From the bookshelf: ‘Rise and kill first: the secret history of Israel’s targeted assassinations’
5 Nov 2018|

Ronen Bergman has written an extraordinary book which is at once morally confronting and gripping in its narrative.

Without the formal assistance of Israel’s intelligence community, including Mossad, Bergman has produced a comprehensive account of Israel’s deployment of targeted killings from the establishment of the state in the 1940s to the present day. While official endorsement of Bergman’s project was withheld, a great many Israelis from the fields of politics and government, security services and the military, academia and the legal fraternity have clearly made their views known to the author. And the author is accomplished: he is a contributor to the New York Times Magazine and a senior correspondent for Israel’s largest newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth.

Among Bergman’s books is The secret war with Iran, which has served him well by contributing useful detail in Rise and kill first. There’s no doubt that a global policy of assassinations is controversial. Any program of extrajudicial killings is an invitation to peril. When the state becomes prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner with minimal scrutiny and a near absence of legal sanctions, appalling consequences can arise. Mistakes can and will be made. Innocent people will suffer.

But then again, every security challenge for the state of Israel can prove existential. Bergman sums up the situation this way:

Because of Israel’s tiny dimensions, the attempts by the Arab states to destroy it even before it was established, their continued threats to do so, and the perpetual menace of Arab terrorism, the country evolved a highly effective military and, arguably, the best intelligence community in the world. They, in turn, have developed the most robust, streamlined assassination machine in history.

Bergman argues that two Israeli legal systems have developed in parallel: a recognisable criminal justice system for the citizenry, and one for the security and defence entities.

The latter system has allowed, with a nod and a wink from the government, highly problematic acts of assassination, with no parliamentary or public scrutiny, resulting in the loss of many innocent lives.

On the other hand, the assassination weapon, based on intelligence that is ‘nothing less than exquisite’—to quote the former head of the NSA and the CIA, General Michael Hayden—is what made Israel’s war on terror the most effective ever waged by a Western country. On numerous occasions, it was targeted killing that saved Israel from very grave crises.

Israel has established protocols for employing targeted assassinations as a weapon of state. Prime ministerial approval is required in most cases, but some Israeli prime ministers are more adventurous than others; while some are hard-headed, but nonetheless cautious, much depends on the personality of the Israeli leader. Many, such as Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak, spent earlier careers in uniform. Prime ministers such as Ariel Sharon actually exhibited far more aggression in certain cases than either the security services or military.

And sometimes the security services get it wrong, as with the killing in Norway which was supposedly linked to Black September’s wanton murder of Israeli Olympic athletes in Munich in 1972. On another occasion, PLO leader Yasser Arafat’s brother, Dr Fathi Arafat, was targeted by mistake while en route to Cairo over the Mediterranean. A tragedy was only narrowly avoided, for the younger Arafat was very different from his brother.

He was a physician and the founder of the Palestinian Red Crescent. On the plane with him were thirty wounded Palestinian children, some of them victims of the Sabra and Shatila massacre. Fathi Arafat was escorting them to Cairo for medical treatment.

Bergman’s book is compelling. The author draws his readers in by developing an absorbing, cascading account of a policy of Israeli assassinations from the calling to account of Nazi war criminals in post-war Europe through to the elimination of Iranian scientists working on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear weapons program. Bergman has assembled his substantial trove of intelligence material and his book unfolds from early targeting of German scientists working on an Egyptian missile effort through to successful intervention in Saddam Hussein’s nuclear weapons initiative.

There are convincing successes, carried out by various arms of the Israeli security services and the military. And, as previously mentioned, there are humiliating mistakes such as the identification of the Mossad unit—some of whom were using false Australian passports— which assassinated a senior Hamas arms trafficker in his hotel room in Dubai in 2010. Even Mossad can become complacent to the point of being sloppy.

The background to Rise and kill first is the constantly shifting strategic pattern in the Middle East, through recurring wars to the emergence of major new players, such as Iran, characterised by the unwavering hostility towards Israel of Tehran and its client militias, best evidenced by Hezbollah. The foreground is the appalling atrocities inflicted on Israel and its citizens by terrorists, some of which are too sickening to record.

‘Rise and kill first’ is originally a Talmudic verse from Babylonian times and there is a Biblical injunction in terms of the imperatives for Israeli security. The quest for security remains an overwhelming priority for the Israeli state. The question which Israeli leaders must constantly address is whether the policy of targeted assassinations fits readily or well into an overarching strategy. Or has this instrument merely become a tactical weapon for eliminating threats, however real, that diverts effort away from working on a broader foreign policy and national security canvas?

As Bergman points out, after 9/11 the United States embraced targeted assassinations as policy, so this book identifies consequences well beyond the state of Israel. It is one of many reasons that Rise and kill first is essential and revealing reading.