The cover of Ronen Bergman’s Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations.
Snapshot
  • This book is an invaluable contribution to several fields of study – security studies, ethics, foreign policy, and the history of Israel.

Bergman, Ronen. Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel's Targeted Assassinations. New York: Random House, 2018. 784 pp.

"If a man comes to kill you, rise early and kill him first," said the Talmudist Shila of Kefar Tamarta. This spirit has suffused Israeli security policy even since its pre-independence days, argues Ronen Bergman in his latest book that has conveniently – and appropriately – borrowed the amora's words for its title – Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel's Targeted Assassinations. In an impressive survey of assassinations from the days of the Bar Giora brigades through the Hashomer, Haganah, Irgun, Lehi, and eventually the modern apparatus of state – Mossad, Shin Bet, AMAN, and the Israeli Defence Forces along with the various special operations units associated with it, Bergman argues that the tactical brilliance and spectacular successes of Israel's security forces has obscured its strategic failure to bring peace to the country. If decades of targeted assassinations have not worked, is it perhaps time for Israel to look to other methods?

Rise and Kill First has admirably steered clear of two pitfalls that ensnare books like this – the first is to get side-tracked into a brief history of the Israeli conflict with the Arabs, and the second is to slip into either a jingoistic, chest-thumping defence of whatever Israel has done or an ingratiating, Muharram-esque mea culpa for the country's "misdeeds". Bergman, the senior political and military analyst for Israel's largest daily newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, has remained a critical yet understanding observer of Israeli security politics over a vagarious century and presented a fair and balanced analysis by any standards.

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It is tempting to delve into some of the dozens of missions discussed in Rise and Kill First, the stunning successes, the indomitable courage, the mind-boggling oversights, and the fatigued callousness. Indeed, the book reads like a thriller and is hard to put down despite its heft. What is important, however, is the framework of Israeli security thinking – its assumptions, its resources, and its goals – that Bergman creates for the reader. Naturally, this framework evolves from the pre-state days to through that of the fledgling Jewish republic to the contemporary system challenged as much by religious terror as Arab nationalism.

Although Bergman's story starts in the first decade of the 20th century, he spends a scant few pages on Zionist activities during the Mandate period. That period is better covered in Bruce Hoffman's Anonymous Soldiers: The Struggle for Israel but Bergman distills a picture of monstrous Arab hatred for the Jews. Operation Atlas, for example, was a joint Nazi-Arab mission to parachute near Tel Aviv and poison the city's water supply to kill all the Jews. Later, during the War of Independence, the Secretary General of the Arab League, Abdul Rahman Azzam Pasha, declared before invading Israel, "this will be a war of great destruction and slaughter that will be remembered like the massacres carried out by the Mongols and the Crusaders”. Bergman only briefly alludes to this extreme malevolence with which Arabs held Jews but this dimension is elaborated upon in Klaus Gensicke's Der Mufti von Jerusalem und die Nationalsozialisten and David Motadel's Islam and Nazi Germany's War.

From the outset, it was clear that Jews could expect no quarter from the Arabs. This informed Israeli policy towards its neighbours in the early decades after independence: it did not see itself as committed to the borders laid out in United Nations Resolution 181 in November 1947 because it was evident that the Arabs did not accept the partition plan either. Israel's security agencies were pushed to the limit in performing traditional roles of intelligence gathering on its Arab neighbours and preventing marauding attacks by wandering fedayeen. David Ben Gurion was also pressed by recalcitrant Jews belonging to the Irgun and Lehi unsure of living in a socialistic Israel. One of the ironclad principles Israeli agencies have followed until this day, without exception, was forged in this climate – we don't kill Jews, Isser Harel, the first director of Shin Bet (Sherut ha-Bitahon haKlali – General Security Service) and later of Mossad (HaMossad leModi'in uleTafkidim Meyuhadim – Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations), declared with finality.

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The Mossad, established in 1949, set for itself the role of protecting Jews not just in Israel but all over the world. This may seem like a trivial detail or hubristic overreach to most but as the only Jewish state in the world, so soon after the Shoah, the First Generation decided to taken upon themselves the defence of Jewish civilisation. With dozens of Christian and Muslim states whose narratives and interactions form the mainstream, the notion of a civilisational state may seem quaint to many but it held vital importance to the early Israelis.

The early targets of Israel's "negative treatment", as the professional lingo goes, were former Nazi scientists continuing their wartime research on advanced weapons for new, Arab masters. Nazis in hiding were also a matter of importance but it was clearly understood that these were symbolic and emotional targets rather than threats to Israel's security. As a result, the hunt for Nazis petered out and the Mossad, ever pragmatic, was willing to recruit one former Nazi – Otto Skorzeny – to acquire a vital and recurring source of inside information about Egypt's missile programme; in exchange, Israel promised not to come after him for his crimes during the Second World War and even attempted –unsuccessfully – to get him off Simon Wiesenthal's list of most wanted Nazi war criminals.

Like any good thing, Israel was established on the highest moral principles and its security agencies were no different. Revenge is not a Jewish trait and is explicitly forbidden in Vayikra 19:18. Indeed, as Bergman notes about Natan Rotberg, an innovative bomb-maker in the Shayetet 13 (naval commando force), he did not act with hatred in his heart. "You need to know how to forgive," Rotberg had told the author in an interview in 2015. This principle finds its way also into the legal opinion of the military advocate general written many years later that sets the parameters of an assassination operation as one in which harm is imminent and is not for revenge or punishment for a past act. The IDF's Human Resources Directorate has even consulted with philosophers in academia to define the scope of some of their policies. Admittedly, like all things human and corruptible, these noble principles and well-intentioned guidelines have not strictly been followed over the years, especially in the heat of battle.

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One of Israel's early methods of assassination, parcel bombs, such as the ones used to eliminate the head of Egyptian intelligence, Col Mustafa Hafez, and Salah Mustafa, the Egyptian military attaché in Jordan, stirred up some debate. Although this method presented the least danger for operatives, particularly in hostile territories, it also left to chance the success of the mission – parcels could be intercepted; someone else could open it; the target might only be injured or maimed and killed. Agents refrained from sending parcel bombs to their targets except in the most necessary of conditions; despite the risks and uncertainty involved, the method had quite a high success rate particularly in Gaza. Nevertheless, Mossad and its sister organisations moved away from using parcel bombs as soon as technology allowed them something more accurate and certain.

Bergman's work also reveals how little counter-terrorism cooperation Israel has received from Europe and the United States. Although Washington entered into an information sharing agreement with Jerusalem after the Suez Crisis in 1956 and began selling military equipment and extending aid after the Six-Day War in 1967, Israeli intelligence always found their Western counterparts unresponsive to security alerts and generally dismissive of Jewish concerns. For its part, Israel, too, hesitated to operate in friendly countries without the permission of the local authorities: Jerusalem had decided that it might need European help in other arenas and it was not worth antagonising them.

That all changed after the massacre of the Israeli Olympians in Munich in 1972. German security was criminally negligent and incompetent from the beginning to end and the result was the death of 11 Israelis. Then prime minister Golda Meir rescinded her orders to Mossad not to operate in Europe, though they have always been cautious about doing so. Interestingly, former Mossad chief Zvi Zamir reaffirmed Rotberg's view in a February 2006 interview to the Israeli daily Haaretz that Mivtza Za'am Ha'el was not motivated by revenge but by the desire to ensure that such a tragedy never repeats itself.

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The US outdid the sluggish Europeans by maintaining close relations to the Palestinian movement through Ali Hassan Salameh, the chief of operations for Black September – the group that had carried out the Munich massacre. Langley frequently helped move Salameh around, tipped him off about Israeli surveillance, and even paid for his honeymoon (to Hawaii and Disneyland). Similar courtesies were extended to Atef Bseiso, the Palestine Liberation Organisation's (PLO) head of intelligence; both were eventually dispatched by Israel.

When Israeli intelligence did manage to carry out a successful execution, Western nations severely criticised the Jewish state if the operation was carried out on their soil, for even the slightest collateral damage, and a general appeal to abjure from violence. It was blatant hypocrisy but became more apparent when all condemnation fell silent after the attacks on the World Trade Center in September 2001. Israel, long used to being counter-terrorism's Cassandra, suddenly found itself in large crowds and asked to train foreign services in their methods.

Israeli security agencies have obviously evolved over the years to counter new threats and take into account the latest technologies. One periodisation that Rise and Kill First offers divides the history of independent Israel into four eras. The first was an era of material weakness of the Jewish state and largely inter-state conflict with its neighbours. Even the fedayeen terrorism was strongly controlled by the security services of neighbouring Arab states and dropped off as Israel hit back directly at them.

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The Six-Day War marks the beginning of the second period, when Palestinians realised that their dream of creating an Arab state in the remaining 23 per cent of Mandatory Palestine – the Hashemite Kingdom of Transjordan had been created with 77 per cent in April 1921 – could not be achieved by relying on Arab strength of arms. Despite its inferiority in numbers, the Jewish state had repeatedly prevailed over Arab armies and irregulars time and again. The second period marks the mushrooming of terrorist groups and an exponential expansion in the scope and range of their activities. Although state support had lessened, it had not vanished entirely. Furthermore, as with any organisation, there had been some institutionalisation of knowledge and a new generation of terrorists had learned from the mistakes of their predecessors. The new profile characteristically led to a greater diversity of targets that were not all strictly restricted to the boundaries of Israel. International airlines were hijacked on routes that carried a greater number of Jews and Israelis were targeted for assassination.

After the initial surprise had worn off, Israeli intelligence quickly adapted and struck harder with the help of in-house special teams such as Caesarea and the military's commando forces like the Sayeret Matkal, the Shayetet 13, and Shaldag to reach far beyond the Greater Levant and strike terrorist leaders. However, Palestinian groups had developed elaborate funding networks and become better armed over the years that Israel was forced to use increasingly greater force against terrorist targets. Collateral damage and brutality correspondingly increased on both sides and the war in Lebanon saw a particularly dark chapter in the history of Israeli targeted assassinations.

Until Lebanon, Israel's covert operations had taken exceptional care to avoid collateral damage. Missions were scrubbed repeatedly over the sudden appearance of family and were never planned in crowded public areas. This is not to say that there were no unintended casualties but great efforts were taken to keep them to a minimum. Even Meir Dagan's innovative methods with the Zikit squads of rooting out terrorists in Gaza in the early 1970s did not ratchet up a civilian body count.

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Ariel Sharon had sold Israel's political leaders a bill of goods on Lebanon and Israel's increasing frustration at the lack of (mis)anticipated success in the conflict caused the IDF to hit harder. Additionally, Israel's allies in Lebanon, the Maronite Catholic Phalange led by Pierre Gemayel, were savage barbarians who had their own scores to settle with the Palestinians and Lebanese Muslims. On several occasions, Mossad had refused to work with them and some officers had even resigned in protest but the exigencies of war had a momentum of their own. The brutality between the Christians and Muslims dragged the IDF in and after particularly brutal attack in Nahariya in 1979, IDF Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan ordered the setting up of the Front for the Liberation of Lebanon from Foreigners (FLLF).

The FLLF operated without the constraints restricting Israeli intelligence. In other words, no heed was given to collateral damage and hundreds of civilians were killed in operations that targeted PLO assets. To conceal Israel's role, the group set itself up as another of a dozen terrorist groups and even claimed credit for (but never carried out) attacks on Israeli targets and allies. By all standards of international law, Israel's FLLF indulged in terrorism. IDF General Avigdor Ben-Gal insists that a key difference between the FLLF and Arab terrorist groups, however little consolation it may be to its victims, was that the former ultimately targeted the PLO rather than sow terror with indiscriminate acts of violence. Regardless, many Israelis have come to see Lebanon as Israel's Vietnam in that the alliance with an unsavoury local outfit propagated a moral contagion among Israeli security agencies as well.

The third era came with the First Intifada in 1987. Decades of failed promises and corruption had eroded the authority of Palestinian leaders on the street. The uprising was sparked off as a spontaneous groundswell after a minor incident – an IDF truck accidentally crashed into a car killing four Palestinians – became a symbol of Israeli callousness towards Palestinian lives. The entirety of Israel's security services were unprepared and at a loss as to how to deal with the riots and every use of force was projected to the world as state brutality against unarmed civilians in a reversal of the David and Goliath story. The fact of the matter, however, is that much of the deaths during the intifada were due to intra-Palestinian settling of scores.

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Hamas' introduction of suicide bombing in 1994 again shocked Israel. The very willingness of the suicide bomber to die changed the equation and made the fear of Israeli counter-terrorism less effective in that the terrorists were already prepared to die.

Bergman's research reveals that Israeli intelligence was not outdone merely by the terrorists' tactics and technological acquisitions (mainly from Iran and Syria) in the turbulent period between the outbreak of the First Intifada and the end of the Second Intifada in 2005 but were intellectually in the wrong place to understand the evolving threat from their neighbourhood. The head of Shin Bet, Amichay Ayalon, for example, was initially quite pleased with the enervation of the PLO and the rise of Hamas in the early 1990s. In a surprising misreading from a sabra, Bergman relays that Ayalon believed that the Islamism of Hamas was preferable to the nationalism of the PLO. Similarly, the Israelis could not process Hamas co-founder Ahmed Yassin's quiet admission to Barak Ben-Zur, head of AMAN's terrorism branch, that "[t]here will never be peace. We will take what you give but we will never give up our armed struggle." It took much blood to be spilled before Israeli intelligence gained its bearings again.

Early failures against the intifada had begun a revolution inside the Israeli security establishment. The agencies were relying more and more on modern technology to identify relevant data and collate it in a manner meaningful to operatives on the ground. Israel was among the first countries to track terrorists using their mobile phones and also the first to introduce drones in targeted killings. Computers had also been brought in during the leadership of Ayalon to look for patterns and put everything together. Moshe Yaalon, when made chief of the IDF's Central Command, together with the head of Shin Bet, Yuval Diskin, created a joint war room (JWR), where information from all sources would be pooled to be analysed. The JWR quickly bore fruit and the intelligence agencies were able to interdict terror operations into Israel. Combined with a high-tech border security fence, access to Israel became much harder for would-be terrorists.

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Bergman's periodisation fits snugly with political and technological developments readers would already be aware of. The unique contribution of Rise and Kill First is the psychological and emotional cost of a grinding war of attrition and its effects on jus in bello. Israeli intelligence had strict guidelines regarding the rules of engagement but the more numerous and bloody terrorist attacks became, the more lax Israeli commandos seemed to be about the rules in return. "Shudder under the wing" was the phrase one commander used to describe how his pilots were supposed to feel about bombing a terrorist target.

Interestingly, the Israeli public at large would not have any of this callous attitude. Errors in Israeli counter-terrorism brought sharp cries from common Israelis, demanding that their government maintain a civility in its response to terrorism. The outrage over extra-judicial killings by the Shin Bet in the Parashat Kav 300 in 1984 nearly toppled a government and ended the career of Avraham Shalom, then head of Shin Bet. Yet while insisting on high moral standards from its armed forces, Israelis were equally unforgiving on their leaders for allowing terrorism to continue unabated. The terms were clear – kill those terrorists without mercy but do so in keeping with civil and moral standards; do not become them.

Perhaps the most surprising revelation in Rise and Kill First is the enormous number of mistakes Israel's intelligence services made in their operations that either failed to kill their prey, allowed him to escape, caused unmanageable collateral damage, or simply was a mess from beginning to end. This is certainly not the Mossad of legend, and Bergman's telling of the story pulls the most feared and admired intelligence service in the world back down into the realm of ordinary mortals.

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There is a scene in the 2005 movie, The Constant Gardener, in which an Amnesty International activist, Tessa Quayle, says to the resident MI-6 agent in Kenya, "I thought you spies knew everything". Tim Donohue, the agent, replies, "only god knows everything and he works for the Mossad”.

Bergman's work suggests that the Mossad, after a few spectacular successes in the early years, settled back and became an organisation of pencil-pushing bureaucrats, whose non-performance was protected by secrecy laws. For many years, most of the counter-terrorism workload had been borne by Shin Bet and AMAN (Agaf HaModi'in - Directorate of Military Intelligence) with firepower assistance from the IDF. It was during the prime ministership of Ariel Sharon that Meir Dagan was appointed the head of Mossad to reconvert the "effete" outfit back into one of spies with "daggers between their teeth".

By the very nature of the conflicts Israel has found itself in, the legends of its intelligence community are mostly from counter-terrorism operations. Bergman reminds us of the few stunning successes they have had in more conventional activities against their neighbours as well. The exploits of Wolfgang Lotz and Eliyahu Cohen are well-known as are the bombing of the nuclear reactors in Iraq (Osirak, 1981) and Syria (Al-Kibar, 2007) but less known are exploits such as the elimination of Egypt's entire military supreme command hours before the Suez Crisis began or the assassination of Muhammad Suleimani, the National Security Adviser to President Bashar Al Assad of Syria, in his house in Tartus. Such missions not only set enemy ambitions back but also paralysed them with fear that Israel was listening in at every moment and they might be the next targets.

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Of course, some of Israeli intelligence operations contributed to the Jewish state's resounding successes in its wars with its Arab neighbours. Just days before the Suez Crisis in 1956, for example, the precursor of AMAN's (Agaf HaModi'in - Directorate of Military Intelligence) Unit 8200, responsible for signals intelligence, picked up information that placed the entire Egyptian military supreme command on a plane from Damascus to Cairo. On the afternoon of 28 October, hours before land operations were to commence, the Israeli Air Force shot down one of the two Ilyushin Il-14s ferrying Egypt's military leaders and wiped out its senior command. In the capture of Gaza in the subsequent war, Israel uncovered secret files that contained a long list of Palestinian terrorists conducting hit-and-run missions into Israel; over the next year, each of them received a parcel in the mail.

Bergman's argument that Israel has for long succeeded and brilliantly at the tactical level against her enemies but has not achieved her strategic goals despite a body count that keeps steadily creeping upwards is not a new one. Daniel Byman's A High Price: The Triumphs and Failures of Israeli Counterterrorism makes a similar point. The author suggests that the only solution is peace negotiations with the Palestinians, and he offers the change in thinking of two fiercely hawkish leaders –Sharon and Dagan – as food for thought in his study. These are not the only warriors turned peacemakers – Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak, and several other Israeli prime ministers and leaders, who have had a distinguished military record have come to feel the nihilism of conflict without end.

Well-intentioned though this position may be, the operational benefits of wearing down experience through assassinations cannot be denied, and the statements of Yassin and dozens like him cannot be dismissed. How do you fight an enemy that will not stop attacking you until you or he is dead?

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Rise and Kill First does not try to judge or solve Israel's imbroglio with the Arabs. Rather, it seeks to focus on the consequences of Israel's preferred policy of targeted assassinations. Several times, the figure eliminated was replaced by someone far more capable and worse. Even if this were not the case and terror groups have dissolved owing to Israeli strikes, others have sprung up in its place. Bergman sensitively discusses the psychological toll of such never-ending operations in a book packed with detail for the trivia aficionado and historian as well as ethicist and policy wonk.

Despite being trained as a lawyer – with an M Phil in international relations and a doctorate in history from Cambridge as well – there is little legal analysis in Rise and Kill First. Rather, Bergman leaves as much of the story as possible to participants because it is also a story of a clash of personalities and philosophies –Menachem Begin's Biblical nostalgia, Efraim Halevy's concern for diplomatic fallout, Sharon's Joshua complex (the Israelite commissioned by G-d to conquer the land of Canaan in a milchemet mitzvah –obligatory war), Dagan the scalpel.

Bergman's seven years of research and over one thousand interviews conducted shines through in the magisterial Rise and Kill First. This book is an invaluable contribution to several fields of study – security studies, ethics, foreign policy, and the history of Israel. Pace the seriousness and complexity of its topic, Rise and Kill First is a captivating read with even a slight emotional roller coaster of a novel.

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Violence is a serious affair in Judaism and not something to be taken up lightly. Over their history, Jews have seldom been in a position to engage in wars and hence their thoughts on jus ad bellum and jus in bello – just war and just conduct in war – have not been highly developed. However, the Talmud lays down several conditions that make it very difficult to go to war. As Bergman quotes in his opening, the scriptures say of defensive wars to rise and kill first. And of preemptive defensive war, the Sages say (Sotah 44b) to diminish the heathen before he comes and wages war against you.

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