Black September and the Murder of 11 Israelis at the 1972 Munich Olympics

Palestinian Terrorism and Olympic Shame

At 4:30 a.m. local time on Sept. 5, 1972, in Munich, Germany, Palestinian commandos armed with automatic rifles broke into the quarters of the Israeli team at the Olympic Village, killed two members of the team and took nine others hostage. Twenty-three hours later, the nine hostages had also been murdered. So was a German policeman. So were five of the Palestinian terrorists.

The 1972 massacre is by far the worst case of violence in Olympic history since the modern games began in 1896, and one of the most notorious cases of terrorism on record.

Black September

The Palestinian commandos were part of the then-unknown Black September movement—a band of Palestinian militants who broke away from Fatah, the Palestinian faction that controlled the Palestine Liberation Organization . Black September militants were disaffected with what they perceived to be the PLO’s ineffective tactics against Israel.

Black September’s demands in the Munich attack: the release of more than 200 Palestinian guerillas held in Israeli jails, along with the release of German Red Army members Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof, held in German prison.

The Palestinian terrorists knew all too well how to attack in Munich: At least one was employed in the Olympic Village and knew his way around a compound housing some 8,000 athletes. The Israeli delegation was at 31 Connolly Street, a particularly inaccessible dormitory tucked away inside a larger structure. But German security was lax to nonexistent, the Germans believing that a pacifist strategy was the more effective answer to rising terror at the time.

Negotiations and Stalemate

Three Israelis, Yossef Gutfreund, a wrestling referee, Moshe Weinberg, a wrestling coach, and Yossef Romano, a weightlifter who’d fought in the Six Day War, used their considerable size and skill initially to fight and confuse the terrorists, allowing some members of the Israeli team to escape capture.

Romano and Weinberg were the terrorists’ first murder victims.

Negotiations began later the morning of Sept. 5 as the Palestinians held nine Israelis in their quarters. The negotiations were mostly fruitless. The West German military provided three helicopters for the Palestinian commandos to transport the hostages to the airport, where a jet was prepared for a flight to Cairo, Egypt. The plane was a subterfuge: Egypt had told the German government it would not permit it to land on Egyptian soil.

Bungled Rescue Attempt and Murder

Once at the airport, some 20 hours after the ordeal had begun, two of the terrorists walked from the helicopters to the plane and back, presumably to pick up the hostages. At that point, German snipers opened fire. The Palestinians returned fire. A bloodbath ensued.

The Germans had planned their rescue attempt shoddily, using five sharpshooters, one of whom admitted later to have been unqualified. German police drafted to support the sharpshooters abandoned the mission halfway through. The Israeli hostages were bound hand and foot in two helicopters. They were killed—by a grenade thrown by a terrorist and ensuing fire in one helicopter, by strafing, point-blank rifle shots in the other.

Five Palestinians were killed: Afif, Nazzal, Chic Thaa, Hamid and Jawad Luttif Afif, known as Issa, who had two brothers in Israeli jails, Yusuf Nazzal, known as Tony, Afif Ahmed Hamid, known as Paolo, Khalid Jawad, and Ahmed Chic Thaa, or Abu Halla. Their bodies were returned to heroes’ funerals in Libya, whose leader, Muammar Qaddafi, was an enthusiastic supporter and financier of Palestinian terrorism.

The three remaining hostage-takers, Mohammed Safady, Adnan Al-Gashey, and Jamal Al-Gashey, were held by German authorities until late October, 1972, when they were released in compliance with demands by Palestinian hijackers of a Lufthansa jet. Various documentaries and written accounts argue that the hijacking was a sham enabling German authorities to end their involvement in the Black September chapter.

The Games “Must Go On”

The German government and police’s actions were not the only bungled responses to the terrorist attack. Five hours after learning of the attack, Avery Brundage, the president of the International Olympic Committee, declared that the games would go on.

As two Israelis lay dead and nine Israeli hostages were fighting for their lives in the Olympic Village, competition went on in 11 of the 22 sports on the program, including canoeing and wrestling. “Anyway,” went a dark joke coursing through the Village, “these are professional killers. Avery doesn’t recognize them.” It would not be until 4 p.m. that Brundage reversed his decision. A memorial service for the Israelis was held at 10 a.m. on Sept. 6 in the 80,000-seat Olympic Stadium.

Mass Funeral in Israel

At 1 p.m. local time on Sept. 7, 10 of the murdered Israeli athletes were repatriated in Israel on a special El Al airliner. (The body of the 11th athlete, David Berger, was flown back to Cleveland, Ohio, at the request of his family.) The Israeli government had organized a mass funeral on an airport runway in Lydda, just outside of Tel Aviv, the Israeli capital. Yigal Allon, Israel’s deputy prime minister, attended the ceremony in place of Prime Minister Golda Meir, who was attended to grief of her own: Meir’s 83-year-old sister, Shanah Korngold, had died the night before.

The athletes’ coffins were placed in open army command cars by Israeli Army pallbearers, then moved into a large square where a small platform surrounded by Israeli flags flying at half-mast had been set up. Foreign diplomats, rabbis, Catholic and Greek Orthodox priests flanked the platform, along with most ministers from the Israeli cabinet and military leaders, including Defense Minister Moshe Dayan.

As Terence Smith of The New York Times described the proceedings, “The victims’ immediate families and close relatives, many weeping uncontrollably, marched behind the command cars in a somber but disorganized procession. The sounds of their grief continued through the eulogies and prayers, which were occasionally drowned out by aircraft engines in the distance.[…]

“At one point a distraught, heavyset, bearded man began running through the crowds of relatives, shrieking at them, in Hebrew, ‘You’re all fools! Don’t you know you are Jews? They will kill you off one by one. Don’t just cry, do something! Attack them!’ A score of policemen quickly surrounded the man, but, rather than jostle him away from the ceremony, they sought to control him—putting their arms around him, giving him water, daubing his forehead with a cool cloth.”

The man continued to sob throughout the ceremony, at the end of which the command cars bearing the coffins drove out slowly, taking the different directions of the individual, private family funerals.

The Murdered Team Members

The 11 Israeli team members taken hostage and subsequently murdered by PLO terrorists were:

  • Weightlifter Yossef Romano, 31 years old
  • Weightlifter David Berger, 28
  • Weightlifter Ze'ev Friedman, 28
  • Wrestler Eliezer Halfin, 24
  • Wrestler Mark Slavin, 18
  • Wrestling referee Yossef Gutfreund, age 40
  • Wrestling coach Moshe Weinberg, 33
  • Track coach Amitzur Shapira, 40
  • Shooting coach Kehat Shorr, 53
  • Fencing coach Andre Spitzer, 27
  • Weightlifting judge Yakov Springer, 51.