Olympic Chief Remembers Slain Israelis: A Fitting Tribute or Bid to Defuse Growing Controversy?

July 24, 2012 - 12:45 AM

Munich Olympics attack

Israel’s national flag flies at half mast at Tel Aviv airport on September 7, 1972 as officials await the arrival of the bodies of the athletes killed by Palestinian terrorists during the Munich Olympics. (Photo: Eldan David/Government Press Office archives)

(CNSNews.com) – Facing mounting calls for the International Olympic Committee to pay tribute at Friday’s opening of London 2012 to 11 Israeli athletes and coaches killed by Palestinian terrorists during the Munich games 40 years ago, IOC president Jacques Rogge on Monday led a minute of silence during a tour of the athletes’ village.

“At this very moment, athletes from around the world, representing different cultures, traditions and languages, are living together in harmony in the Olympic village. That is the mission of our movement,” he said.

“The 11 victims of the Munich tragedy believed in that vision. They came to Munich in the spirit of peace and solidarity. We owe it to them to keep that spirit alive and to remember them.”

Early reaction to what Rogge described afterwards as a “spontaneous” gesture, however, suggests that it has failed to defuse the issue.

“This is not the right solution, to hold some ceremony in front of 30 or 40 people,” Ankie Spitzer, the widow of one of the slain men, told the Jerusalem Post. “We asked for a moment of silence at the opening ceremony, not for someone to mumble something in front of a few dozen people.”

Spitzer and the widow of another of the victims, Ilana Romano, have spearheaded a campaign to honor the 11 men during Friday’s opening ceremony – an event that will have a global audience of an estimated four billion.

The two are heading on Tuesday to London, where they plan to present Rogge with a petition signed by more than 104,000 people and to hold a press conference hosted by Israel’s ambassador to press their case.

At the athletes’ village on Monday, Rogge told reporters his words and the moment of silence had nothing to do with demands for a commemoration during the opening ceremony but were “a spontaneous gesture from me.”

Over the decades since the 1972 attack, the IOC has consistently turned down requests by victims’ families to hold a formal commemoration during the Olympic Games, in front of athletes, supporters and television viewers from around the world. The organization has marked the occasion in other ways, and IOC heads have taken part in Israeli- or German-hosted events, including one planned this year in Munich, on the September 5 anniversary of the attack.

“We feel that the opening ceremony is an atmosphere that is not fit to remember such a tragic incident,” Rogge reiterated during a press conference last week.

Unlike the campaigns ahead of previous Olympics, the 40th anniversary one caught fire over recent months, since Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon last May asked Rogge formally “to send a clear message that we must not forget the terrible events of Munich 40 years ago so they will not be repeated.”

Lawmakers in the U.S., Germany, Australia, Canada, Britain and Italy have joined the calls for a moment of silence at the games in London, as has London Mayor Boris Johnson. Last week the White House said President Obama supported the campaign and on Monday a spokesman for Mitt Romney said the  Republican presidential candidate – who will be at Friday’s opening ceremony – did so too.

U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, (R-Fla.) and ranking member Howard Berman (D-Calif.), who first wrote to Rogge on the matter last May, sent another letter on Monday, urging him to reconsider his stance.

They expressed appreciation for past IOC gestures, including Monday’s one at the athletes’ village, but said that “even taken together, these memorial efforts lack the impact of a minute of silence at the Opening Ceremonies.”

“Over the years, the IOC’s refusal to hold a moment of silence has caused sorrow and anger for the family members of the murdered Olympians, for the people of Israel, and for many other people across the globe,” they wrote. “Worse, this refusal projects – mistakenly, one wants to believe – an ambivalence, if not indifference, about the tragic events of 1972 on the part of the IOC leadership.”

Arafat’s PLO

Israeli team fencing coach Andre Spitzer and weightlifter Yossef Romano were among 11 athletes and coaches killed during the attack, carried out by Palestine Liberation Organization terrorists operating under the name of “Black September.”

Munich Olympic attack gunman

One of the eight Palestinian terrorists appears on a balcony in the Olympic Village in Munich on Sept. 5, 1972, during a standoff following the murder of two Israelis and the kidnapping of nine others. (AP Photo)

The eight gunmen, who stormed the Israeli team’s apartment in Munich on September 5, 1972, killed two men during the initial assault. They demand the release of 234 Arab prisoners in Israeli jails and two German terrorists imprisoned in Frankfurt.

After a 20-hour standoff nine more Israelis and a German police officer died at the terrorists’ hands during an abortive attempt to rescue the hostages. Five of the gunmen were also killed.

(Less than two months later, the German authorities freed the surviving three Munich terrorists, acceding to the demands of “Black September” gunmen who hijacked a Lufthansa 727 aircraft on a flight from Beirut to Ankara.)

The PLO had long denied direct links to “Black September,” but in memoirs published in 1999, Palestine National Council and Fatah member Mohammed Oudeh (also known as Abu Daoud), admitted that he planned the operation and that PLO chairman Yasser Arafat had seen him off on the mission with the words, “Allah protect you, Abu Daoud.”

Oudeh blamed German police and the Israeli government for the Israelis’ deaths.

After the book was published German prosecutors issued an international warrant for Oudeh’s arrest, but he died a free man in Syria in July 2010, aged 73.

Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas hailed him as a hero, describing him as “a wonderful brother, companion, tough and stubborn, [and] relentless fighter” while the official P.A. newspaper Al-Hayat Al-Jadida called the dead man a “great Fatah fighter and patriot,” whose name had shone “brightly” in Munich in 1972.