After the massacre, into the maelstrom

Review History



Striking Back: The 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre and Israel's Deadly Response

Aaron J. Klein

Random House / 256 pages

The Palestinian massacre of 11 Israeli Olympic athletes in Munich in 1972 exposed a vulnerable side of Israel, still brashly overconfident from its stunning defeat of three Arab nations in six days five years earlier. It spurred the Israelis to strike back with unconcealed anger.

The 1972 suicidal assault by eight Palestinian members of Black September triggered a policy of retaliatory political assassination, then rare for a democratic government. Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir approved the executions, and successive Israeli leaders used assassination as a major tool to eliminate Palestinian terrorists. It is still wielded.

Whether the policy has been successful as a deterrent or contributed to the seemingly endless Israeli-Palestinian cycle of violence has not been resolved. Aaron J. Klein dodges the question in a fast-paced narrative that does not hesitate to scold Israel for several blunders in a reprisal campaign that, in the words of Meir, gave Israelis "no choice but to strike at terrorist organizations wherever we can reach them."

His book could have been more penetrating had he confronted Israel's assassination policy head-on and examined its efficacy, especially with the benefit of hindsight provided by more than three decades of global terrorism since Munich.

How democratic governments should battle suicidal fanatics targeting innocents with bombs has become even more pertinent as the United States, Israel's closest ally, struggles with the propriety of the secret rendition and torture of suspected terrorists in its own war on terror.

Striking Back, which is not the source material for Steven Spielberg's newly released movie Munich, largely mirrors One Day in September, a book by British journalist Simon Reeve published in 2000. Klein, a Time correspondent in Jerusalem and an Israeli who serves as a reserve captain in military intelligence, writes chiefly from Israel's point of view, disclosing details that could be revealed by only Mossad and other Israeli national security sources.

One such: a plan six months in the making to kill Yasser Arafat in 1968. Prime Minister Levi Eshkol vetoed the idea.

"It's a double-edged sword," Klein quotes Eshkol's prophetic remarks. "Today we kill their leaders and tomorrow they kill ours. It goes on forever. I won't authorize it."

For Israel, the Olympic slaughter Sept. 5, 1972, carried with it the bitterness for Jews that it occurred in the capital of the German state of Bavaria, where Adolf Hitler made his first bid for power in a beer hall 49 years earlier.

The surprise assault, in which the hostages were to be exchanged for Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, came after terrorists hijacked a Belgian Sabena jetliner to Israel's Lod Airport in May and launched a machine-gun attack in the terminal in May. The era of terror against masses of people had begun.

Klein gives little sense of the glowing we-can-do-anything atmosphere in Israel after its defeat of Egypt, Syria and Jordan in June 1967. That air of arrogant self-confidence contributed to Israel's complacency, to its failure to connect the dots.

Striking Back opens in 1992 with Mossad assassination teams targeting Atef Bseiso, who participated in Munich and was spending the night in Paris. Three bullets were pumped into his head on a dark street.

Klein weighs in on Israel's blunders as it strikes at Palestinian suspects. The first to die was Wa'il Zu'aytir in October 1972. But his "assassination in Rome was a mistake" because of incorrect intelligence, Klein writes.

The most egregious error for an Israel so determined to seek revenge that its judgment occasionally was obscured occurred in Lillehammer, Norway, in July 1973 when a Moroccan waiter, Ahmed Bouchiki, was mistaken for Ali Hassan Salameh, who was close to Arafat. Bouchiki was gunned down on the street as he walked with his pregnant wife.

Klein makes it clear that the judge and jury deciding the fate of suspected terrorists were none other than Israel's prime ministers.

"The prime minister is given a top secret file with a picture of the proposed target, some background data and a densely worded, multi-paged indictment," he writes. "Most prime ministers avoided reading the indictment, skipping straight to the recommendation, which, of course, always urged death.

"At times intelligence information failed to translate into explicit guilt, but in the case of Munich, each prime minister, from Golda Meir to Yitzhak Rabin, by way of Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir and Shimon Peres, thought that the vengeful killing of saya'ans (helpers) and terrorists alike was the proper response to that dreadful massacre. Not one of them said `let it go.'"

If Israel believed that its policy of revenge and punishment for Munich that dispatched Mossad hit squads into the heart of Beirut to assassinate three terrorist leaders would deter further attacks against Israelis at home and abroad, the repeated brutal and bloody events of succeeding decades proved it woefully wrong. Violence directed at stopping terrorism, which has escalated over the years to include suicide bombers blowing themselves up at jammed discos, only seems to fuel it, as the insurgency in Iraq illustrates.

Richard C. Gross, who spent seven years in Israel as a correspondent and bureau chief for United Press International beginning in May 1972, is the Opinion/Commentary Page editor of The Sun.

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