Operation Spring of Youth: Retaliation for the Munich massacre

Ehud Barak, a commander of Sayeret Matkal during the Operation Spring of Youth (1973)
Ehud Barak, a commander of Sayeret Matkal during the Operation Spring of Youth in 1973 (Photo: IDF)

Operation Spring of Youth was an Israeli military operation in Lebanon in April 1973. The operation was part of a bigger operation codenamed Operation Wrath of God, which was planned as retaliation for the Munich Massacre. It was practically an Israeli raid on Lebanon and it took place on the late-night of April 9 and early morning of April 10, 1973.

The IDF special forces units, with Sayeret Matkal, leading engaged targets in Beirut and Sidon, Lebanon. There were three primary targets:

  • Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)
  • Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP)
  • Fatah headquarters for Gaza operations

Introduction

The Operation Spring of Youth later became known as part of the retaliation for the bloody Munich massacre at the Summer Olympics in 1972. The terror organization Black September claimed responsibility for the attack. The Munich massacre is an informal name for the barbaric events that occurred during the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, Southern Germany. The members of the Israeli Olympic team were taken hostage by a terrorist group named Black September.

The 1972 Munich Massacre victims
Operation Spring of Youth was considered as retaliation for the 1972 Munich Massacre. This photo shows 11 Israeli athletes that were killed during the Olympics. (Photo: XY)

The IDF troops arrived at the Lebanese beaches in specially designed speedboats launched from missile boats offshore. The great preparation from Mossad agents was crucial. They awaited the IDF special forces, troops, on the beaches with cars rented the previous day. They used cars to drove IDF troops to their objectives and later back to the beaches for extraction.

Operation Spring of Youth has taken out three of the highest-level PLO leaders. They were surprised at home and killed along with other PLO members. As collateral damage, several Lebanese security people and civilian neighbors were also killed. The IDF had only two casualties.

Background

Ehud Barak was commander of the elite IDF Special Forces unit, Sayeret Matkal. In February 1973, in separate operation, the unit has obtained photographs and precise information on the whereabouts of three senior PLO leaders:

  • Muhammad Youssef al-Najjar (Abu Youssef) – an operations leader in Black September, the group responsible for the 1972 Munich massacre. He was also a PLO veteran, previously head of the Lebanese Fatah branches, head of Fatah’s internal intelligence organization. His latest duties were head of the PLO’s political department and one of Yasser Arafat’s deputies (third in the line of Fatah’s leadership).
  • Kamal Adwan – a PLO chief of operations, responsible for numerous armed attacks against Israeli targets.
  • Kamal Nasser – a poet, PLO spokesman, and member of the PLO Executive Committee.
IDF Special Operations Forces are considered among the best trained in the world
Operation Spring of Youth: IDF Special Operations Forces are considered among the best trained in the world (Photo: IDF)

Operation Spring of Youth

In late-night on April 9, 1973, Israeli Navy missile boats departed from Haifa naval base, carrying the IDF commandos and special designed Zodiac speedboats on board. When they reached the shores of Beirut, the Zodiacs boarded with commandos in full gear were lowered into the water. To avoid being heard, they turned the motors off when they were a few hundred meters from land and rowed the rest of the way in. The last stage of the Operation Spring of Youth was about to begin.

They came ashore to the perimeter, where Mossad agents already were waiting for them with three cars rented day earlier as a coverup. The Mossad operatives drove them to their targets.

Raid on PLO

The leading formation, from three Sayeret Matkal commando teams, entered the buildings and planted door breachers (explosive fuses) at the apartment doors of their targets while a backup team led by Ehud Barak remained outside and stood guard to repel possible PLO reinforcements or Lebanese Internal Security Forces (ISF) Gendarmerie units.

Sayeret Matkal is the elite special operations force of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). They were the main force in the Operation Spring of Youth in 1973
Sayeret Matkal is the elite special operations force of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). They were the main force in the Operation Spring of Youth in 1973 (Photo: IDF)

When the door breacher exploded, the IDF commandos stormed the apartments, gunned down the three targets, and seized whatever documents they could find in a very short amount of time. Kamal Nasser, a Christian, was according to Palestinian reports, shot in front of his family, with his bullet wounds tracing the sign of the cross., Al-Najjar’s wife was killed during the melee, as the collateral damage.

At the same time, the backup team led by Barak engaged in a heavy firefight with a few dozen Lebanese ISF gendarmes and PLO reinforcements. In a gunfight, two Lebanese policemen were killed. The reinforcements were repelled off and Mossad agents extracted the IDF commandos from the scene.

While driving to the extraction point, they encountered a Lebanese Army armored personnel carrier (APC) as it scanned the shore. They were not confronted and continued on to the beach, where the IDF commandos and drivers abandoned the cars and returned to the missile boats in Zodiacs.

Raid on PFLP

At the same time when Sayeret Matkal leads the operation against PLO, 14 Israeli commandos, mainly Sayeret Tzanhanim paratroopers stormed a building that housed militants of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). The commandos were disguised as civilians and led by Amnon Lipkin-Shahak.

They met strong resistance early on. The building was heavily guarded by nearly 100 militants, and shortly after IDF commandos were engaged in a close-quarters battle. Numerous militants from PFLP on the building’s upper floors repeatedly attempted to take the elevator to the ground floor and join the ongoing battle, but each squad was wiped out by IDF commandos waiting near the elevator doors.

The Israeli commandos managed to place a large explosive charge inside the building and detonate it, causing part of the building to collapse. The team leader Lipkin-Shahak then requested an air evacuation. They were extracted by Israeli Air Force helicopters. The final outcome was two Israeli soldiers dead and dozens of PFLP militants killed during the firefight.

Raid on Fatah

Among these two main objectives, the two secondary forces also attacked the Fatah headquarters for Gaza operations and a Fatah workshop in Beirut. Also, a small Fatah bomb factory in north Beirut was destroyed by Shayetet 13 naval commandos while paratroopers raided and destroyed the PLO’s main garage, located just south of Sidon.

Shayetet 13 - elite Israel Navy SOF
Shayetet 13 commandos took part in Operation Spring of Youth in 1973. In this photo, Shayetet 13 operator brandishing its specialized weaponry and gear (Photo: Gadi Kabalo)

Aftermath

The Operation Spring of Youth was one of the most notorious secret operations ever performed. It was directed by Israeli intelligence agency Mossad and carried out by IDF special operations forces, mostly from the secretive units Sayeret Matkal and Shayetet 13. Operation Spring of Youth has taken out three of the highest-level PLO leaders. They were surprised at home and killed along with other PLO members. As collateral damage, several Lebanese security people and civilian neighbors were also killed. The IDF had only two casualties.

The most interesting thing about Israeli special operations forces is that their most elite units, Sayeret Matkal and Shayetet 13 unlike other special forces, always cooperate for one purpose rather than complete with each other.

The Operation Spring of Youth has also been featured in Hollywood blockbuster in the 2005 Steven Spielberg film Munich.

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