Massacre at Munich led to the 'myth' of Mossad
Published 19/02/2010 | 05:00
THE death of a Hamas operative in Dubai at the hands of a squad of burly hitmen conjures up images of the string of killings that followed the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics and a bungled attempt to poison a Hamas leader in Jordan 13 years ago.
Israel's Mossad spy agency -- the prime suspect in the death of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh last month in Dubai -- has known both triumph and embarrassment in decades of covert warfare, and the latest episode would appear to include elements of each.
The killers, whoever they are, got their man and escaped. But they were caught on video and left behind what appears to be significant evidence. And the Dubai police force -- competent perhaps beyond the agents' expectations -- found that at least seven of them used the names of real Israelis with European passports. The Mossad is suspected of several violent incidents in the Middle East in recent years, such as the killing of a top Hezbollah officer in Damascus in 2008. But its reputation -- particularly in the Arab world where it is often seen as an ominous force behind unexplained events -- goes back decades.
In 1972, a group of armed Palestinians raided the rooms of Israel's Olympic team in Munich, killed two athletes and took another nine hostage.
A botched rescue attempt by German police ended in the deaths of all of the Israelis in a wild shootout at a nearby military airfield. Golda Meir, Israel's prime minister at the time, ordered the Mossad to kill those responsible, -- partly as revenge and partly to deter future attacks. That directive launched an unprecedented covert offensive that saw a string of Palestinian operatives, many of them not directly connected to the Munich massacre, killed. Basil al-Kubaisi, for example, a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, was approached by two men in Paris one night in April 1973. He had time to yell "don't do this" in French before the Mossad assassins shot him dead. That was on a Friday. The following Monday, after long preparations by Mossad agents, Israeli commandos landed in rubber dinghies on the Beirut beach near the Sands Hotel. One of the commandos was Ehud Barak, a future prime minister and the current defence minister.
The assassins killed three high-ranking Palestinian Liberation Organisation men before fleeing. A number of civilian bystanders were also killed. Other Palestinian operatives were killed by bullets or bombs in Rome, Nicosia, Athens and elsewhere. And the myth of the Mossad -- ruthless and skilful with unlimited resources and reach -- was born.
The Mossad places far more emphasis on special operations like assassinations than intelligence agencies in most other countries, said Ronen Bergman, author of a book on Israeli covert operations against Iran.
"This emphasis is because of Israel's existential fears. This is not policy -- it's the mindset, the feeling that the Mossad is the final frontier for defending the national security of the state of Israel," he said. That aggressive approach has led to a few very public errors. In July 1973, on a Saturday night in the small Norwegian town of Lillehammer, Mossad gunmen shot and killed a man they believed was Ali Hassan Salameh, a top Palestinian operative. The victim turned out to be an innocent Moroccan waiter named Ahmed Bouchiki. The Lillehammer fiasco revealed an interesting aspect of Mossad operations: two of the captured agents were women.
In Dubai last month, CCTV filmed a member of a surveillance duo whom Dubai authorities identified as an Irish national named Gail Folliard, and who is seen at one point entering a bathroom and emerging with her blond hair concealed under a black wig.
The covert war might be ugly, but it is a necessity, said Rafi Sutton (78) who served as a Mossad agent in Europe in the 1970s. "If we, the citizens of Israel, want this state to continue to exist, we must be ready to fight for it day and night, in the light and also in the darkness," he said.