SI Vault
Alexander Wolff
August 26, 2002
Thirty years later, the hostage drama that left 11 Israeli Olympians dead seems even more chilling and offers grim reminders to today's security experts
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August 26, 2002

When The Terror Began

Thirty years later, the hostage drama that left 11 Israeli Olympians dead seems even more chilling and offers grim reminders to today's security experts

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"There'd be no point to it" Shorr said.

Genscher tried a stab at bravado with his reply: "You will not be abandoned." But to be an Israeli is to know well your government's policy toward terrorists. Surely each hostage must have suspected that his fate rested in the hands of the German government—that the episode would end in Munich, not Cairo, for better or worse.

Nonetheless, Brandt would try for hours to reach Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, to secure permission for an aircraft to land and a guarantee of safety for the hostages. Sadat didn't come to the phone. Finally, at 8:20 p.m., Brandt spoke to Prime Minister Aziz Sidky, who would not or could not pledge his government's help.

The Egyptian response plunged the Germans back into despair. Issa had set a final deadline, 9 p.m., and renewed his promise to kill one hostage an hour until the Germans provided the jet. The Israeli government would never countenance the kidnapping of its citizens to a hostile destination. Certainly Germany, given its history, couldn't acquiesce in such an endgame. Perhaps a jet could appear to be at the disposal of the terrorists, but under no circumstances could it be permitted to take off.

The Germans entertained one last plan to liberate the hostages before they were to be helicoptered out of the Village to this supposed jet to Cairo. Schreiber proposed to place police gunmen behind the concrete pillars of the underground garage, the same obstructions that had saved Gad Tsabari's life. The police would pick off the fedayeen while they walked the hostages from the apartment complex to the helicopters. But a suspicious Issa demanded that the transfer be by bus; the bus pulled up to the doorway, and the fedayeen with their captives piled directly into the vehicle, affording the police no clear shot. Moments later, in the plaza of the Village, 17 captors and captives boarded two Iroquois helicopters.

By now, the crisis team had essentially accepted the hostages' deaths as inevitable. "We were 99 percent sure that we wouldn't be able to achieve our objective," Schreiber would later say. "We felt like doctors trying to bring the dead back to life."

No Israelis survive to dispute him, but if you believe Al-Gashey, the mood on board the helicopter was lighter, if only from the change of scenery. "Everyone seemed to be relaxed, even the Israelis," he has said of the flight to F�rstenfeldbruck. "For our part, in the air we had the feeling that somehow we had achieved what we'd wanted. For the first time I really thought about the hostages sitting so close—in physical contact. My cousin [Adnan Al-Gashey, another commando] was talking above the noise of the blades with an Israeli about personal things. I think they talked about his wife and kids. Even the Israelis realized our lives were inextricably linked.

"I remembered our orders to kill the hostages if it were to become a hopeless military situation. But I also thought how nobody had trained us how to kill bound, unarmed people."

"Condemned to fail from the beginning"

Schreiber had entrusted the operation at F�rstenfeldbruck to his deputy, Georg Wolf, and Wolf had a plan. The two helicopters would land 100 or so yards from a Lufthansa 727 ostensibly ready to fly to Cairo. After the terrorists brought their captives over to the plane, 17 police officers, some disguised as crew, would ambush them—if, that is, police sharpshooters couldn't get a clear shot at the fedayeen as they made their way across the tarmac.

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