Concerning violence: The Munich Olympics attack 50 years on

Concerning violence: The Munich Olympics attack 50 years on
Emad Moussa explains why decades on from the 1972 Munich attack it is important to unpack the question of violence concerning liberation struggles, especially given the failures of Western press to explain why some Palestinians had taken such action.
6 min read
22 Sep, 2022
The attacks generated a shift in the international perception and definition of terrorism, writes Emad Moussa. [GETTY]

It was estimated that 900 million people around the world watched the Munich hostage crisis, possibly the most televised hostage situation in modern history.

The story took place fifty years ago when eight men belonging to the PLOs fringe organisation Black September, dressed in tracksuits and armed with AK47s and hand grenades, penetrated Munich's Olympic Village.

Their mission was to take Israeli athletes hostage and demand the release of 234 Palestinian and Arab prisoners in Israel, as well as two leaders of the West German Red Army Faction. The operation took a tragic turn 20 hours in when a failed rescue attempt by West German authorities resulted in an exchange of fire that killed all of the nine hostages, five hijackers, and a West German policeman.

''The Black September organisation was the vengeful child of the Jordan crackdown. But also, albeit a fringe extremist group, it reflected strongly the limited means available to Palestinians in their fight against Israel.''

To the Germans, the 1972 Munich Olympics were supposed to stand in contrast to Berlin 1936; to project a relaxed, more tolerant, and cheerful post-war and post-Shoah Germany. For Israelis, the attack was particularly traumatic given it happened on German soil. Israeli media framed it in a black-and-white dichotomy in which Israel is the victimised collective facing a formidable Arab global network of terror. The attackers were generically named “Arabs,” bypassing the particularities of their Palestinian Identity and, with it, the impetus for the attack.

Israel’s PM Golda Meir and Defence Minister Moshe Dayan authorised a clandestine programme to assassinate PLO and non-PLO Palestinian officials, directly or indirectly connected to the Munich attack. The drawn-out killing spree stretched from Beirut and Sidon to Cyprus and Rome. Several Palestinian officials were eliminated. PLO figures’ family members, a Moroccan waiter, four Palestinian security personnel, and a KGB officer also died.

It was an intense episode in Mossad’s history, but generally, assassinations have been an intrinsic part of Israel's security doctrine, long before the emergence of any meaningful Palestinian armed resistance. Since the late 1940s, it was estimated Israel has assassinated more people than any other country in the Western world, averaging about 2300 operations with several thousand casualties.

The attacks generated a shift in the international perception and definition of terrorism from territorially confined violence to extraterritoriality. That helped Tel-Aviv standardise and legitimise its particular definition based on its security worldview, which categorises almost all types of Palestinian dissidence as terrorism.

This narrative focuses largely on the act and the attackers’ identity, but ignores the cause and the impetus for the attack. Whilst neither one of these factors justify an attack on civilians, they provide a context and provoke questions about the very definition of terrorism, especially in the settler-colonial context.

Violent tactics have long been recognised as the only means the weak and oppressed have at their disposal to combat the systemised violation of their rights. This is the deep, unembellished truth devoid of political correctness or legal rhetoric. It is a reality forced by existential needs that - sometimes - transcend the question of morality. To that end, justifications or condemnations are irrelevant.

To scholar Virginia Held, certain types of terrorism are subject to the so-called “violation distribution principle.” It means one can equalise rights violations [against the oppressor] in a transition to bring an end to the extensive rights violations [the oppressed] has been exposed to.

Through this “filter” some commentators saw Black September’s attack as partly understandable - especially given that the attackers’ goal was not to kill the athletes, but to use them as hostages to free political prisoners. Terrorism is a “terrible weapon, but the oppressed poor have no others,” philosopher John Paul Sartre commented.

Palestinians remain divided over the rightness and effectiveness of the Munich attack, especially as it occurred outside the occupied territories. They are, however, far less divided on the “no-option factor” in dictating the methods of resisting Israel.

After 1967, Palestinians came to the bitter realisation that achieving their self-determination riding on the back of Arab regimes was illusory. A consensus took hold: if Palestinians were to gain statehood, they must fend and deliver for themselves.

Modelling on the Algerian example, Arafat wanted to equalise Israel’s violations with armed resistance and guerrilla war tactics. This soon translated to cross-border raids initially launched from Jordan against the IDF. As the only group fighting Israel after the 1967 humiliation, and especially after the 1968 victory in the Battle of Karameh in Jordan, the PLO factions became an attractive recruitment option for diaspora Palestinians, Arabs, and members of international revolutionary movements like the IRA.

At the time, Palestinians who remained in their homes in what later became Israel, and those in 1967-occupied territories were somewhat scattered and leaderless. The few attempts to revolt were quickly suppressed by the Israeli authorities.

With revolutionary successes eventually came serious challenges. Israeli defences improved and using Arab countries as a base to strike against Israel put the PLO on a collision course with the Arab regimes. One result was the so-called “Black September” in 1970, where nearly 2000 Palestinians and Jordanians died in the Jordanian regime’s crackdown, and thousands of others were forced to flee to Lebanon. In Lebanon, the dilemma would start all over again.

The Black September organisation was the vengeful child of the Jordan crackdown. But also, albeit a fringe extremist group, it reflected strongly the limited means available to Palestinians in their fight against Israel.

According to Wadi’a Haddad, the PFLP mastermind behind the airliner hijackings in the 1960-70s, fighting Israel quantitively was fruitless, and the only option was to use qualitative means to gain an advantage in the struggle. Of course, Haddad was referring to the daring hijacking of international airliners. Hitting “Israel’s weak joints,” as he called it, would achieve a major strategic shift for Palestinians.

This rationale would come to define many of the Palestinian resistance modes of the era. Haddad predicted - as would George Habbash, then the PFLP secretary-general - that taking the battle to the international stage, and not specifically against Israeli targets or necessarily through violence, would make Palestinians a constant irritation to the developed world. The tactic would not bring about Israel's downfall, Haddad argued, but would draw sufficient international attention to the Palestinian problem and force a resolution.

Munich Olympics
An armed police officer maintains surveillance in the Athletes' Village during the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. [GETTY]

Indeed, the Munich attack gave new attention to the Palestine cause. Alongside other similar PLO tactics, it helped the PLO eventually achieve two diplomatic wins: 20 Arab League countries recognised the organisation as the "sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people" in October 1974. And, a month later, the UN General Assembly gave the PLO observer status.

But much of that attention was negative and had presented Palestinians to the world as reckless and violent. This image might not be as salient today, but is revived every time Palestinians resort to controversial methods of resistance. The suicide bombings during the Second Intifada are a notable example.

If there is any conclusion drawn from the Munich experience it is that there is a delicate interplay between Palestinian ambitions and national goals, which are now internationally recognised as legitimate, and the methods used to pursue them. The more desperate Palestinians are, the more attached they become to their cause. And with the lack of viable options, controversial methods become the answer. The alternative, most Palestinians feel, would be national oblivion.

Dr Emad Moussa is a researcher and writer who specialises in the politics and political psychology of Palestine/Israel.

Follow him on Twitter: @emadmoussa

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.