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Olympics 1972: The Munich massacre and Israel’s audacious assassination operation ‘Wrath of God’ to avenge the dastardly attack

Later in 1979, when the Israeli intelligence agencies came up with a definite input on the exact whereabouts of the “Red Prince”, the Operation Wrath of God was reactivated for its final mission, when the team eliminated Salameh in Beirut with a car bomb placed along the route that he routinely traversed.

Olympics Games 2020 are just around the corner. The Games, in which thousands of athletes from around the world participate in a variety of competitions are all set to commence from July 22 this week, bringing some semblance of normalcy in an otherwise gloomy atmosphere caused by the resurgent wave of the COVID-19 outbreak, fuelled by newer and more virulent coronavirus variants.

The virus had already thrown a curveball for the Olympics Games that were scheduled to take place last year. However, with an inexorable rise in the number of caseloads then and in absence of vaccines to curb the pandemic, the Games had to be deferred for 2021.

Though the Games are all set to happen, the threat from the virus, however, still looms. The steady uptick in the number of coronavirus cases has once again cast a shadow on the Games that have already been postponed once. But this time around, the Games would be carried out in conformity with COVID-19 guidelines. A state of emergency is imposed in the Japanese capital Tokyo, which began on July 12 and will be in effect until August 22, amidst a spike in infections.

This is, perhaps, the first time in decades that the iconic Olympic Games are hit with so many snags. For decades, and possibly centuries now, Olympic Games have been conducted smoothly, almost without any disruptions. One of the exceptions to this was the terror attack that took place in the 1972 Munich Olympics when Palestinian terrorists stormed the Olympic village and killed 2 Israeli athletes and took others hostage.

The Munich Massacre: Palestine terrorists raid Olympics village and take Israeli athelets hostage

Dubbed as the ‘Munich Massacre’, the attack took place during the Summer Olympics in 1972 in Munich, West Germany, by 8 terrorists of the Palestinian outfit Black September. It was the first time the Olympics were being held in the country after the 1936 Olympics in Berlin that came to symbolise the totem of Nazi bigotry.

For more than a week, the Games continued as planned. But in the wee hours of September 5, eight Palestinian terrorists scaled a fence and raided the Olympic Village. The interlopers expertly navigated the village, giving an impression that they were intimately aware of where the Israeli team was staying. Disguised as athletes and using stolen keys, they forced their way into the quarters of the Israeli Olympic team at 31 Connollystrasse.

The Israeli quarter, like the others, were divided into many apartments. As the terrorists barged into Apartment 1, they came face to face with Yossef Gutfreund, a wrestling referee, and Moshe Weinberg, a wrestling coach. Gutfreund ran to alert his athletes about the intrusion while Weinberg tried to resist the attackers. The attackers shot Weinberg through his cheek and then coerced him at gunpoint to lead them to the rooms of remaining Israeli coaches and athletes.

It is said Weinberg led the terrorists past Apartment 2, which was also being used by the Israeli team, presumably because he thought wrestlers and weight-lifters in Apartment 3 would be able to subdue them more easily. However, contrasting accounts claim Apartment 2 was intentionally bypassed by the terrorists because it housed members of the Israeli shooting team and the attackers did not wish to engage in close combat with world-class marksmen. 

In Apartment 3, they took more hostages and forced them back to Apartment 1. As they were heading back to Apartment 1, an injured Weinberg attacked the terrorists yet again, allowing one of his wrestlers, Gad Tsabari, with an opening to escape through the underground parking garage. Meanwhile, Weinberg nearly got hold of one of the guns of a terrorist before he was shot and killed. His body was tossed out 

Weightlifter Yossef Romano, a veteran of the 1967 six-day war, also jumped into the fray, attacking and wounding one of the intruders before being shot and killed. Years later, his widow, Ilana Romano said her husband was mutilated after he was shot by the terrorists. She further added that Palestinian terrorists had assaulted other athletes and hustled them into watching her husband die while refusing to permit doctors into the room.

At this point in time, the armed gunmen were left with 9 hostages, including Gutfreund, sharpshooting coach Kehat Shorr, track and field coach Amitzur Shapira, fencing master Andre Spitzer, weightlifting judge Yakov Springer, wrestlers Eliezer Halfin and Mark Slavin, and weightlifters David Berger and Ze’ev Friedman. 

Race-walker Shaul Ladany was bolted awake from his sleep after Gutfreund screamed about the intrusion. Ladany, a survivor of Berger-Belsen concentration camp, jumped out of the second-story balcony of his room and rushed to the American dormitory, awakening U.S. track coach Bill Bowerman and informing him of the attack. Ladany was the first one to raise the alarm about the terror attack. 

With the Palestine terrorists holding 9 Israeli athletes and coaches hostage, a protracted round of negotiations ensued between the captors and the West German authorities, with much of the drama unfolding on live television. The terrorists, at one point, even allowed two hostages to talk to the media. But when one of them tried to answer a question, he was beaten by a terrorist with the butt of his rifle. The picture of a masked captor on an Olympic village balcony quickly became the iconic image that defined the Munich Massacre. 

One of the masked Palestine terrorists on an Olympics village terrace in Munich, 1972(Image Source: Jerusalem Post)

After taking 9 Israeli athletes hostage, the terrorists demanded the release of 234 Palestinians incarcerated in Israeli prisons, the liberation of Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof of the Red Army Faction from German prisons, and the provision of an aeroplane to fly them to a safe destination in the Middle East. 

Israel’s response to the situation was immediate and unwavering: There would be no negotiation with the terrorists. Israel’s official policy at the time was to have no negotiation with the terrorists under any circumstances, as they believed such a proposition would set the wrong precedent and provide an incentive to future attacks.

However, Israel was not amongst those nations that would simply sit idly wringing their hands over the hostages taken by Palestinian terrorists. As per various accounts, Israel sought permission from West Germany to fly in its Special Forces Unit to Munich to take down the captors. But the permission was allegedly denied by Chancellor Willy Brandt and the Minister for the Interior Hans-Dietrich Genscher. 

Two West German policemen, armed with submachine guns and wearing tracksuits, get into position on the roof of the building where armed Palestinian terrorists were holding Israel Olympic team members hostage, September 5, 1972 (photo credit: AP)

West Germany was acutely aware of the extremely tricky situation it found itself in, given that the hostages were Jews and it had a rather painful history of persecuting them under the dictatorship of Adolf Hitler. The authorities in Germany gingerly carried out the negotiation talks with the Palestinian terrorists, and eventually transferred the kidnappers and their captives to an airfield, under the guise of meeting their demands. 

The botched rescue attempt that led to the deaths of 9 Israelis and a German policeman

The Germans had thought the negotiations would buy them some time and help them in hatching out a scheme to outmanoeuvre the terrorists. The police officers were waiting in the bush, with their assault rifles and not sniper rifles. Waiting on the tarmac was a Boeing 727 filled with 17 police officers disguised as a Lufthansa flight crew. The plan was for the 17 police officers to subdue the Palestine terrorists but the police unanimously chose to abandon their post. 

Even the armoured cars that were supposed to be used in the rescue of Israeli athletes and coaches did not arrive in time as they got stuck in traffic, making the plan a disaster on almost every count. Finally, when helicopters arrived at 10:30 pm on 5 September 1972, the German bluff finally came to an end. Finding the helicopter empty, the terrorists realised they were being tricked by the German authorities. 

A fierce gun-battle ensued between the police lurking in the bush and the terrorists that ran late into midnight. After a rapid volley of bullets were exchanged between the security forces and terrorists, there was a tense stalemate, which was broken after a terrorist hurled a hand-grenade hurled into one of the helicopters, killing all but one of the Israeli hostages aboard; David Berger, an American-born wrestler, succumbed to smoke inhalation. Another terrorists sprayed bullets into the interior of another helicopter, killing all the remaining Israeli hostages. 

11 Israelis and a policeman killed in the Munich attack(Picture Courtesy:

In all, 11 Israelis lost their lives in the Palestinian terror attack. Five Black September terrorists were also killed and three of them were captured. Following the attack, the Olympics Games, for the first time in their history, were suspended for 34 hours, with a memorial service held on September 6 in Olympic Stadium that was attended by 3,000 athletes and 80,000 spectators.

A synagogue in Munich held the remains of Israeli athletes and coaches killed in an attack by Palestine terrorists during Olympics 1972(Image Source: Associated Press)

Operation “Wrath of God”: Israel’s covert assassination campaign to avenge the deaths of its Olympians

In the aftermath of the murders at the ’72 Olympics, the Israeli government, headed by Golda Meir, instituted a group of Mossad agents to track down and kill those who were directly or indirectly associated with Black September, the Fatah-affiliated group that had orchestrated the Munich killings.

While Israel had hitherto targeted leaders of Fatah, Palestine Liberation Organisation(PLO), and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine(PFLP), the frequency of assassinations by Israel intensified dramatically following the spectre of violence that unfolded in Munich.

The operation codenamed as “Wrath of God”, also known as “Operation Bayonet”, was a covert assassination operation, carried out by Israeli intelligence agency Mossad to exact revenge for the Munich Massacre. An assassination list of 20-35 suspected individuals, a mix of Black September and PLO elements, was drawn up and then, the Mossad was tasked with the responsibility of locating and exterminating them.

The first to be assassinated by the hit squad of the Mossad was Abdel Wael Zwaiter, a PLO organizer and cousin of Yāsir ʿArafāt. He was shot dead in the lobby of his Rome apartment building in October 1972. The next target was Mahmoud Hamshari, the PLO representative in Paris. Hamshari’s killing was one of the most audacious ones that instilled fear of Mossad among the Palestine terrorists.

In December 1972, Hamshari was called by a Mossad Agent posing as an Italian journalist for scheduling an interview. After his identity and whereabouts were confirmed, the Wrath of God explosives expert broke into his house and planted an explosive in his telephone. Hamshari was called at the time of the arranged interview and when he identified himself, the bomb was activated remotely. He died in the ensuing explosion.

Other suspects living in different parts of Europe and the Middle East were similarly targeted and killed in the next few months. Later, an ambitious plan was hatched by Mossad in conjunction with the Israeli Defence Forces(IDF) to eliminate the PLO leadership. Operation Spring of Youth was launched as a sub-operation of the larger “Wrath of God” campaign. As a part of their diversionary tactics, a team of Israeli paratroopers invaded the PFLP headquarters, while the main forces targeted Muhammad Youssef Al-Najjar, Kamal Adwan, and Kamal Nasser, killing all three.

However, in 1973, the Operation Wrath of God was allegedly shelved after the hit squad misidentified one of its targets and mistakenly killed an innocent man in Norway. The intended target had been Ali Hassan Salameh, a Fatah and Black September operations chief known to Mossad as the “Red Prince.”

Later in 1979, when the Israeli intelligence agencies came up with a definite input on the exact whereabouts of the “Red Prince”, the Operation Wrath of God was reactivated for its final mission, when the team eliminated Salameh in Beirut with a car bomb placed along the route that he routinely traversed.

Charred remains of the car in which Black September operations chief Ali Hassan Salameh was travelling(Image Source: The961)

The Munich massacre and Israel’s retaliation “Operation Wrath of God” was most famously depicted in Steven Spielberg’s film Munich(2005).

Ayodhra Ram Mandir special coverage by OpIndia

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OpIndia Staff
OpIndia Staff
Staff reporter at OpIndia

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