When The Terror Began

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OLYMPIC SYMBOL: A Black September commando appears on the balcony of the building where the Israeli team members were held

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The terrorists pushed back their deadline twice more, to 3 p.m., then to 5, knowing that each delay only redoubled the TV audience. "The demand to free our imprisoned brothers had only symbolic value," Al-Gashey would say later. "The only aim of the action was to scare the world public during their 'happy Olympic Games' and make them aware of the fate of the Palestinians."

In the late afternoon one more plan — to have 13 policemen infiltrate the building through the heating ducts — advanced far enough that the men, dressed ludicrously in track suits, began to loosen ventilation grates on the roof. But this operation, too, was called off, mercifully: television cameras had long since been trained on the building and were broadcasting the police team's movements live to a worldwide audience, including the fedayeen.

Shortly before 5 p.m. the terrorists made a new demand. They wanted a jet to fly them and their captives to Cairo. "I did not believe [the Israelis] would negotiate with us in Germany, and that is why we made a plan to take a plane and the hostages to another Arab country," Abu Daoud told us. "From there I believed they would negotiate the release of our prisoners." The freed Palestinians were to be waiting on the tarmac in Cairo by 8 a.m. the following day, Issa told the Germans. If not, Black September would execute the hostages before leaving the plane.

"These are innocent people," Genscher protested. Replied Issa: "I am a soldier. We are at war."

Yet here, finally, the Germans saw a potential opening. If the crisis relocated, there would be buses and helicopters and planes, the agora of an airport tarmac — perhaps an opportunity to draw a bead on the fedayeen. But before going forward, the Germans wanted to make sure of two things: that the hostages were still alive and that they were willing to fly to Cairo.

Genscher and Tr�ger were escorted into the second-floor room of Apartment 1. The hostages told them that yes, if they had to be routed through an Arab capital to freedom, they would be willing to go. But the hostages' spokesman, Shorr, the senior member of the delegation and a resistance fighter during World War II, added that in such a case, they assumed that "our government would meet the demands of the terrorists. For otherwise we would all be shot."

"In other words," said Genscher, "if your government did not agree to the prisoner exchange, you would not be willing to leave German territory."

"There'd be no point to it," Shorr said. To be an Israeli is to know well your government's policy toward terrorists. Surely each hostage must have suspected that his fate rested in Germany's hands — that the episode would end in Munich, not Cairo, for better or worse.

Issa had set a final deadline, 9 p.m., and renewed his promise to kill one hostage an hour until the Germans provided the jet. The Israeli government would never countenance the kidnapping of its citizens to a hostile destination. Certainly Germany, given its history, couldn't acquiesce in such an endgame. Perhaps a jet could appear to be at the disposal of the terrorists, but under no circumstances could it be permitted to take off. Egypt had said nothing about allowing the plane to land.

The Germans entertained one last plan to liberate the hostages before they were to be helicoptered out of the Village to this supposed jet to Cairo. Schreiber proposed to place police gunmen behind the concrete pillars of the underground garage. The police would pick off the fedayeen as they walked the hostages from the apartment complex to the helicopters. But a suspicious Issa demanded that the short transfer be by bus. Moments later, in the plaza of the Village, 17 captors and captives boarded two Iroquois helicopters.

By now, the crisis team had little hope that the hostages would survive. "We were 99% sure that we wouldn't be able to achieve our objective," Schreiber would later say. "We felt like doctors trying to bring the dead back to life."

No Israelis survive to dispute him, but if you believe Al-Gashey, the mood on board the helicopter was lighter, if only from the change of scenery. "Everyone seemed to be relaxed, even the Israelis," he has said of the flight to F�rstenfeldbruck. "For our part, in the air we had the feeling that somehow we had achieved what we'd wanted. For the first time I really thought about the hostages sitting so close — in physical contact. I remembered our orders to kill the hostages if it were to become a hopeless military situation. But I also thought how nobody had trained us how to kill bound, unarmed people."

"Condemned to fail from the beginning"

Schreiber had entrusted the operation at F�rstenfeldbruck to his deputy, Georg Wolf, who had a plan. The two helicopters would land 100 m or so from a Lufthansa 727 ostensibly ready to fly to Cairo. After the terrorists brought their captives over to the plane, 17 police officers, some disguised as crew, would ambush them — if, that is, police sharpshooters couldn't get a clear shot as the group made their way across the tarmac.

But on the plane, not 15 minutes before the helicopters touched down, the policemen were in an uproar over what they regarded as a suicide mission. Most were to be holed up in the rear of the aircraft, where they believed a single terrorist grenade could incinerate them. As for the officers posing as pilots, they would be in the line of fire from the police at the rear of the plane — and were unpersuasively disguised besides, having been issued incomplete Lufthansa uniforms. After hearing them out, the officer in charge, Reinhold Reich, polled his men, who voted unanimously to abandon the mission. It was a mutiny inconceivable to an Israeli. But West Germany, not to be trusted with soldiers and guns, had no special forces unit, nothing like Israel's Sayeret Matkal or Britain's sas. With the helicopters moments from touchdown, Wolf's plan, such as it was, now rested on the police sharpshooters — five of them.

The helicopter pilots had flitted about the sky to give the Germans time to prepare the assault and permit a third helicopter, carrying Schreiber, Genscher and Merk, to land before the others.

"Lousy thing to happen at the last minute," Schreiber told Wolf when he found him.

"What lousy thing?" asked Wolf.

"That there are eight of them."

"What? You don't mean there are eight Arabs?"

"You mean you're just finding that out from me?"
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