‘Journalist details israel’s ‘secret history’ of targeted assassinations’
According to the author of the book “Rise And Kill First,” while Israel’s shootings, poisonings, bombings and drone strikes against its perceived enemies were “tactical successes,” they were also diplomatically harmful.
Israeli investigative reporter Ronen Bergman, author of the book “Rise And Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations,” says that Israel has developed the most robust streamlined assassination machine in history. His new book, based on a thousand interviews, chronicles decades of shootings, poisonings, bombings and drone strikes. The targets were perceived enemies of the so-called Jewish state, ranging from British colonial officials in the 1940s to leaders of Hamas, Hezbollah and the PLO to Iranian nuclear scientists. Bergman describes the planning and approval process for targeted killings, which typically involved young military and intelligence operatives making the case for a strike to the prime minister.
Bergman writes that Israeli assassination teams were effective at eliminating their targets but often at a moral and political price their leaders would only come to understand years after their missions. Ronen Bergman is a senior correspondent for military and intelligence affairs for Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s largest daily newspaper, and a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine.
Host: Ronen Bergman, why do you think it’s important to write about this subject, about targeted killings?
Ronen Bergman: Because this tool has been used by Israel for a long time. The history of Israeli intelligence secretly but profoundly affected the history of the region and sometimes the history of the world. And targeted killings were the main tool that was used. That’s the first. And the second because other countries nowadays are using this kind of way, especially the United States. And I think the United States has a lot to learn from the operational and intelligence vast experience of Israel but also from the moral price that Israel has paid and still paying for use of such an aggressive measure.
Host: You describe an operation in October of 1982. Israeli military and intelligence forces were trying to assassinate Yasser Arafat by shooting an airplane out of the sky over the Mediterranean. Arafat then, of course, the head of the PLO, the Palestine Liberation Organization. Tell us what happened here.
Bergman: The hunt for the person who was codenamed The Head of the Fish, Yasser Arafat, was the most extensive and long term in the history of Israeli intelligence. It started back in 1964 and lasted for decades. Israel tried to kill him numerous times. Most of them happened just before, during and after the Israeli invasion to Lebanon in 1982. Now, there was one point when Prime Minister Menachem Begin promised President Ronald Reagan not to hurt Yasser Arafat. And that was the point when Arafat willingly was – accepted the sort of cease-fire and evacuated Beirut in August.
Just after that, the defense minister of Israel, Ariel Sharon – who was, I would say, obsessed to kill Arafat – ordered Israeli intelligence to trace him down and the air force to take out airplanes in which Arafat was. That day, in October, the Mossad identified Yasser Arafat going on a Buffalo cargo airplane from Athens to Cairo. They said the target – the Head of the Fish – has grown beard to conceal himself, but it is Yasser Arafat. The chief of staff, General – Brigadier General Eitan ordered the chief of the air force, Iviry, to take down the airplane. But he had his own doubts. He said, I don’t get it. I don’t understand why Arafat, who wasn’t supposed to be in Athens, would go to Cairo, where he doesn’t have anything to do at that time. And also, why would he go in this kind of airplane, which is not distinguished enough for a person of his prestige?
Then, under severe pressure from the Ministry of Defense and the chief of staff, the chief of the air force had to stall for time. The F-15 were already in air. They saw the Buffalo cargo plane with the alleged Yasser Arafat. But the chief of the air force demanded for more time and more corroboration and all checks by the Mossad, Israeli military intelligence. And only the very last minute, it turned out that Arafat was on board but it was not Yasser. It was his brother, the chief of the – Fathi Arafat, the physician, a children’s doctor who was the head of the Palestinian Red Crescent and was mobilizing 30 wounded children from Athens to be treated in Cairo. So on the very last minute, his life and the lives of these children were saved.
Host: What were some of the ways that they tried to assassinate Arafat over the years?
Bergman: One of the most unexpected attempts was when an IDF – an Israeli Defense Forces psychiatrist said to the committee that was supposed to approve the assassination of prime targets in Israeli intelligence said, I saw that movie, “The Manchurian Candidate.” I am able to do the same. I’m able to take a Palestinian, hypnotize him and convert him to be something like Jason-Bourne-type programmed killer.
They chose a Palestinian prisoner. That psychiatrist hypnotized him for a few weeks. Then he said he’s ready. They got him to go over the Jordan River, swim over. He had a gun. He had a bomb. He had a radio. And he says, I’m going to kill Yasser Arafat. Only a few hours later, it turned out that he went straight to the local Jordanian police and said, these stupid Israelis, they thought that they hypnotized me. And, in fact, I am loyal. I want to go to Abu Omar, to Yasser Arafat, and swear my allegiance to him.
Host: Were there also plans to actually shoot down civilian airliners that might be carrying Yasser Arafat?
Bergman: Yeah. When it turned out that Yasser Arafat is using private cargo and commercial airlines in the time after he evacuated Beirut, Defense Minister Ariel Sharon ordered to take out whatever airline in which Arafat is located. Now, of course, this could be a severe war crime. And it did not happen thanks to a few senior officers at the higher echelon of the Israeli air force who said, we are not going to do that. They went to the chief of staff and said, this is a war crime. We are not against killing Arafat. Arafat was seen as a legitimate target at that time as the prime Israeli enemy. But killing civilians? And if you, the chief of staff, cannot stand in front of the minister of defense, we would just make sure that the operation wouldn’t go through.
And they jammed the communication. They fed the intelligence circuits with disinformation. They make sure to stall time until it was just unripe from the intelligence and operational point of view to execute.
Host: You know, you opened the book describing a meeting with Meir Dagan, head of the Mossad, who makes an argument for the morality of targeted assassinations. You want to just summarize that for us?
Bergman: His doctrine said that Israel should not go to all-out war and should do that only – quoting him – “when the sword is on our neck” because it cannot sustain war. Meir Dagan believed that wars – almost all of them, if not all of them – can be won with pinpoint focused operations way beyond enemy lines – sabotage, malware, computer viruses and targeted killing. The military leaders and the main operatives of the enemy should be traced down, identified and then killed. And in that way, you would save, of course, the agony and the huge killing of an all-out war. Therefore, the use of targeted killing, according to him, is much more moral than regular war and battle techniques.
Host: You describe these targeted killings as they develop over decades. And one of the questions that occurred to me was, how much of the motive for these killings – as targets are selected – is actually making an operational attack on terrorists who would seek to kill Israelis as opposed to retribution, sending a message to anyone that if you kill Israelis, you will pay no matter where you run or how far you go?
Bergman: On the face of it, if you go to most of the interviewees, they would say no revenge, no message, just operational considerations. We see someone who is threatening us, we kill him. When you have a deeper conversation and they trust you more, they will be more candid. They will say, yes, we thought that some people should be killed as a revenge. Yes, the people who were involved in what was seen in Israel as iconic terrorist operations, we think that these specific people should know that even if they leave terrorists aside, we will hunt them down because they have Jewish blood on their hands.
And we will hunt them down until the end of times and also to send a message to say to people if you were involved in terrorism, we will never forgive or forget. And we will get to you – maybe not now, maybe in a year, maybe in 20 years.
Host: While there are advantages that might be gained from a targeted assassination – operationally and in sending a message – there is also, of course, the damage that occurs when innocent civilians or family members are killed in the operations, which can generate popular opposition and, in fact, create future terrorists. And I’m wondering how that enters the calculus in these cases.
Bergman: The general assumption in Israel was always to try and diminish the collateral damage as much possible. In fact, Golda Meir, who was the prime minister during the early ’70s, called the chief of special operations of Mossad to our house once in north Tel Aviv. She offered him a cup of tea. And she said, listen, you are going to kill that PLO operative in Paris. I’m ordering you to make sure that not even a hair splint from anyone else would fall due to the need to kill that someone. And if you think that you’re going to harm any French civilian then abort. Do not do that. That hand on the trigger when it came to operatives in Arab countries was lighter, unfortunately.
And when it was assassination or targeted-killing operation in Beirut or Damascus, more civilians were killed. But the problem was – especially during the huge campaign of suicide bombers that attacked Israel in what was termed as the Second Intifada starting from September 2000. The operatives – not the suicide bomber, the operatives – above them in the hierarchy of Hamas and the Palestinian-Islamic Jihad – the drivers, the manufacturers of the bomb, the commanders, the military leaders, those who recruit them – they were all convinced that they would be protected from Israeli attacks if they moved with their family, their wives and kids.
And that, of course, presented a problem with Israel. You have that window of opportunity to kill that person whom you know is going to kill more Israelis tomorrow if you don’t hit him today. And there were times that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, with other ministers, decided that they are going to risk civilian lives – usually members of the families of the target, that Hamas commander – in order to kill him. And there were times when these people were indeed killed. This is a diabolic dilemma. How do you make a call? How do you choose that one blood is more red than the other? What’s the equation there?
Host: There’s the moral question of the shedding of innocent blood. There’s also the strategic question of, are you doing more damage than good if what you do creates such bitterness and hatred and more people determined to strike back?
Bergman: I agree. And I think that much of what Israel has done in the occupied territories in Gaza in the last 50 years just created more bitterness and the feeling of vengeance and the eagerness to kill Israelis. The problem was that – especially during these times when suicide bombers were exploding every day in the streets of Israel to the peak of March, 2002, when more than 150 Israelis were killed in one month, something has to be done. Israel had to make a call, and they made a call that had a significant moral and legal price attached to it.
Host: You make an interesting observation here that most of the people involved in planning and carrying out these missions were relatively young, under 30, including people that were making presentations to the prime minister, who would have to sign off on each targeted assassination. I’m wondering how you think the relative youth of these participants affected, you know, the consideration of these issues.
Bergman: This is something very unique to Israel. You have the chief of that intelligence organization who needs to go to the only one who is authorized to give an OK to assassination, which is the prime minister. Now, this is done in very small group, of course highly secret. But he doesn’t know the details, so he’s bringing with him very young people. Almost all of them are under 30. Some of them are under 25. They are the intelligence officers, the pilots, the desk people and the operatives. And they go to the prime minister to convince him to execute someone without a trial because that someone, if he’s not killed, is going to kill more Jews tomorrow.
This is a unique scenario and usually happened in the private house of the prime minister in Balfour Street in Jerusalem because it was so secret. Now, during time – during history, some of the people actually crossed that room and became the prime minister or the minister of defense. Ehud Barak…
Host: You mean, like…
Bergman: …Benjamin Netanyahu…
Host: …Later in their careers, you mean, yeah.
Bergman: Yes, yeah.
Host: Do you think they were more inclined to endorse the use of force because they had engaged in it themselves?
Bergman: And they saw it works. But they got the wrong conclusion. Summarizing the story of the book is that the Israeli intelligence community was able to provide Israeli leaders sooner or later with almost all solutions to all problems they thought exist.
But that led Israeli leaders to the wrong conclusion. They felt that at the tip of their fingers, they can hit someone way beyond enemy lines, deep in the enemy state and solve the problem, and therefore, they do not need to turn to statesmanship or political reconciliation. And therefore I think the story of the use of these special means is a series of extraordinary tactical successes but, at the same time, a disastrous political failure.
Host: I want to talk about a few of the operations that you described in the book because they’re really fascinating stories. In 1974 after Yasser Arafat spoke at the U.N., he was removed from the top of the list for targeted assassination and replaced by a guy named Wadie Haddad. He was in the Arab world, and there were concerns about trying to shoot him or kill him with the bomb in an Arab city. How did they accomplish this mission?
Bergman: One of the most important difficulties that Mossad faces is how to act inside hostile country because it’s very hard to maintain a cover story there, shoot someone and then have enough time to run away when of course the local authorities closed down all the seaports and the airports. Wadie Haddad lived in Lebanon or in Baghdad, both enemy countries to Israel – very hard to deal.
And what Mossad was able to do instead of just shooting him was to get very close to him and replace one of the things that he uses frequently with the same substance but mixed with poison. They call the poison the potion of gods. That was the nickname. And they poured that into his toothpaste which he used quite frequently. Then he got the ill. Nobody knew what happens to him. And the physicians in Baghdad couldn’t do anything.
Yasir Arafat ask Erich Honecker, the leader of East Germany, to hospitalize him. He was flown to East Berlin, hospitalized in a Berlin military hospital – the best one they could get for him. And the best physician tried to treat him for 10 days. They did everything they could. And also, they agonize his body and his soul with the worst performances and worst tests. But it was all in vain. And with great misery, he died. They performed an autopsy, and they describe that he dies from something that looks like a blood cancer. But they really couldn’t understand what is – what actually happened to him.
Host: Well, this wasn’t the only case where people died apparently of natural causes. There was another assassination in a hotel in Dubai where the victim was found in his room, but in fact he’d been injected with a paralyzing substance from the Israeli agents. Did people figure out that it was really the Israelis who were behind these?
DAVIES: Not at first. You know, he died – this guy, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, he died twice. The Mossad first tried to kill him few months before in a visit to Dubai. They had a poison mixed to his drink. But you know, poisoning apparently is not an exact science. He got ill. He went back to Damascus, hospitalized himself in a local hospital. They diagnosed him with mono, and he recovered. And he didn’t even know that he was that close to being killed.
Mossad, frustrated for not killing him, made sure that next time they just stand by him until he’s dead. They stripped him. They put him in a pajama in his hotel room, and they put him in bed. The cleaner lady who found him in the morning didn’t think that something is odd of course that he died apparently of natural causes.
But Hamas, his bosses, thought that something is wrong. That led to an inquiry by the police of Dubai, which revealed many, many, many of the details. The assassins thought everything went well. They just didn’t know that shortly afterwards, the whole world is going to watch the CCTV video that document what they had done.
Host: How did drones change the targeted killing program?
Bergman: Israel was the first to use that in battle, use that in intelligence collection. And in fact, the way that they first have the drone participate in a targeted killing operation in February of 1992 when Israel assassinated the leader of Hezbollah, Sheikh al-Musawi, the video of that killing was presented to the Pentagon and convinced the chief of the CIA, as he told me, Robert Gates, to have more effort into developing the American version of that drone later to be called the Predator.
The Israelis thought that they would use drones as the secret weapon of the next war. They thought that they would use the drones to hit tanks in what they thought would be the future battlefield between Israel and Syria. But when Hamas launched the suicide killing campaign – the suicide bombing campaign, Ariel Sharon called the Air Force and said, listen; we have decided to start the targeted killing operations. We cannot use snipers because this is hostile ground. We need to take the drones and have them, put them, deploy them against human targets.
The Air Force objected. They said, but this is the secret that we are preparing for the next war. Ariel Sharon said, Jews are being killed now. We are going to use them now and in future war. We’ll take care of this when that happens. And so from that point, somewhere in 2001, most, I would say, of the targeted killing operations – sometimes up to four a day – were with the drones at their peak, at the forefront of them.