Jan. 19 (Bloomberg) -- Steven Spielberg's film ``Munich'' has fed controversy by putting a human face on an Israeli hit squad that avenged the murders of 11 of the country's athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games.
Aaron J. Klein's book on the subject, ``Striking Back'' (Random House, 251 pages, $25), exposes how morally troubling the reprisals were: The hit squad killed the wrong men, Klein argues in his gripping, though occasionally patchy, account.
First, a brief history lesson: On Sept. 5, 1972, eight members of the Black September Palestinian terrorist group took 11 male Israeli athletes hostage in Munich's Olympic village, killing two of them on the spot. After a day of chaotic negotiation, the gunmen took the remaining hostages to Munich's airport for a flight to an undecided destination.
The German police at the time didn't have an anti-terror unit and botched an attempted rescue, giving the assailants time to murder all the captives. German authorities caught three hostage takers who survived the ambush, then released them seven weeks later, after other Palestinians hijacked a Lufthansa airplane.
Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir ordered the army and Mossad, the country's intelligence service, to track down and kill those responsible for the Munich slayings. So began Caesarea, the code name for the team that assassinated more than a dozen men over the next 20 years.
Out of Reach
Spielberg's ``Munich,'' which is based on George Jonas's 1984 book ``Vengeance,'' gives the impression that Israel successfully hunted down the masterminds. Palestinian groups, including Fatah, helped reinforce that notion by turning each low-level operative killed into a hero.
Yet the Palestinians responsible for the Munich attacks were out of reach in countries such as Libya and Syria, Klein writes. So the Caesarea team targeted people involved in Black September only peripherally -- if at all, he says.
``Those targeted during those years were not directly connected to the Munich massacre,'' Klein writes.
The author is in a position to know. A retired captain in the Israeli army's intelligence service who is now a military-affairs correspondent for Time magazine, Klein says he had access to secret Israeli documents and interviewed more than 50 people on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides during his research.
Though some of the targeted men did have blood on their hands, it wasn't the blood of the Israeli athletes, Klein says.
Some of the marks either weren't involved in violence or had renounced it. A few, such as the Palestine Liberation Organization spokesmen in France and Italy, were chosen simply because their jobs made them easy targets. In one case, Mossad agents gunned down a Moroccan waiter in Norway in front of his pregnant wife in 1973. They'd confused him for another man. Israel didn't admit the mistake until 23 years later.
Though Klein is no stylist, he covers an enormous number of events in 35 brief chapters. One describes how the Israeli hostages in Munich fought for their lives. Another recounts an astonishing Israeli seaborne raid into the heart of Beirut at night, with future Prime Minister Ehud Barak in drag.
We get a minute-by-minute description of a hit on a Paris street, complete with details on how to position a getaway car. Klein also discloses that the Israeli air force once called off a raid to kill Yasser Arafat because of cloud cover.
No Moral Stand
This is a lot of ground to cover in 251 pages, forcing the author to leave gaps of as much as four years between events. What were the agents doing in between? How did they choose their targets? We never find out.
Klein declines to take a moral stand on the reprisals, saying that a judgment lies ``beyond the scope of this book.'' Yet he rarely mentions a Palestinian without labeling him a terrorist. He seems more upset with Mossad's occasional incompetence than with the human cost.
The author also hints that the German response in 1972 was callous, noting that it happened ``less than 30 years after the Holocaust.'' His anger, though understandable, is unfair. There's no evidence that the Germans would have handled the situation better had the hostages been Christian or Muslim.
Klein doesn't draw a parallel to the U.S. response to Sept. 11, 2001. Yet the analogy is clear, making ``Striking Back'' must reading for anyone interested in understanding terrorism and the difficulty of countering it.
To contact the reporter on this story:Last Updated: January 18, 2006 20:20 EST