Journalist chronicles Israel’s targeted assassinations

“Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations” by Ronen Bergman, Random House, 753 pages, $35


Let’s begin with the title of Ronen Bergman’s latest book.

The author, who covers military and intelligence affairs for Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s largest daily paid newspaper, has reached back more than two millennia to the Babylonian Talmud, which states: “If a man comes to kill you, rise early and kill him first.”

Bergman notes in this well-sourced account of more than 80 years of targeted assassinations that the instinct to defend the Jewish people and, by extension, the Jewish State, is hardwired into the people’s and the country’s DNA.

For all of Israel’s existence, those killings have been carried out by skilled members of Mossad, whose reputation is solid as a clandestine intelligence service with the added mission of eliminating enemies of Israelis and Jews on a case-by-case basis.


The lesson of the Holocaust was that Jews must protect themselves; no other people or country can be trusted to do that.

Bergman’s account, however, is not so starry-eyed that he sees Mossad as all knowing and all powerful. He recounts failures, missteps and the kind of mistakes a sound journalist will detail with, perhaps, the grudging approval of his sources. 

Fans of Daniel Silva’s spy novels, featuring the nearly invincible, fictitious Mossad agent Gabriel Allon, will feel at home with Bergman’s accounts.

Those who have been chosen for killing by Mossad agents were leaders of terrorist organizations like Hamas, Hezbollah and the Palestine Liberation Organization and its hydra-headed parts.

How were human targets – in recent years mostly Arabs and Iranians – chosen? 

This moral question  changs over the book as Bergman tells one story after another of men assassinated because they helped to plan operations like Black September’s murder and kidnapping of 11 Israeli athletes during the Olympic Games in Munich in 1972.

A typical killing in a different context happened in 2004, when Hamas told its Iranian contacts that it was ready to receive missile parts in Gaza that could be used against Israeli targets. The key Hamas leader was Izz al-Din al-Sheikh Khalil. 

Bergman writes:

“On September 26, 2004, Khalil got into his car next to his home, in southern Damascus. Just as he sat down, his mobile phone rang. Ya, Abu Rami, hada Ramzi min Tubas (Abu Rami, this is Ramzi from Tubas) (a village in the West Bank). ‘Yes,’ said Khalil, ‘how can I help you?’ The line went dead. A second later, the car blew up and Khalil was dead.”

How do senior Israeli leaders justify what amounts to extra-judicial murder of those who have not been convicted in a court of law?

While former Mossad chief Meir Dagan followed Israeli’s official policy of not claiming responsibility for targeted killing outside its borders, he did tell Bergman that “as a concept, if the State of Israel is dealing with a challenge like Hamas, the [Palestinian Islamic Jihad] and suicide terrorism, it’s inconceivable that the Mossad wouldn’t put its shoulder to the wheel.’ ”

Remember the 2007 bombing and destruction of a Syrian nuclear installation? Mossad picked that up and turned the information over to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

President George W. Bush was told Israel planned to destroy the site. Bush saw no direct threat to the United States, so the Israelis were on their own to stop Syria from gaining nuclear weapons with the help of North Korea.

Here’s a Bergman detail that shows how things work in the Middle East: After Israeli jets bombed the installation by flying over Turkey, Olmert sent a message through Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Syrian President Bashir Assad that Israel wasn’t going to say anything about its mission.

“The world … wouldn’t have to know that Syria had just gotten years worth of expensive military research and technology blown up by the Jewish state,” Bergman writes, “… a situation that would almost necessitate some sort of face-saving retaliation. Keep the whole thing quiet was better for all involved.”

How solid is the intelligence that prompts Mossad leaders to bring their plans of targeted killings to the prime minister, under long practice the only person who can authorize a killing? 

In a more perfect world, perhaps there would be a process whereby wise men and women would examine evidence against a terrorist leader and decide his or her fate for crimes against humanity or against a nation. Instead, Israel has long established the practice of killing the people its leaders believe pose a mortal threat. Many people have come to expect this.

A bomb destroys a car in Tehran? Mossad must have done it.

A bomb kills a Lebanese leader, as one did several years ago? Many assumed it was the work of Mossad. However, the perpetrators of the murder in 2005 of former Prime Minister Rafik Harari and 21 others were found by U.N. investigators to be Syrian.

Sometimes Mossad makes costly errors.

In Lillehammer, Norway, in 1973, Mossad agents were trying to kill Ali Hassan Salameh, mastermind of the Munich massacre. Instead, they killed Ahmed Bouchiki, “a Moroccan working as a waiter and cleaning man at [a] swimming pool,” whose wife was seven months pregnant. 

Bergman repeatedly reveals the moral ambiguity and cost to humanity of Israel’s policy of assassination.

Justified and necessary? Mostly, yes.

Repulsive and distasteful? Most definitely.