Mossad’s Greatest Female Assassin: An Excerpt From ‘Sylvia Rafael’
Israel tapped her to bring down the masterminds behind the 1972 Olympic massacre. Here, an excerpt from a new book that details her path to revenge and its unintended aftermath.
Sylvia Rafael: The Life and Death of a Mossad Spy is the story of a young, dedicated Mossad agent as told by Moti Kfir, the man who trained her, and Ram Oren, a journalist and author. Drawing on extensive research and interviews, they tell the story of Rafael's rise to prominence within the Mossad and her intelligence work trying to locate Ali Hassan Salameh--the leader of Palestine's Black September organization and the mastermind behind the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. Her team's misidentification of their mark would eventually lead to her arrest and imprisonment for murder and espionage.
The following excerpt is printed here with the permission of the University Press of Kentucky.
On Sept. 6, 1972, at 4:30 a.m., after collecting the weapons and the ammunition, the eight terrorists jumped over the fence surrounding the village, broke into the Israelis’ quarters, and after killing two of the athletes, took the nine remaining ones hostage.
Ali Salameh and Abu Daud also arrived at the Olympic Village to observe the attack from outside the fence. When they heard gunfire, they realized that the operation was in full swing and it was time to escape. They got into a car that was waiting for them nearby and were taken immediately to the airport. They had reservations on an Alitalia flight to Rome. After presenting false passports at the check-in counter, they were soon on their way to Rome. From there Ali Salameh flew to Beirut and Abu Daud took off for Belgrade and Warsaw, where he hid out for a few years before finally settling in Jordan.
German security forces were summoned to the village immediately after the first gunshots were heard, but only on arrival did they understand exactly what had happened. Their evaluation of the situation was that any attempt to overpower the attackers was liable to endanger the lives of the Israeli hostages. Meanwhile, until they found a more creative solution, they began negotiating with the kidnappers. The director of the Mossad, Zvi Zamir, who was urgently rushed to Munich, offered to participate in the negotiations between the Germans and the terrorists. He had a rich military background (among other things as the chief of the Southern Command), but had no experience with hostage negotiations. The Germans replied unequivocally that they didn’t require any outside assistance. Zamir had to make do with observing events from afar, and what he saw was totally unsatisfactory.
In the course of the negotiations, the Germans offered to put a plane located at one of the German air force bases at the disposal of the kidnappers, which would transport them wherever they wanted to go. In fact, the plane wasn’t going to take off to anywhere. This was a trick that was meant to save the hostages.
The kidnappers accepted the offer, but the moment they got off the bus with the hostages and walked toward the plane, the Germans opened fire on them. The terrorists became furious and opened fire on the hostages. In the exchange of fire with the Germans, five terrorists were killed. The ones remaining alive were arrested and interrogated.
When Ali Salameh arrived at Black September headquarters in Beirut, he found a hive of furious activity. His men told him about the gun battle between the German security forces and the terrorists, and Ali smiled with satisfaction. He didn’t place much importance on the fact that the hostages had been killed and that there was to be no exchange of prisoners with Israel. He was much more interested in the event’s attracting wide media, which he believed would focus world interest on the Palestinian struggle. His wish was granted.
Late that night, while the residents of the refugee camps were still celebrating the murder of the Israeli athletes, Arafat convened the Fatah high command and praised Ali in their presence. They shouted, “We all are Black September!” while Arafat hugged Ali joyfully and repeated over and over, “You are my son... you are my son…”
Ali returned to his office bursting with pride and longing to strike while the iron was hot. His brain was filled with ideas for additional terrorist attacks.
On the television screen in her small Paris flat, Sylvia carefully followed the events in Munich. The terrible scenes haunted her: masked terrorists on the verandah of the Israeli athletes’ quarters negotiating with German security officers; the hostages arriving with their captors at the military air base; their getting off the bus and starting toward the plane under threat of the terrorists’ machine guns... Suddenly the German forces surrounding the base open fire. One plane goes up in flames. Some of the lights go out as a result of the shooting. For a few moments, only gunfire from the terrorists’ and the Germans’ weapons may be seen; then, silence. The announcer appears on the screen and states that the broadcast from Germany has been interrupted, and that he doesn’t know when it will resume.
Sylvia couldn’t believe what she was seeing. Terrorist attacks in Israel and abroad had been multiplying at a fast rate, but this was the first time the assailants had demonstrated such daring. They had not hesitated to stage an attack at an international venue at the height of a world-class sporting event and take Israeli athletes hostage. Sylvia asked herself where the Israeli and German security guards were when the terrorists broke into the Olympic Village. She didn’t know if Israeli security personnel had attempted to stop the terrorists on their way to the air force base. She had so many questions, and the television broadcast didn’t answer a single one.
The next morning she got up early and went out to buy the English newspapers. She read with horror about the murder of the Israeli contestants as a result of the German attack on the kidnappers. It reminded her of the slaughter that the Nazis perpetrated on her relatives in the Ukraine. Now it had happened again: Innocent people had been murdered just because they were Jews.
A smaller headline in the Herald Tribune stated that Black September, headed by Ali Salameh, had taken credit for the operation. The article outlined the activities of the organization and presented a biography of its leader, who was described as “a determined, experienced terrorist, who has no fear of dying.”
Sylvia went on to read articles in other newspapers, and they left a bitter taste in her mouth. In her mind’s eye, she saw Israel wrapped in deep mourning. The Mossad high command must surely be convening emergency meetings in an atmosphere of tension and heightened alertness.
She desperately needed to talk to someone, express her feelings, and be given support. She couldn’t turn to her lover, Hans, since she was forbidden to reveal her connection with Israel, and he was in effect her only true friend in Paris. Apart from Abraham, she wasn’t acquainted with any Mossad operatives in the city, and he was busy arranging his return to Israel with the completion of his period of service in Paris. Her new case officer, whom she knew as David, had already arrived to take over from his predecessor.
Too upset to remain alone with her thoughts, Sylvia phoned David and asked him to meet her. When they met, David noticed that her eyes were red from crying. He didn’t have to guess why: He was also grief-stricken by the terrible tragedy.
Sylvia showed him the article about Ali Salameh in the Herald Tribune and commented, “I assume that Salameh is our chief target now.”
“I suppose so,” her new case officer responded, although nobody had yet informed him of this.
“I hope that when it happens, I will be part of it,” she added.
“You know that isn’t my decision, Sylvia. If there is such a plan, it might very well take place in an Arab country, not here.”
“I’ve already been to an Arab country. The prospect doesn’t frighten me.”
He searched for an answer that would satisfy her.
He finally said, “I hope you will be considered.”
“That isn’t good enough, David. You have connections with the bosses of the Mossad. Report this conversation to them.”
From the report he had received from his predecessor, David understood that despite Sylvia’s extroverted personality, she was a very disciplined operative and never asked for anything.
“You’re probably not used to a member of the organization asking anything for himself,” she said, reading his thoughts, “but most of my father’s family perished in the Holocaust. The Germans wouldn’t have managed to exterminate so many Jews if the victims had defended themselves. One of the main reasons why I came to Israel and eventually joined the Mossad was because I decided to defend the Jews in order to prevent what happened in the Holocaust from ever happening again. Salameh is responsible for killing Jews. He won’t stop until we cut his hands off. I want to be the one to do it.”
“You are a very brave woman,” said David. “I’ll do whatever I can so that when the time comes, your request will be seriously considered.”
The psychological evaluation in Sylvia’s file stated, “There is a lack of quiet in Sylvia that craves for action.... She knows that she is special and that she possesses unusual and varied abilities.”