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News and views on Israel, Zionism and the war on terrorism.

April 13, 2003

One Day in September

A look by Philip Greenspun at the documentary film on the Olypics at which Palestinian terrorists slaughtered Israeli athletes. Greenspun notes the differences between European attitutes then and now concerning the terrorists.
One Day in September (1999; Academy Award winner) documents Yasser Arafat's terrorism operation at the 1972 Munich Olympics, told primarily by retired German offiicials, the Dutch widow of the Israeli fencing coach, and Jarnil Al Gashey, one of the killers (currently hiding, with his wife and children, "somewhere in Africa").

The plot is vaguely familiar. Palestinians walk into the Olympic Village, kill two Jews and take nine others hostage. Despite the murders and the hostages the Games continue. The German government refuses to let an experienced Israeli hostage rescue team enter the country. Tens of thousands of curious onlookers and TV crews surround the apartment building in which the Arabs have holed up. The Bavarian police organize a group of untrained volunteer policemen to rescue the hostages but the effort is called off when they realize that it won't be possible to surprise the Palestinians given that (a) the TV crews are filming the police sneaking around the roof, and (b) the terrorists are watching TV inside the apartments.

The terrorists ask for a plane to take them to "an unspecified Arab country" and the German government arranges a decoy 727 at a nearby military field, to be filled with policemen (disguised as crewmembers) ready to overpower the leaders. Events at the airport go wrong very quickly. Apparently the public was kept informed of the plans and tens of thousands gawkers clogged the roads to the airport. The police in the 727 get scared and abandon their position, leaving an empty plane. The two Arabs who go into the 727 to check it out find that there aren't any pilots so they come back out screaming that the whole thing is a trap. There is some shooting, meanwhile the hostages are trapped and tied inside two helicopters. The Germans organize a team of 5 police snipers to take on the 8 Palestinians but do not supply the snipers with radios. In the ensuing confusion, a sniper on the terminal roof shoots a sniper on the tarmac by mistake. The police forgot to order an armored car and weren't willing to get anywhere near the terrorists without it (2 hour delay after the shooting started). The Arabs toss grenades and machine-gun fire into the helicopters, killing all 9 remaining Jews. Less than two months later, the surviving terrorists are freed by the German government and are given a hero's welcome in Libya.

Around the same time that the movie was released, Abu Daoud, the planner of the operation, who was living in comfortable retirement in Jordan, released a French-language book about the operation that won the 1999 Palestine Prize for Culture. Yasser Arafat had denied involvement with the Munich murders at the time, claiming that it was the work of a radical spinoff of his own terrorist organization, but Daoud writes that Arafat saw him off on the mission with the words "Allah protect you".

The movie is mostly interesting for what it reveals about how much has changed and not changed in 30 years. The TV clips show a festival atmosphere around Palestinian terrorism that persist in Muslim countries today but which has gone out of fashion in Europe and the U.S. German families were bringing their kids out to picnic and watch the exotic Arabs with guns. You probably wouldn't see that today, even if the authorities would allow families with kids to get within a few hundred yards of an Arab hostage taking.

What hasn't changed is the success of French and German policies toward violent Arabs. In the 1970s, Palestinian terrorists flowed freely in and out of these countries' jails in exchange for the understanding that terrorist attacks would not be carried out in France of Germany proper. What do we see 30 years later? The September 11th terrorists using Hamburg as their planning and finance base; France and Germany being Saddam Hussein's strongest supporters in Europe.