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
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