In September 1972 during the Munich Olympics, 11 Israeli athletes were murdered by the Palestinian terrorist group Black September. The world was horrified, but in Israel, grief soon turned to anger and determination. Hard-line opposition leader Menachem Begin told the Knesset: ‘Retaliation no longer suffices. We demand a prolonged, open-ended assault against the murderers and their bases ...’ In what became known as ‘Operation Wrath of God’, prime minister Golda Meir swiftly sanctioned secret plans for exacting retribution against those who had planned the slaughter – transforming herself into judge, jury and executioner at the stroke of a pen.
A covert, fast-track bureaucratic chain was set up between Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, and a panel of ministers collectively called ‘Committee X’, which met to sanction each killing. Because the Israelis didn’t want to be accused of using the same methods as terrorists, a critical factor was that no one should be able to make a direct connection between the assassinations and Israel.
The first target
Within weeks, Mossad was on the trail of its first target: Wael Zwaiter, a 30-year-old translator at the Libyan embassy in Rome. To his Western friends, Zwaiter was a peaceful left-wing author, but according to Mossad, he was head of Black September in Italy and had been deeply involved in planning the Munich massacre (Zwaiter’s involvement in terrorism is still disputed). A 15-man team built a detailed picture of his movements, and then an élite team flew in to make the hit. On 16 October, Zwaiter was shot 16 times by two Israeli gunmen in the lobby of his apartment building.
According to David Kimche, former deputy head of Mossad, ‘The aim was not so much revenge but mainly to make them [the militant Palestinians] frightened. We wanted to make them look over their shoulders and feel that we are upon them. And therefore we tried not to do things by just shooting a guy in the street – that’s easy … fairly.’
Mossad’s next assassination took place in Paris – the target: Dr Mahmoud Hamshiri, spokesman for the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in France. According to Mossad, he was not only involved in planning the Munich massacre, but was currently organising further attacks across Europe.
To avoid risking the lives of Hamshiri’s wife and child, Mossad devised a complex plan, involving more than 20 field officers, that would precisely control how, when and where the assassination would take place. It obtained details of the table on which the PLO man’s telephone rested, and secretly substituted an identical marble top in which explosives had been hidden. On 8 December 1972, after making sure that Hamshiri’s wife and daughter had left the flat, a Mossad agent rang the PLO man, Hamshiri answered and the table bomb was detonated by remote control, killing him.
A blind eye
Over the next few weeks, the assassins continued their campaign. A booby-trap bomb in Cyprus killed an alleged Black September courier. The shooting of a suspected PLO gun-runner in Paris raised the death toll to four.
But despite the increasing body count, to the outside world Western governments appeared to be ignorant of the operation going on under their noses. However, they were actually turning a blind eye to the Israelis’ participation. The fact that the assassinations were intended as revenge for Munich seems to have been enough justification for Israel’s allies.
Bloodshed in Beirut
In April 1973, Mossad sources in Lebanon revealed the whereabouts of three key targets – Abu Yussef, Kamal Nasser and Kamal Adwan, leading PLO militants now living in the same street in Beirut. Mossad, convinced of their involvement with Black September, was determined to murder them.
For such a high-risk venture, it needed expert military help and called on Ehud Barak, later prime minister of Israel, who was then commander of Israeli special forces. At 1.30am on 10 April 1973, ‘Operation Spring of Youth’ was launched. Under the cover of darkness, the heavily armed team landed on the Beirut shore, with Barak and two of his deputies dressed as women to fool the PLO bodyguards. Ten minutes later, the commandos arrived at the target: two high-rise buildings. Although the element of surprise was quickly lost as bodyguards opened fire, within 10 minutes the three PLO leaders had been killed.
But they weren’t the only victims. At least seven Lebanese police officers, the wife of one of the PLO targets and a neighbour also died. In fact, it was later claimed that Israel’s action cost 20 innocent lives. Furious protests erupted across the Arab world, claiming that the targets had had nothing to do with Munich – and it appears that these claims were at least partly true.
‘A terrorist is a terrorist …’
The Beirut raid was a turning point. What had started as Golda Meir’s revenge against those behind the Munich massacre had become a general campaign against all militant Palestinians.
According to historian and journalist Aaron Klein, ‘A very senior officer [of Mossad] said: “A terrorist is a terrorist is a terrorist. We don’t check too much if he was or wasn’t involved. It’s not important that he was involved deeply in the Munich massacre or he wasn’t. If he didn’t do it yesterday. he’ll do it tomorrow. He’s a terrorist.”’
Over the next three months, Mossad carried out four more assassinations:
Athens, 12 April 1973: Zaid Muchassi is killed by a bomb under a hotel bed
Rome, April–June 1973: Adbel Hamid Shibi and Adbel Hadi Nakaa are killed by car bombs
Paris, 28 June 1973: Mohammed Boudia is killed by a pressure mine in a car.
Bent on destruction
When Mossad had compiled their list of those who planned Munich, one name had kept cropping up – Ali Hassan Salameh, a committed Black September leader. Mossad built up a profile of a flamboyant playboy bent on the destruction of Israel. Nicknamed the ‘Red Prince’ by the media, Salameh was linked to hijackings and terrorist spectaculars including a massacre at Tel Aviv airport that had left 26 dead. Mossad believed very strongly that he had masterminded the Munich bloodbath.
In June 1973, Mossad received a tip-off from a trusted source that Salameh was in Norway. The news caught the agency unawares, and with all its top operatives busy on other missions, it was forced to improvise. A hit team that included officers with no field experience was hurriedly thrown together, and on 18 July, they flew to Oslo and followed Salameh’s trail to the sleepy northern town of Lillehammer.
Disaster in Lillehammer
At noon on the 20th, they spotted what they thought was their quarry. A man of Middle Eastern appearance seemed to resemble the fuzzy newspaper photograph that was their only way of identifying Salameh. But this Salameh was behaving strangely – although he was supposed to be a stranger in Norway, he clearly knew his way around Lillehammer.
Despite these question marks, Tel Aviv gave the go-ahead. The assassins blasted the man they had identified as Salameh with 14 bullets – a textbook killing. But they’d killed the wrong man – their victim was Ahmed Bouchiki, an innocent Moroccan waiter, who had been living in Norway for five years.
Descriptions of the suspicious foreigners were passed to the authorities. Police swooped on two low-ranking members of the team, who quickly broke under interrogation. Within days, six agents had been rounded up, and at their trial, details of Israel's secret activities were exposed. The Lillehammer operation became the greatest disaster in Mossad’s history. To make matters even worse, Mossad discovered that the original intelligence that had led it to Norway was false, deliberately planted by one of Salameh’s Palestinian spies.
Death of the Red Prince
Bowing to international outrage, Committee X was quietly stepped down. Israel’s secret campaign had ended in public disgrace.
But Mossad hadn’t forgotten or forgiven Salameh. In 1974, he appeared with PLO leader Yasser Arafat in New York – at the United Nations, where he couldn’t be touched – and afterwards the trail went cold. Finally, in January 1979, he was tracked down to war-torn Beirut. His daily routine was monitored, and on 29 January, a car bomb exploded as Salameh and his bodyguards passed by. The Red Prince was dead.
With the killing of Salameh, Israel closed the chapter on the Olympic massacre. It had been avenged, but at a cost.
Rami Adwan, son of Kamal Adwan who was assassinated in Beirut in April 1973: ‘The Palestinian problem did not start with Munich – and it will not end with the assassination of leaders like my father and others. To kill people and to think that killing people would solve any problem is silly.’
Ankie Spitzer, widow of Israeli fencing coach Andre Spitzer, a victim at Munich: ‘It should have happened in a different way, taking out these people not by shooting them but by bringing them to justice, to trial.’
Ronen Bergman, security correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronoth and expert on Mossad: ‘This campaign stopped most PLO terrorism outside the borders of Israel. Did it help in any way to bring peace to the Middle East? No. Strategically it was a complete failure.’
So how many innocent people died in these actions. At least 20+? Sickening and sad.