The Myths and Reality of Munich

After the slaughter of its Olympians, Israel vowed to hunt down the killers. But, says a new book, that's not whom it got

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Golda Meir didn't want to believe the news. The Israeli Prime Minister had heard media reports that West German police had rescued the Israeli Olympic athletes taken hostage by terrorists in Munich. Now Zvi Zamir, head of the Mossad, was phoning from Germany at 3 a.m. to correct that account. "I saw it with my own eyes," he told her. "No one was left alive."

That was the end of a debacle that had begun 23 hours earlier, when Palestinian terrorists from the Black September organization burst into the dorm housing the Israeli delegation at the 1972 Olympics and took 11 of its members hostage. It was also the start of a much longer, more complicated chapter in the saga: Israel's methodical extraction of revenge. About the events in Munich on Sept. 5, 1972, there is considerable clarity. The story of the reprisal missions, on the other hand, has been befogged by mystery. The notion persists that the Israelis drew up a list of those responsible for Munich, then, one by one, knocked them off. But that's largely a myth, according to an upcoming book by TIME reporter Aaron J. Klein, Striking Back: The 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre and Israel's Deadly Response (Random House; 272 pages). The Israelis, Klein writes, had to settle for smaller targets, killing activists who for the most part had nothing to do with the Munich massacre and leaving alive, to this day, some who were involved.

The Munich spectacular was designed to be just that. Black September was an unacknowledged offshoot of Fatah, Yasser Arafat's faction within the Palestine Liberation Organization (P.L.O.). Abu Iyad, the Arafat deputy who headed Black September, later explained that the hostage taking was meant "to use the unprecedented number of media outlets in one city to display the Palestinian struggle--for better or worse!"

Security was lax at the Olympic Village. Wearing sweat suits, eight men simply climbed over a 6-ft. barrier around the village at 4:10 a.m. Armed with AK-47s, they rounded up 11 Israeli athletes, coaches and a referee, shooting two dead early on. The terrorists demanded the release of 234 prisoners from Israeli jails. Negotiations were ruled out by the Israelis, but the Germans began fake ones to buy time. In the afternoon, the Black September commander, distinctive in his white hat, insisted that his team and the hostages be flown to Cairo.

The Germans choppered them to F├╝rstenfeldbruck military airfield. When Issa, as the Black September commander called himself, and a comrade inspected the Boeing 727 they were promised, they found it empty and cold. As they raced back to the two helicopters, German snipers on the roof of a nearby building opened fire. The Palestinians shot out the lights on the tarmac, and the Germans were paralyzed for nearly an hour, until four armored police vehicles arrived. That prompted a terrorist to toss a grenade into one helicopter, and another to shoot the hostages in the other helicopter. Three Black September operatives survived; Germany freed them nearly two months later for the release of passengers on a hijacked Lufthansa jet.

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