Six of the 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team killed in the 1972 Munich, Germany bombing, (top left) coach Moshe Weinberg and officials Kehat Shur and Yakov Springer, (bottom (right) official Yosef Gottfreund, wrestler Eliezar Halfen and official Amitzur Shapira – Copyright IPPA/AFP/File Handout
The killing of 11 Israelis at the 1972 Munich Olympics prompted Israel to turn to a strategy that is still relevant today: deploying undercover agents abroad to destroy its enemies.
Ever since the Mossad intelligence service launched its Operation Wrath of God to hunt down high-ranking militants it blamed for the Munich bloodbath, it has been secretly targeting Israel’s enemies abroad.
Half a century ago next week, Palestinian militants from the Black September militant group broke into the Olympic Village and stormed the premises of Israeli athletes and their coaches.
After a brutal hostage drama, exacerbated by the mistakes of the German security services, all Israelis were dead, causing deep alarm in the Jewish state less than three decades after the Holocaust.
“It was a real shock to the Israeli population,” recalls Ehud Barak, a former Israeli prime minister who at the time served as a commando at the head of an elite military unit.
“The combination of the nature of the killings and the helplessness of the athletes who were attacked and the fact that it was on German soil somehow resonates,” he told AFP.
According to him, the killings caused “deep grief with great outrage” and a concerted effort to “revenge, kill (involved) people” and prevent similar attacks in the future.
According to historian Michael Bar-Zohar, the covert program was led by then head of the Mossad Zvi Zamir, Prime Minister Golda Meir and her counterterrorism adviser Aharon Yariv.
Initially, “after Munich, Golda Meir didn’t know what to do,” Bar-Zohar said.
According to an Israeli historian, two security chiefs, both with the airs of university professors, met with Meir.
“They were timid, well-dressed and said one thing: “Now we must destroy Black September.”
The trio, realizing that tracking down all Black September members would be next to impossible, instead devised a strategy to “smash the serpent’s head” by killing the group’s leader, Bar-Zohar said.
“Golda really hesitated,” he said. “Should she authorize killings across Europe and the Middle East?
“She said yes.”
Over the next few months, the leaders of Black September and their Palestine Liberation Organization allies began to die under mysterious circumstances in Rome, Paris and Cyprus.
– Lipstick and bombs –
Among the victims were three Palestinians who were killed in Beirut in April 1973 by a group of militants dressed in women’s clothing.
One of the militants disguised with make-up and fake breasts was Barak, at the time the commander of the Sayeret Matkal unit sent to kill Mohammed Youssef al-Najjar, Kamal Adwan and Kamal Nasser.
The group of assassins traveled by warship and then smaller boats to reach Beirut, where they were met by Mossad agents in rented cars posing as tourists.
The team assumed that more than a dozen young people strolling through the prestigious area of Beirut might arouse suspicion.
“So we decided to ‘make some of us girls’,” said Barack, now 80. “I was a unit commander, but at that time I had a baby face, so I was one of the girls.
“I was brunette, not blond, with painted lips and blue eyes, and we took military socks to fill our chests,” he recalled.
The four agents, disguised as women, wore wide trousers, hid weapons in jackets and bags, and were armed with hand grenades and explosives.
Dividing into small groups, they headed for the homes of their targets, but came under heavy fire. Two Israelis were killed, as well as several Lebanese civilians and three Palestinians.
A few hours later, Barak returned home to Israel, where his wife questioned him about the eyeshadow and lipstick smeared on his face.
“I couldn’t tell her,” the ex-premier recalled, adding that happily “she turned on the radio, and conversations began about what had happened.”
– The hunt for the “Red Prince” –
However, such early successes may have made Israel overconfident, which contributed to later failures.
Three months after the operation in Beirut, the Mossad believed they had located Ali Hassan Salameh, Black September’s chief of operations, known as the “Red Prince.”
Israel sent assassins to the Norwegian city of Lillehammer, where, in case of mistaken identity, they killed Moroccan waiter Ahmed Buchihi.
The assassination group was “overconfident,” said Bar-Zohar, author of a series of books on Israeli intelligence, including the operation in Norway.
“They arrived in Lillehammer with false information… They were already convinced that this was a routine operation and ignored all the evidence proving that it was not him,” he said.
“For example, they saw that the person they were following lives in a seedy area, that he rides a bicycle, that he goes to the pool alone. A terrorist leader doesn’t do that.”
After killing the wrong person, three Israeli agents were arrested by the Norwegian police and spent 22 months in prison.
Undeterred, the Mossad continued its years-long operation to capture Salameh.
Israel sent an operative to Beirut, codenamed “D”, who befriended the Palestinian and his wife, beauty queen Georgina Rizk.
D, in a 2019 documentary shown by Israeli Channel 13, described his time undercover as “my real life” in Beirut, where he frequented a sports club with Salameh and studied his habits and movements.
“I considered him both a friend and a sworn enemy,” said D. “It’s not easy. You know, deep down, that he must die.
In January 1979, almost five years after the start of the operation, Salameh was killed by a car bomb in Beirut.
– Targeting Iran –
The murder of one of the main members of Black September did not end the string of murders.
Instead, Israel has turned its eyes to other targets, such as those it accused of attacking Israelis during the first Palestinian intifada or uprising, as well as those of its nemesis Iran.
Ronen Bergman, author of Arise and Kill First, about Israel’s targeted killings, said the Munich attacks made Israel realize “there will be no one else” to protect its own interests and citizens.
“There is a direct connection between what happened then and what we see now,” he said.
Today, “Israel uses targeted killings as one of the main weapons in its national security policy,” he said.
Bergman pointed to the death of a leading Iranian nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who Israel was accused of killing near Tehran nearly two years ago.
The author stated that while targeted killings were “really effective” against the organizers of terrorist attacks against Israelis, “there is still debate about how effective the killing of nuclear scientists, which began back in 2007.”
“It is very difficult to measure, but it is clear that Israel continues the same policy.”
Israel accuses Iran of seeking to develop nuclear weapons, a goal Tehran denies, and is vehemently opposed to talks between the Islamic Republic and world powers to revive the frayed 2015 nuclear deal.
Few expect Israel’s “shadow war” with Iran and covert Mossad operations to end anytime soon.
Earlier this year, Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said his country would do “everything we have to do to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear capability.”