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Spielberg on Munich – Celebration of the Israeli Killing Machine

27. January 2006

or the humanization of Israeli killers and the dehumanization of
Palestinian civilians

by As’ad
Abu Khalil

And who is
retaliating against whom in the Arab-Israeli conflict? THIS is the question.

It reminds
me of a line that George Carlin—yes, that Carlin—used to use in his comedy
routine and went roughly like this: “why do “we” call Israeli terrorists
commandos, and we call Palestinian commandos terrorists?” That line never got a
laugh the two times I saw him use it with a live audience. The thrust of the
Spielberg movie is simple, fanfare notwithstanding: Israeli killers are
conscientious and humane people, while Palestinians are always–no matter
what–killers. But a Spielberg movie about current affairs is like a Thomas
Friedman’s column about…Emanuel Kant. What do you expect. But you know? Did you
notice how one lone critical opinion of the movie by one Israeli diplomat,
which only mildly criticized the movie, got so much press in the US? It was
needed; and it even helped to promote the movie to give a “balanced” cast to
the narrative, that it of course does not deserve. This one critical opinion
reminded me of O’Reilly; how he every night finds one email from somebody in
Montana who tells him that he is too liberal. He needs to that to maintain an
image that does not exist, just as Spielberg needs to maintain an image that he
does not deserve. This movie could easily have been a paid Israeli
advertisement for its killing machine. In fact, it could be a recruitment movie
for Israeli killing squads. I mean that. In fact, it is a celebratory movie of
Israeli murder of Palestinians. Israel killing is always moral, and always
careful, and always on target. Today, yet another New York Times reviewer who
also thinks that Spielberg was not sympathetic enough to the Israeli killers,
even had the audacity to describe Israeli killings at the time as
“targeted assassinations” (1)  when even Israel had not invented that
propaganda term back then. He must have forgotten to remember. That’s all.
Where do I begin. I mean yes, I was quite angry watching it; and I got more
angry as I watched the Berkeley liberal audience react sympathetically to the
movie, rooting for the Israel head killer, as he went about his
“civilized” killing. I watched the audience root for an Israeli
killing team, and this WAS a true story, and Palestinian victims were real
people, with real blood. The most emotional moment for Spielberg, and
presumably for American audiences was when the head killer talked with his baby
daughter in New York, that he missed very much. Oh, ya. That was the point at
which you were expected to shed a tear or two; the music got particularly
sentimental at that point. It had to be. But where to begin; the movie was
based on a book that took the Israeli account as it was delivered.

But the
book was honest and more accurate at least on one count: in the book by George
Jonas titled Vengeance (only Israelis are entitled to vengeance as you know,
the more violent the better as far as some US movie audiences are concerned),
the killers did not express regret or second-thoughts. None. In the book but
not in the movie, the killers, according to Jonas, had “absolutely no
qualms about anything they did.” How could Spielberg miss that. Well, he
just managed. Hell, that was the whole movie, and the whole political project
behind it. Of course, it was not easy for me to watch this movie, I mean not
only at the political and intellectual levels, but also at the personal level.
I can connect to the story, in its details and personalities.

The first victim
of the movie was Wa’il Zu`aytir, and I knew his niece; I went to school with
Abu Hasan Salamah’s son–he was younger; and I knew the street and building
where the three PLO leaders were massacred in Beirut. And let me tell you that
NONE of the five people mentioned here had anything to do with Munich–but more
on that later. NONE. But why should this movie, a Spielberg’s movie for
potato’s sake, bother with facts, especially if they come in the way of a
smooth pro-Israeli narrative? But this movie is intended for mass audiences who
know nothing about the facts of the conflict. That is exactly why it will work,
and why it will deliver the (propaganda) goods. Let me start by saying this:
this, Munich that is, was not as planned an operation as has often been

This was
not planned months in advance, as Abu Iyad maintained in his account with Eric
Rouleau (translated into English as My Home, My Land by dear Linda Butler). Abu
Iyad for years exaggerated the claims about the “carefully planned” operation,
and PLO media at the time lied about how the PLO gunmen threw grenades into the
helicopters, so as to make the last shootout more of a fight that it actually
was. Angry Palestinians who were being hit by Israeli fighter jets in their
refugee camps demanded heroes and heroism, and the PLO had to give them some,
even if they were not legitimate heroes. The German troops were going to take
them out, no matter what, and no matter how much they, the Germans in this
case, endangered the lives of the hostages, and they presumably had Israeli
consent. The Arab League diplomat talked about this recently when he broke his
silence in an interview on Ziyarah Khassah on Al-Jazeera. He should know: he
was the negotiator with the the Palestinian team in Munich.

Yes, I
know. It can be argued that the Palestinian attackers risked the lives of the
hostages by taking them hostages, even if they did not intend to kill them.
That is true. This is like hijacking: the hijackers, any hijackers, are
responsible, and should be held responsible for whatever endangerment to the
lives and health of victims. That is true. But it is also true that the State
of Israel has taken a nation as a hostage, and has been endangering the lives
of Palestinians since the inception of the state of Israel. This is why it is
all a question of who is retaliating against whom? One of the many false
premises of the movie is that Israel only went on a killing rampage—and only
against Palestinian “killers”–after Munich. That Munich was a watershed. Watershed
it was not, except in Israeli propaganda brochures. Israel has been going on
killing rampages against Palestinians, civilians mostly, since before the
creation of the state of Israel. And how could you even talk about Golda Meir
and forget to mention her most memorable quote: that “there is no such thing as
the Palestinian people.” Spielberg must have missed that, just as he needed to
show her as grandma goodness who was pushed into vengeance by Palestinian
cruelty. More humanization. That is why we had to see the head Israeli killer
with his child: you need to see him as a human being. Do you know that not a
single Palestinian in the movie appeared unarmed? They all were terrorists, and
their murder had to be justified, and Spielberg did a great service for the state
of Israel in that regard. They should name some stolen Palestinian property in
Israel in his honor, I argue. A street, a destroyed Arab village, or a stolen
olive tree. Anything. He deserves it. And let us see what Israel was doing
before Munich. Before Munich, NOT AFTER—did you get that, Israel placed a bomb
under the car seat of Palestinian writer/artist, Ghassan Kanafani and killed
him and killed his niece (14). The niece was not plotting the Munich operation
when she was murdered by the Israelis; nor was her uncle.

That was
BEFORE Munich. Kanafani was best friends with my uncle; they both used to write
in Al-Hurriyyah magazine during their days at the Movement of Arab
Nationalists. Israel also—BEFORE Munich—sent a letter bomb to Bassam Abu Sharif
(a writer and journalist with the PFLP), and left him with life-long scars and
bodily damage, and they also sent a letter bomb to Anis Sayigh, a scholar and
researcher, who was not a member of any group. But he was a really diligent
researcher, and Israel did not appreciate it–I am assuming. This is not easy
for me; I have shaken the hands–or what was left of their hands–of both of
those men, and Abu Sharif never had a military role—I say this although I never
liked Abu Sharif or respected him (read my review of his memoir in Journal of
Palestine Studies a few years ago). But those were innocent victims of Israeli
killing. They never held guns those two, or those three, or four.

This story
is personal for me, of course. I see them as human beings, and not as armed and
vengeful characters that they appear in Spielberg’s movie. And typical of US
movies where Arabs appear, Arabs when they speak Arabic never need subtitles.
We need them when people speak in French and German, but Arabic is not important.
It is not important to know what cheap natives say; we only need to know what
expensive people say: Europeans and Israelis. And do you notice that Hollywood
still portrays Israelis as Europeans: they still don’t want to accept that some
half of all Israelis come from Asian and African countries. This makes it
easier for the White Man to identify with them. And there is this element that
is never mentioned about Palestinian attacks: and this is true of the present
and of the past. It is not that some Palestinian leaders recruit or compel
Palestinians to attack Israelis. It is the other way round. Palestinians,
regular rank-and-file and sometimes civilians, pressure Palestinian leaders and
commanders to send them on military or suicidal missions against Israeli

occurred exactly like that. Palestinians in the camps in Lebanon, those who
were trained by Fath and by other groups, were lobbying for “action.” Why?, you
may ask? Well, not only for the loss of Palestine but also because Israel was
KILLING Palestinians. In February of the same year PRIOR to Munich, Israeli
jets bombed Palestinian refugee camps, and killed tens of innocent people. This
is what is missing in the movie, among many other things. Most Palestinians who
are killed by Israelis are unarmed and are killed not by assassins who are
conscientious and sensitive—as they are outrageously portrayed in this
movie—but by pilots who bomb refugee camps filled with unarmed civilians.
Palestinians who are bombed from the air, long before Munich, are elderly and
people and children in their beds. These are the victims that you will never
see in a Spielberg movie.

So Israel
was killing Palestinians, and this was the context of pre-Munich. So a small
group decided to do something, but they were not sure what, and this was only 3
months before Munich. And one of the handful of people who knew about this, and
this will never make it into the press was Abu Mazin–yes, that Abu Mazen the
head of the puppet Palestinian Authority. But do you notice that US/Israel
always forgive the past of those who submit to Israeli dictates? Look at how US
and Israel forgave Anwar Sadat for his anti-Semitic Nazi past. Abu Mazin was
the money guy, and he dispersed the funds for Abu Dawud, who engineered the
operation. And the American public in US media and popular culture is so
enamored with the Mossad, that the image of the Mossad does not match its
actual reality. The best evidence is this movie: look at this obsession with
Abu Hasan Salamah as the “mastermind” of Munich when he had nothing, absolutely
nothing, to do with Munich. To be sure, Abu Hasan was a braggart, and had a big
mouth, and would take credit for things he did not do, and would distance
himself from failed “operations” that he planned, like the Sabena failed
hijacking in 1972. That was Abu Hasan: he lived the life of a playboy, and
enjoyed a unique indulgent pampering from Abu `Ammar who treated him like a
son. Abu `Ammar would never say no to Abu Hasan, on anything. But Abu Hasan had
nothing to do with Munich, and this ostensibly all-knowing Mossad, did not know
it, and probably still does not know it. Former CIA director, Stansfield
Turner, once said that the Mossad is a mediocre organization, but that it is
outstanding in PR–only in PR. Former CIA man in Beirut Robert Baer said this
about the Mossad–I am translating this from an interview he gave to
Al-Jazeera: “Let me tell you something, what people most err in in the Middle
East, and I am responsible for my words to the end, is related to Israeli
intelligence. To be sure, they can kill somebody in Paris or Rome or killing
the wrong person in Finland or wherever else they did that in [he meant
Norway]. To be sure they know Europe and Palestinians, and they know many
things about Palestinians, but when it comes to the rest of the Middle East, I
have not seen anything from their part that indicated their knowledge of those
countries.” But this can never be maintained in a country that wants to
exaggerate the prowess and knowledge of an intelligence agency not only to help
feed the Israeli propaganda myth, but to also prepare the American public for
more ruthless times and ways.

So a very
small number of people knew about it, and of course Abu Iyad was one of them.
And Abu Iyad is the most important person on the list, and yet his name was NOT
on the list, just to show you about how much–or how little– Israel knew. Abu
Iyad spoke more than he needed not only because he wanted to send a message to
the enemy, but also because the wars of factions and “Abu”s within
Fath necessitated a game of one-up-manships, and of wild exaggerations at
times. And while Black September was a paper name, and did not have a separate
organizational existence or structure, several factions used the name for their
own ends. Nobody consulted with Abu Iyad about Abu Hasan’s use of the name for
the Sabena’s failed hijacking mentioned above. Abu Dawud is a key person here.
And while his name was mentioned in passing, it was added after the fact in
Israeli propaganda accounts. Abu Dawud was arrested in France for another
reason in 1977, and he was released because there were no German or Israeli
warrants about his involvement in Munich. That shows you. Now, I will not give
a blow-by-blow account of Munich. But I personally believe the account of Abu
Dawud more than I believe Spielberg, i.e. Israeli propaganda claims, or even
German police. (Abu Dawud’s account is found in Abu Dawud, Filastin:
Mina-l-Quds Ila-Muikh (Beirut: Dar An-Nahar, 1999)). German police lied quite a
bit about the case; they leaked to the press fanciful accounts of Palestinian
infiltration of the workforce at the Olympic city, when none of that actually
took place.

They were
too embarrassed to tell the truth. Similarly, the Israelis wanted to back the
German account, especially as the violence at Munich was a propaganda bonanza
for the Israelis in the West, just as Munich—this is not known in the West—was
a propaganda bonanza for Fath in the Middle East, as horrrific as the outcome
was for all. And in that sense, the Germans, the Israelis, and Abu Iyad (and
certainly Abu Hasan) lied about Munich, but not Abu Dawud, in my opinion. Abu
Dawud is one of those 2nd tier PLO leaders who did not get corrupted in the
messy Lebanese scene, and who did now allow the Gulf money that corrupted many
PLO leaders to affect him. This was a man who was in charge of Beirut during
the Lebanese civil war, and yet his name does not appear in any chronicle of
the war because he was too low key, and because he never bragged. (Hell, he never
talked even when the brutal mukhabarat in Jordan held him from his feet for
days, while torturing him. People who saw him in jail at the time did not
recognize him. But you know this: your reliable “moderate” friends in
Jordan are quite “good” in torture. They are probably the best; they
are helping you in that regard as we speak.) Most Lebanese did not even know
his name.

But this
also explains why he survived, unlike say Abu Hasan Salamah, who married a
Lebanese former Miss Universe, who introduced him to Lebanese bourgeois
society, and he could not get enough of that life. He developed a routine, and
lived in a fancy apartment on Madame Curie Street in Beirut, and the routine he
developed (going to the GYM at the same time every day), made him an easy
target. Abu Hasan could get all the money he wanted for his own group from
`Arafat, and was doing a good job of maintaining not only good relations with
the CIA but also with Lebanese right-wing groups. He became good friends with
some right-wing militia leaders. Read the novel by Navid Ignatius, Agents of
Innocence: it is about Abu Hasan, although the author does not admit it. It is
interesting that in the movie, the Israeli head killer (who was in the movie
Troy), was cast to be most appealing to the audience: a good looking and
charismatic figure. But say what you want about Abu Hasan (and many people in
Palestinian struggle, like Abu Dawud, did not like him) but he was a good
looking and charismatic figure in real life, but not the actor who played him in
Spielberg’s movie. But Spielberg did not want the viewer to identify with any
Palestinian in the movie: that was contrary to him and to his political goal.
He just wanted to identify with the expensive human beings: the Israelis.

 The Arabs
are worse than they were in Renoir’s painting, the Mosque, as an unidentifiable
blob. They were just armed, with no humanity. They were not supposed to evoke
emotions, and you were not supposed to see them bleed, and if you did, you had
to cheer for their killers. The only ones that you had to feel sorry for: were
the Israelis who get killed, including the killers when they kill. The music
that played when Israelis die, was different from the music that played when
Palestinians died. And no speaking roles for Palestinians were necessary. Why
bother. Give one a line, and you have done your “objective” duty. And
the list of prisoners that attackers submitted to German authorities did not
have “200 Arab prisoners” on it, as the movie said. It had some 234 Arab and
NON-Arab names on them, including Japanese and German prisoners, but that was
not in the movie. And the statement that was issued by the attackers gave a
name to the “operation”: Bir`im and Ikrit, names of two (predominantly
Christian) villages in northern Palestine, the people of which were expelled by
Israeli occupation forces in 1948 for “security reasons.”

 In 1972,
the people of those villages petitioned the courts to return to their villages,
and the courts of course turned them down. But if you were to use the name of
the “operation” you would have to tell the audience those burdensome details
that would have distracted from the celebration of the Israeli killing machine.
But this begs the question: why is Munich more famous than the savage
bombardment of Palestinian refugee camps back in February prior to Munich? And
why did the letter bombs to three Palestinian writers not get any world
attention? Why did American liberals and PEN not notice it back then? Could you
imagine what would happen if a Palestinian threw even a rose at an Israeli
writer? Could you imagine what would happen among American leftists if a
Palestinian were to say even a bad word to Amos Oz for example? That was the
stature of Ghassan Kanafani among Palestinians and Arabs.

Now, I will
not get into the military/intelligence background of the Israeli hostages as
Abu Dawud does in his memoirs because the attackers did not know that
information prior to the “operation.” Abu Dawud gives many details about the
military backgrounds of some of the hostages, but I do not think that this is
appropriate because even Abu Dawud did not know that before hand. I will not
get into what actually happened at the site at the airport when the hostages
were being transferred by their captors not only because the captors were
responsible by virtue of the hostage “operation”, but you can raise
questions regarding the actual responsibility of the killing of the hostages.
Abu Dawud cites Israeli newspapers from the 1990s in which writers raised
questions about German responsibility, and on how the German government never
published autopsy reports of the hostages, etc. The Israeli government also did
not want to examine the bullets that killed the Israeli hostages. That would
have settled the question, of course.

Abu Dawud
stressed that the attackers were under strict instructions to not shoot at the
hostages, and you noticed in the scene, even in the movie, that when they were
storming the compound, they clearly struggled with the door and avoided
shooting, while that could have shortened the time of entry, and Abu Dawud says
that they were under strict instructions to avoid using the grenades. And Abu
Dawud raises the possibility that the helicopter may have exploded from a
bullet that hit it gas tank, but I don’t know, and I have never relied on
Spielberg, or on the silly book on which he based his account, for historical
accuracy. And another thing comes to mind: Palestinians also have managed to
assassinate Israeli military and intelligence leaders but that never gets attention
because the trend in US media and popular culture is that you should only show
Palestinians when they are killing civilians. And it is not true that the
Israeli response was confined to the assassination of the 11 Palestinians as
was shown in the movie: Israel was also killing other Palestinians. Israeli
“response” or initiative we should call it, was more massive and brutal that
the operation of the secret team. Three days after Munich, Israel ordered an
air strike which required the use of some 75 Israeli aircrafts (the largest
attack since 1967) and the attacks on Palestinian refugee camps in Syria and Lebanon
resulted in the killing of more than 200 mostly civilians.

And this is
not because the Israelis knew that there was a camp north of Sidon that was
used for training the Munich attackers. That camp was not even hit (another
sign that Israelis had no information about the real culprits of Munich) and
other camps with civilians were hit. And then while the assassinations were
taking place, Israeli bombing of camps continued uninterruptedly. And the most
glaring omission in the film, which shows you that the Israeli team was not
only savage but also ignorant of their targets, was what happened on July 21st
1973, when `Ali Bushiki, a Moroccan waiter resting with his pregnant wife
around a swimming pool in Norway, was murdered by that assassination team
merely because `Ali resembled what the hit team thought Abu Hasan Salamah
looked like. (The Norwegian police tracked and arrested the killers, but they
were all released in a secret deal with the Israeli governement–is that not
nice?) Should that not have made it to the movie? But that would have made them
look more brutally clumsy than Spielberg wanted them to look like. And even
Wa’il Zu`yatir, the PLO representative in Rome. He knew nothing about Munich,
and was an academic with close ties to socialist circles in Italy. Zu`ytir was
shot 14 times. He never held a gun in his life.

Israeli team members were killers who really relished killing, and did not seem
susceptible to moral second-thinking as was stressed over and over again in the
movie. Zu`ytir was more interested in literature than he was in military
affairs, on which he knew nothing. And PLO representative in France Mahmud
Hamshari also had nothing to do with Munich; Israeli propaganda later had to
contend with that, and claimed after killing him that the attackers passed
through France on their way to Munich. In reality, the attackers never stepped
on French soil when they went to Germany. And the movie, it seems really
enjoyed covering the 1973 massacre in Beirut. Spielberg I could tell really
enjoyed learning and covering that massacre by Israeli terrorist squads. But
who were the three PLO personalities killed in that “operation”? And
who cares about the details? Kamal `Udwan was the Fath/PLO leader responsible
for the West Bank and Gaza.

He not only
had no responsibilities in Europe, but he opposed “operations” in Europe, and
even those by Black September. More than that, `Udwan was one of the most
moderate Fath leaders having accepted the two-state solution back in 1970,
before any of his colleques in Fath. Abu Yusuf An-Najjar was in charge of
intelligence in Lebanon—Lebanon, not Europe. While `Udwan had no knowledge of
Munich, Abu Yusuf may have heard about it but had no role whatever in it. The
third person was a poet: and you know how much Israelis like to murder
Palestinian poets, artists, and writers. Kamal Nasir was a poet, and was killed
in his bed.

The movie
did not tell you that by the time the Israeli terrorists finished with their
“mission,” some 100 Palestinians and Lebanese were murdered on that day in
April 1973. I also was amused–not really–how Spielberg portrayed the
neighborhood where the PLO leaders AND others were killed: it had all the
features of Orientalist imagination. It was traditional and the houses were old
styles with arches, and the place was protected like a military base. In
reality, the PLO leaders lived in a residential building in the most modern and
upper class neighborhood of Verdun in Beirut. But why bother with that detail
too. And the Fath representative in Cyprus also had nothing to do with Munich;
he was the intelligence envoy of Abu Yusuf An-Najjar. And some people on the
list of the Israeli murder team were not only not involved with Black
September, but some were not even members of the Fath organization.

Al-Kubaysi was a Palestinian scholar who had just completed his PhD in political
science; I recently had dinner with Basil’s best friend in college in Candada.
Kubaysi was in the PFLP and not in the Fath organization. The same for Muhammad
Budia: he was with Wadi` Haddad, and not with Black September. But then again:
I read that Spielberg offered the script to Dennis Ross and to Bill Clinton to
verify the “accuracy” of Middle East political and historical references. The
two are experts on the Middle East, in case you have not heard. More than that,
the movie did not tell you that on September 16th, and 17th, Israel launched a
savage invasion of South Lebanon, erasing the refugee camp of Nabatiyyah, and
the Lebanese newspapers at the time (I even remember that as a 12 years old)
had on the first page that famous picture of a smashed civilian car with seven
Lebanese civilians smashed inside when an Israeli tank ran over the car near
Jwayya in South Lebanon.

That must
have been too messy for Spielberg to cover. Why bother? And the car had stopped
at the Israeli checkpoint that was set up at the entrance to the village. Were
those civilians in the car also involved in Munich? Later, as the movie ended,
it was written on the screen that Abu Hasan Salamah was later “assassinated.”
Spielberg forgot to add that he was “assassinated” by a massive car bomb in a
crowded street in Beirut, which killed and injured tens of people—oh, and those
people also were not involved with Munich. The reviews of the movie in US media
almost expressed frustration that Spielberg did not express enough sympathy for
the Israeli killers. Only Michelle Goldberg (2) of Salon to her credit (great review Michelle) pointed out that contrary to that
lousy review by Leon Wieseltier in the New Republic “many of those [Israelis] in Munich are, if anything, slightly unbelievable in their constant
self-interrogation and closely guarded humanism.” I was thinking after the
movie that public ignorance of the Middle East greatly helps Israeli
propaganda; this explains why Zionist organizations express contempt and wrath
at Middle East expertise and specialty (as in MESA) because those who get to
know and learn about the Middle East overwhelming find it difficult if not
impossible to consume the unbelievable dosages of Israeli propaganda delivered
via US media and popular and political cultures.

*Three of the Munich Palestinian attackers
survived. One died from a heart attack; the remaining two are…somewhere in
the Middle East.

1) New York Times, 26.12.2005

2) Spiegel Online, 20.12.2005