December 4, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

Munich 1972 – Palestinian guerrillas or terrorists?

2 min read
The Munich 1972 Olympics saw the murder of Israeli athletes and a row over the Palestinian group being termed guerrillas and not terrorists

In 1972, a Palestinian terrorist group – Black September – infiltrated the Olympic village at the Munich Summer Olympics killing two Israeli athletes and taking others hostage. The operation by West German police meant to free the athletes led instead to the death of all eleven Israeli sportspeople plus five Black September terrorists and one West German police officer. The subsequent reporting of this atrocity angered Israeli sources as UK journalists referred to the Palestinian group as guerrillas and not terrorists.

At the time, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) was conducting a bombing campaign in Northern Ireland and mainland Britain. Journalists had no hesitation branding the IRA as terrorists but when it came to Palestinians engaged in illegal violent action – they were “guerrillas”. Israel accused British journalists of double standards. Not hesitating to call domestic Irish bombers as terrorists but not applying the same term to those in the Middle East.

DISCOVER: Northern Ireland in 1979

Defining guerrillas and terrorists

Guerrillas are normally defined as operatives engaged in irregular warfare against larger regular forces. If journalists wanted to cast Palestinian militants as irregulars engaged in a war with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) then why not portray the IRA as being at war with the British armed forces? Something the IRA itself demanded insisting its imprisoned members should be treated as prisoners of war (POWs).

The UK government and the majority of British journalists wouldn’t countenance the IRA’s demands. Yet Irish Republicans had a catalogue of grievances as long as the Palestinians. If the latter were going to be termed ‘guerrillas’ on account of the history of the Palestinian people within the state of Israel – why not the IRA in light of the discrimination faced by Irish Catholics in Northern Ireland?

Well, I’m certainly not arguing that either should have been termed as “guerrillas”. The acts them committed, such as the 1972 Munich massacre, were terrorism pure and simple.

Looking back at British newspapers in the 1970s, the term “guerrilla” was used widely for Palestinian and other Middle East groups. In the decades that followed, especially as many of these groups went from being secular to jihadi, the term “terrorist” was deployed increasingly. The overthrow of the Shah in Iran in 1979; the rise of groups like Al Qaeda; and attacks within the United States and across Europe solidified this trend.

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