Targeted killings exposed

Ronen Bergman’s book on the secret history of Israel’s assassinations is disturbing yet riveting.

Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations (photo credit: Courtesy)
Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations
(photo credit: Courtesy)
An iconic quote attributed to Golda Meir and cited frequently by journalists, historians and experts on the Middle East is: “Peace will come when the Arabs will love their children more than they hate us.”
It sounds like the sort of thing Golda would say, but researchers combing through years of media files have been unable to find the source of the statement. If it was indeed made, it seems that the event at which Golda allegedly uttered these immortal words went unreported.
A similar quotation appears in “A Land of our Own – an Oral Autobiography” published in 1973 and edited by Marie Syrkin. “When peace comes we will perhaps in time be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our sons, but it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their sons.”
These two quotations came to mind with the reading of Ronen Bergman’s riveting yet disturbing book “Rise and Kill First,” which reveals the secret history of Israel’s targeted assassinations. More than that, it introduces the reader to key figures in Israel’s intelligence and security operations as well as to former Nazis and to members of the Fatah leadership and of pre-Fatah Arab resistance forces, as well as to people in the more recent Palestinian leadership.
Bergman, a second-generation Holocaust survivor, is remarkably neutral in this magnum opus, which took him more than seven years to write. He simply tells the story with neither positive nor negative bias, though it is obvious that he understands the feelings of those disenfranchised Arabs who lost their land and were expelled to Gaza.
The book was published in the 70th anniversary year of the State of Israel, but it tells of targeted killings that took place some years prior to the establishment of the State, primarily by members of Lehi and the Irgun, but also by the Hagana. Other than the successive heads of the Mossad and the Shin Bet, the name that comes up most frequently in the book is that of the avuncular 91-year-old Rafi Eitan, who was the handler for Jonathan Pollard, and before that was one of the main operators in the capture of Adolph Eichmann. Bergman details some of the other major operations in which Eitan had a hand, and also mentions that Eitan carried out his first targeted assassination when he was only 17.
Prior to the establishment of the state, targeted assassinations were also carried out against Jews who were considered to be traitors, but these stopped once the Jewish state became a reality. It was a pre-state policy that Jews didn’t kill Jews unless they were considered to be traitors, but British Mandate officials, former Nazis, Arabs who had killed Jews, and anyone considered to be an obstacle to Jewish national ambitions was fair game both before and after the establishment of the state.
It was a kill or be killed policy of vengeance that was supported by a series of Israeli prime ministers with the notable exception of Moshe Sharett who shunned violence and advocated a diplomatic approach, an attitude that caused him to clash sharply with David Ben-Gurion and with legendary Mossad director, the obsessive Isser Harel.
Considering Israel’s strict and somewhat strange censorship laws in a digital era in which a diligent researcher can find almost anything on the Internet, it is nonetheless amazing to see how much in-depth material, a great deal of which was obviously classified, Bergman was able to amass. In addition to 836 pages of mind-boggling tales of successes failures and intrigues, the book contains more than seventy condensed type pages of notes about sources, plus a long list of names of interviewees, and a note informing readers that there were 350 additional interviewees whose names cannot be mentioned.
How Bergman managed to get much of the material in the book past the censor is a miracle in itself.
Israel’s Military Censor prohibited the outright publication of 271 articles in 2017, more than five a week, and partially or fully redacted a total of 2,358 news items submitted to it for prior review.
The figures, provided in response to a freedom of information request filed by +972 Magazine and the Movement for Freedom of Information, indicate an increase in the percentage of articles in which the censor intervened in relation to the previous year.
Considering how many so-called state secrets surfaced on social media in 2017, it hardly comes as a surprise to learn that this was the year in which the least number of articles had been submitted to the censor by the Israeli media in a period of seven years.
Israelis and Jews, in general, who have been brought up to believe that Israel has the most moral army in the world, and who want to believe this despite reports from army veterans who are part of Breaking the Silence, will be shocked by much of the information in Bergman’s book, which indicates that Israel’s top-ranking politicians had no qualms about ordering targeted killings or in being killers themselves.
Among the more bloodthirsty was Arik Sharon, who after he became defense minister put Yasser Arafat’s name back on the list of people targeted for extinction.
Another person who had no problem killing people before and after he became the head of the Mossad was retired Maj. Gen. Meir Dagan. In his case, vengeance was understandable. His father had been given some film taken by Nazis in the ghetto, and when he developed it one of the frames showed Dagan’s maternal bearded grandfather with his prayer shawl draped over his body as he knelt before the Nazis with his arms raised. Dagan kept that photograph at eye level both physically and in his mind’s eye wherever he went. He was determined that Jews would not kneel before their enemies again and that they would kill rather than be killed.
Extremely well written with the dramatic thrall characteristic of the most exciting blood and guts fiction, “Rise and Kill First” is the kind of shocker that will cause a traumatic reaction in many Jewish readers, who will not be able to grasp the cruelty and lack of sensitivity among some of their co-religionists. Incidents recorded in the book run counter to so much that Jews believe about themselves as a people.
It is a book that will open a Pandora's box of doubt, and will undoubtedly remove the glory from some of Israel’s national heroes.
There will be readers who will put the book down in disgust, unable to complete it because they simply cannot stomach the revelations, and they don’t want to believe them to be true. Some will regard Bergman with the kind of loathing reserved for whistle-blowers.
Others, who have always contended that Jews are no better or no worse than people of any other faith, national or ethnic background, will feel vindicated and will see the book as yet another proof of the validity of their argument.
Producers and directors of action films or television series will view the book as a godsend. Bergman has collected so many stories that easily lend themselves to fiction, which in terms of finding plots, any filmmaker would be delighted to deal with any chapter picked at random.
Although there is a slight degree of continuity in the book, essentially each chapter stands on its own merits and can be treated as a separate short story. The continuity is discernible for history buffs, who will be able to trace certain aspects of Israel’s history through the tales that Bergman has told, which makes the book a doubly important contribution to the Israel library shelf.
To anyone who may wonder about the title, it derives from the Talmud in which it is written: “If someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first.”
This may be the sole justification for targeted killings, in that it is known that a very high percentage of those killed would undoubtedly have killed many Israelis, if they had the opportunity – and in fact many already had Israeli blood on their hands.
The book was originally written in Hebrew. It was translated by Ronnie Hope who is a journalist in his own right, and who did a fantastic job.