Book Review: R. Bergman, Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations

Book Review: R. Bergman, Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations

It is the kind of daring operations that secured the reputation of Israeli intelligence in the international public imagination as a ruthless and effective organization.

In March 2015, a year before his death, former director general of Israel’s intelligence agency Mossad, Meir Dagan, spoke at a political rally and called upon Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to reach peace with the Palestinians by realizing a two-state solution. Dagan was not alone in his advocacy, other former leaders of the Israeli Defence Forces and the intelligence and security services had taken a similar position: Israel’s future security was best served with a political move – the two-state solution – rather than relying on intelligence operations and tactical successes as a way towards political and societal security. This episode ends Ronen Bergman’s new book, a 600+ page account of targeted assassinations conducted by Israel, covering events starting from 1907, where Bergman located the initial outlines of the conviction that the protection of the people of Israel relied on force, all the way up to the modern day complex apparatus of surveillance operations and drone strikes against Hamas and Hezbollah operatives.

Bergman is an investigative journalist with Israel’s largest daily Yedioth Ahronoth and a regular contributor to The New York Times. He is the author of several non-fiction books written in Hebrew and English, and holds a PhD degree in History from Cambridge University. Bergman has written extensively about Israeli security affairs, a considerable achievement given that Israel still has censorship in place. Bergman also details how Mossad tried to thwart and discourage its (former) employees from being interviewed for the book. The author nevertheless managed to conduct over a thousand interviews with intelligence officials of all ranks, from the leadership to operatives engaged in fieldwork.

Rise and Kill First introduces the reader, sometimes with excruciating detail, to the world of secret operations carried out by the Israeli intelligence at home and abroad. It centres on Mossad (foreign intelligence gathering and secret operations), Shin Bet (domestic security operations) and AMAN (military intelligence, including signals intelligence entity Unit 8200) in their pro-active and reactive efforts to deal with operations by the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), Hamas and Hezbollah (including Iran as proxy supporter). To some in the Israeli political and military leadership, such as Ariel Sharon during the 1980s, attempts at killing PLO-leader Yasser Arafat would grow into a major obsession, even though intelligence analysts pointed out there were other more pressing priorities. Nevertheless, a series of intricate plots were designed to make Arafat’s death appear accidental. It is the kind of daring operations that secured the reputation of Israeli intelligence in the international public imagination as a ruthless and effective organization. The book mentions several of these operations: PFLP leader Wadie Haddad was killed after Israel poisoned his toothpaste (1978), or Hamas operative Yahya Ayyash, who died as a result of the Shin Bet’s having hidden a small explosive in his mobile phone (1996).

Bergman contrasts such operations with tremendous failures or mishaps: the murder of Ahmed Bouchiki, a Moroccan living in Norway, who was misidentified as Ali Hassan Salameh, the alleged mastermind of the 1973 hostage-taking and murder of Israeli athletes during the Munich Summer Olympics the year before, or the Shin Bet’s execution of two PLO members after their hijacking of a bus, which became known as the ‘Bus 300 affair’. Insightful for an understanding of contemporary violence between Israel, Hamas and Hezbollah is Bergman’s narration of the emergence of Israel’s armed drone program during summer 2001 (chapters 29-31): the inter-agency sharing and assessing of information, aided by electronic surveillance that led to a round-the-clock and near real time monitoring of the Palestinian territories.

The book offers an intriguing insight into a world that has remained in the shadows for so long. While the time frame makes the book sometimes read like an extensive summary in which attempted, failed or successful assassinations follow each other in quick succession, Bergman convincingly shows two things. First, how targeted assassinations are not only part of wider conventional military operations and campaigns, but also how in contrast with such operations targeted assassinations can appear as a relatively ‘cleaner’ option. Second, the author highlights the very close relation between Israel’s intelligence community and the formation (and protection) of the state of Israel in a context where the state’s survival is continuously seen as being profoundly threatened.

Although the book’s focus is on targeted assassinations, a broader examination of the interaction between the intelligence agencies, (international) diplomacy and general politico-strategic directions would shed more light on how the prospects of (peaceful) relations with the Palestinians are defined, prioritized and translated into practice. Bergman’s Rise and Kill First is an important contribution for all interested in Israel’s national security establishment and the wider Israeli-Palestinian conflict and teaches a valuable lesson about the need to situate intelligence agencies as part of a broader political vision rather than relying on them as a vision in and of themselves.