spielberg had been working on the movie script with the leading left-wing American playwright Tony Kushner, who has been critical of Israeli government policies. Infuriated, Sharon gave authorisation for several former Mossad members of the assassination campaign to tell their side of the story to journalists and documentary-makers, most notably the makers of an excellent new BBC documentary, 'Munich'.

The Israeli government has since waged a whispering campaign against Spielberg's movie. Officials have made it clear they think the film is "superficial" and "pretentious". Several US critics have complained that Spielberg depicts the Palestinians and the Israelis as equally culpable.

But Spielberg has strived to offer balance in a movie everyone will watch burdened by preconceptions. The suffering and death of the Israeli athletes and officials in Munich is returned to repeatedly during the film. Palestinians are actually portrayed as human beings: no small feat in a Hollywood offering.

Yet Spielberg has not made a documentary. There is no historical context and only the briefest mention of Israeli bombing raids on Palestinian camps after the Munich massacre. And while many of the Wrath of God assassinations are accurately represented, there is plenty more that is either wrong or fabricated.

Watching the film I was enthralled yet troubled. Like it or not, it is Spielberg who is deciding how the tragedy will be remembered.

'Munich', the Spielberg movie, is released this week. 'Munich', the BBC2 documentary, is on Tuesday at 11.20pm

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