Forty Years Since Munich Massacre — Killings that Followed “Were Not Mossad Revenge”

To honor the memories of 11 Israeli athletes murdered at the Munich Olympics in September 1972, here is some little known perspective about Israel’s decision to use the Mossad – the secret operations and foreign intelligence agency – to hunt and kill Palestinian militants in Europe and in Lebanon.

Here is an exclusive excerpt from SPIES AGAINST ARMAGEDDON: INSIDE ISRAEL’S SECRET WARS, adapted from Chapter 10 (“More Than Vengeance”):

The director of the Mossad from 1968 to 1974, Zvi Zamir, said: “Until Munich, our policy was guided by the assumption that European nations would not allow Palestinian terror to operate on their soil or to stage a wave of hijackings.  That meant that there was no need for us, the Mossad, to operate against the terrorists on European soil.  Indeed, we avoided doing so.”

The PLO kept attacking Israelis in Europe, and in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem a faction arose that wanted a stronger, lethal reaction.  “We – the intelligence and military chiefs – tried to persuade Golda [Prime Minister Meir] that the European governments were soft on terrorists,” Zamir recalled.  “And when they did arrest them, after a while they were released.”  The Mossad chief concluded that Israel would have to mete out justice.

Zamir himself was at the airport near Munich, watching helplessly as German sharpshooters failed to cut down the Palestinian terrorists from “Black September” — an organization trying to hide the fact that it was part of the PLO.  Zamir saw the athletes of his nation, bound and sitting in helicopters as prisoners, meet their deaths in a hail of bullets, grenade explosions, and fire.

Zamir, who is now 87 years old, seems angry about the movie that Steven Spielberg made about the Olympics massacre and its aftermath.  Talking about “Munich” when it came out in 2005, Zamir said the famous director – along with various historians and analysts – did not comprehend the logic behind the Mossad’s post-Olympics assassinations.

European governments were repeatedly giving in to blackmail and releasing Arabs who clearly were guilty of terrorism. Israel wanted its enemies to be neutralized.  It would have settled for seeing them jailed for long terms.  But because Europe was releasing them, Israel decided that it would have to remove them from the scene.

Finding it impractical to take the extra risks to kidnap and imprison known terrorists in distant lands, the Mossad would kill them.

In addition, there was a desire for psychological impact.  Despite the fact that there were barely 10 killings in this campaign, a deterrent effect was surely achieved. Israel was perceived as a country with a very long arm and the memory of an elephant.

Zamir insisted that the killings were tactical, part of a war.

He said: “Munich was a shock to all of us, a turning point.  Yet Golda didn’t order us to avenge the slaughter of our athletes, as the world has assumed.  Our decision was to disrupt the PLO’s operational infrastructure in Europe: their offices, couriers, representatives, and routes.

“Golda left the decision whom to kill, and where, to us.  Our attitude was that in order to defend ourselves, we have to go on the attack.  And I believe we succeeded in our campaign.  Those who accuse us of being motivated simply by revenge are talking nonsense.  We didn’t wage a vendetta campaign against individuals.  It was a war against an organization, aiming to halt and prevent concrete terrorist plans.

“Yes, those who were involved in Munich deserved death.  But we didn’t deal with the past.  We concentrated on what was expected to happen.”

Zamir also refuted the myth of a Committee X that voted to approve death warrants.  “There was no such committee,” he said.  “The system worked differently.  At headquarters, the heads of the operational and research units collected data on the most active PLO representatives and agents in Europe.  Based on that information, a list was compiled, and that was shown to a small group of senior Mossad managers.

“That was the forum that decided whom to kill, and where and when, if operational circumstances allowed that to be carried out.”

The process was far more informal, in a sense more Israeli, than having a stodgy committee labeled X.

Zamir did go to Prime Minister Meir with the list of recommended targets, and she consulted with a small group of cabinet members.

In the end, it was Golda Meir herself who gave Zamir the final green light for any “elimination mission.”  A planned assassination, by the foreign intelligence agency of a modern democratic country, was considered something for which the highest elected authority in the land should take responsibility.

September 9, 2012

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