Zvi Zamir, who as the director of Israel’s Mossad spy agency led a violent campaign to crush Palestinian terrorism after 11 Israelis were killed at the 1972 Munich Summer Olympics — and who a year later relayed a warning to his government that Egypt and Syria were about to start the Yom Kippur War but was not taken seriously — died on Jan. 2. He was 98.
His death was announced by the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The announcement did not say where he died.
“Zamir led a determined and initiative-taking approach in the State of Israel’s fight against Palestinian terrorism, which was strengthening at that time,” Mr. Netanyahu’s office said in a statement.
Terrorism was an increasing concern for Israel when Mr. Zamir was named the Mossad’s director in 1968. No incident crystallized that threat more than the attack by the Palestinian terrorist group Black September on the Israeli delegation at its dormitory in the Olympic Village in Munich on Sept. 5, 1972.
Early in a daylong siege, two Israelis were killed and nine were taken hostage.
Prime Minister Golda Meir sent Mr. Zamir to Munich. But he had to watch helplessly as inexperienced snipers moved into position for a rescue operation, which was delayed when West German authorities gave in to the terrorists’ demands: They provided helicopters to transport them and the hostages to the Fürstenfeldbruck military airfield, and then, presumably, to Cairo.
“Then I saw a scene I’ll never forget for the rest of my life,” Mr. Zamir said in the 2017 documentary series “Mossad: Secret Service of Israel.” “With their hands and feet tied to each other, the athletes trudged past me. Next to them, the Arabs. A deathly silence.”
Later, at the airfield, where the Germans planned to ambush the terrorists, Mr. Zamir lay beside one of the snipers. “They were using old rifles without telescopic sights,” he recalled in the documentary. “Without anything. It broke my heart.”
In the ensuing firefight, all the hostages and five of the eight terrorists died. The three surviving terrorists were captured, but they were released a few weeks later after Palestinian guerrillas hijacked a Lufthansa flight with 20 passengers and crew aboard.
Until Munich, Mr. Zamir said, Mrs. Meir had been reluctant to approve plans to kill Palestinian operatives in Europe because she thought — incorrectly — that European governments would take effective action against them.
“In some of my conversations with Golda,” Mr. Zamir told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in 2006, “she expressed her concern that our people might be involved in illegal actions on European soil. It was indeed unavoidable, but illegal.”
But after the Israelis were killed, Mrs. Meir put Mr. Zamir in charge of a campaign, called Operation Wrath of God, to destroy the Palestinian terror network that had found it easy to operate from Europe.
In that operation, Israeli agents killed a number of terrorists over at least a decade, including the mastermind of the Munich attack, Ali Hassan Salameh, who died in a bombing in Beirut in 1979, five years after Mr. Zamir left the Mossad. An earlier attempt to kill Mr. Salameh ended in an embarrassing mistake: the killing of a waiter in Norway.
Mr. Zamir said that vengeance for the Munich killings was not the Mossad’s motive.
“What we did was to concretely prevent terrorism in the future,” he told Haaretz. “We acted against those who thought that they would continue to perpetrate acts of terror.
“I am not saying that those who were involved in Munich were not marked for death,” he continued. “They definitely deserved to die. But we were not dealing with the past; we concentrated on the future.”
Zvicka Zarzevsky was born on March 3, 1925, in Lodz, Poland, and immigrated with his family when he was a baby to what was then known as the British Mandate of Palestine. His father drove a horse-drawn wagon for an electric company. According to one account, he changed his surname at the request of a teacher who could not pronounce Zarzevsky.
He began his military career as a teenager with the Palmach, a Jewish underground defense force, and he was later a battalion commander during Israel’s war of independence. He rose within the Israel Defense Forces to the rank of major general and headed the forces’ southern command, which defends the largest region of the country.
He also served as the I.D.F. attaché in London before being named to run the Mossad in 1968 by Prime Minister Levi Eshkol.
Mr. Zamir twice sounded the alarm about an impending attack in 1973 by Egypt and Syria, thanks to critical information provided by a high-level informant: Ashraf Marwan, a disgruntled son-in-law of President Gamal Abdel Nassar of Egypt, who had been feeding high-value intelligence to the Mossad since 1970.
“Zamir was tremendously effective,” Howard Blum, the author of “The Eve of Destruction: The Untold Story of the Yom Kippur War” (2003), said in a phone interview. “He ran an agent — with a handler — like we’d run an agent in the Kremlin. It was a coup.”
Uri Bar-Joseph, the author of a book about Mr. Marwan, “The Angel: The Egyptian Spy Who Saved Israel,” told The Weekly Standard in 2016 that Mr. Zamir had viewed Mr. Marwan as “the best source we have ever had.”
In April 1973, Mr. Marwan sent an urgent message to his handler using the code word for imminent war, “radish,” Mr. Blum wrote in The New York Times in 2007. Mr. Zamir left Tel Aviv to meet Mr. Marwan in a safe house in London.
The attack, Mr. Marwan told Mr. Zamir, would start on May 15. Israel responded by calling up tens of thousands of reservists and sending brigades to the Israeli-occupied Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights in the north.
But the attack did not come.
On Oct. 5, Mr. Marwan sent another message, and Mr. Zamir returned to London. He telephoned his bureau chief in Israel to relay what Mr. Marwan had told him: The attack would happen at sunset on Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. The bureau chief conveyed the warning to aides to Mrs. Meir and Moshe Dayan, the defense minister.
But the warning was not fully heeded.
At an Israeli cabinet meeting on the morning of Oct. 6, Mr. Blum reported, Mr. Dayan told David Elazar, chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, “On the basis of messages from Zvicka, you do not mobilize a whole army.”
The alarm led to a partial mobilization of the I.D.F. that could not blunt heavy Israeli losses early in the war, which began at around 2 p.m. and not at sunset. According to a historical count from the Jewish Agency for Israel, 177 Israeli tanks faced 1,400 Syrian tanks on the Golan Heights, and Egyptian forces easily crossed the Suez Canal.
Israel eventually turned the tide — with weapons and other military aid from the United States — and prevailed by the end of that month. Yet it was known for its early intelligence failure and the uncertainty caused by nearly losing.
On Oct. 7, 2023, almost exactly 50 years to the day after the Yom Kippur War began, Hamas and other militant groups based in Gaza crossed the border with Israel — surprising Mr. Netanyahu’s unprepared government — and killed an estimated 1,200 Israelis. Israel has retaliated by vowing to destroy Hamas in a war that has so far killed some 23,000 Palestinians in Gaza, most of them civilians.
At Mr. Zamir’s funeral, David Barnea, the current director of the Mossad, said that the spy agency “must hold to account the murderers who invaded the Gaza border area on Oct. 7 — the planners and those who sent them.”
He added, “Zvicka’s spirit will accompany us in this mission.”
Mr. Zamir left the Mossad in 1974. He became the chief executive of a construction and civil engineering company and later served as the chairman of the Institute for Petroleum and Geophysics Research and the Israel Petroleum and Energy Institute.
Information about survivors was not immediately available.
The Mossad’s post-Munich operation was the subject of the 2005 film “Munich,” directed by Steven Spielberg. Mr. Zamir, who was portrayed by Ami Weinberg, disliked it, telling Haaretz that it was a “cowboy film” that deserved “opprobrium.”
“The ‘sages’ behind the film do not explain the blow, the shock that Munich delivered to all our conceptions,” he said. “Those things were pushed out of the film in order to make room for operational depictions based on the director’s fertile imagination.”