Munich: Mossad breaks cover
Steven Spielberg’s new film Munich, about the vengeful aftermath of the murder of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinian gunmen at the 1972 Olympic Games, goes on general release on Friday amid a firestorm of controversy about its political sympathies and historical accuracy.
Munich deals with reprisal missions by the Israeli intelligence service, Mossad, whose agents assassinated at least 11 people alleged to have been involved in the atrocity, a grim episode in the conflict between two peoples that prefigured the United States-led “war on terror”.
The film, released in the US last month, has been savaged by some Israelis and Jews for suggesting a moral equivalence between the terrorist attack and the Israeli response to it. Arabs have complained that the Palestinians are caricatured and their motives, five years after their defeat in the 1967 Middle East war, left unexplored.
But the latest work by the creator of Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan has also been challenged on factual grounds. “Yair”, a Mossad agent involved in the killings, has dismissed it as “a Hollywood movie seen through American spectacles that distorts what really happened in nearly every way”.
And two TV documentaries broadcast in Britain this week—to coincide with the film’s opening in that country—undermine some of its central claims.
Operation Bayonet and Munich: Mossad’s Revenge include detailed testimony from retired Mossad agents the broadcasters claim were directly involved in the killings. Their version of events is very different to Spielberg’s.
Atlantic Productions, maker of Munich: Mossad’s Revenge, said the real people involved in Operation Wrath of God, as the media dubbed the mission, agreed to speak for the first time “to set the record straight” because of the release of Spielberg’s film. The issue of authenticity still matters because Israel’s policy of covert, state-sponsored assassination continues: Israel has had no hesitation in assassinating Palestinian leaders since the second intifada began in September 2000.
Spielberg’s staff emphasise that Munich is a work of art, not a documentary, but his film opens by saying it was “inspired by real events”. It follows Avner Kauffman, the purported leader of the hit team killing Palestinians. Spielberg and scriptwriter Tony Kushner name a book, Vengeance, published by the Canadian writer George Jonas in 1984, in the film’s credits. The book has long been a subject of controversy.
Jonas told the Canadian Jewish News: “The interesting thing is that the film actually is quite faithful, perhaps slightly more faithful, to the letter of the book than I would have been had I made a film of it. What it is not faithful to is the fundamental spirit of the book.”
‘Nothing to do with real Mossad’
The British documentaries challenge the film’s account. Atlantic Productions said: “Although inspired by the real events, the characters in the movie are fictitious and had nothing to do with real Mossad agents.” It claims, though this is not in the documentary, that one Mossad agent interviewed was sent by Mossad to check the identity of Kauffman and “found the nearest he got to the secret service was a job as an El Al baggage handler”.
It is highly unusual for Mossad personnel to break cover, and it is an indication of their strong objections to the film that so many have chosen to go on the record. The Atlantic Productions film contains interviews with David Kimche, the British-born former deputy head of Mossad; Efraim Halevy, former head of Mossad, also British-born; Ehud Barak, the former prime minister and in April 1973 a member of an elite special-forces unit that raided Beirut to kill three Palestine Liberation Organisation figures; and two anonymous agents the broadcasters claim were involved in the hits, identified as officers K and G.
One of the central themes of Spielberg’s Munich is the personal toll the mission takes on the team, wracked by guilt over what they were doing. But there is little sign of agonising by the agents interviewed for the TV documentaries. Officers K and G, though their faces are hidden in the shadows, come across as tougher and more hard-bitten than Spielberg’s agents. Officer G, asked if he ever had doubts, says: “No hesitations. No. No. No. We believe you can say whatever you like in discussions, but when ordered, you must follow it.”
Another agent, identified only as “Yonatan”, told the Israeli daily Ma’ariv: “We identified completely with our mission after what the terrorists did to our athletes in Munich. I never asked myself, like Avner in the movie, if I was doing the right thing.” And Barak, who famously dressed as a woman for the Beirut raid, describes the operation with evident relish and nostalgia.
Atlantic Productions lists various alleged discrepancies between Spielberg’s film and what those involved claim is the reality:
- Spielberg’s film suggests one group carried out almost all the assassinations, but in fact much larger teams of agents were involved;
- there is no evidence Mossad worked with the help of a mysterious French criminal “godfather” figure as portrayed in both Vengeance and the film;
- the assassination campaign did not fall apart because the agents lost their nerve, as the film suggests, but because an operation went disastrously wrong at Lillehammer in Norway, when the Israelis misidentified their target—the Black September chief Ali Hassan Salameh—and killed an innocent Moroccan waiter instead. Spielberg does not even mention Lillehammer; and
- those on the list of assassination targets were not all directly involved in Munich. This is confirmed by Mossad agents, and Spielberg acknowledges this, but only in the last five minutes.
Retired Mossad deputy head Kimche says the mission was not just about revenge, but also about striking fear into the hearts of terrorists. Referring to an incident described in the book, he said: “We tried not to do things just by shooting a guy in the streets, that’s easy—fairly. By putting a bomb in his phone, this was a message that they can be got anywhere, at any time, and therefore they have to look out for themselves 24 hours a day.”
“Yonatan” was asked by an Israeli interviewer if he accepted Spielberg’s message that violence was not the right response. “Maybe,” he answered. “But what could we have done after Munich? If we had given in, the Palestinians would have thought they were stronger and carried out even worse attacks.”
Mimi Weinberg, whose husband, Moni, was a coach on the ill-fated Israeli team, says Spielberg is wrong: “This movie fails to discern between those who murder innocent civilians in their sleep and those who hunt down the murderers. That’s what frustrates me about this movie. It drives me crazy.” She adds: “With Jews like Spielberg and Kushner, we don’t need enemies.”
Black September, a Palestinian group, broke into the Olympic village in Munich in September 1972 dressed in tracksuits and armed with Kalashnikovs and took 11 Israeli athletes hostage.
Twenty-four hours later, in a botched German police rescue, all hostages, five kidnappers and a German police officer were killed. Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, launched missions—dubbed Operation Wrath of God—to track down and kill those alleged to be responsible.
The first hit was in Rome and the second in December when Mahmoud Hamshiri was killed, followed by assassinations in Cyprus, Paris, Beirut, Athens, Rome, Paris again, and Lillehammer, Norway. Lillehammer went badly wrong: a Moroccan waiter was mistaken for Salameh, alleged planner of Munich. Salameh was killed by a car bomb in Beirut in 1979.—Guardian Unlimited Â