Rise and Kill First

Reviewed by: David Kibble

Are there circumstances in which it might be right to carry out the targeted assassination of a terrorist? What if the target had been involved in the killing of over four hundred people and the injuring of over two and a half thousand? And what if he lived abroad? Was a soldier right to refuse an order to forward information to his commanders because he knew that the information he would give would result in the deliberate killing of an innocent civilian and no-one else? These are questions posed by the real-life scenarios that are outlined in Bergman’s encyclopaedic study of targeted assassinations carried out by Israel’s defence forces and its two security bodies, Mossad and Shin Bet. The book’s 750 pages include nearly a hundred pages of notes and a list of around 400 interviewees; the names of a further 350 were withheld. Its writing took over seven and a half years of research. The study, then, is detailed and thorough.
Salah Shehade, known to Shin Bet under the code name of Flag Bearer, was the mastermind behind many of the terror attacks carried out against Israel by Hamas around the turn of the century. His Shin Bet file indicated that he was directly involved in attacks that took place between July 2001 and July 2002 which resulted in the deaths of 474 people and the wounding of 2,649 more. He was an obvious target for assassination. Three missions were aborted because military lawyers had laid down that killings should not involve the deaths of a large number of civilians and should never involve the deaths of children. Finally, on 22nd July an F-16 flew from Hatzor airbase to Gaza where the Hamas operative lived. The result was catastrophic: as a result of faulty intelligence not only was Shehade killed but so were his assistant, his wife, his daughter and ten civilians, including seven children. One hundred and fifty people were injured. A rebellion arose amongst reservist pilots, with groups of them writing to the media announcing their refusal to take part in aggressive actions against Palestinians.
The killing of Shehade illustrates the moral dilemmas that faced, and still face, Israeli intelligence and defence communities. How does one weigh up whether to assassinate a member of a terrorist organisation and how much collateral damage is permissible? Do they have the right to carry out targeted assassinations at all? Certainly, over the years Israel has increasingly done as much as it can to avoid the killing of the innocent but error is always possible.
Bergman’s study catalogues targeted killings from the birth of the state of Israel to 2012. His comprehensive research and interviews mean that the story of each killing is told in some detail, often with reports of conversations in which the possibility of mistakes or things going wrong are discussed. It is clear that the morality of what they were doing was never far from the minds of those planning the attacks. Those who carried them out, however, often thought differently; when the pilot of the plane waiting to take off on the mission to kill Shehade was asked whether he wanted to know who he was killing he replied, ‘Get off my plane. We don’t want to know. It means nothing.’ They felt their role was simply to follow orders: it was the planners who bore the responsibility.
The book is a record of historical events. There is no attempt to discuss the ethics of what was being done although detail is provided of decisions made by defence force lawyers. In the last few pages, however, space is given to recording the thoughts of Meir Dagan, appointed Director General of Mossad in 2002. Following his retirement Dagan had come to the view that Israel could carry out targeted killings for ever and a day but until the Prime Minister set about solving the Israel / Palestine issue killings and deaths on both sides would simply continue. He accused Netanyahu of a lack of real vision and leadership. The author, finally, three pages from the end, comes to the same conclusion: ‘Because of the phenomenal successes of Israel’s covert operations, at this stage in its history the majority of its leaders have elevated and sanctified the tactical method of combating terror and existential threats at the expense of the true vision, statesmanship, and genuine desire to reach a political solution that is necessary for peace to be attained.’