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Stunning Investigation Exposes Israel’s Secretive Assassination Program

Israel’s targeted killing programs have been responsible for more assassinations than any other Western country.

Israeli intelligence officials desperately tried to prevent Ronen Bergman from writing Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations, a stunning book exposing the details of Israel’s extrajudicial killing program. Israel even changed and extended secrecy laws to prevent Bergman from gaining access to historical documents. Despite this, Bergman gained unprecedented access while writing the book, scouring thousands of documents and meeting with some 1,000 sources. The result is a stunning investigation that dives deep into the targeted killing programs of Israel, which has assassinated more people than any other country in the Western world since World War II. We speak with Ronen Bergman about Israel’s many attempts to kill the former chair of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Yasser Arafat, and the possibility that they succeeded.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We’re continuing our discussion with Israeli investigative journalist Ronen Bergman, author of a stunning book on the long, secretive history of Israel’s extrajudicial killing program, Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations. It’s a book that Israeli intelligence officials desperately tried to prevent Bergman from writing. They even changed and extended secrecy laws to prevent him from gaining access to historical documents. Despite their efforts, Bergman gained unprecedented access while writing the book, meeting with a thousand sources, from Israel political leaders and Mossad heads to the assassins themselves. He also obtained thousands of classified documents illuminating the shadowy corners of Israeli spy agencies.

AMY GOODMAN: The result is an exhaustive, illuminating investigation that dives deep into the targeted killing programs of Israel, which has assassinated more people than any other country in the Western world since World War II. It looks at the way Israel’s assassination program has influenced America’s post-9/11 foreign policy under Bush as well as President Obama.

Ronen Bergman writes on the book’s prologue, “Nowadays, when the same kind of extrajudicial killing that Israel has used for decades is being used daily by America against its enemies, it is appropriate … to study the high moral price that has been paid, for the use of such power.”

Ronen Bergman, we thank you for staying with us. Again, we’re getting a number of hits on this Tel Aviv satellite, so we’re going to try to stick with you as long as we can hear you. But in the note on your sources at the beginning of your book, you talk about how difficult it was to get access. You say a petition to the Supreme Court for an order forcing compliance with the law, that was to get you information, was dragged out over years with the complicity of the court, ended with nothing but an amendment to the law itself. The secrecy provisions were extended from 50 to 70 years — longer than the history of the state. Many in Shin Bet and Mossad were warned not to speak to you. How did you get access to this information, and what did you find?

RONEN BERGMAN: Thank you. When we exited that court, that petition to Supreme Court that day, one of the chiefs of Israeli intelligence — this was already some years ago — he said, “Ronen, don’t worry, you will never get hold of these documents, because when the state is 70, we will prolong it to 100 years.” And just last week, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli prime minister — now the state is 70 years old — prolonged it to 90 years. So they are trying to keep these documents away from the public.

Fortunately for me and, hopefully, the readers of the book, many veterans of Israeli intelligence kept or forgot in their possessions many documents and shared them with me. Why did they speak? I think they spoke — everyone has her or his own reason, but I think that if there’s a common ground for why did they speak, most of them on the record — prime minister, minister of defense, chiefs of staff, chiefs of the Mossad, to the actual operatives — I think they spoke because they wanted to tell a story. They wanted to tell people of Israel, the people of the world, how and why did they take part in these daring, brave and controversial operations. They wanted to make sure — after so many years in the dark, they wanted to make sure that their part in history is being told. Many of them — some of them told me, “I’m telling you stuff that I didn’t tell even my wife.”

And when they spoke, many of them repeated — and they were, of course, completely disconnected from or not synchronized with each other, but they repeated one sentence, one quote from the Babylonian Talmud, which says, “If someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first.” And I think this was said not as an alibi or justification; this was said as to explain a mindset, to explain why have they done things that are considered to be controversial, if not more than that, because these people, the people that they have killed, are considered to be threat to the sole existence of the nation, to a possible risk for a second annihilation. And they wanted these stories to be known, and the reason and the moral reasons, and also the effective — how effective targeted killings are in the course of history.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Ronen, I wanted to ask you — first of all, your book is mesmerizing. There’s so much detail, and it’s so well written, in terms of the various actions taken by the Israeli intelligence forces. But I wanted to ask you about — because you go into the early history, even before the establishment of the state of Israel, and the clandestine and guerrilla organizations that were part of the liberation movement of the Israelis back in those days. And you say, from the outset — ”Israeli intelligence from the outset occupied a shadowy realm, one adjacent to yet separate from the country’s democratic institutions. The activities of the intelligence community — most of it (Shin Bet and the Mossad) under the direct command of the prime minister — took place without any effective supervision by Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, or by any other independent external body.” What damage has been done to the democratic institutions of Israel as a result of this almost parallel situation? Instead of the civilian controlling the military, it was almost as if the military or the intelligence community controlled the government.

RONEN BERGMAN: Well, a few things. First, Israel is a liberal democracy in the Middle East. But Israel also faces severe threats and living under the trauma of the Holocaust. And I think that the new Israelis, the Jews who lived in Palestine or those who came from the Holocaust and established the state of Israel, they drew three main lessons from the Holocaust: first, that there will always someone — there will always be someone who wants to kill them, that the other non-Jews would not do anything to help, and third is that they need to have Israel a safe haven, a refuge, and guard it with whatever possible.

And when you have this at the back of your mind and every decade your prime nemesis, your chief adversary — Nasser of Egypt, Saddam Hussein of Iraq, Yasser Arafat, Ahmadinejad of Iran — when they want to eliminate you or call for your destruction and take physical actions to do this, then you are left with basically one conclusion, or the Israelis were left with one conclusion: Rise and kill first, paying very little tribute to international law, international norms, and building these two sets of law, one for regular matters and one for the intelligence community and the military.

Now, these were under strict orders of the political levels. They were not doing whatever they wanted. But the political level did not use any kinds of, you know, plausible denial. They actually ordered the use of special operations, way beyond enemy lines — planting of viruses, sabotage and, at its peak, targeted killing — in order to achieve goals.

And what are the goals? The goals are to prevent the next war, to try and enlarge the gap between one war to another, if not to prevent the next war, and try to combat the threats to the country without getting into an all-out battle. So, kill the enemy at stake instead of going to an all-out war, because Israel cannot stand these wars forever.

Now, you asked about the damage. Of course, a democracy that adopts two sets of law, one for regular, overt set of law and one secret for the intelligence community, this is a problem. This is a highly legalized and moralized problem. And it led to clashes between these two sets of law. The people of Israeli intelligence would say, “Yes, we knew that we are cleaning the sewage. And everybody in Israel also figured out what we are doing in order to clean the sewage” — ”clean the sewage” meaning dealing with our enemies — ”But there was no other way to go.”

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the attempts to assassinate Yasser Arafat and how far back they went, the former PLO chairman, the multiple times the Israeli military tried to kill him. You document different attempts in your book and have said, “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.”

RONEN BERGMAN: Yes, it dates back to 1968, shortly after Arafat was appointed not just the chief of Fatah, but the chief of the umbrella organization called the PLO, the Palestinian Liberation Organization. And the IDF, Israeli Defense Forces, were desperate. They were sending — Arafat and the PLO were sending groups of terrorists from Jordan to Israel. They couldn’t catch them. They couldn’t catch him. An attempt to invade Jordan and kill them ended up in a catastrophe.

And then, the chief psychiatrist of the Israeli Navy came with what he said is a solution. He saw that movie, American movie, The Manchurian Candidate, and said, “I can do the same. I can take a Palestinian, hypnotize him Jason Bourne-style, program him and send him to Jordan to kill Yassar Arafat.” And, believe it or not, the chiefs of Israeli intelligence, military intelligence and Mossad, took that very seriously. They gave him a Palestinian prisoner who fit the profile that the psychiatrist thought would be suitable for such a process. They gave him a training facility with live ammunition. And for months he trained that person, until one night he said, “OK, he’s OK. He’s done. He’s fully programmed.”

That Palestinian crossed the Jordan River. And after crossing, he signaled a gun, an OK to his master, this psychiatrist, and he carried the gun and a walkie-talkie, a wireless communication device. And the psychiatrist said, “He is now going to kill Arafat.” This was something like 1 a.m. At 5 a.m. in the morning, the operatives of Israeli intelligence received a report from another agent, said that someone, a Palestinian, came to a Jordanian police station and told the policeman, “The stupid Israelis thought that they hypnotized me, but I was just playing a role. I am loyal to Arafat. Please take me to Abu Ammar, to Yasser Arafat, to swear allegiance to the Palestinian Authority.”

And this is a bit — you know, sometimes Israeli James Bond looks more like Inspector Clouseau. It’s a bit of a funny story. But the other stories were less funny. Israel tried to kill Arafat numerous times. And at the peak of that —

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Ronen, did they ultimately succeed? I mean, there are, of course, many questions about Arafat’s final death, whether it was natural or not.

RONEN BERGMAN: Let me just add that they tried many times, and the peak of that was in 1982, when Ariel Sharon, Israeli minister of defense at that time, ordered to take down a commercial airline, with hundreds of passengers on board, in order to kill Yasser Arafat. But the chiefs of Israeli Air Force rebelled against him. And they wanted — they didn’t want Israel to be stained in this horrific war crimes, and they didn’t want to violate the war of — the ethics of war of the IDF. And they prevented the operations from happening.

To your question, there is an ambiguity and a few different reports about that. Let me just tell you that a few months before Arafat’s demise, mysterious demise, Israel Prime Minister Ariel Sharon met with President Bush at the White House. And the president told him, “Mr. Prime Minister, we heard that there are plans — that you have plans to kill Yasser Arafat. And we want you to promise us, to promise me, that you will not assassinate Arafat.” And Ariel Sharon said, “I see your point, Mr. President.” Now, the president, of course, understanding this is not a promise, said, “I really want you to promise me that you will not do that,” to which Sharon said, “Mr. President, you are making a very strong argument.” But the president didn’t let it go, until Prime Minister Sharon promised, in his voice, that he will not kill Arafat. A few months later, Arafat dies of a mysterious disease. And I think, in time, we will have the opportunity to tell the story behind that. In the meantime, the Palestinians are convinced, of course, that the Mossad, or Israeli intelligence, killed him.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about you, Ronen? What do you think?

RONEN BERGMAN: I think that, in time, we will be able to tell the real story behind that. But I think that if Israel done that, the reason to hide the real story was not because of the Palestinians, but because this would be a striking violation to a very clear promise by Israeli prime minister to an American president.

AMY GOODMAN: You also talk about — we only have a minute left — but how George W. Bush adopted Israeli tactics. And then you say that President Obama would launch several hundred targeted assassinations.

RONEN BERGMAN: After September 11, Prime Minister Sharon ordered all Israeli intelligence to open their door, to perform what was later called as a striptease, in front of American intelligence and show them everything they have on intelligence collection and targeted killing, because he thought this would be the right way, the right move, from the American armed forces and intelligence community, to go for the war — the global “war on terror.” Much that was done by the United States in the years after is based on Israeli experience, know-how and technology.

I am saying that the US, while adopting these tactics, also needs to see the moral lesson, the moral price that Israel has paid. You know, when you kill someone, even if that someone is Satan himself, I believe that something is dying in you. And when you have practically thousands of people, because of technology, because of guided munition, because of cybers — actually, thousands of people in Israel have participated, directly or indirectly, in targeted killing operations. This is a problem.

And the most important, I think, is that some of Israeli leaders drew the wrong conclusion from the really remarkable successes of their intelligence services. And they thought that they can use these exotic capabilities to go for pinpoint operations way beyond enemy lines to kill people in order to solve every problem, not just tactical threats to your citizens, but also political problems, also historical problems, to hold history by its tail. And therefore, I think that the story of the book, the story of Rise and Kill First, of the eight years of research and, as you said, 1,000 interviews, if there is a lesson, is that these operations have tactical meanings. They save lives. They are effective. But this is a story of a tactical success, but also a very, very dangerous, strategic, political failure, because once you think that using force can solve everything, and you don’t need to turn into statesmanship, into diplomacy, into a real discourse with your adversary.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about killing the devil himself. What about when you’re killing innocent civilians?

RONEN BERGMAN: Of course. The moral price paid — not just the moral price, the price paid for killing civilians, for collateral damage, is horrendous. But when you come to these operatives and speak with them, and they tell you, “Look, we were facing situations” — and the book consists of many of these really dramatic moments — ”when you know you have a window of opportunity to kill a Hamas jihadist organization, a jihadist terrorist organization, who have already sent suicide bombers, that already killed hundreds of Jews and Israelis, and you have a very short window of opportunity to kill him before he sends more suicide bombers, and he’s walking only among civilians, he’s walking in a populated area, he’s walking with his wife,” then the operatives — when I asked them, “Why did you permit collateral damage?” they asked me back, “So what would you do? If you do not kill him, you know that many of your own people will be killed tomorrow. What do you do?”

AMY GOODMAN: But, of course, what we see —

RONEN BERGMAN: And my answer to this, frankly —

AMY GOODMAN: What we see now, Ronen —

RONEN BERGMAN: — being very candid here —

AMY GOODMAN: And we have to go. What we see now, Ronen, is how many hundreds of Palestinians have been killed, defenseless people in protest. And in the end, the only prime minister, the Israeli prime minister, who was assassinated, was assassinated by a right-wing Israeli fanatic.

RONEN BERGMAN: I agree. And the fact that he was not stopped was because nobody thought that anyone could do that. No Israeli. I agree.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Ronen, we want to thank you so much for being with us, Ronen Bergman, Israeli investigative reporter. His new book, Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations. Ronen Bergman is a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine and senior national security correspondent for Yedioth Ahronoth. His piece in The New York Times, we’ll link to, “Saudis Close to Crown Prince Discussed Killing Other Enemies a Year Before Khashoggi’s Death.”

This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in 30 seconds on the costs of war. The so-called war on terror has cost the United States close to $6 trillion and half a million deaths in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq. Stay with us.

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