Arab Terrorists Murder Israelis at Munich Olympics

In a massacre of eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games, Palestinian terrorists committed murder in the name of nationalism.

Summary of Event

As soon as the state of Israel was created by the United Nations in 1948, Palestinian guerrilla organizations sought to destroy it. In 1949, the Egyptians were the first to use Palestinian guerrillas against Israel. By 1956, attacks inside Israel were also directed from Palestinian enclaves in Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. After Israel’s overwhelming victory in the Six-Day War of 1967, the Arab states were reluctant to allow the Palestinians the use of their territory to stage attacks on Israel. As a result, the Palestinians lost the ability to wage war and therefore shifted their activities to daring international acts of terrorism. Financed by Arab oil money and with the help of the Communist bloc, the Palestinians shocked the world with dramatic political assassinations and extortions. Terrorists hijacked passenger aircraft and offered hostages in exchange for freedom for their fellow fighters imprisoned in Israel and Europe. The hijackings were also used to attract world attention to the cause of obtaining a Palestinian homeland. The sequence of events that took place on September 5 and 6, 1972, was another such attempt. Olympic Games;terrorism
Terrorist acts
Munich Massacre
Massacres;Munich Olympics
Israeli-Palestinian conflict[Israeli Palestinian conflict]
Palestinian-Israeli conflict[Palestinian Israeli conflict]
Black September (organization)
[kw]Arab Terrorists Murder Israelis at Munich Olympics (Sept. 5-6, 1972)
[kw]Terrorists Murder Israelis at Munich Olympics, Arab (Sept. 5-6, 1972)
[kw]Murder Israelis at Munich Olympics, Arab Terrorists (Sept. 5-6, 1972)
[kw]Israelis at Munich Olympics, Arab Terrorists Murder (Sept. 5-6, 1972)
[kw]Munich Olympics, Arab Terrorists Murder Israelis at (Sept. 5-6, 1972)
[kw]Olympics, Arab Terrorists Murder Israelis at Munich (Sept. 5-6, 1972)
Olympic Games;terrorism
Terrorist acts
Munich Massacre
Massacres;Munich Olympics
Israeli-Palestinian conflict[Israeli Palestinian conflict]
Palestinian-Israeli conflict[Palestinian Israeli conflict]
Black September (organization)
[g]Europe;Sept. 5-6, 1972: Arab Terrorists Murder Israelis at Munich Olympics[00830]
[g]Germany;Sept. 5-6, 1972: Arab Terrorists Murder Israelis at Munich Olympics[00830]
[c]Terrorism, atrocities, and war crimes;Sept. 5-6, 1972: Arab Terrorists Murder Israelis at Munich Olympics[00830]
Arafat, Yasir
Meir, Golda
Genscher, Hans-Dietrich
Brundage, Avery

In the darkness of predawn hours on September 5, eight Palestinian fedayeen (fighters for the faith) entered the Israeli residence at the Olympic Village, taking nine Israeli athletes hostage and killing two others. By the time the drama ended some twenty hours later, a German police official, five Palestinian terrorists, and eleven Israeli athletes were dead.

The body of Israeli wrestling coach Moshe Weinberg Weinberg, Moshe was dragged outside onto the steps leading to the Israeli compound. Wrestler Joseph Romano Romano, Joseph lay dead inside. The nine Israeli hostages were bound hand and foot in groups of three. In exchange for the Israelis, the Palestinians demanded the release of two hundred Arab prisoners in Israel, of the two leaders of a notorious German leftist terrorist gang, and of Kozo Okamoto, a Japanese terrorist who had taken part in the massacre of twenty-six people at Israel’s Lod airport only four months earlier.

Billed as the “Games of Joy,” the Twentieth Olympiad was a festival in which twelve thousand athletes participated. More world records were set in Munich than in any previous Olympic Games. This was the Olympics of Mark Spitz, the Jewish American swimmer who won seven gold medals for the United States. The most spectacular Olympics yet, with unprecedented worldwide media coverage, the Munich Olympiad was the ideal stage for the eight fedayeen, who simply climbed over a six-foot fence and entered the village.

The perpetrators belonged to the most extreme Palestinian terrorist group, Black September. Although Fatah, the dominant Palestinian guerrilla organization, and its leader, Yasir Arafat, denied any collusion with Black September, there is evidence to the contrary. Fatah wanted its connection to Black September to remain secret, so that its image in Europe and the United States would not be tarnished. Arafat, fully aware that Fatah had been infiltrated by Israeli intelligence, concealed the connection, allowing only the nine Central Committee members to deal with Black September matters.

Black September was created at the end of 1970 by a handful of survivors of the “ten terrible September days” of fighting against the forces of King Hussein of Jordan in a futile attempt to turn that country into a Palestinian homeland. Exiled in Lebanon, they committed themselves to total war against the Jews of the world and to the elimination of King Hussein.

Palestinian animosity toward the Arab states stemmed from the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948-1949. The Arab states, overconfident and with their own territorial designs on Palestine, were defeated by Israel, leaving some 650,000 Palestinian refugees in Arab territory. Instead of absorbing the Palestinians, the Arab states abandoned them in refugee camps and shanty towns.

One thing on which all the Arabs, including the Palestinians, agreed was that the existence of the state of Israel was the main problem. They perceived the creation of Israel as an invasion and another humiliation imposed on them by Western powers and sanctioned by the American-controlled United Nations. Moreover, Arabs believed that they were being forced to pay the price for Europe’s collective guilt over the Holocaust, in which nearly six million Jews were killed.

The Jewish minority in Palestine had lived alongside the Arabs for centuries, enduring various degrees of persecution. The emergence of Zionism, Zionism the Jewish quest to return to the Jews’ biblical homeland in Palestine and to re-create Israel, changed that equation. The British, who administered Palestine after World War I, tried to limit Jewish immigration to appease the Arabs. The Jews, however, could not be stopped from fleeing persecution in Europe during the 1930’s and 1940’s. After World War II, in their desperation to resettle some half million survivors of the Nazi death machine, the Zionist leaders chose to see Palestine as a land without people for a people without a land.

The Israeli Olympic team takes part in the opening day ceremonies on August 26, 1972.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

The Arab world, wanting to keep Palestine for itself, responded violently to the creation of Israel. Terrorist groups such as Black September were only part of that reaction, and the Munich Massacre was only one of a series of terrorist acts committed in the battle for Palestine.

Negotiations with the Black September terrorists in the Olympic Village continued into mid-afternoon on September 5, and were covered on worldwide television. Athletes were seen tirelessly training, and the village hot spots remained full. Most Arab countries applauded their courageous brothers. Communist bloc countries remained silent. East Germany’s residences, adjacent to the Israeli compound, refused to evacuate and blamed the whole affair on Israel.

Israeli prime minister Golda Meir refused to capitulate to the Palestinians, leaving the matter to be resolved by the West German authorities. Israel once again affirmed its conviction that giving in to terrorism leads to more terrorism. The fedayeen, suspicious of German claims that the Israeli parliament was still debating, pressed negotiators for an aircraft to fly them and their hostages to Cairo. Afraid of losing their nerve and stamina, the terrorists decided to retreat to friendlier grounds.

Hans-Dietrich Genscher, who later became the foreign minister of unified Germany, took over the negotiations. He offered the terrorists unlimited sums of money in exchange for the Israelis. When that failed, he offered himself and other West German officials as hostages instead of the athletes but was again rebuffed. Realizing that time was running out, West German chancellor Willy Brandt Brandt, Willy telephoned the Egyptians, but neither Anwar el-Sadat Sadat, Anwar el- nor his foreign minister was available in Cairo.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC), the governing body of the Olympiad, was faced with the prospect of stopping the Games. Avery Brundage, the controversial president of the IOC, was bent on continuing the Games and made decisions on his own, without the consent of the Executive Board.

A hooded member of Black September appears on the balcony of a building in the Olympic Village where the terrorist group holds Israeli athletes hostage on September 5, 1972.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

The terrorists set their final deadline for 9:00 p.m. on September 5. While a crowd watched and television cameras zoomed, the eight fedayeen and nine Israelis walked out close together, with the athletes at gunpoint. The group was driven by bus to two helicopters, which flew them to an airbase outside Munich, where a fueled 707 waited. Five sharpshooters were also waiting at the airport. After the terrorists inspected the jetliner, it became evident to the Germans that the fedayeen sensed a trap. With the lives of the two German helicopter pilots also in jeopardy, the snipers opened fire. During the firefight, one of the terrorists tossed a grenade into a helicopter, incinerating five athletes. The other four Israelis were machine-gunned while sitting, tied up, in the second helicopter.


A silent and troubled audience of eighty thousand filled the Olympic Stadium for a hastily arranged memorial service the following morning. For the first time in Olympic history, the podium was draped in black and the flags of 122 nations flew at half-staff. The representatives of the Arab countries were absent. The delegations from the Soviet Union, East Germany, Poland, and Yugoslavia also did not attend. The surviving Israeli athletes were on the stand next to eleven empty chairs honoring their dead teammates.

Only days later, on the eve of the Hebrew New Year, Israel retaliated with air strikes inside Syria and Lebanon, inflicting sixty-six deaths and wounding dozens, according to Arab sources. In what was the heaviest fighting since the 1967 war, Israeli ground troops broke through the Lebanese border to battle the guerrillas. The harsh Israeli response threatened the fragile peace in the Middle East as Syria quickly mobilized and deployed its forces at the frontier.

Although the Munich Massacre was not the first Black September attack on Israel, it marked a turning point in the way Israel would react to the challenge of combating terrorism. To prevent attacks, all Israeli embassies became fortresses. Walls were reinforced with concrete capable of withstanding an all-out terrorist attack. The latest security systems were installed, and state-of-the-art screening devices were implemented. The embassies were stocked with large amounts of weapons and ammunition. Israeli diplomats carried pistols, and most foreign governments assisted with additional protection and intelligence.

Three top Israeli security officials were fired. Prime Minister Golda Meir called in Major General Aharon Yariv Yariv, Aharon to launch an antiterrorist war to wipe out Black September, Fatah, and their accomplices, whom the Israelis considered to be one and the same. Assassination squads were sent to hunt down and kill Black September operatives in Europe and elsewhere. The extended covert operation became known as Operation Wrath of God. Operation Wrath of God

The terrorists succeeded in forcing the world to take note of their plight. In the Arab view, the operation was a supreme success despite the deaths of the five fedayeen. Moreover, Arafat could mingle with diplomatic circles pretending to have no knowledge of, or connections to, Black September.

Libya requested the bodies of the five dead commandos, and the funeral there attracted tens of thousands of mourners. All Arab ambassadors assigned to Tripoli were present. The three surviving fedayeen were set free the following month, when the hijackers of Lufthansa 727 demanded their release. Black September threatened to blow up Lufthansa jetliners until the commandos were let go, and the West Germans capitulated.

Immediately after the Munich slayings, the problem of terrorism was placed on the agenda of the General Assembly of the United Nations. The United States called for an international pact against terrorism. Another resolution proposed the condemnation of terrorism followed by an international conference. Believing that the resolutions were directed against them, the Arab states supported a third resolution to defeat the other two, blaming the West for causing terrorism.

The Olympic Games were canceled once during World War I and twice during World War II. In 1980, the United States boycotted the Moscow Games, protesting the invasion of Afghanistan. In 1984, the Soviet Union boycotted the Los Angeles Games in kind. In 1972, in Munich, the polarization caused by the Arab-Israeli conflict and East-West rivalry resulted in the paralysis that allowed the tragedy to occur. Willi Daume, president of the organizing committee for the Games, summed up the general feeling at the memorial service for the Israelis: “Even in the world of crime, there are still some taboos, a final limit of dehumanization beyond which one dares not go. This limit was crossed by those guilty of the attack on the Olympic Village.” Olympic Games;terrorism
Terrorist acts
Munich Massacre
Massacres;Munich Olympics
Israeli-Palestinian conflict[Israeli Palestinian conflict]
Palestinian-Israeli conflict[Palestinian Israeli conflict]
Black September (organization)

Further Reading

  • Dobson, Christopher. Black September: Its Short, Violent History. New York: Macmillan, 1974. A complete account of the beginning and the end of Black September. Dobson offers a historical account and a philosophical explanation of the activities of this group. Attempts to show how cruel and counterproductive Arab terrorism is. Includes an index.
  • Groussard, Serge. The Blood of Israel: The Massacre of the Israeli Athletes, the Olympics, 1972. Translated by Harold J. Salemson. New York: William Morrow, 1975. Provides an enormously detailed chronological account of this tragic event. Includes brief biographies of the athletes who were killed and of the various personalities involved. Supplemented by appendixes and maps of the Olympic Village and Olympic Park.
  • Kamenka, Eugene, and Alice Erh-Soon, eds. Human Rights: Ideas and Ideologies. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1978. Composed of nine essays by nine separate authors. Discusses the origin of human rights philosophies; their strengthening and eventual transformation; human rights and international law; Marxism, socialism, and human rights; and individual rights against group rights. Includes a list of suggested reading and an index.
  • Klein, Aaron J. Striking Back: The 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre and Israel’s Deadly Response. New York: Random House, 2005. Full account of the massacre and Israel’s sustained “shadow war” that followed.
  • Parry, Albert. Terrorism: From Robespierre to Arafat. New York: Vanguard Press, 1978. Discusses the nature of terrorism, examines terrorism in history and in modern times, and explores the potential for destruction that new technology offers terrorists. Supplemented by an appendix, a bibliography, notes, and an index.
  • Reeve, Simon. One Day in September: The Full Story of the 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre and the Israeli Revenge Operation “Wrath of God.” New York: Arcade, 2000. Arab-Israeli relations are examined in this gripping account of the hostage crisis.

U.S. Loss to the Soviet Union Sparks Basketball Controversy

Israeli Raid on Entebbe

Palestinians Are Massacred in West Beirut

Palestinian Intifada Begins

Terrorists Attack Israeli Embassy and Jewish Center in Argentina

Centennial Olympic Park Bombing