The Humanization of Israeli killers, and the Dehumanization of Palestinian civilians
Who is retaliating against whom in the Arab-Israeli conflict? That is the question
by As'ad AbuKhalil
(As'ad AbuKhalil, a native of Lebanon, is a leading expert on the Middle East. He received his B.A. and M.A. from the American University of Beirut, and his Ph.D. from Georgetown University. He teaches at California State University at Stanislaus and at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at UC/Berkeley. He is the author of "Bin Laden, Islam & America's New War on Terrorism." His latest book is "The Battle for Saudi Arabia.")
This film reminds me of a line that comedian George Carlin used in his comedy routine that went roughly like this: "Why do we call Israeli terrorists 'commandos,' and Palestinian commandos 'terrorists?" His question 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--vicious killers.
Did you notice how one lone critical opinion of the movie by one Israeli diplomat (Ehud Danoch, Israel's consul general in Los Angeles), which mildly criticized the movie, got so much press in the US?It helped to promote the movie and to give the illusion of a "balanced" cast to the narrative, that it does not deserve. This supposed critical opinion reminded me of O'Reilly; how he always seems to find one e-mail from somebody in Montana who tells him that he is too liberal. He needs 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. It is a celebration of Israeli murder of Palestinians. When Israelis kill, it is always moral, and always careful, and always on target. On Dec. 26, yet another New York Times neo-con reviewer thinks that Spielberg was not sympathetic enough to the Israeli killers.
I was angry watching it; and I grew more angry as I observed the liberal Berkeley audience with whom I watched it react sympathetically to the movie, rooting for the Israeli head assassin, as he went about his "civilized" killing. I watched a humane Berkeley audience root for an Israeli killing team,in a story with Palestinian victims who were real people, with real blood.
An emotional moment for Spielberg, and presumably for American audiences was when the chief Israeli assassin talked with his young daughter in New York, stating that he missed her very much. Oh, yeah. That was the point at which you were expected to shed a tear or two; the music grew particularly sentimental at that point.
Spielberg's movie is based on a "non-fiction" book by journalist George Jonas, Vengeance, which took the Israeli account at face value. But in the book the Israeli killers did not express regret or second-thoughts of any kind. None! In the book -- but not in the movie-- the killers, according to Jonas, had "absolutely no qualms about anything they did." Hmmm...How could Spielberg have missed that?
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 why should this movie, a Spielberg movie, bother with facts, especially if they get in the way of a smooth pro-Israeli narrative? 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.
Munich was not as planned an operation as has often been maintained. This was not planned months in advance, as Abu Iyad maintained in his account written with Eric Rouleau, My Home, My Land. Abu Iyad for years exaggerated the claims about the "carefully planned" Munich operation, and PLO media at the time lied about PLO gunmen throwing grenades into the helicopters, so as to make the last shootout more of a fight that it actually was.
Massacred Palestinians who were being bombed 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 police at the time were going to take the PLO out, no matter what, and no matter how much the Germans endangered the lives of the hostages, and they presumably had Israeli consent. An Arab League diplomat revealed 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 Palestinian guerillas in Munich.
It can be argued that the Palestinians risked the lives of the hostages by taking them hostages, even if they did not intend to kill them. That is true. This is similar to the moral perils entailed by hijacking: the hijackers, any hijackers, are responsible, and should be held responsible for whatever endangerment to the lives and health of victims. Quite true.
But it is also true that the "State of Israel" has taken a nation hostage, and has been endangering the lives of millions of Palestinians since the inception of the Israeli state. It is a question of who is retaliating against whom. One of the many false premises of the Spielberg movie is that Israel only went on a killing rampage-and only against Palestinian "killers"--after Munich; that Munich was some kind of watershed.
Watershed it was not, except in Israeli propaganda brochures. Israel has been perpetrating killing rampages against Palestinians, mostly civilians, since before the creation of the state of Israel. And how could Spielberg lionize 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 too,as he portrayed her as Grandma goodness who was pushed into vengeance by Palestinian monsters. More humanization of Israel and dehumanization of Palestine. That is why the movie showed the director of the Israeli assassination machine with his child: the audience must see him as a caring human being.
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 his honor.
What were the Israelis doing before Munich? Before Munich -- not after-Israelis placed a bomb under the car seat of Palestinian writer/artist, Ghassan Kanafani and killed him and killed his 14-year-old niece. The teenage girl was not plotting the Munich attack when she was murdered by the Israelis; nor was her uncle. Kanafani wrote for Al-Hurriyyah magazine.
Israel, also before Munich, sent a letter bomb to Bassam Abu Sharif, a writer and journalist, 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 Sayigh was a really diligent researcher, and Israel did not appreciate it.
Abu Sharif never had a military role. He was an innocent victim of Israeli killing. He nevr held a gun. I see him as a human being, and not as the armed and vengeful character that appears in Spielberg's movie; typical of US movies where Arabs appear, Arabs when they speak Arabic never need subtitles. We get them 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.
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 pressure Palestinian leaders and commanders to send them on military or suicidal missions against Israeli targets. Munich occurred exactly like that. Palestinians in the refugee camps in Lebanon, those who were trained by Fatah and by other groups, were lobbying for "action." Why? In February of the same year prior to Munich, Israeli jets bombed Palestinian refugee camps, and killed innocent people. This is what is missing in the movie. Most Palestinians who are killed by Israelis are unarmed and are killed not by conscientious and sensitive Israeli assassins-as they are outrageously portrayed in this movie-but by Israeli pilots who bomb refugee camps filled with unarmed civilians. Palestinians who are bombed from the air, long before Munich, are elderly and women and children in their beds. These are the victims that you will never see in a Spielberg movie.
Israel was killing Palestinians, and this was the context of pre-Munich. A small Palestinian group chose to seek venegeance--retaliation-- but they were not sure of their target, and this was only three months before Munich. One of the handful of people who knew about this was Abu Mazen, the Abu Mazen who today is 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 Nazi past. Abu Mazen was the money guy, and he dispersed the funds for Abu Dawud, who engineered the operation.
The American public and US media and popular culture are so enamored with the Mossad, the Israeli secret service, but 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 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. Former CIA director, Stansfield Turner, once said that the Mossad is a mediocre organization, but that it does outstanding PR. Former CIA man in Beirut Robert Baer said this about the Mossad--in 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 [i.e. 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 "Abus" within the PLO necessitated a game of one-up-manship, and of wild exaggeration 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 failed Sabena hijacking. 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 for 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 Fatah 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.
Dawud 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. (he never talked even when the brutal Mukhabarat secret police in Jordan dangled him by his feet for days, while torturing him). People who saw him in jail at the time did not recognize him. But know this: your reliable "moderate" US allies in Jordan are quite proficient at torture. They are probably the best; they are helping the US in that regard as we speak. Most Lebanese did not even know Dawud's 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. 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 for Israeli assassins.
Abu Hasan could get all the money he wanted for his own group from Yasser 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 based on Abu Hasan, although the author does not admit it.
It is interesting that in the Spielberg movie, the Israeli head killer (who was in the movie named "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 in the movie the actor who played him in Spielberg's movie is not at all attractive.
Spielberg does not want the viewer to identify with any Palestinian in the movie. 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,where they are an unidentifiable blob. For Spielberg 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 sentimental music that plays when Israelis die, differs from the music that plays when Palestinians die n "Munich." And no speaking roles for Palestinians were necessary. Why bother? Give one a line, and you have done your "objective" duty.
The list of prisoners that Palestinian guerillas submitted to German authorities for release, did not have just "200 Arab prisoners" on it, as the movie clams. It had the names of some 234 Arab and non-Arab prisoners, including Japanese and Germans, but that was not in the movie.
The statement that was issued by the guerillas gave a name to the Munich "operation": "Bir`im and Ikrit," the 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 Israeli courts to return to their native villages, and the Israeli courts turned them down.
But if Spielberg were to use the actual name of the Palestinian commando "operation" in Munich ("Bir`im and Ikrit") he would have to relate to his audience those burdensome details and it would have detracted from his celebration of the Israeli killing machine.
But this begs the question: why is the Munich massacre more infamous than the genocidal Israeli bombardment of Palestinian refugee camps in February, prior to Munich? And why do the letter bombs to three Palestinian writers not get world attention? Why did American liberals not notice? Can you imagine what would happen if a Palestinian threw even a rose at an Israeli writer? Can you imagine the outcry among American leftists if a Palestinian were to say even a bad word to Amos Oz for example? That was the stature of writer Ghassan Kanafani among Palestinians.
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 Olympic hostages, but I do not think that this is appropriate because even Abu Dawud did not know that information 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 one can raise questions regarding the actual responsibility for the killing of the hostages. Abu Dawud cites Israeli newspapers from the 1990s in which writers raised questions about German police responsibility, and on how the German government never published autopsy reports of the hostages. The Israeli government also did not want to examine the bullets that killed the Israeli hostages. That would have settled the question, of course.
Dawud stressed that the attackers were under strict instructions to not shoot at the hostages, and you notice in the scene in the movie, that when they were storming the compound, they clearly struggled with the door and avoided shooting, when shooting could have shortened their entry time. Dawud claims that they were under strict orders to avoid using the grenades. He raises the possibility that the helicopter may have exploded from a bullet that hit its gas tank, but I don't know, and I have never relied on Spielberg, or on the book on which he based his account, for historical accuracy.
In retaliation for Israeli atrocities, Palestinians also have managed to assassinate Israeli military and intelligence leaders but those operations do not get Hollywood attention because the trend in US media and popular culture is that you should only show Palestinians when you can claim they are wantonly killing civilians, not when they are retaliating against Israeli military personnel.
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 a bombing which required the use of some 75 Israeli aircraft (the largest attack since 1967). Their bombings of Palestinian refugee camps in Syria and Lebanon resulted in the killing of more than 200 civilians. And this is not because the Israelis were after 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) while other camps with civilians in them were bombed. While the "retaliatory" killings were being perpetrated by Spielberg's soulful assassins, Israeli bombing of Palestinian refugee camps continued uninterrupted.
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 transpired on July 21, 1973, when Ali Bushiki, a Moroccan waiter relaxing with his pregnant wife at a swimming pool in Norway, was murdered by Spielberg's beloved assassination team merely because Ali resembled what the hit team thought Abu Hasan Salamah looked like. The Norwegian police tracked and arrested the Israeli killers, but they were all released in a secret deal with the Israeli governement.
These inconvenient and uncomfortable facts about the Israeli killing team were omitted by Spielberg. Even Wa'il Zu`yatir, the PLO representative in Rome who knew nothing about Munich, and was an academic with close ties to Leftist circles in Italy, was shot 14 times. He almost certainly never held a gun in his life. Zu`ytir was more interested in literature than he was in military affairs, on which he knew nothing. The PLO representative in France, Mahmud Hamshari also had nothing to do with Munich; he too was "liquidated."
The movie, it seems, relished detailing the 1973 Israeli revenge in Beirut. Spielberg really enjoyed depicting that act by Israeli hit squads. But who were the three PLO personalities killed in that so noble endeavor? And who cares about the details? Kamal Udwan was the Fatah/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 PLO leaders, having accepted the two-state solution back in 1970, before any of his colleques in Fatah. Another victim, 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 victim was another Palestinian writer: and Israelis have no qualms about the murder of Palestinian poets, artists, and writers: Kamal Nasir was a poet, who was killed in his bed. The movie did not tell you that by the time the Israeli terrorists finished with their retaliation "mission," some 100 Palestinians and Lebanese were murdered on that day in April 1973.
The PLO representative in Cyprus also had nothing to do with Munich; he was the intelligence envoy of Abu Yusuf An-Najjar. And some people targeted on the list of the Israeli murder team were not only not involved with Black September, but some were not even members of the Fatah organization. Basil 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 Fatah. The same for Muhammad Budia: he was with Wadi` Haddad, and not with Black September.
But we can rest assured the film is accurate: Spielberg offered the script to Dennis Ross and his former boss Bill Clinton to verify the "accuracy" of the film's Middle East political and historical references.
Spielberg portrayed the neighborhood where the PLO leaders and others were killed with all the features of the Orientalist imagination. The houses were old style with arches, and the place was protected like a military base. In reality, the PLO leaders lived in a civilian residential building in the most modern and upper class neighborhood of Verdun in Beirut. But why bother with that fact?
The Munich movie does not tell you that on September 16, and 17, Israel launched an invasion of south Lebanon, razing the refugee camp of Nabatiyyah. The Lebanese newspapers at the time had on the first page a picture of a smashed civilian car with seven Lebanese civilians crushed inside after an Israeli tank ran over their car near Jwayya in south Lebanon. That must have been too messy for Spielberg to cover. 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?
As Spielberg's movie ends,we see written on the screen the statement 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 scores of civilians--but hey--they were only Arabs and their blood is too cheap to mention.