BOOKS: RISE AND KILL FIRST

In an age when the lead­ing coun­tries of the world have adopted Is­rael’s tac­tics of tar­geted as­sas­si­na­tion, drone war­fare and ex­tra­or­di­nary ren­di­tion, this is manda­tory read­ing for any­one even re­motely in­ter­ested in coun­tert­er­ror­ism

India Today - - INSIDE - By Ajai Sahni

Ro­nen Bergman takes his ti­tle from the Tal­mu­dic in­junc­tion, ‘If some­one comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first’. Is­rael’s roots are in­ex­tri­ca­bly in­ter­twined with the re­jec­tion of the pas­sivism that af­flicted Euro­pean Jews—con­temp­tu­ously, Muselmän­ner—that sent them, un­re­sist­ing, to the slaugh­ter­houses of the Holocaust. They are equally en­meshed with the in­tel­li­gence ap­pa­ra­tus and the cam­paign of tar­geted killings that en­trenched it­self in the pre-state era and, sub­se­quently, in the state’s strat­egy of sur­vival.

Tar­geted killings were not merely a tac­ti­cal and strate­gic op­tion, but also a moral choice. Open war­fare was to be waged only ‘when the sword is on our throat’. Neutralisi­ng a few ‘ma­jor fig­ures’ of­ten pre­vented greater con­fla­gra­tions and the loss of ‘un­told num­bers of soldiers and civil­ians on both sides’. How­ever, such a strat­egy can lose di­rec­tion, as we find through a his­tory of ex­tra­or­di­nary pro­fes­sion­al­ism as well as of in­com­pe­tence and loss of con­trol. The con­se­quences of the lat­ter are dis­as­trous, par­tic­u­larly in phases where in­dis­crim­i­nate vi­o­lence brought odium and iso­la­tion on Is­rael.

Bergman’s nar­ra­tive is mas­ter­ful, and as­ton­ish­ing in its de­tail on a sub­ject that is shrouded in se­crecy and buried un­der Is­rael’s rigid cen­sor­ship laws. Bergman, how­ever, dis­cov­ered that ‘ev­ery­one wants to speak about what they’ve done’. In an age when the lead­ing coun­tries have adopted Is­raelini­ti­ated tac­tics of tar­geted as­sas­si­na­tion, drone war­fare and ex­tra­or­di­nary ren­di­tion, this is manda­tory read­ing for any­one even re­motely in­ter­ested in coun­tert­er­ror­ism. But the pur­pose of Bergman’s fas­ci­nat­ing work is not mere doc­u­men­ta­tion; it is to ad­dress the twin ques­tions: are tar­geted killings ef­fec­tive? And are they jus­ti­fi­able? Bergman as­serts that Is­rael’s cam­paign of as­sas­si­na­tion con­sti­tutes ‘a long string of im­pres­sive tac­ti­cal suc­cesses, but also dis­as­trous strate­gic fail­ures’. He ar­gues, fur­ther, that Is­rael paid a ‘high moral price… for the use of such power’.

The ar­gu­ments in sup­port of this the­sis oc­cur episod­i­cally and are per­haps the book’s weak­est el­e­ment, har­vest­ing each fail­ure or ex­cess to as­sert that tar­geted killings don’t work, or are coun­ter­pro­duc­tive. And yet, Bergman con­cedes ‘the as­sas­si­na­tion weapon, based on in­tel­li­gence that is “noth­ing less than ex­quis­ite” is what made Is­rael’s war on ter­ror the most ef­fec­tive ever waged by a ‘West­ern’ coun­try. On nu­mer­ous oc­ca­sions, it was tar­geted killing that saved Is­rael from very grave crises’. Else­where, he as­serts “it is very hard to pre­dict how his­tory will pro­ceed af­ter some­one is shot in the head”. But then, it is equally hard to pre­dict the course of his­tory if cer­tain peo­ple aren’t shot in the head! These are poor ar­gu­ments, led by faith, rather than ev­i­dence.

Bergman uses the ex­pres­sion ‘ter­ror­ism’ rather loosely, as in­deed do many Is­raelis, ap­ply­ing it to op­er­a­tions even when tar­gets were state en­ti­ties and soldiers, or armed and vi­o­lent Arab for­ma­tions. He fails to build un­re­lent­ing Arab and Pales­tinian ha­tred, ex­cesses and atroc­i­ties into the logic of his cri­tique of tar­geted killings, pre­fer­ring to treat these as noth­ing more than back­ground in­for­ma­tion, with no clear im­pact on strate­gic or moral is­sues. Nev­er­the­less, there is a trea­sure-house of ma­te­rial in Rise and Kill First that will al­low read­ers to judge these is­sues on their own. And, for a book just short of 800 pages, it makes for sur­pris­ingly easy read­ing.

The au­thor is the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the In­sti­tute for Con­flict Man­age­ment

RISE AND KILL FIRST: The Se­cret His­tory of Is­rael’s Tar­geted As­sas­si­na­tions by RO­NEN BERGMAN Pub­lished by John Mur­ray `899; 755 pages

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