In the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, Portion 72, Verse 1, it says that if someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first. And this has always been the guiding philosophy of Israel’s armed forces and its intelligence community, particularly the Mossad, which has resorted to targeted assassinations to thwart what they perceive to be threats to the state of Israel.
Ronen Bergman is one of Israel’s leading investigative journalists and, in Rise and Kill First — sub-titled “The Secret History of Israel’s targeted assassinations”, he traces Jewish-Israeli use of selective killings from pre-statehood to the present. In British Mandated Palestine, for instance, Jewish underground organisations, notably that known as the Stern Gang, often assassinated British personnel. And, in post-Second World War Europe, “The Avengers”, a group of Jewish assassins targeted former Nazis in Europe and killed them, often by strangulation.
In the 1950s, Israel’s Mossad dispatched envelopes containing explosives to kill German scientists building rockets for Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt. Later, in September 1972, after the Palestinian terrorist group Black September took 11 Israeli Olympic team members hostage and killed them in Munich, the Mossad — then led by Zvi Zamir — embarked on a campaign of assassinations of those linked to the killing of the athletes.
The number of assassinations, particularly of Palestinian activists, grew dramatically as a result of the second Palestinian intifada of 2000, when Israel responded to the Hamas campaign of suicide-bombing attacks on Israeli cities by targeting, mainly from the air, its activists, of whom the most notable were Hamas’s leader Ahmed Yassin, killed in March 2004, and his successor Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi, assassinated a month later.
In recent years, Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip have been the main targets of Israeli assassination operations. Others, notably members of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Syrian officials and Iranian nuclear scientists, were also targeted across Europe and the Middle East. Since the Second World War, Israel has probably assassinated more people than any other country in the Western world.
All of the above operations, and many more, are covered in Bergman’s page-turning account of Israel’s successes — and failures. Bergman also considers the moral and ethical dilemmas faced by those carrying out the missions.
Executing those individuals identified as direct threats to Israel’s national security, as Bergman puts it, sends a clear message that, “if you are an enemy of Israel, we will find you”.
The Israeli intelligence community guards its secrets jealously and therefore Bergman should be commended for producing such a thorough study, based on thousands of never-before-published documents. His book also includes hundreds of interviews with participants, from Israeli prime ministers (the only people authorised to green-light assassinations) to high-level figures in the IDF, Mossad — and Caesarea, a unit within Mossad that has carried out many of the assassinations.
Well-written and informative, Rise and Kill First is the best book so far written on this dramatic subject.
Ahron Bregman is the author of ‘The Spy Who Fell to Earth: My Relationship with the Secret Agent Who Rocked the Middle East’