Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations

Here are some highlights from this 2018 book:

* ON SEPTEMBER 11, JIHADIST hijackers flew two airliners into the World Trade Center and a third into the Pentagon. A fourth crashed in a Pennsylvania field after the hijackers were overpowered by passengers. “In one swoop, the complaints against us ceased,” said Major General Giora Eiland, head of Israel’s National Security Council. “It simply dropped off the [international] agenda.” Decades of Israel trying to explain its drastic measures to the rest of the world were suddenly made unnecessary. Everyone, for a time, seemed to understand. Sharon immediately ordered the intelligence organizations to give the Americans all of the files for “Blue Troll,” the code name for the development of Al Qaeda in Sudan, and other relevant intelligence. Later, he ordered the Shin Bet and the IDF to share their experience with guests who came from abroad to learn from the country with the world’s best counterterror program. “There was a stream of people arriving here,” said Diskin, who hosted the senior guests. Sharon issued instructions, as part of his relationship with Bush, “to show them [the Americans] everything, to give them the lot, to allow access to everywhere, including the Joint War Room, even during interdiction operations.” The Americans were most interested to find out how the integrated assassination system of all the intelligence arms worked, and how Israel had developed the capability to execute a number of operations simultaneously. The very system internationally condemned only weeks earlier was now a model to be copied. “The attacks on 9/11 gave our own war absolute international legitimacy,” Diskin said. “We were able to completely untie the ropes that had bound us.”

* [Ariel] Sharon kept a booklet he’d occasionally pull out to share with visiting diplomats. He’d received it from the Israel Police, and it contained color photographs of a bus minutes after a suicide terrorist had blown himself up inside it. Decapitated bodies and human limbs were scattered in every corner. The fire had scorched the clothing off of victims and painted their skin with blotches of green and blue. “When one of those pesky diplomats came to talk to us once again about the elimination of this or that terrorist,” said Dov Weissglass, Sharon’s chief of staff and confidant, “Arik would force the person to look. He’d page through it, picture after picture, watching their eyes widen as they took in the atrocity of it. He didn’t let them off even one contorted body or headless neck. When he was finished, he calmly asked, ‘Now tell me: Would you be prepared for such a thing to happen in your country?’ ” To provide Sharon with more material to show the diplomats, Weissglass’s staff bought photographs from a Palestinian press agency showing Arabs being executed for suspected collaboration with Israel.

* During the course of the conflict in the occupied territories, several variations of the Grass Widow technique were used, baiting gunmen out of their hiding places and exposing them to fire from a concealed sniping position. In one variation, an Israeli force would arrest a comrade of the terrorists out in the open on the street, prompting armed gunmen to come outside and attack the force. In another, an armored car would drive up and down a street, with a loudspeaker broadcasting an Arabic recording of shouted challenges like “So where are all the big heroes of Izz al-Din al-Qassam? Why don’t you come out and fight? Let’s see if you are men.” Or, more provocatively, “All the Jihad are fags” or “Hamas are sons of whores. Your mothers work in the streets and give it out free to anyone who wants it.” These are some of the more refined remarks—others are even less suitable for print. Perhaps surprisingly, this method has worked well. Gunmen come out to shoot at the offending vehicle and end up getting picked off by a sniper from Grass Widow concealed in a nearby apartment. Grass Widow operations killed dozens of gunmen from all the Palestinian organizations. From the military’s point of view, the system worked, and the IDF gained relative freedom of action in the streets of Palestinian cities. The legality of these operations, however, is debatable at best. — BY THE SUMMER OF 2002, the Shin Bet and its partners were able to stop more than 80 percent of attacks before they turned deadly. The targeted killings were clearly saving lives. But there was a disturbing trend in the data, too: The number of attempted attacks was increasing.

* Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was exasperated the agency. The Mossad was too sleepy and effete for his liking, and too reluctant to take risks, after its earlier operational mishaps. Mossad chief Efraim Halevy’s approach was the exact opposite of Sharon’s, who always wanted to take the initiative and attack. As Dov Weissglass explained, “At a time when Israel found itself in one of the most difficult battles of its life, the Second Intifada, we could never understand why that magnificent body known as the Mossad was simply nonexistent. With Halevy, the diplomatic aspect was infinitely developed. The operational aspect was like an appendix to him, superfluous tissue that was dispensable.”

* Sharon really had only one person in mind: Meir Dagan, his good friend who had served under him in the army. Dagan was tough and aggressive, exactly the kind of person Sharon needed to fight back against the Radical Front.

* DAGAN TOOK OVER THE Mossad in September 2002. Shortly afterward, Sharon put him in charge of covert efforts to stymie Iran’s nuclear program. Since the late 1990s, Iran had poured huge resources into its plan to acquire a nuclear weapon capability as rapidly as possible, buying equipment and expertise wherever it could. Both men saw a nuclear Iran as an existential danger to Israel. Dagan was told that he would receive whatever he wanted—money, personnel, endless resources—as long as he stopped the ayatollahs from building an atomic bomb. He took it all and got down to work. “Sharon was right to appoint him,” Weissglass said. “Meir arrived and began to work wonders.” Dagan moved into his new office in the Mossad’s main building and hung a picture of his grandfather, kneeling, staring in terror at the German troops around him, minutes before he was murdered. “Look at this photograph,” Dagan would say to Mossad operatives before sending them off on missions. “I’m here—we, the men and women of the Mossad, are here—to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Dagan decided to dismantle the Mossad and reassemble it in a way that suited him. First, he sharply focused the Mossad’s intelligence-gathering objective. Information was not to be collected for its own sake, catalogued, and filed into an impotent library—Dagan wanted intelligence that could be directly put to use against the enemy. He wanted information that led quickly to preemptive and preventive operations, to sabotage, ambushes, targeted killings, and assassinations. The Mossad, under the new director, would be a warrior agency. “I told Arik [Sharon] that in my opinion, a deep change had to be made in the organization,” Dagan said. “ ‘But you have to decide,’ I warned him, ‘whether you’re ready to pay the price. Journalists will climb all over me and you and the Mossad. It won’t be easy. Are you ready to pay the price?’ He said that he was. Arik knew how to back someone up.” Dagan frequently met in private with Sharon to get approval for covert operations. A former senior Mossad officer described the mood: “Those were days of hysteria. Dagan would arrive early in the morning, and until nightfall he never stopped yelling at everyone that they weren’t delivering the goods and that they were worthless.” In Dagan’s view, it was particularly important “to straighten out” the personnel in the Junction division, which was in charge of recruiting and operating agents. This was “the real heart of the Mossad,” in his eyes. “Underlying every operation, however you put it together, there is HUMINT.” Junction’s core personnel were “collection officers” (katsa), case officers who recruited and ran the agents. They were sophisticated professionals, skilled in manipulation. According to Dagan, however, the collection officers also manipulated the Mossad itself. Dagan described the Junction division he encountered upon assuming his position as “a complete system of falsehood, which deceives itself and feeds itself lies” in order to convince itself and the entire Mossad of its success. “For years, they did whatever they wanted. They recruit a guy who serves tea in some office near a nuclear facility and say they have someone inside the Iranian atom project. They needed to be grabbed by the collar and given a boot in the ass.” Dagan changed Junction’s procedures and demanded that all agents undergo a polygraph test in order to prove that they were reliable sources.

* UNTIL THE END OF 2001, the Shin Bet confined itself to targeting what were known as “ticking time bombs,” people who either were working on planning an attack or about to carry out an attack, or who were directly involved in such behavior—the commander and recruiter of the suicide attackers, or the bomb maker, for example. There were a number of problems with that approach. The first was identifying targets from among the seemingly endless supply of volunteers. There were “more suicide bombers than explosive vests,” a Hamas spokesman boasted. These Palestinians fit no profile: They were young and elderly, educated and illiterate, those who had nothing to lose and those who had large families. At first they consisted only of adult males, but later on, Hamas leaders encouraged women and children to sacrifice themselves, too. Successfully identifying an attacker, moreover, did not necessarily mean stopping an attack. The monitors, the desk officers, the interpreters, the intelligence analysts, and the technologists might all track an attack as it “rolled along”—in the agency’s professional lingo—“almost until the bang.” But they could not stop them, because Israel could not operate openly inside hostile Palestinian-controlled territory. And by the time the bomber reached Israel, it was generally too late. There were several nervous breakdowns among these desk officers and monitors during this period.

* Since picking off individual bombers was ineffectual, Dichter decided to shift focus. Starting at the end of 2001, Israel would target the “ticking infrastructure” behind the attacks. The person who blew himself up or planted the bomb or pulled the trigger was, after all, usually just the last link in a long chain. There were recruiters, couriers, and weapons procurers, as well as people who maintained safe houses and smuggled money—an entire organization overseen by commanders of regional cells, above whom were the main military commanders, themselves subordinate to the political leaders of the organizations. They would all be targets. A potential death sentence was hung over the heads of all active members of the Hamas military wing, known as the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. “They would very quickly realize that not one of them—from the regional operations officer to the taxi driver to the photographer who shoots the suicide bomber’s farewell video—was immune to getting hit,” said Yitzhak Ilan, a senior Shin Bet operative at the time and later deputy head of the agency. Targeting suicide attackers was futile, because they were, by definition, expendable and easily replaced. The people who groomed and organized and dispatched them, however, were not. Nor, as a rule, were they nearly as eager for martyrdom as those they recruited. Israeli intelligence figured that there were fewer than three hundred people actively involved in organizing the suicide bombings, and no more than five hundred active members of all the terrorist groups combined. They would not all have to be killed. “Terror is a barrel with a bottom,” Dichter explained to the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. “You do not have to reach the last terrorist to neutralize it. It is enough to reach a critical mass, and in effect you bring it to a standstill.”

[Israel] developed a mathematical model to determine the amount of “redundancy” or reserve manpower in Hamas. The results showed that taking out 20 to 25 percent of the organization would lead to its collapse.

* Of course, the assassinated would quickly be replaced by those next in line, but over time, the average age dropped, as did the level of experience as younger and younger people filled the ranks. As Yitzhak Ilan said, “One day, when the commander of Islamic Jihad in Jenin was brought into the interrogation room, a man whom, by chance, we had captured and not killed, I was pleased to learn that he was nineteen years old. I realized that we were winning, that we had axed the entire chain that had preceded him.” Now that a coherent strategy had been developed, they had to figure out how to find and kill these targets. The Shin Bet informed Prime Minister Sharon that, with so many assassinations under consideration, all the relevant resources of the State of Israel would be required.

* Schematically, much of the new targeted killing system wasn’t fundamentally new at all: The intelligence echelon gathered information, the prime minister authorized, and the field forces executed the hit, just like in the 1970s and ’80s in Europe and Lebanon. But there were important differences. As one seasoned intelligence officer said, paraphrasing Marshall McLuhan, “The scalability is the message,” meaning that the use of advanced technology in itself created a completely new reality. Enlisting the entire intelligence community, assisted by the best communications and computer systems in the world, along with the most advanced military technology developments, drastically increased the number of assassinations that the system could carry out simultaneously. Until then, “it took the Mossad months, if not years, to plan and implement one hit,” said a Shin Bet officer. But now, “from the Joint War Room, we could run four or five a day.”

* THOUGH THE ISRAELIS MIGHT not have given full consideration to the moral implications of the new program, they were aware that they needed to provide legal cover for officers and subordinates who might later face prosecution, either in Israel or abroad. In early December 2000, IDF chief of staff Shaul Mofaz summoned the chief of the Military Advocate General’s Corps, Major General Menachem Finkelstein, to his office. “I assume that you know that Israel sometimes has a policy of ‘negative treatment,’ ” Mofaz told Finkelstein. “In the current legal situation, is it permitted for Israel to openly kill defined individuals who are involved in terrorism? Is it legal or illegal?” Finkelstein was stunned. “Do you realize what you are asking me, Chief of Staff?” he replied. “That the IDF’s advocate general will tell you when you can kill people without a trial?”

Mofaz fully realized that. He asked again: Was it legal to assassinate suspected Palestinian terrorists? Finkelstein told him that it was a delicate and complex matter, one that required a comparative study of statutes all over the world, probably even the invention of an entirely new legal concept. “Inter arma enim silent leges,” he said finally, quoting Cicero. In times of war, the law falls silent.

Nevertheless, he ordered a team of bright young attorneys in the IDF to puzzle out a solution. On January 18, 2001, a top-secret legal opinion signed by Finkelstein was submitted to the prime minister, the attorney general, the chief of staff and his deputy, and the director of the Shin Bet. Under the title “Striking at Persons Involved Directly in Attacks against Israelis,” the document opened with this statement: “In the framework of this opinion, we have for the first time set out to analyze the question of the legality of the initiated interdiction”—another euphemism—“actions taken by the IDF….We have been told by IDF and Shin Bet that such actions are carried out in order to save the lives of Israeli civilians and members of the security forces. This is, therefore, in principle, an activity that leans on the moral basis of the rules concerning self-defense, a case of ‘He who comes to kill you, rise up early and kill him first.’ ”

For the first time, a legal instrument had been proposed for endorsing extrajudicial execution by the security forces. The opinion noted that its authors had done their best to find “the balance between a person’s right to life and the duty of the security authorities to protect the citizens of the state.”

The opinion fundamentally recalibrated the legal relationship between Israel and the Palestinians. No longer was the conflict a matter of law enforcement, of police arresting suspects so that they can face trial. Rather, the intifada was an “armed conflict short of war,” but to which the laws of warfare applied. Those laws allowed striking at the enemy wherever he may be, as long as a distinction is drawn between combatants and civilians. In classic wars, that distinction is relatively easy: Members of the adversary’s armed forces, as long as they are in the service, are legitimate targets. In the confrontation between Israel and the Palestinians, however, the distinction was much harder to make. Who is the enemy? How can he be identified? When, if at all, does he cease being the enemy?

The opinion posited a new kind of participant in armed conflict: the “illegal combatant” who takes part in armed operations but is not a soldier in the full sense of the word. The term covered anyone active in a terrorist organization, even if his activity was marginal. As long as he is an active member in the organization, he could be considered a combatant—even when he is asleep in his bed—unlike a soldier on leave who has taken off his uniform. This expansive interpretation of “combatants” led, in marathon discussions in the International Law Department (ILD) of the IDF Military Advocate General’s Corps, to an issue called “the Syrian Cook Question”: If Israel were in a normal state of war with Syria, any Syrian combatant could be killed legitimately, even an army cook in a rear echelon. By that standard, then, given the broad definition of “illegal combatant” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it could be presumed that any person assisting Hamas would qualify as a target, too. This might potentially include a woman who washed a suicide bomber’s clothes before he set out on his mission or a taxi driver who knowingly took activists from one place to another.

That, according to the opinion, was too extreme. The opinion stipulated that only those about whom there is “accurate and reliable information that the person concerned carried out attacks or dispatched attackers” could be targeted. Moreover, assassination could not be used as punishment for past acts, nor as a deterrent to other combatants. It could be used only when “it is almost certain that the target will in the future continue carrying out actions such as this.”

* Strangely enough, Bashar al-Assad had enormous respect for Israeli intelligence, which was why he worked so hard to deceive it. He was convinced that every message in Syria transmitted by electromagnetic means—telephone, cellphone, fax, text, email—was being intercepted by Israeli intelligence. “He truly believed that every time Mustafa called Mohammed, Moishele was listening in.”

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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