‘Rise and Kill First’ Shines Light on Israel’s Hidden Assassinations

A reader might begin a 750-page history of killing committed by Israel’s intelligence services with some trepidation; the tightrope is high, and it’s shaky. Much of the truth is classified — and much of it is in dispute. The moral quandaries are, to put it mildly, enormous.

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, New York Times

A reader might begin a 750-page history of killing committed by Israel’s intelligence services with some trepidation; the tightrope is high, and it’s shaky. Much of the truth is classified — and much of it is in dispute. The moral quandaries are, to put it mildly, enormous.

Ronen Bergman knows this. And from the looks of “Rise and Kill First,” he knows more than he’s supposed to. In 2011, the Israel Defense Force’s chief of staff accused him of “aggravated espionage”; a historian for the Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence agency, told Bergman he would refuse to talk to him even if everybody else did: “I despise whoever it was who gave you my phone number, just as I despise you.”

Still, Bergman, a journalist based in Israel, managed to conduct a thousand interviews along the chain of command, from political leaders to intelligence operatives. For a subject as contentious and bloody as this one, he leads with some numbers and a brute fact: “Since World War II, Israel has assassinated more people than any other country in the Western world.”

What follows is an exceptional work, a humane book about an incendiary subject. Blending history and investigative reporting, Bergman never loses sight of the ethical questions that arise when a state, founded as a refuge for a stateless people who were targets of a genocide, decides it needs to kill in order to survive.

Of course, such decisions are kept secret. Israel neither confirms nor denies the existence of the targeted assassination program that Bergman so assiduously documents. The book’s title comes from the Talmud: “If someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first.” This is assassination defined as self-defense. But as Bergman shows, motives aren’t always so righteous and clear-cut; revenge, wrath and other impulses have ways of sneaking in. Before the establishment of Israel in 1948, Zionist underground movements employed what they called “personal terror” — a campaign of bombings and killings — against the British, who controlled Palestine and restricted immigration by Jews trying to flee Europe.

“We were too busy and hungry to think about the British and their families,” one assassin told Bergman, recounting how he shot a British officer on a Jerusalem street in 1944. “I didn’t feel anything, not even a little twinge of guilt. We believed the more coffins that reached London, the closer the day of freedom would be.”

Many men who fought in the Zionist underground later became establishment figures in Israel, including Yitzhak Shamir and Menachem Begin; they imported guerrilla methods into the security apparatus they helped create. Assassinations offered a tactical method for a tiny country with rudimentary defenses. The Holocaust, Bergman writes, reinforced the sense that the country and its people would be “perpetually in danger of annihilation.”

Meir Dagan, the spymaster who led the Mossad from 2002 to 2011, kept a photograph in his office of a bearded man in a prayer shawl, kneeling in front of German troops. Whenever Mossad operatives were about to carry out a particularly sensitive mission, he would invite them to his office and explain that the man pictured was his grandfather, shortly before the Nazis murdered him. “Most of the Jews in the Holocaust died without fighting,” Dagan told Bergman. “We must never reach that situation again, kneeling, without the ability to fight for our lives.”

A number of Bergman’s sources express a version of this sentiment. So pronounced is this line of thinking that others have gone so far as to propose that cowardice kept the Jews from revolting — a statement Primo Levi found “absurd and insulting.” Still, Levi recognized that this premise provided a sense of agency and a way out of despair. What it also did, and what Bergman is especially attuned to, is mark the country’s political life from the beginning in terms of existential threats. The hostile regimes surrounding Israel have continually stoked such fears; just hours after Israel declared independence in 1948, seven armies from neighboring countries attacked, and opportunistic despots have encouraged terrorism against Israel and its citizens ever since. Extreme measures seem less extreme when it’s a matter of survival.

Despite this historical context, “Rise and Kill First,” parts of which appeared in The New York Times Magazine, is far from an apologia. If anything, Bergman suggests that Israel’s honed aptitude for clandestine assassinations led the country to rely on them to a fault, approaching some complex strategic and political concerns as problems that an extrajudicial killing could fix. Bergman argues that the assassination of certain militants — chief among them Khalil al-Wazir, known as Abu Jihad, in 1988 — emboldened ever more radical upstarts and pushed a sustainable resolution with the Palestinians even further out of reach. “As Israel would learn repeatedly,” Bergman writes, “it is very hard to predict how history will proceed after someone is shot in the head.”

It’s also hard to predict how an operation will unfold. Bergman recounts a number of missions gone very wrong, including one with a booby-trapped dog that ran away (only to be discovered later by Hezbollah), and a harebrained “Manchurian Candidate” scheme to hypnotize a Palestinian prisoner into becoming an assassin for the Mossad. (After he was armed with a pistol and sent on his mission, the man promptly turned himself in to the Palestinian police and said the Israelis tried to brainwash him.)

Another wild card is a belligerent Ariel Sharon, who keeps turning up in this book — first as an army commander, then as minister of defense and eventually as prime minister. Bergman describes Sharon as a “pyromaniac,” and his obsession with killing Yasser Arafat, the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, as verging on monomaniacal. In his hunt for Arafat, Sharon almost had the Mossad shoot down a plane of 30 wounded Palestinian children by mistake; he even countenanced the downing of a commercial airliner if Arafat were on it. As Bergman bluntly states, this would have amounted to “an intentional war crime.”

But Sharon was just one man, and today there is a bigger institutional problem that Bergman traces, having to do with Israel’s security apparatus getting more technologically savvy and ruthlessly efficient. Instead of taking months or years to plan a single killing, the Mossad and its domestic counterpart, Shin Bet, are now capable of planning four or five “interceptions” a day. “You get used to killing. Human life becomes something plain, easy to dispose of. You spend a quarter of an hour, 20 minutes, on who to kill.” This quote is from Ami Ayalon, who as the head of Shin Bet in the late ‘90s helped shepherd the organization into the digital age. He also told Bergman: “I call it the banality of evil.”

The irony of Ayalon’s inflammatory language — an echo of Hannah Arendt’s line about Nazi functionaries — is as pointed as it is jarring. This book is full of shocking moments, surprising disturbances in a narrative full of fateful twists and unintended consequences. As one naval commander says, “Listen, history plays strange games.”

— Publication notes:

“Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations”

By Ronen Bergman. Translated by Ronnie Hope.

Illustrated. 753 pages. Random House. $35.

Copyright 2023 New York Times News Service. All rights reserved.