Al Jazeera World

Israel’s Hunt for the Red Prince, Ali Hassan Salameh

Salameh founded the Black September armed group that attacked 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

Filmmaker: Rami Kodeih

As the British mandate in Palestine drew to a close in the late 1940s, clashes intensified between Palestinian and Jewish militias. When the British left and the new state of Israel was announced in May 1948, the first Arab-Israeli War was fought.

In the 1950s and 60s, tension continued and armed Palestinian ‘fedayeen’, many of them now refugees, mounted attacks into Israel which were met with equal force. Palestinian nationalists, including Yasser Arafat, formed the Palestinian National Liberation Movement (PLO) in 1959 – and the party became the dominant force in Palestinian politics after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.

Ali Hassan Salameh rose to the top of the Fatah Party in the 1960s and 1970s to become one of Arafat’s most trusted men. He also founded the Black September armed group which killed 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympic Games in 1972.

Munich Olympics 1972

“The Munich operation was meant to protest against the Palestinians’ exclusion from the Olympic Games,” explains Saqr Abu Fakhr, assistant editor at the Journal for Palestine Studies. “Why should Israel alone be represented at this event? It was also aimed at drawing attention to the Palestinian cause and the issue of prisoners inside Israel. However, its operations were not intended to kill but to take hostages and exchange them.”

Unfortunately, the operation went badly wrong.

Black September killed two Israeli athletes in the Olympic village and abducted nine others. They demanded the release of Palestinian prisoners within Israel and planned to leave Germany with the hostages whom they later intended to exchange. But Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir would not negotiate with the Palestinians and left the operation in the hands of inexperienced German authorities.

The Germans laid on helicopters at a military airbase but secretly planned to foil Black September’s getaway. German snipers killed all but two of the Black September group – who in turn killed the nine Israeli hostages waiting in the helicopters with grenades and machine guns.

After the event, the Western media and Israel painted Ali Salameh as the mastermind of the Munich operation. As a leader of Black September, he must have been involved, according to former Fatah official Ghazi Al Husseini: “He helped in different ways, like training, but he wasn’t the ringleader. He didn’t plan the Munich operation.”

Munich put Ali Salameh at the top of intelligence agency Mossad’s hit list and they launched a series of missions to retaliate against the PLO, including an assault on its leadership in Lebanon.

“Mossad was able to take out thirteen Palestinians in Europe,” says Israeli journalist Ronan Bergman. “And of course at the tip of that effort was Operation Fardan, Operation Spring Of Youth to be able to come to Beirut in the middle of the night and strike three Palestinian prominent figures in their houses was no less than a stab in the heart of the PLO.”

But they failed to get to either Arafat or Salameh.

Assassination of the Red Prince

Ali Salameh was a charismatic figure who loved the good life. He married Miss Universe, Lebanese beauty Georgina Rizk, but was also an astute politician who was assigned by Arafat to negotiate secretly – not only with the PLO’s political opponents and enemies in the Lebanese civil war but also to set up a secret back-channel dialogue with the Americans in Beirut.

His contact was a CIA intelligence agent called Robert Ames. Ames understood the region, spoke Arabic and saw both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His dialogue with Salameh worked both ways but this was arguably the only time in recent history when the Americans showed sympathy for the Palestinian cause.

The Israelis acted decisively and assassinated Salameh, the man they dubbed “The Red Prince”, using a car loaded with heavy explosives, in Beirut in January 1979.

Robert Ames died in the suicide bombing of the US embassy in Beirut four years later. Some believe that if Salameh were still alive at the time, he would have been able to pass intelligence to the Americans and thwart the attack. What’s more, if both Ames and Salameh had lived, the US relationship with the Middle East over the past 40 years might also have followed a different course.