JERUSALEM - Since World War II, Israel and its pre-state paramilitary organisations have assassinated more people than any other country in the Western world, writes Ronen Bergman in his book, *Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations*. The Jewish nation has carried out some 2,300 “targeted killing operations,” mostly against Palestinians since it was established. Bergman, a senior defence correspondent for *Yedioth Ahronoth*, Israel’s largest daily newspaper, painstakingly rebuilds this bloody history across 753 pages.
It’s not an easy task to write about the untold history of Israel’s secret assassinations, particularly given that the military establishment is extremely wary when it comes to sensitive security issues. But Bergman has interviewed hundreds of sources for the book, building a comprehensive historical narrative on how Israel uses killing as a tactic against its rivals.
Before the establishment of Israel in 1948, Jewish paramilitary groups had used terror as a tactic against the British who were administering the historic Palestine. They carried out a campaign of bombings and killings. Several of these paramilitary leaders, including Yitzhak Shamir and Menachem Begin, later became establishment figures. They brought in their guerrilla and terror tactics into the security establishment. And from the early days, assassination became an accepted tool, writes Bergman.
Now, the Directorate of Military Intelligence, the Mossad spy agency and the Shin Bet internal security service, make up “the most robust streamlined assassination machine in history.” They have carried out a series of daunting missions, like the assassination of those who killed Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics and the 1976 commando raid at the Entebbe airfield in Uganda. But in the long run, Bergman questions both the strategic benefits and the ethical side of this policy. He lists out some examples such as the assassination of Abu Jihad, one of the close lieutenants of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
The killing was a tactical victory for Israel over the Palestine Liberation Organisation, but it had strengthened the local PLO factions in the occupied territories in the midst of the first intifada. Likewise, the assassination of Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in 2004 made the Islamist organisation more vulnerable to Iranian influence.
Bergman also says a policy which was conceived as a military tactic for survival later became “the core principle of Israel’s security doctrine.” The killing of innocent civilians was called “accidental damage,” while the targeted murders became known as “targeted preventive acts.”
“You get used to killing. Human life becomes something plain, easy to dispose of,” Ami Ayalon, who headed Shin Bet in the 1990s, tells Bergman. “I call it the banality of evil.” His words capture the mood of the book as well.