by David B Green
(abridged by henrymakow.com)
April 25, 2018
Israel’s Assassination Program Laid Bare in Shocking Detail in Ronen Bergman’s new book Rise and Kill First: The History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations
From Lord Moyne to Count Bernadotte to Yassir Arafat, Israel has waged war against those who obstruct its agenda by assassination. Even today they bomb Iranian bases in Syria without provocation. Curiously, Israeli’s opponents have not retaliated in kind.
Assassination is a weapon throughout the West too:
[Assassinations] range from the pre-state era when Zionist operatives targeted British officials and Arab marauders in Palestine, and Nazi murderers in Europe, to recent hits on Hamas and Hezbollah terror masters and a series of sudden deaths of otherwise healthy Iranian nuclear engineers.
Some of these tales could easily strain credulity – not just because the stories themselves read as if drawn from spy fiction, but also because it’s hard to believe so many of them are being reported here for the first time and in a single volume. However, a perusal of Bergman’s notes informs us that most of the operations described in the book – many of them assassinations – were revealed to him in personal interviews (with more than 1,000 sources, many identified here only by code names) or by way of documents that made their way into his hands.
Writer Ronen Bergman
If all of this makes “Rise and Kill First” sound academic or technical, it is anything but. Anyone who enjoys thrillers will revel in its reading, even as he or she will be compelled to consider the troubling issues it raises.
HEROIC AND LESS HEROIC ACTIONS
If Max Weber declared that in modern society the use of violence must be the monopoly of the state, a corollary might be that in a democratic state, the use of covert force needs to be overseen by the elected leaders of that state. If “Rise and Kill First” has a message, it’s that you need to think a few times (preferably quickly) before doing that killing, and to have the approval of the people whose job it is to oversee the grand picture. (The book’s title is drawn from the Midrashic text Bamidbar Rabbah, which instructs that “If someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first.”)
Plenty of the heroes of Bergman’s book – Meir Dagan, the killing machine who “had a serious malfunction in his fear mechanism,” according to one of his soldiers, and went on to become head of the Mossad, comes to mind – were capable of acts of cold-blooded murder in the service of the state. Only the naive reader would deny that Israel owes them a great debt for the responsibility and risks they took upon themselves.
But the book is also replete with examples of people who let themselves get “carried away,” to put it mildly. Even as he is recounting tales of sophisticated derring-do that in no way pale in comparison to the actions of James Bond or the “Mission: Impossible” team, Bergman is always examining the necessity and morality of these actions, which obviously could not be debated in public before being executed.
Two weeks ago, The New York Times published an excerpt from the book, in which former Israel Air Force commander David Ivri described how, in its attempt to assassinate Yasser Arafat, Israel came very close to shooting down a plane carrying his brother, Fathi Arafat, in October 1982.
Fathi, a physician who resembled his brother but with a more substantial beard, was accompanying some 30 wounded Palestinian children from Beirut to Cairo for medical treatment. After several intelligence sources incorrectly placed Yasser Arafat on the plane, two Israeli F-15s took off and prepared to launch missiles at the plane. An uneasy Ivri, however, held off giving the order, even as he was being pressed hard by Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Rafael (“Raful”) Eitan to finish the job. Only a report from both Mossad and Military Intelligence indicating it was the wrong Arafat on the transport plane led to the cancellation of the mission, and not a moment too soon….
With exquisite intuition that always seemed to alert him to such threats, Arafat regularly escaped Israel’s clutches, sometimes only seconds before an attack. It was only in 2004 that death finally caught up with him when he died of a mysterious illness in a Paris hospital. Several autopsies in the following days and years were unable to agree on the cause of death. Bergman tells us that even if he knew what caused Arafat’s demise, “I wouldn’t be able to write it here in this book, or even be able to write that I know the answer.” Orders of the military censor.
Nonetheless, anyone reading between the lines cannot be blamed for inferring that Bergman is convinced Israel was somehow behind the “mysterious intestinal disease” that finally felled the Palestinian leader.
Review by Steve Donaghue
At one point in the long litany of horrors related in Ronen Bergman’s new book Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations, Ariel Sharon angrily confronts Shimon Peres at a closed-door session of the Knesset in 1982 about an atrocity that took place while Peres was running the country in 1976 in which Maronites rolled into the Tel al-Zaatar Palestinian refugee camp and carried out a brutal massacre of everybody they encountered.
To which Peres responded with a phlegmatic “Who knew?” And Sharon answered right back, enumerating all the ways Peres and his government couldn’t possibly not have known and saying, “You, Mr. Peres, after Tel al-Zaatar, have no monopoly on morality.”
Reading Bergman’s prodigiously researched book prompts many conclusions, but foremost of them is this: nobody anywhere in this huge, bristling story has any monopoly on morality. The title Rise and Kill First comes from a line in the Talmud: “If someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first.“
But what that reference gains in pleasing portentousness, it loses in accuracy – the key of the line isn’t the preemptive killing, it’s the word “comes.” There’s visible, imminent danger. The point of the line is that once you’ve seen that danger coming, you would be foolish to sit around waiting for it. The line doesn’t say “If you think someone is thinking about coming to kill you, rise up and kill him first.”
It’s a mile-wide moral distinction, but it’s irrelevant junk on the roadside throughout Bergman’s book, which relates in unprecedented detail the decades-long history of Israel’s Mossad and intelligence agencies at identifying suspected threats to the state, stalking them in countries all over the world, and killing them, often in public, often with innocent collateral homicides. Bergman’s reporting in these pages is nothing less than stunning; time and again while reading, you’ll be so thrilled by his crisp narrative line that you’ll only later think to marvel that he was ever able to sit and talk with some of these people in the first place, much less come back alive to tell the story.
Many of these particular stories have never been told before, and virtually none of them have been told this well, in this much detail. Bergman’s skill at sketching characters extends from all the various heads of Mossad to a batch of US Presidents and their advisors to some of the assassins themselves, speaking on the record for the first time.
Most of these people are concerned, perhaps necessarily, mainly with what Bergman refers to as the various tactical successes and strategic failures of Israel’s targeted assassinations program over the decades. The morality of targeted assassination itself is not the subject here; whether or not the practice is ethical is consistently ranked secondary to whether or not it’s effective, and Bergman tries to strike an even-handed tone:
Some, euphemistically, call it “liquidation.” The American intelligence community calls it, for legal reasons, “targeted killings.” In practice, these terms amount to the same thing: killing a specific individual in order to achieve a specific goal – saving the lives of people the target intends to kill, averting a dangerous act that he is about to perpetrate, and sometimes removing a leader in order to change the course of history.
The why of this hardly needs elaborating. You are not saving the lives of people a “target” intends to kill. No one’s life needs saving from an intention. Killing someone because you think they may do something bad in a week or a month or a year is simply the universally-acknowledged crime of murder, no more defensible when conducted by a state-sponsored wing of a government than when conducted by a paranoid drug addict who thinks his old school gym coach is secretly plotting to kill him. The drug addict may be correct, but if he kills his gym coach before his gym coach even tries to kill him, he gets arrested and thrown in jail regardless. As mentioned, we’re not talking about monopolies on morality.
Rise and Kill First mainly just gets about the task of describing the how of all this – the men and women who have been its architects, the people who have been its enablers and defenders and critics, and of course the people who have been its victims. Bergman is exceedingly skilled at all this, and his book ranks with Steve Coll’s Directorate S as one of the most impressive feats of sustained reporting to appear so far in 2018. As a work of contemporary scholarship, it’s an almost incredible achievement. As a picture of what decades of persecution will do to the moral fiber of a nation surrounded by enemies, it’s equally illuminating.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.