Ronen Bergman’s “Rise and Kill First,” a 630-page chronicle of “targeted assassinations” by Israel, pre-state and in the 70 years of statehood, is filled with frequently staggering revelations and claims. The author, who said he carried out 1,000 interviews, gained access and pored through innumerable crates of previously unpublished documents, and worked on the book for eight years, highlighted some of the most dramatic disclosures in a two-hour interview with The Times of Israel.
Some of his discoveries shed new light on familiar episodes. Others venture into hitherto entirely unfamiliar territory.
Mossad had Mengele in its sights in 1962, but ‘chose to leave it’
On July 23, 1962, Mossad operatives Rafi Eitan and Zvi Aharoni observed Auschwitz doctor Josef Mengele leaving his farm in Sao Paulo, Brazil, with some bodyguards. They anticipated kidnapping him and bringing him back to Israel for trial, Eichmann-style. But their sighting coincided with the test-firing by Egypt’s President Nasser of the missiles he’d been secretly developing, Bergman said, “and they were called back to the Middle East.”
A year later, Mossad chief Isser Harel left the service, and from then on, until 1977, Bergman said, “all Mossad chiefs and all Israeli prime ministers made Nazi war criminals the lowest priority.” So the notion that the Mossad, in those crucial years, went looking for Nazi war criminals, is plain false, Bergman said, and documentedly so. “Generally speaking, Israeli intelligence did not hunt Nazi war criminals.”
There was one exception – Herberts Cukurs — a Latvian war criminal who was killed in Paraguay, he said, “but this was an exception for some personal reasons: he had killed members of the family of (IDF military intelligence chief) Aharon Yariv, and (Harel’s successor) Meir Amit was a close friend of Yariv’s… Cukurs had burned much of his family, so this was sort of, you know, doing something for a friend.”
Indeed, Bergman said, Mossad chiefs actually called home an agent who had traced Mengele again, in 1968, “because they were afraid that he was going to carry out a rogue operation.”
All this only changed in 1977, when Menachem Begin became prime minister. Begin, said Bergman, “dictated a secret decision for the Security Cabinet, that the Mossad will hunt at least (Martin) Bormann (who had been dead since 1945) and Mengele, but it was already too late. By the time they regrouped and started to look into that, Mengele was already dead. They were chasing his ghost for another 10 years.”
It would have been entirely straightforward for Israel to have replicated with Mengele what it did with Eichmann in the 1960s, he reiterated. “At least two times they were on him, and they chose to leave it… Meir Amit told me very openly: I prefer to deal with threats of the present than ghosts of the past. And it was clear that these Nazis posed no threat.”
The Munich myth
The widely believed notion that Israel tracked down and killed all the Palestinian terrorists responsible for the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics is “a myth,” Bergman said.
“You know, the Spielberg Munich movie? As if Golda Meir called someone from the Mossad and said, Kill them all, and set up a secret court, where you had a judge, as if they were doing due process. Now, none of that happened. It was one hundred percent fake.”
“The Munich Olympics terrorist attack changed a lot, but not what we think,” he added. “It’s not that Golda Meir gave orders, Let’s find all these people who did what happened in Munich.”
Bergman went so far as to state: “The people who were killed had no connection to Munich whatsoever.”
Rather, he said, many of the people who were responsible for Munich — including Amin al-Hindi, Mohammed Oudeh, and Adnan Al-Gashey — died straightforward, unremarkable deaths.
The one thing that Munich did change for prime minister Meir, he said, is that “until Munich, she did not let Mossad kill people in Europe. After Munich, she let them do that.”
Faucets: How the Lillehammer assassins were exposed
In 1973, in Lillehammer, Norway, the Mossad mistakenly killed an innocent Moroccan waiter and swimming pool cleaner who they had mistaken for Ali Hassan Salameh, the Palestinian Black September operations chief.
Most of the agents involved managed to escape, but some were caught. Bergman’s book reveals how.
“Now I understand what happened there,” he elaborated in our interview. “The Mossad knew that someone had written down the license plate” of one of the cars used by the assassins. So an operative” — Dan Arbel — “was deputed to dump the car, take a train to Oslo, and fly out. But that operative had bought taps (and other items) for his new house in Israel, and didn’t want to take them on the train (because they were heavy) … He decided: I’ll take the car to Oslo, give it back to the rental company (there) and fly. What difference does it make?”
Well, said Bergman, “it made all the difference, because the police were waiting at the rental company. They arrested him. He was claustrophobic, spoke in the investigation, and brought down the entire network.”
Mossad killed Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine terror chief Wadie Haddad, who orchestrated the Entebbe hijacking in 1976, by poisoning his toothpaste.
The Mossad was able “to get very, very, very close to Haddad,” and switched his toothpaste for an identical tube “containing a lethal toxin, which had been developed after intense effort at the Israel Institute for Biological Research, in Ness Ziona.” Bergman writes: “Each time Haddad brushed his teeth, a minute quantity of the deadly toxin penetrated the mucous membranes in his mouth and entered his bloodstream” — gradually reaching critical mass.
Haddad died in an East German hospital in 1978. “The stories of his screams from that Stasi-controlled hospital in Berlin spread all over,” said Bergman.
“The Stasi sent reports to Iraqi intelligence, telling them, You should look at your scientists, and their toothpaste, because they suspected that the toothpaste had been poisoned. And from that point on, Iraqi intelligence ordered the Iraqi scientists who worked on their bomb, whenever they exited Iraq, to carry their toothpaste and toothbrush in a bag with them. They were carrying their toothpaste everywhere, and still two of them were poisoned.”
Sharon’s obsession with killing Arafat rose to chilling heights
In our interview, Bergman said, “This is not in the book, but Ehud Barak told me that when Ariel Sharon was appointed minister of defense in September 1981, he assembled the General Staff and said to (chief of staff) Raful (Eitan): Tell me, how is it that Arafat is still alive?”
Barak, who at the time was head of the IDF Planning Division, said he’d presented a plan for how to kill Arafat 10 years earlier, but it had been blocked because Arafat was deemed to be a political figure. “Well, from now on, I am changing the order and I am returning Arafat to the top of the list of people to be assassinated,” Sharon reportedly retorted.
A force called ‘Dag Maluah’ was then set up, and tried first to kill the PLO chief during the siege of Beirut. But this was stymied by Uzi Dayan, the chief tactical officer of Dag Maluah, who was concerned that civilians would be killed in any such attack.
An Israeli sniper then had Arafat in his sights, and took photographs, when the PLO chief was evacuated from Beirut in August 1982, but Begin had promised the Americans not to kill him. “These photos were given to (US envoy) Philip Habib to show that Begin kept his promise,” Bergman said.
After that, said Bergman, Sharon gave orders to target Arafat on a plane — “he sometimes flew in private, sometimes commercial flights.” There was even a plan to carry out such an attack “over the Mediterranean Sea, so that they couldn’t salvage the wreckage, couldn’t find the black box,” he said.
“They looked at civilian and private flights,” Bergman said, and Sharon, according to his sources, “didn’t care whether it was private or civilian.” He stressed that Sharon’s military secretary insisted that all the planes potentially targeted were private. But “we have three other people who say that (the planning) did include civilian flights. Again, even if it is a private plane, this would mean not only killing Arafat, but also many other people on the flight.”
Bergman said one of his sources told him: “You know I have been waiting 30 something years for someone to come and ask me about this.” This source then “got up, walked to the other side of the room, opened the safe and took out the folder. With the numbers, the relevant material” regarding “one of the flights that were targeted.”
No such attack happened, said Bergman, only because “there was a group of heroic officers” who prevented it. They “disrupted the systems so that it would not happen.”
The pilot who would have carried out the attack, Bergman said — and who is today “a very prominent personality” — told him that he hoped he wouldn’t have obeyed orders.
Did Sharon ultimately kill Arafat, who died of a mysterious disease in 2004? In the book, Bergman notes that if he knew the answer, he couldn’t write it. The military censor “forbids me from discussing this subject.” But he does quote Sharon saying “Let me do things my way.” He observes that “the timing of Arafat’s death (in November 2004) was quite peculiar, coming so soon after the assassination,” by Israel, of Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin (that March). And he asserts that “one can say with certainty that Sharon wanted to get rid of Arafat, who he saw as a ‘two-legged beast’.”
In our interview, Bergman recalled Mossad chief Meir Dagan saying something like, If Jews were murdered and Sharon knew who did it, he couldn’t let it just pass. And Uri Dan, Sharon’s biographer, saying Sharon will go down in history as the person “who wiped out Arafat without actually killing him.”
Targeted killings stopped the Second Intifada
The intelligence community’s use of targeted assassinations was the key factor in quelling the strategic onslaught of suicide bombers in the Second Intifada, Bergman writes.
Hamas boasted that it had more volunteers than suicide belts, he noted in our interview. The policy, therefore, was “to kill the people above the bombers” in the terrorist groups’ hierarchy. “And it became apparent that in all the organizations combined – Hamas, Fatah, the Tanzim, and so on – there was a total of something like 700 people… And they reached the conclusion that you don’t need to kill everyone at that level; it was enough to kill or harm 25% to paralyze the organization.”
Sharon, he said, accepted what was a Shin Bet recommendation to begin the targeted killings. And Avi Dichter, Shin Bet chief from 2000 to 2005, was despatched to the US to explain why to the heads of American intelligence. Ultimately, Bergman said, Sharon and President George W. Bush “managed to reach a secret understanding that Israel would be allowed to continue its super aggressive policy against terror as long as Sharon honored his promise to freeze the settlements. That’s what happened.”
All kinds of measures helped quell the Second Intifada, including sending troops into West Bank urban areas in Operation Defensive Shield. “But the main factor was the targeted killings, which defeated something which was considered by everybody to be undefeatable: How do you stop a person, who wants to die, from carrying the suicide belt and going to explode himself in a shopping mall or a kindergarten?
“You can’t. (But the targeted killings) stopped the suicide bombings. At its peak, they killed Sheikh Yassin (in March 2004) and then (three) weeks later (his successor Abdel Aziz) Rantisi. Hamas came to the conclusion that it was simply not capable of continuing, and through the Egyptians begged for a ceasefire.”
Hamas emphatically remains a major threat to Israel. And after Yassin was killed, the terror group opened connections to Iran, which Yassin had forbidden — a process, said Bergman, that underlines that you change history by killing leaders, but often not in the way you anticipate.
Still, he said, “what happened then proves that even a jihadist terrorist organization that seemingly has no limits can be brought to its knees when you attach a significant price tag to its commanders.”