Under the cover of night
Wadie Haddad was a vicious terrorist chief whose Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine routinely targeted Israel and international targets in the 1970s. Israel decided to “eliminate” him in 1978. A deep cover agent switched his toothpaste for one holding a “lethal toxin,” according to an account in a new book on Israel’s targeted assassinations.
“Each time Haddad brushed his teeth, a minute quantity of the deadly toxin penetrated the mucous membranes in his mouth,” writes Ronen Bergman, Yediot Aharonot’s senior military correspondent. Over time he got more and more sick. He was flown from Iraq to East Berlin for treatment, but it was too late. He died in screams of agony.
Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations is an epic, bloody and at times humorous and terrifying account. Bergman is not the first to tackle the colorful world of shadows and secrets in Israel’s history. Others have explored the secret history of the Mossad and some of them have touched on such assassinations. But Bergman’s new book goes much further.
Targeted assassinations began even before the state was born. During the leadup to the Declaration of Independence, Jews decided that eliminating Arabs and others who posed a threat to the Zionist movement was a necessary mission. In one case, Palestinian Arabs who were acquiring arms to fight the nascent state of Israel were tracked down in Haifa.
“We searched for them and killed them,” recalled Avraham Dar, a member of a clandestine prestate commando unit.
Bergman’s book is much more than just a history of one killing after another. It’s really a history of Israel, its armed forces and its morality. It looks at the culture that produced the various agencies that got their hands dirty in targeted killings. For instance, the Mossad was given access to Israel’s population database to look for candidates.
“Selection experts scoured for certain types of people,” Bergman wrote, including those “who could pose as gentiles in Western countries.”
Israel’s use of targeted killing was not the monopoly of any one service. Throughout the intelligence services, including the Mossad, Shin Bet and the military’s AMAN unit and other units, the killing of enemies became part of the mission. Some operations blurred the lines between military raids and more traditional espionage methods.
In one case, in 1968, a Swedish-born navy psychologist in Israel came up with an idea to brainwash Palestinians to get them to kill Yasser Arafat, whose terrorists had just begun targeting Israel. One man named Fathki was brought in and “trained” for three months using hypnosis.
The trainers were pleased with his progress and the hapless Arab man was chucked into the Jordan River to go find Arafat. He wandered into a Palestinian Fatah base in Jordan and turned himself in. “He told the policeman the Israeli intelligence had tried to brainwash him into killing Arafat and handed over his pistol.” Israel stopped using “brainwashing” after that.
Several themes come across in the book. One is the role of European states in turning a blind eye to the terrorist infrastructure in their midst. Had European states between the 1960s and 1980s cracked down on Palestinian and other extreme-left anti-Israel terrorist organizations, there would have been no need for Israel to embark on targeted killings. Instead, the terrorists not only had support from the Soviet block and Arab states, but they often traveled freely in Europe. When they were captured, they were often just released.
The book also focuses on internal debates within the senior leadership about the nature of targeted killings. In 1976, when several German and Palestinian terrorists were picked up in Kenya and secretly flown to Tel Aviv, then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and senior officials debated what to do. Rehavam Ze’evi, the counter-terrorism and intelligence adviser, advocated throwing them out of the plane over the Red Sea. Aharon Barak, later chief justice of the Supreme Court, was brought in and called the plan insane. “I cannot by any means approve of this.” Why? Two of the terrorists were German.
The book describes, in great detail, targeted assassinations up to the present, including the killing of Hamas leaders during the Second Intifada and the hunt for and killing of Hezbollah’s Imad Mughniyeh. Throughout it all, one figure shines through. Meir Dagan – who died in 2016 – was a key figure in the fight against terrorism in Gaza and South Lebanon and later served as the director of the Mossad.
By the time the reader is finished with all the accounts in Bergman’s book, they will feel the need to get up and step away. He has packed so many stories of so many killings into this book that it’s a bit difficult to take in at one sitting.