Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations by Ronen Bergman, Random House (2018)
Israeli television recently aired a video of two Israeli soldiers filming themselves in the act of shooting a Palestinian protester at the Gaza boundary while cheering. Filming one’s own crimes against humanity – shooting Palestinians for sport – suggests a sense of security in never being held accountable.
Even more evidence of this impunity is apparent in Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations by veteran Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman, staff writer for The New York Times Magazine.
Prosecutors at the International Criminal Court might want to consider this book Exhibit A if Israeli government and military officials are ever indicted for war crimes. It contains open admissions of guilt in plotting and executing extralegal assassinations in violation of international law.
“Since World War II, Israel has assassinated more people than any other country in the Western world,” Bergman writes. In many cases, these so-called targeted killings over the last two decades also involved the deaths of nearly a thousand bystanders, according to Bergman’s calculations – those numbers, however, fail to include the tens of thousands killed in overt acts of war and collective punishment that mostly go unmentioned in this book.
That Israeli officials were willing to be quoted and identify others by name implies a certainty of never being held accountable in a court of law. Consider, for example, the instruction given by former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to Avi Dichter, at that time Shin Bet’s director, in reference to Hamas. Sharon, in an open admission of intent to commit genocide, stated: “Go for it. Kill them all.”
It was not just assassinations. Bergman writes, “‘state security’ was used to justify a large number of actions and operations that, in the visible world, would have been subject to criminal prosecution and long prison terms: constant surveillance of citizens because of their ethnic or political affiliations; interrogation methods that included prolonged detention without judicial sanction, and torture; perjury in the courts and concealment of the truth from counsel and judges.”
Rise and Kill First details the lengthy history of Israeli political assassination, dating back to British Mandate Palestine. It includes the period of the so-called Border Wars (a term used by historian Benny Morris in his book Israel’s Border Wars, 1949-1956), the formation of the Palestine Liberation Organization in the 1960s, the Israeli invasion and occupation of Lebanon in the 1970s, the first and second intifadas in the occupied territories beginning in the 1980s and the ongoing military campaigns against Hizballah, Syria and Iran (the so-called Radical Front) that continue today.
As the decades went on, assassinations became increasingly frequent, in part due to improved surveillance through drones and computer technology, enabling intelligence agencies to carry out hundreds of operations per year as opposed to only a few previously.
The book’s title derives from the Talmudic command that a person has the right to “rise and kill first” as a preemptive measure.
This concept formed both the moral and legal basis for the policy, which many human rights groups consider invalid under international law because execution without trial makes a mockery of due process and erases the distinction between combatants and civilians. Many of the victims were political and even religious figures who were most likely not involved in planning attacks against Israel, Bergman asserts.
The Haganah – the paramilitary precursor to the Israeli army – defined assassinations as “personal terror operations,” targeting leaders of the Palestinian national movement. After 1948 all of Israel’s intelligence agencies, including the military intelligence department Aman, the Mossad and Shin Bet, became involved in extralegal killings.
The assassination policy allowed for the murders of Palestinians and other Arabs simply because they were part of the resistance against Israeli settler colonialism.
The people killed to avenge the holding of hostages and deaths of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympic Games in Munich, for example, indicate that Israeli intelligence simply picked out leaders or representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organization, not those directly involved in the Black September group that planned the abduction. Palestinian Wael Zuaiter, who was translating One Thousand and One Nights from Arabic to Italian while living in Rome and serving as a local PLO representative, was one of the murder victims, as was a misidentified Moroccan waiter living in Lillehammer, Norway.
That a racist code existed is undeniable, particularly given the distinction Israeli intelligence officials often made between “collateral damage” involving Arabs and non-Arabs: If Arab bystanders or family members might be killed, the operation was still likely to be given the go-ahead; if non-Arab bystanders might die, it was to be avoided. As Bergman notes, “as long as the targets were located in enemy countries, and as long as the innocent civilians were Arabs, the finger on the trigger became quicker.”
Israeli government and intelligence officials even planned the downing of commercial airliners in the hope of assassinating leading PLO officials. Although the plan was never implemented, Israeli officials developed an elaborate scheme to shoot down such aircraft in radar-free zones over the Mediterranean Sea so that discovery of the wreckage would be more difficult and the crime conceivably concealed.
News accounts seized on a separate incident detailed by Bergman in which the planned downing of an aircraft believed to be carrying PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat was narrowly averted in 1982. The plane was carrying wounded Palestinian children, and Arafat was not aboard.
Missing the point
Many of Bergman’s revelations are so shocking that one wonders why an apparently loyal Israeli journalist would expose them. But he is hardly the first reporter to venture into the realm of exposing the secrets of intelligence agencies, even if they tarnish the state’s carefully cultivated image.
The rationale is usually that the documented crimes represent “mistakes” that the exposé hopefully corrects without fundamentally challenging the nature of the state that carries them out. This journalistic genre largely misses the point. Intelligence agencies are not gatherers of information to protect state security, but are rather covert actors engaged in implementing the state’s hegemonic ambitions by any means necessary.
Intelligence agencies protect their secrets. It’s the rare journalist who can ferret them out by diligent investigation.
Most often, intelligence or government officials themselves leak secrets because of policy disagreements, splits within ruling factions or political ambitions. Bergman acknowledges this fact and makes it obvious that his principal source was the late Meir Dagan, an army general who became head of the Mossad under Israeli prime ministers Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert and Benjamin Netanyahu.
Unfortunately, Bergman is little more than a transcriber, bringing minimal analysis or historical background. For example, Dagan’s covert program to assassinate Iranian nuclear scientists is cited as a better method than overt military action to halt Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program. The diplomatic negotiations that resulted in an international agreement and a rigorous inspections regime for Iran’s nuclear program are simply ignored.
The book has numerous other failings as well, including giving short shrift to the efforts of Israeli human rights organizations to halt extrajudicial killings and framing the Israeli narrative in a way that omits the numerous acts of collective punishment carried out against the Palestinian people since 1948. The words “collective punishment” appear only once in its 784 pages in reference to a home demolition.
Omitted are references to Deir Yassin and the dozens of other massacres that occurred during the Nakba of 1948-49, the massacre at Khan Younis in 1956, the numerous military provocations Israel carried out in Syria’s Golan Heights prior to the 1967 war and Israel’s flagrant violations of the ceasefires with Hamas in Gaza in 2008, 2012 and 2014 that resulted in the deaths of thousands, including children.
Rendition and torture
To his credit, however, Bergman does delineate the similarities between the Israeli and US intelligence agencies, including recruiting journalists as spies, setting up false-front organizations to interfere in other countries, working with ex-Nazis and helping identify left-wing political activists under authoritarian regimes for the purpose of having them tortured or murdered.
Aman’s Unit 504, which engaged in kidnappings, anticipated the CIA’s rendition and torture program following the 11 September 2001 attacks. And Bergman makes it clear that both former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley under President George W. Bush approved and supported the Israeli assassination policy.
Ultimately, the belief in the effectiveness of extrajudicial executions rests on the idea that individuals, not social forces, make history: Eliminate a single person and history is changed. Following the killing of a Hizballah leader, Bergman reports that some in Israeli intelligence came to recognize that “Hizballah wasn’t one-man’s guerrilla force – it was a movement … a legitimate grassroots social movement.”
Bergman makes the dramatic claim that Israel’s intelligence agencies, having come to realize the futility of an assassination policy against Palestinian resistance, embrace the two-state solution, leaving them at odds (though “quietly”) with the current Netanyahu government. Dagan, in particular, appeared to have been motivated to leak some of Israel’s most damaging secrets due to a rift with Netanyahu over his opposition to a Palestinian state.
The likelihood of an eventual binational state if the two-state solution failed was an outcome that Dagan feared more than anything. In one of his last remarks at an Israeli political rally, Dagan explained his worries: “I do not want a binational state. I do not want an apartheid state. I do not want to rule over three million Arabs. I do not want us to be hostages of fear, despair and deadlock.”
After reading Rise and Kill First, one wonders: Had Dagan lived, would he have ordered the assassinations of those advocating a binational democratic state?
Rod Such is a former editor for World Book and Encarta encyclopedias. He lives in Portland, Oregon, and is active with the Occupation-Free Portland campaign.