Our guest, Israeli investigative reporter Ronen Bergman, says that Israel has developed the most robust streamlined assassination machine in history. His new book, based on a thousand interviews, chronicles decades of shootings, poisonings, bombings and drone strikes. The targets were perceived enemies of the Jewish state, ranging from British colonial officials in the 1940s to leaders of Hamas, Hezbollah and the PLO to Iranian nuclear scientists. Bergman describes the planning and approval process for targeted killings, which typically involved young military and intelligence operatives making the case for a strike to the country’s prime minister.
Bergman writes that Israeli assassination teams were effective at eliminating their targets but often at a moral and political price their leaders would only come to understand years after their missions. Ronen 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 spoke to FRESH AIR’s Dave Davies about his new book “Rise And Kill First: The Secret History Of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations.”
.. one of the most powerful things I have ever seen on a screen was the movie “The Gatekeepers” by Dror Moreh, the Israeli filmmaker. And I’m sure you’re familiar with this. He interviews all of the living heads of Shin Bet, which I guess is the internal intelligence service in Israel.
DAVIES: All of them in their later years felt that the violence and retribution which they had engaged in earlier had to be stopped, and there had to be a negotiated arrangement with the Palestinians. Did you find that in – among the intelligent professionals that you spoke to as they grew older?
BERGMAN: Yeah. The same five that are interviewed in “Gatekeepers” are extensively quoted in “Rise And Kill” as well, as well as many, many others – the chiefs of the intelligence. And you’re absolutely right. They rule. The rare exception is that all the chiefs of Israeli intelligence and military commanders and operation commanders all believe that there’s no other way but a two-state solution and a political discourse with the Palestinians.
The problem is that I think when they were on duty and the political level above them opposed such a path, they usually stayed silent or, you know, in a very quiet voice say, well, maybe there’s another way. But once they were ordered to confront the problem by force, they did that with whatever they could. And they supplied the solutions that just prolonged the problem. They supplied the solution for many, many, many years that kept the Palestinian population in the occupied territories relatively quiet.
And that – and I’m quoting one of the chiefs of the – of Shin Bet. And that enabled the government basically to do whatever it wanted because they were not confronting a lot of riots or demonstration or terrorism. And they could build settlements, and they could enjoy the cheap labor. And they didn’t need to understand and confront the problem of occupying another nation, another country and another people.
.. And what Mossad was able to do instead of just shooting him was to get very close to him and replace one of the things that he uses frequently with the same substance but mixed with poison. They call the poison the potion of gods. That was the nickname. And they poured that into his toothpaste which he used quite frequently. Then he got the ill. Nobody knew what happens to him.
.. Israeli military intelligence who is supposed to deliver information for a targeted killing operation in 2003, said, I’m not going to do so. You want to destroy a building belonging to the Fatah, one of the Palestinian factions in Gaza. You want to destroy it, he told his commanders, because there are people inside but not specific people. You just want to destroy it with people in order to send a message to the Palestinians. I think this is forbidden. This is illegal, manifestly illegal. This is a war crime. And he declared…
.. But at that time, after a horrific suicide bombing in Tel Aviv that took place just hours before, the chief of staff ordered to destroy a building with someone inside. Someone – doesn’t matter who – has to be killed as a – sort of a message sent to the Palestinians. And that junior brave intelligence officer says, this is the line. I’m drawing it here. I’m not going to do so. This is war crime. This is illegal.
DAVIES: You know, military organizations assume that people will follow orders, whatever qualms they might have. What was the fallout of this refusal to carry out this mission?
BERGMAN: The echoes that there’s was a mutiny in Unit 8200 – which is considered to be creme de la creme, prime of Israeli intelligence – immediately reached every corridor of the – thundered through the corridors of the military and reached the prime minister himself. No one could believe that these people, the intelligence officers could ever rebuild. People at the chief of staff said this guy should be court martialed. And someone said, even, he should be shot. But I think the IDF didn’t want this to be brought to trial because they understood that the order, from the beginning, was illegal. So they just dismissed the junior officer. They didn’t want to deal with that.
But they were afraid that it will lead to a wave of other people refusing to take orders, so they preferred to hushen (ph) that.
.. He didn’t – he still, even today, doesn’t want to be identified because he understands that some people in Israeli society would judge him for that. And he doesn’t want to have problems in his civilian life.
.. just before Trump was elected and before the inauguration, they suggested that the Israelis stop giving sensitive material to the White House. They said we are afraid that Trump or someone of his people are under leverage from the Russians. And they might give sensitive information to the Russians who, in their turn, would give that to Iran. They said we have evidence that part of the material that Edward Snowden stole from the CIA and NSA – and was not yet published – found its way to Iran. And we believe, of course, that he gave everything he had to the Russians.
.. you know of specific information that the U.S. shared with the Russians that has not been revealed publicly and that you are not revealing publicly?
BERGMAN: The nature of the information that President Trump revealed to Foreign Minister Lavrov is of the most secretive nature. And that information could jeopardize modus operandi of Israeli intelligence.
.. I had 1,000 people speaking from prime minister and minister of defense, chiefs of staff, chief of the Mossad to the actual operatives and assassins.
.. But the main reason, I think, that led most of these people to speak was that after so many years in the shadows – after so many years in secret, they wanted to tell people how they defend Israel, how they were the guards on the wall. And they thought that I’m writing – not the authorized of course. I’m not working for the administration, but this is the unauthorized, unofficial – but the history of Israeli intelligence. And they wanted to make sure that their footprint is set upright in this book.