Death be not proud: a tale of Mossad murders

The book “Mossad: The Greatest Missions of the Israeli Secret Service” by Michael Bar-Zohar

By Repps Hudson, Special to the Jewish Light

In the first chapter of this factual thriller, Meir Dagan, whom the authors call “King of Shadows” and who’s now a former head of Israel’s secret service, outlines the guiding principles of Mossad:

“…It was not the Wild West, where everybody was trigger happy. We never harmed women and children… We attacked people who were violent murderers. We hit them and deterred others. To protect civilians, the state needs sometimes to do things that are contrary to democratic behavior. It is true that in units like ours the outer limits can become blurred. That’s why you must be sure that your people are of the best quality. The dirtiest actions should be carried out by the most honest men.”

Dagan’s statement raises great issues of morality and international law, but more on that later.

This book, much of which is based on press accounts and interviews, tracks Mossad kidnappings and killings as they unfolded. It covers the gamut, from the snatching of Adolf Eichmann in 1960 in Argentina, 15 years after the master of the Nazi extermination machine had disappeared in Europe, to its current operation against Iranian physicists and officials as they try to develop a Persian nuclear weapon.

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As one who remembers from high school the extraordinary feat of seizing Eichmann from a foreign country, I read with fascination the authors’ account of the meticulous planning that went into that successful operation, which culminated with Eichmann standing trial, being executed and his ashes being strewn into the Mediterranean.

The authors also cover the extensive campaign of assassinations and cyber warfare Israel has conducted against Iran as it has moved steadily to develop a nuclear weapon. This campaign was led by Dagan, who in last March told CBS’s “60 Minutes” that he opposed a pre-emptive Israeli strike against Iran. He argued for more time, that Iranian leaders were acting rationally from their point of view, even if their thinking was not on the same wavelength as the Israelis’.

One of Mossad’s least successful operations, at least from the point of view of stealth and deniability, was its murder in Dubai in 2010 of Mahmoud Abdel Rauf Al-Mabhouh, a Hamas leader in Gaza who had been behind the killing of Israeli soldiers and running weapons into Hamas-ruled Gaza.

This is surely the most exposed of all Mossad operations which, like all of them, the Israeli government never acknowledges. Surely Israeli leaders believe that it’s more effective to further the mystique of a secret service that eventually will hunt down whoever harms Israelis and the Jewish people.

Not only do the authors report the Dubai operation as it unfolded, minute-by-minute, but so did much of the world a few days after it transpired. Just about every move of the Mossad teams, as they set up and tracked and then killed Al-Mabhouh in his hotel room, was recorded on surveillance cameras for the entire world to see. 

The authors note that “reports in the world press created the impression that the Dubai operation was successful” but was flawed by Mossad’s underestimation of how the operation would be revealed. In the end, despite threats by the Dubai police chief that all the perpetrators would be apprehended, none was.

Still, as Bar-Zohar and Mishal write: “…Dubai became a symbol of the new challenges facing any secret service in changing world. The cloak-and-dagger era is definitely over. Security cameras, photographs and thumbprints at immigration, rapid checks of passports, DNA…all those require much more sophisticated means and methods from the spooks of this world when they set off on their dark, sinister missions.”

Of course, the authors say, Mossad agents also have done operations in which the object was not to kill Arab assassins but, for instance, to rescue young Jewish girls in Syria and spirit them to Israel, where they would be able to live openly Jewish lives. And there was Operation Moses in the 1970s and 1980s, in which thousands of Ethiopian Jews were rescued by Mossad. But there was a downside, too: Many died of starvation and illness along the way.

Still, this more charitable side of Mossad is hard to contest, despite its apparent snubbing of national sovereignty and tenets of international law. When Jews are being held against their will, often under extreme or inhumane conditions, heroic rescue makes sense under the right circumstances.

However, when Israeli agents believe the only way they can achieve justice for murders of their fellow countrymen and Jews generally is to take the law into their own hands, the international system of justice is far from satisfactory.

That Mossad leaders can assign death squads to kill their country’s enemies, without the evidence-vetting process of a trial or even judicial review, remains a very troubling fact. Mossad’s existence and mission may remain for many decades, perhaps as long as Israel exists, but its perceived necessity shows how far the standards of international law are from ideal.