Hard Questions, Tough Answers- The Munich Olympics Massacre, 50 Years Later (September 6, 2022)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q. The Israeli media has very emotionally commemorated the murder by Palestinian terrorists of 11 Israeli athletes on Sept. 5, 1972, 50 years ago. Germany commemorated it on Monday this week, in the presence of President Herzog of Israel. From your standpoint, seen 50 years later, were there strategic ramifications? Are they relevant today?

A. The Munich Olympics massacre was an inflection point for Israel’s approach to Palestinian terrorist attacks abroad and for Israeli security thinking in general. True, there had been earlier incidents, but nothing on this scale before a global audience. Most multiple terrorist killings of Israelis before and since have been perpetrated inside Israel and Israeli-occupied territories.

This was a strategic event, a game-changer, that to a large extent dictated the agenda of the Israeli security and diplomatic communities abroad for years to come.

Q. Were there specific ramifications for Israeli-German relations?

A. In Israeli eyes, the indifference and ineptitude displayed by German security authorities before, during and after the atrocity was close to criminal. Coming as it did on German soil, and in Munich where the Nazi movement began, German behavior had a profound emotional effect on Israelis.

The German security and political authorities made every mistake imaginable. Prior to the attack, German Olympic security officials ignored or dismissed warnings by Israeli athletes that the Olympic village was not secure. During the confrontation with the attackers, the Germans refused the offer of a highly trained Israeli anti-terrorist team, dismissed the operational advice of Mossad Head Zvi Zamir who flew to Munich the day of the attack, and clumsily precipitated the deaths of the Israeli athletes taken hostage by the Palestinian attackers.

The day after the attack ended so tragically, the Germans insisted on resuming the Olympics--business as usual. Shortly thereafter, German authorities released three Palestinian attackers who had remained alive, in a murky exchange deal that ostensibly involved ransoming a hijacked civilian aircraft.

It took 50 years until German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier officially apologized for Germany’s disastrous handling of the massacre and its aftermath--an astounding and moving apology in its depth and scope. It took 50 years for Germany to agree to financially compensate the families of the Israeli victims and to launch with Israel an official investigation of the events of September 1972.

A lot of this behavior--particularly giving in to terrorist threats and releasing jailed Palestinian terrorists--was evidenced earlier and in the years to come in the UK, France and elsewhere in Europe as well. Munich was the low point.

Interestingly, back then (as now) most of the European countries also enjoyed, simultaneously, close intelligence cooperation with Israel. They were grateful for intelligence early warnings of terrorist attacks. But they resented being drawn into Middle East conflicts. They thought they could, in one mode or another, collaborate with both sides.

Here and there, they still do: note the willingness of certain European countries, and the United States, to release Iranians incarcerated on their territory for legitimate reasons in return for the release of their nationals held as hostages in jail by Iran on ludicrously trumped-up charges.

The International Olympic Committee has also come under heavy criticism for its drive to renew the Olympic games the day after the atrocity and for minimizing memorial ceremonies for the 11 Israeli victims ever since.

Q. You were a Mossad collection officer based in Europe back then. How did the Munich attack affect you personally?

A. At the personal level, the lives of Israeli security and intelligence personnel like myself stationed in Europe changed radically following Munich and subsequent attacks, some of which directly targeted Israeli intelligence. We frequently had to be armed, even when local law prohibited this and discovery could land you in jail. Spouses had to undergo small-arms training. Children felt the tension in our lives. I recall that after three years abroad, I felt like I had aged ten years.

Many Mossad operatives were deployed in an Israeli revenge operation, ordered by Prime Minister Golda Meir, against all Palestinians involved in the Munich attack and similar attacks. Israel had perhaps assassinated individual enemies before, but never on this scale. I believe the overall impact of this campaign helped move the Palestinian leadership toward, first, abandoning attacks abroad, and ultimately, reconciling to Israel’s existence.

I had one personal experience involving the Munich massacre that I can never forget. The day the German Olympic authorities held a memorial ceremony for the Israeli victims, while the 1972 Olympic games were still ongoing, I found myself seated in the lobby of the Amsterdam Hilton Hotel with an Egyptian intelligence source whose ‘file’ I had taken over upon arriving a few weeks earlier in Europe. We hardly knew one another, and I was new on the job. What’s more, this was a false-flag operation: I presented myself as a non-Israeli associated with a non-Israeli intelligence organization; the Egyptian source was not aware of any Israeli connection.

As we chatted over coffee, we noticed a TV in the lobby, broadcasting the memorial ceremony. There were people I knew there. The names of the Israeli dead were being called out. It was all I could do not to look and not to get emotionally involved. Not so my Egyptian source, who immediately proclaimed that the Munich attack and murder of 11 Israeli athletes was entirely justified.

I couldn’t react as an Israeli, or I would blow my cover. I had to grit my teeth and react as a European: a word of sympathy to the Israeli victims, a word of sympathy to the Palestinian murderers. That day I aged another few years.

Q. At the broadest level, what has changed in Palestinian terrorism against Israelis since Munich?

A. Fateh, under cover of “Black September”, was behind the Munich attack. When Fateh entered the Olso Accords in 1993, it officially renounced terrorism. But then, still under Yasser Arafat, Fateh reverted to terrorism in a big way during the Second Intifada (2000-2005).

Ever since, the 1993 non-terrorism commitment continues to be honored on occasion in the breach. More troubling, official Fateh media still lionize the Palestinian Munich attackers. And just recently, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) pointedly avoided apologizing for the massacre (during his infamous “50 Holocausts” speech).

Still, this does not denigrate from the evolution in attitudes towards violence against civilians that has characterized Fateh and the PLO in recent decades. Abbas himself frequently reiterates his opposition to terrorism.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad, both Palestinian Islamist movements, along with secular ‘revolutionary’ Palestinian movements like the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, continue openly and officially to attack Israeli civilians in a terrorist mode. But even they do not attack Israelis abroad--only in Israel, the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, non-Palestinian Islamists like Hezbollah, sponsored by Iran, have joined the ranks of anti-Israel terrorists, usually operating in one mode or another on behalf of the Palestinian cause. These Islamists were not around in September 1972.

Then too, in the 1970s Palestinian terrorists enjoyed the logistics and financial support of Arab countries hostile to Israel, like Egypt. This is no longer the case. Indeed, Egypt and Israel cooperate closely against Islamist terrorists affiliated with ISIS in the Sinai Peninsula. The Munich attackers, incidentally, trained for their mission in Libya, then ruled by Moammar Qaddafi.

Prior to 1990, the Soviet Union and satellite states like East Germany and Bulgaria trained Fateh and other Palestinian terrorists in the arts of clandestine operations. A few years ago, at a conference in Prague, a Palestinian colleague, an ex-Fateh operative, walked me through the route he had followed when being trained there in surveillance by East Germans: the Old Town Square, the Astronomical Clock, the Charles Bridge, etc.

 Today, Iran trains Hezbollah and the Palestinian Islamists in the arts of intelligence and terror.

Q. Bottom line?

A. In recent months, attacks by Palestinians in the northern West Bank, mainly against IDF soldiers (meaning attacks that are not, strictly speaking, terrorism) and mainly by unaffiliated individuals, have been rising sharply. In a reality where a peace process is non-existent, Palestinian Authority police make little if any effort to suppress the violence.

From the standpoint of combating terrorism, today Israel’s situation is far better--unlike the prospects for ending the conflict with the Palestinians, which are worse. Lamentable as the current situation is--the bloodshed, the occupation, the settlements, the lack of a peace process, Israel’s right-religious political mainstream, Palestinian Islamist rejection of peace, PA indifference--this is still a far cry from Munich, September 1972.