Brainwashing and Cross-dressing: Israel's Assassination Program Laid Bare in Shocking Detail

Ronen Bergman’s riveting history of Israel’s use of targeted killings reveals for the first time many operations carried out in the name of national security. Some may inspire the reader while others will sicken

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People gathering around the wrecked car of the head of Hamas' military wing, Ahmed Jabari. Jabari was killed after his vehicle was hit by an Israeli missile in Gaza City on November 14, 2012.
People gathering around the wrecked car of the head of Hamas' military wing, Ahmed Jabari. Jabari was killed after his vehicle was hit by an Israeli missile in Gaza City on November 14, 2012.Credit: AP
David Green
David B. Green
David Green
David B. Green

“Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations” by Ronen Bergman (translated from Hebrew by Ronnie Hope), Random House, 784 pp, $35

Back in 2010, the authors of a best-selling book on the history of the Mossad, were caught having lifted entire paragraphs nearly verbatim from another work on the subject, by Israeli reporter Ronen Bergman. In a piece in Haaretz about the plagiarism, Ofer Matan quoted an unnamed source at Yedioth Ahronoth Books, publisher of the derivative book, who rejected criticism of its authors, Michael Bar-Zohar and Nissim Mishal, for having neglected to include footnotes or a bibliography. In what sounded like a schoolchild’s complaint about a punctilious classmate’s irritating tendency to hand in superior work, the Yedioth staffer noted that “only in [Ronen] Bergman’s books is there an insistence on a complete bibliographical list.”

I refer to this embarrassing episode only by way of introducing Bergman’s new book, “Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations” – a blockbuster in every sense of the word, whose 630-page body is supplemented by 70 pages of notes and another 10 tightly spaced pages crediting oral and written sources. (There’s also a very helpful index.)

Call him “insistent” (or maybe obsessive), but Bergman’s documentation is neither pretentious nor overblown. Rather, it provides essential sourcing for hundreds of episodes from the history of Israel’s intelligence and security services. They 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. Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

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 (Ronnie Hope’s translation from the Hebrew goes down easy), 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.

An undated photograph of Israeli commandos Meir Dagan, left, Yehuda Danguri and Avigdor Ben-Gal. Dagan "had a serious malfunction in his fear mechanism," the book says.Credit: Nir Kafri

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.

Then-PLO leader Yasser Arafat sitting with a group of refugees in a camp outside Beirut, Lebanon, August 1977.Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

Eitan, it turns out, and his superior, Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, were obsessed with killing the PLO leader (they set up a special team for the purpose, headed by intel veterans Dagan and Rafi Eitan, and code-named “Dag Maluah” (“Pickled Herring”). Bergman quotes Aviem Sella, who at the time was the air force’s chief of operations (and who a few years later was Jonathan Pollard’s handler at Israel’s Washington embassy), describing a private mission to get Arafat that was initiated by the chief of staff in Lebanon in August 1982. “You’ll fly the plane” – a Phantom fighter jet – “and I’ll navigate and operate the combat systems,” Sella quoted Rafael Eitan as telling him. “We’re going to bomb Beirut.”

PLO leader Yasser Arafat's brother, Fathi, at the funeral of their sister Inam in 1999.Credit: AP

The two did carry out two bombing runs that day, but Arafat was not present in the target building when they hit it. Sella goes on to tell Bergman how the chief of staff, interviewed that night from outside Beirut by a TV reporter, “declared that Israel was refraining from bombing buildings in civilian surroundings – which was exactly what he had been doing himself that morning.”

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.

The cover of "Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel's Targeted Assassinations," by Ronen Bergman. Credit: Random House

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.

Here is just a small sample of some of the other operations described for the first time in Bergman’s book:

Israel’s October 1956 downing of an Egyptian plane carrying that country’s general staff – though not its chief of staff, who turned out to be on a second aircraft – home from a meeting in Damascus, just days before the start of the Sinai Campaign. Not surprisingly, Israel defeated the demoralized Egyptians in the ensuing war – but it also went on to lose the peace that followed.

In 1965, King Hassan II of Morocco permitted Israel to eavesdrop on Arab leaders who convened for a summit meeting in Casablanca. Later that year, however, Morocco demanded that it return the favor by tracking down and killing opposition leader Mehdi Ben Barka. It wasn’t Israelis who actually asphyxiated Barka in a bathtub in Paris, but they assisted the Moroccan agents who did so every step of the way, and later dispensed with his body, which, say some of those involved, was interred in the soil beneath what is today the headquarters of the city’s Louis Vuitton Foundation.

Then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, right, shaking hands with Ehud Barak as Sharon leaves office in Tel Aviv, February 1983.Credit: Getty Images

In 1968, a naval psychologist named Binyamin Shalit (if the name sounds familiar, it’s because that same year he was the plaintiff in a seminal “Who is a Jew?” Supreme Court case) concocted a plan to take a Palestinian prisoner and “brainwash and hypnotize him into becoming a programmed killer.” He would then be sent into Jordan as a sleeper agent and, when the opportunity arose, would assassinate – that’s right, Yasser Arafat.

Shalit was given his prisoner, named Fatkhi, and worked on him over a period of three months. One of Bergman’s informants recalled how the night Fatkhi crossed the river into Jordan, he said goodbye to his trainers and “made a pistol out of his fingers and pretended to shoot an imaginary target between the eyes. I noticed Shalit was pleased with his patient.” A few hours later, Military Intelligence received a report that a young Palestinian had turned himself and his gun in to the Jordanian police, to whom he immediately poured out the story of how Israel had tried to brainwash him.

The late Gen. Avigdor Ben-Gal told Bergman at length how as GOC Northern Command in 1981, following the horrific 1979 terror attack in the northern city of Nahariya, he received an order from chief of staff Eitan to “‘Kill them all,’ meaning all members of the PLO and anyone connected to the organization in Lebanon.” Ben-Gal in turn appointed special-ops expert Dagan to head up a new unit in southern Lebanon, telling him, “From now on, you are emperor here. Do whatever you want to.”

Bergman then describes a long series of targeted killings that Ben-Gal and Dagan kept secret from all their superiors but Eitan, and also hid from Military Intelligence head Yehoshua Saguy. They also recruited members of Lebanese militias and, according to Ben-Gal, “played them against one another.”

Looking for trouble

In the years that followed, faced with constant threats emerging from the section of southern Lebanon dubbed “Fatahland” because of the free rein enjoyed there by Arafat & Co., many Israeli officials were convinced of the need to enter the area and clean out the Palestinian network entrenched there. All that was needed was a pretext.

Bergman’s informants described some of the ways Israel stirred up trouble in southern Lebanon, apparently with the hope of eliciting a response that would justify an Israeli invasion.

Then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, left, talking with Israeli troops during the Israeli occupation in East Beirut, Lebanon, July 1982.Credit: AP

When Israel finally launched that invasion of Lebanon in June 1982, its justification was the attempted assassination of Israel’s ambassador to London. Except that Israel knew well that the assailant who shot and severely wounded Shlomo Argov was operating on orders from Abu Nidal, head of the splinter organization Fatah: Revolutionary Council, who was only slightly less an enemy of the PLO than he was of Israel.

“Rise and Kill First” is not an overtly political book but, over and over, Bergman’s informants – people who pulled the triggers, released the bombs, set the booby traps, and devised complex plots to deceive and bring down enemies who were themselves determined to destroy Israel and kill Jews – enter their twilight years by telling the journalist how violence begat violence. And success begat arrogance.

Early on in the book, Ehud Barak – the former prime minister, chief of staff and commando extraordinaire, and a man who’s never come across as especially contemplative – looks back on the long-term consequences of the breathtaking 1973 “Spring of Youth” operation in Beirut (that’s the one in which Barak and Amiram Levin both dressed up as women). Bergman provides a nearly minute-by-minute recounting of the operation, which involved the first instance of coordinated action by more than 3,000 personnel, drawn from the Mossad and the IDF’s Sayeret Matkal commando unit, the navy’s Flotilla 13, paratroopers and AMAN (Military Intelligence), as well as double agents serving as informants within Lebanon.

Even as we marvel at the precision and imagination that went into the operation, we are shocked to read how one Mossad operative panicked in Beirut and, without informing anyone, drove off with two wounded colleagues from the point where he was meant to meet his comrades and where medical attention would have been available. Some of the soldiers were furious, and once they were reunited on their dinghies for the return to Israel, a fistfight broke out between them and the Mossad man.

Forty years after the mission, which took out 50 PLO officials and yielded a trove of useful written material from the organization, Barak suggested that the operation “created a self-confidence that lacked foundation. It is impossible to project from a surgical, pinpoint commando raid onto the abilities of the entire army, as if the IDF can do anything, that we are omnipotent.”

Ehud Barak, right, and Amnon Lipkin-Shahak when they were commandos in the Israel Defense Forces in the mid-1970s.Credit: GPO

Bergman himself goes further at the end of the book when he argues that the Mossad, AMAN and the Shin Bet security service “provided Israel’s leaders sooner or later with operational responses to every focused problem they were asked to solve. But the intelligence community’s very success fostered the illusion among most of the nation’s leaders that covert operations could be a strategic and not just a tactical tool – that they could be used in place of real diplomacy to end the geographic, ethnic, religious, and national disputes in which Israel is mired.”

You don’t need to be Carl von Clausewitz to recognize that there is no replacement for strategic vision and political compromise. When Israel’s security forces have been at their most useful – and there are many breathtaking examples of such actions in Bergman’s book – it is when they produced results that gave Israel a temporary tactical advantage. It was then up to the political leaders to wisely exploit and build on those advantages to forge permanent political gains.

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