Rise and Kill First is a staggering, investigative account of dozens of Israeli killings over many decades by Ronen Bergman, a leading Israeli journalist who is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine.
Bergman has cultivated sources throughout the Israeli security establishment, and in creating what is often a page-turner that relates the details of one lethal operation after another, he tells his story entirely from the Israeli perspective.
As a result the book’s tone is set by the black humor of Bergman’s sources: the Israeli government killers. The author revels in their jargon — Red Page is the name for a “kill order” — and in their snuff jokes, the grisly humor that Israeli operatives employ when they describe killing Palestinians and other Arabs in their interviews with Bergman.
Here is a (long) list of those cracks.
–“The same night, that man died of natural causes by swallowing a pillow.” –Yair Ravid of AMAN (military intelligence directorate of the IDF) on killing a Lebanese witness to an Israeli informant in the late 70s.
–“I don’t understand why they say why we, Israel, are losing the war for minds. If I put a bullet between Abu Jihad’s eyes, right in the middle of his mind, doesn’t that mean I’ve won?” IDF chief of staff Moshe Yaalon, justifying the killing of the PLO leader in a 2013 interview. Abu Jihad’s killing in Tunis in 1988 is one many Israelis involved in the operation “now regret,” Bergman says.
–“I am ready to shed countless tears on the grave of a Lebanese who was killed on a mission for us, as long as no Jew’s life is endangered.” Meir Dagan, Mossad chief, on his preference for using proxies in Lebanon to carry out killings.
–“No dog, no rabies.” Avraham Dar, officer with AMAN (Israeli army military intelligence directorate), on the merits of killing King Farouk of Egypt in 1951. Farouk was ousted by Egyptian officers, including Nasser, in 1952, and died in exile in Italy in 1965.
–“Every Arab can be recruited on the basis of one of the three Ps– praise, payment, or pussy.” Rehavia Vardi, head of a secret IDF intelligence team, on the ease of recruiting hundreds of informants between 1948 and 1956, in an interview with Bergman in 1997 (presumably when the author was getting graduate degrees at Cambridge).
–“I took a pill against nausea and carried on.” Reuven Merhav, Mossad official, on cooperating with the Phalange in Lebanon.
–“If you give them an order to build a pipeline to move blood from Haifa to the Negev, they’ll do it excellently and won’t for a moment ask whose blood it is.” General Amos Gilboa on the Israeli air force’s willingness to carry out orders.
–“We used to have a fixed formula then… There is no information in the security establishment as to the whereabouts of this person… although we knew very well what hole he was buried in.” Yossi Ginossar, senior Shin Bet official, on the agency’s policy when police sought information on behalf of Palestinian families on the whereabouts of missing PLO activists in the 1980s.
–“Hypocrisy! For years we were cleaning out Israel’s sewage, and everyone knew more of less how the sewage was cleaned.” Ginossar expressing anger at politicians’ efforts to establish accountability for killing Palestinian activists.
–“The way we saw things then, whoever came to a weapons cache to take the arms and use them to kill Jews, it’s better if they have a work accident.” A Shin Bet source on not taking prisoners in Palestine.
–Israel should put settlements in the West Bank till the Arabs could only “run around like drugged bugs in a bottle.” –Rafael Eitan, IDF chief of staff
–“You Flotilla 13, are like a priest’s balls. Not used but it’s nice that they’re there. All that is going to change.” Eitan, addressing a secret naval commando unit as he set out on a program of targeted killings in 1978.
–“We have no authority to forgive people like bin Laden. That, only God can do. Our job is to arrange a meeting between them. In my laboratory, I opened a matchmaker’s office, a bureau that arranged such meetings.” Natan Rotberg, bombmaker, bragging of 30 killings he carried out in the 1950s, mostly of Palestinians in Gaza.
–“You press once, you press twice, but the coffee stays in the machine.” Shin Bet director Avi Dichter on the initial failed attempt to kill Palestinian bombmaker Yahya Ayyash with an explosive planted in a Motorola cellphone. Ayyash was killed by such a device at age 29 in Gaza in 1996. From Bergman’s chapter titled, “Bring Us the Head of Ayyash.”
–“On the one hand he was as sly as a snake. On the other hand, as naive as a little child.” Shimon Peres on Yasser Arafat’s character.
–“Bring me some big fish, not these minnows. I want leaders, not merchants.” –Benjamin Netanyahu rejecting dossiers of potential Hamas targets for assassination, 1997.
–“Potion of the Gods.” Mossad nickname for Levofentanyl, a powerful opioid used in the attack on Khaled Meshal in Amman in 1997. The attack was botched, the attackers arrested, and Israeli PM Netanyahu had to surrender an antidote to the Jordanians, and Meshal recovered.
–Either the Kenyans “take them to the desert and feed them to the hyenas for lunch,” or turn them over to the Israelis. — Eliezer Tsafrir, a Mossad official, recalling a 1976 operation that captured three Palestinians and two Germans planning on shooting down an Israeli plane in Kenya.
–“It’s like a zookeeper letting a hungry lion loose in the streets and it eats someone. Who’s responsible? The lion? Clearly it’s the zookeeper.” Amos Gilad, military intelligence, on Arafat’s responsibility for terror attacks ordered by his deputies in the 70s, though there was no direct connection established.
–“The aim of a negative treatment operation is to kill the object. There’s no such thing as half dead.” Former Mossad operative on a mail bomb that went wrong. “Negative treatment” was the Mossad euphemism for targeted killings of PLO members in the 1980s.
–“Suddenly the scent of a hunt was in the air.” From the official government report on the 1992 killing by missile of Hezbollah general secretary Hussein Abbas al-Mussawi and his wife and six year old son in a Mercedes in Lebanon. The comment refers to a drone sending video to a war room in Tel Aviv showing Mussawi getting into the car.
–“From our point of view, they were all painted in black.” AMAN officer explaining that they made no distinction among Hezbollah members, all were potential targets.
–“He whispered two words into the microphone of the radio in his sleeve– ‘Honey Bun.’” An undercover commander telling Bergman about the code for action against Fathi Shaqaqi, leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, when he was killed in Malta in 1995.
–“Just like there’s a sun and a moon, there was the noise and view of the UAVs.” — Gen. Moshe Yaalon, IDF chief of staff, on the omnipresence of armed drones buzzing around the occupied territories over Palestinians’ heads.
–“Someone who deserves his ticket on the train to elimination.” Mossad director Meir Dagan on who was selected for assassination.
–“I am no vegetarian.” A Mossad officer justifying his opposition to some targeted killings.
–“We could not claim that these operations were executed by the government of Finland.” Brig General Yossi Kuperwasser of AMAN on more than 340 killings of Palestinians in the occupied territories in 2001-2003.
–“If we do not get rid of people like Salah Shehade, more and more Israelis will get hurt. In situations like this, Palestinian civilians are liable to get hurt. [But] when you have to decide between two children, I prefer that the Jewish Israeli child won’t weep.” Aharon Zeevi-Farkash of AMAN justifying killing Salah Shehade in a residential area of Gaza in 2002. The result was “catastrophic,” Bergman reports: Shehade’s wife, assistant, daughter and ten other civilians, including seven children were killed; and 150 wounded.
–“If you… want to know what I feel when I release a bomb, then I’ll tell you: I feel a slight shudder in the wing as a result of the release of the bomb, after a second it passes and that’s all.” –Air Force commander Dan Halutz, justifying the Shehade killings in the face of criticism.
–“They all know that the 72 virgins in paradise is an option that cannot be proved, and they, the leaders, are simply not prepared to check it out for themselves.” Amos Gilad of the Israeli Defense Ministry, on the efficacy of killing Palestinian leaders in response to suicide bombings in Israel, 2003, from an interview with Bergman.
–“I’m prepared to cry over the coffin of any such agent or proxy who dies and returns his soul [to his maker]… But I also prefer to see them dead than my [Israeli/Jewish] operatives dead.” Dagan on wanting to use proxies to carry out killings rather than “Blue and White” forces, Israelis.
–“It’s the kind of hit where the target dictates how and when he is to be made dead.” Veteran operative on killing of Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai in 2010, when the hit squad, using western passports that did not belong to them, did not know where al-Mabhouh was staying but followed him from the airport to the Al-Bustan Rotana, where he was killed in his room.
–“The right way to confront the Israeli-Arab dispute was by ‘separating the Arab from his head.'” The longtime view inside the defense establishment that peace would be achieved by force, a creed it ceased to believe by 2011.
As that last quote indicates, by the end of his book, Bergman questions the usefulness of the killings in advancing any sort of understanding between Israel and its many enemies. The killings only made things worse, he suggests.
If Bergman had interviewed any of the Arab victims or their families, he might have reached that understanding faster. For instance, though Shin Bet head Ami Ayalon says it was a mistake to kill Hamas political leader Jamal Mansour in Nablus in 2001, killing seven other Palestinians in the attack, Bergman does not bother to ask the Mansour family about the murders (let alone suggest accountability for the killings).
That choice reflects his point of view. Bergman is obviously proud of Israel’s ability to carry out the assassinations. Along the way, he lauds these Israeli operations for restoring Jewish prestige in the wake of the Holocaust, when Jews were passive victims. Published by Random House in English, his book surely provides vicarious pleasure to many American Jewish readers who have never picked up a gun.
You don’t need to be George Orwell to understand that when our press and politicians began referring to killing an Arab overseas as “taking him out,” the language conveyed wholesale approval of the murder; the official world had stopped questioning the morality/legality/humanity/efficacy of assassination. And that’s why I find Bergman’s vernacular degrading.