‘Rise and Kill First,’ Israel’s Secret Assassination Program
Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations By Ronen Bergman. Translated by Ronnie Hope (Random House Trade Paperbacks, 784 pp. $15.89)
How can a Jewish state, founded on the embers of the Holocaust, defend itself against subversive and military enemies? Is murder legally and morally justified? Will the elimination of an individual or group make the world safer? How can a suicide bomber be thwarted? What should Israel do when an individual in another nation comes to power promising to annihilate Jews and eradicate the state? These questions are all part of the equation of targeted killings, a tool used by Israel to eliminate terrorists.
Ronen Bergman raises these questions and others in Rise and Kill First, now in paperback. Taking his title from the Talmud—“If someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first”—Bergman, a columnist for the Israeli newspaper Yediot Achronot and The New York Times, conducted hundreds of interviews in 20 countries with current and former leaders of the Israeli military and intelligence agencies, including the Mossad and its domestic counterpart, Shin Bet. He has written a riveting, no-holds-barred account of Israel’s clandestine assassination program. Its directive, writes Bergman, is “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.”
Told in fascinating and compelling detail, the story is both uplifting and depressing. (It is being made into a television series by Israeli studio Keshet International and HBO.)
This history of Israel’s targeted assassinations, which many in Israel define as self-defense, traces the origins of these executions to 1907, early in the Zionist movement, and takes us all the way to the present. By 2017, Israel had assassinated more than 2,300 people in the name of “killing first.” Some were payback.
A number of the best-known attacks were long-sought retribution for heinous crimes against the country and its citizens. It took almost seven years to kill all the participants in the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich.
But some assassinations were embarrassing public failures, leading to opprobrium in the international community. And Israel’s concentration of resources on assassinations, Bergman asserts, led the country, under the leadership of Prime Minister Golda Meir, to miss signs that Egypt and Syria were planning a war in October 1973.
Bergman describes when, on the morning of July 21, 1962, President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt unveiled long-range missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads and of reaching anywhere in Israel. A team of German scientists, formerly high-ranking figures in Nazi Germany’s missile program, played an integral role in developing these missiles. The head of Mossad’s assassination unit, Yitzhak Shamir, who later became prime minister, set out to kill the Germans, but his efforts failed to stop the project. The Mossad then recruited a former Nazi general and his wife to derail the program. Eventually, the Mossad was able to destroy the missile project from the inside.
Other covert operations included the assassination in 1988 of Abu Jihad, a top Palestinian leader, at his home in Tunis, and the use of a remote cellphone miniature bomb, in the Gaza Strip, to kill Yahya Ayyash in his hideout in 1996. Ayyash had been responsible for masterminding numerous Hamas suicide bombing attacks against Israelis.
There are many more triumphs and tragedies in this account of Israel’s targeted assassination program. There is no doubt that many of the actions proved their worth. The safety of Israelis and the future of the state are paramount. But there is also carnage of the innocents. Bergman offers no equivalency or clear-cut answers to the moral questions. Even if the objective is to keep opponents silent or off-guard, the assassinations exact a heavy toll.
Stewart Kampel was a longtime editor at The New York Times.