Israel has adopted the most sophisticated system of targeted assassinations in history and has even tried turning Palestinian prisoners into ‘Jason Bourne’ type killers, a new book with unique access to Israeli spies reveals.
‘Rise and Kill First’ by renowned journalist Ronen Bergman shows how Israel’s intelligence services began targeting the “ticking infrastructure” behind attackers in response to the wave of suicide bombings in 2001.
The Israelis’ modus operandi, Bergman says, is to target the entire ecosystem supporting the attacker, with everyone involved in helping him considered fair game.
“The person who blew himself up or planted the bomb or pulled the trigger was just the last link in a long chain,” writes Bergman. “There were recruiters, couriers, and weapons procurers, as well as people who maintained safe houses and smuggled money. They would all be targets.”
Bergman is a senior correspondent for military and intelligence affairs for Yedioth Ahronoth, the country’s largest daily newspaper, and a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine. He is widely considered by peers to have unparalleled access to Israeli intelligence.
His book, pieced together over 1,000 interviews, is being seen as a rare and candid assessment of Israeli intelligence practices and Ami Ayalon, former head of Shin Bet, Israel’s internal intelligence service, describes how killing becomes routine.
Describing “the banality of evil,” Ayalon says: “You get used to killing. Human life becomes something plain, easy to dispose of. You spend 15-20 minutes on who to kill. On how to kill him: two, three days. You’re dealing with tactics, not the implications.”
Ayalon said Israel was killing people without first considering the political context and said the Shin Bet “failed to understand when an assassination would quell the flames of conflict and when it would fan them.”
The book chronicles decades of shootings, poisonings, bombings and drone strikes against perceived enemies, ranging from British colonial officials in the 1940s to Hamas and Hezbollah militants, the PLO and Iranian nuclear scientists.
It describes the approval process, with operatives making the case for killing to Israel’s prime minister, and Bergman argues that while Israeli assassins were effective, the moral and political price of their actions would only become clear later.
“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,” he told NPR.
Bergman also reveals how Israel tried to kill PLO leader Yasser Arafat for decades, including a 1982 plan to shoot his aeroplane out of the sky, pushed by “obsessed” army chief Ariel Sharon, a celebrated commander who later became prime minister.
With the orders given, spies voiced their doubts that it was in fact Arafat on the plane, and stalled. It turned out to be Arafat’s brother, a paediatric doctor, travelling with 30 sick children. A tragedy had been narrowly averted.
In other instances, the book details how Israeli intelligence services killed a Hamas leader in the West Bank, Jamal Mansour, only two weeks after he had publicly argued for an end to violence against Israelis, one of many mis-steps documented.
The book deals with ethical and legal dilemmas of assassinations, and a religious attorney-general is seen grappling with the issue, recalling how God prevented King David from building the temple because he had too much blood on his hands.
Among the more eye-brow raising claims is that Israel sought to ‘turn’ a Palestinian prisoner into a trained assassin, in much the same way of Matt Damon’s character in the Jason Bourne film series.
“They chose a Palestinian prisoner. That psychiatrist hypnotised him for a few weeks, then he said he’s ready,” recalls Bergman.
“They got him to go over the Jordan River. He had a gun, a bomb, 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 hypnotised me. In fact, I am loyal. I want to go to Abu Omar, to Yasser Arafat, and swear my allegiance to him.’”