The Israeli Intelligence Community’s Long History of Targeted Killings

Transcript of Q&A with author Ronen Bergman, author of Rise and Kill First

I recently interviewed Ronen Bergman, the author of the book Rise and Kill First, about the history of Israel’s targeted killing programs, conducted over the years by special units in the country’s three main intelligence services — the Mossad, Shin Bet, and AMAN. Bergman conducted more than 1,000 interviews over eight years for the book — many of them with people who had never spoken with the media before about their involvement in these operations.

The live interview occurred on Sidechannel, the discord server that I launched with seven other writers earlier this year. But for those who were unable to participate in the interview, I’m publishing here an edited transcript of the discussion as well as a link to a recording of the complete interview.

In his book, Bergman begins with the early days of assassination that began when Palestine was part of the British Mandate — before the state of Israel was born — and continued with the post-WWII targeted killings of Nazi collaborators, the hunt for the terrorists who killed Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972 (including the case of mistaken identity that led to the murder of an innocent man in Norway), the killing raids in Beirut conducted at night by commandos who entered and left Lebanon by sea, the killing of nuclear scientists in Iran, and the many mistakes, failures and even treachery that has marked Israel’s history of assassinations.

In our discussion, I spoke with Bergman, who lives in Israel and writes for the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot as well as the New York Times Magazine, about how he convinced many of those who participated in Israel’s assassination operations to discuss their missions with him, and about an aborted plan to assassinate former PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat by shooting down a commercial airliner — which would have killed hundreds of innocent passengers and made anyone who participated in the operation guilty of a war crime. The plan was stopped because top commanders in the Air Force rebelled against it and thwarted it. We also talked about the ethics of targeted killings, their effectiveness, and an Israeli intelligence analyst in Unit 8200 who disobeyed orders to conduct a hit that he knew was illegal and unethical, creating a crisis that reached the prime minister’s office. Finally, we talked about a hacking operation against the Palestine Liberation Organization and about Bergman’s methods for getting those in the Israeli intelligence community to speak with him even when he was under intense surveillance by that intelligence community to uncover the identity of his sources.

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Zero Day: Explain to us how you came to [the title of your book] and … what exactly is the significance of it.

Bergman: [S]omeone who was privy to read the … transcripts of the 1,000 … interviews [I conducted for the book], said you know, … there's one sentence that many of your different interviewees have been repeating…. They were [all] quoting the Babylonian Talmud saying: “When someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first.” And that was I think said [because the interviewees who participated in the targeted killing programs] wanted to explain to me, to the readers of the book, why have they done what they’ve done in order to defend Israel.… [E]verything they did was … from that basic mindset: when someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first. And that dictates all the rest.

Zero Day: Israel has [been in a state] of existential crisis from the beginning, and has always been in fear, obviously, of being annihilated. So the title basically is coming … from this idea that everyone is out to kill Israel or wipe it off the face of the Earth?

Bergman: [I]f you want to understand Israel, if you want to understand the mindset … if you want to understand the Israeli DNA … and the decision-making process of everything that happens here, you have to understand how profound is the memory of the Holocaust. It’s [behind] everything that we do, everything that we decide to do, especially national security.… I think that my parents and all the Jewish people, they had three main conclusions from the Holocaust: there will always be someone who is after us to perform a second annihilation; … the non-Jews, probably will step aside and do nothing in the best-case scenario; and third, … the Jewish people needs to have a safe haven, a refuge — Israel — and defend that with whatever you have. And when you have those three lessons at the back of your mind, and when in every generation in every decade … [an adversary] of Israel is calling for Israel's destruction … you are left with one choice: rise and kill first. Now, I am not saying that this is the right policy. I'm not saying that. [But] the perception that Israel is under constant existential threat … is correct.

Zero Day: In the book … you talk about a lot of successful operations, but also … real failures…. [H]ow difficult was it to get people to open up to you, in many cases about things that were never discussed in Israel?

Bergman: [I]t took me eight years to get those 1,000 interviewees to speak. With a few of them — more than a few — I had to meet a few times in order to convince them…. [E]ach story, each source or interviewee, has a different … story of how I was able to convince her or him to talk. But I would say in general, many of those people, after so many years in secrecy … wanted to tell … what they have done to make the Jewish state safe, what they have done to make sure that there is no second annihilation [like the Holocaust]. They wanted to make sure that their footprint in history is set up right. Some of them told me, “You know … I’m telling you things that I never told my wife.”

[If any] of them [was] not that enthusiastic to speak…, I told them … that one of his colleagues is claiming credit for his operation…. Because for Israelis, there's nothing worse…. “Oh, he said he was in Syria [doing] that secret operation? … [Then] I will tell you the whole story….”

Zero Day: So you appeal to the ego.

Bergman: It's a big motivation. But of course, it's more complicated than that. There's another question [worth asking]: How do I know that those highly trained case officers and intelligence officers did not manipulate me? That's what they do for a living [after all]…. How do I know that they spoke the truth and did not… feed me with stories of something that never happened, or hide other stories that did …? After so many years, I have some instincts…. But mainly, the answer… is just do more and more and more reporting; speak with more people, collect more original papers … and corroborate and cross-check … I was able to come at least close — if not very, very close — to a whole set of the facts in all those different operations.

Zero Day: When you think about [Israeli] assassinations, you think [about] the Mossad. But you have three … entities involved in assassination operations that you cover in the book … the Mossad, Shin Bet [also known as Shabak], and AMAN [military intelligence]. Can you just explain briefly… what are the differences between those three entities.

Bergman: What Mossad does, which is unique … is to take the information it gathers and translate that into operations way beyond enemy lines. Mossad is civilian…. The Prime Minister is … the commander-in-chief of the Mossad, and also of the Shin Bet.

[Shin Bet] works inside … Israel and also in the Occupied Territories … a combination between the FBI and MI5. But it's also … deeply involved with operations and targeted killings.

And the last agency, which is the biggest of all, is military intelligence [AMAN]… [T]his deals with intelligence to help the Israeli Defense Force…. [T]he military intelligence has one very big unit [within it] called 8200, which is the Israeli equivalent to the NSA. [Unit 8200] is the biggest military unit in the whole of the Israeli Defense Forces. [It’s also] the mother and father of startup nation … of one of the most successful … cyber industries in the world, offensive cyber industries in the world.

Zero Day: One of the episodes that you describe in your book … involves an interview you did in 2012 [with] a high-ranking Air Force officer. He told you that because you had gained his trust, he would reveal to you the most secretive story in the history of the Israeli Air Force. But he had one condition, … he wouldn't let you write about it unless you were able to get another high-ranking officer, whom he named, to tell you the same story on the record. You did … get that [second] officer to reveal the story…. So tell us about that.

Bergman: This officer, what he told me was that during a few months, in mid- to late-1982, after Yasser Arafat had to leave the besieged Beirut — after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon — Ariel Sharon, wanted to close that gloomy episode in the history of Israel … with the killing of the person that he hated the most, Yasser Arafat. And he ordered the Israeli Air Force to find out the commercial airlines that Arafat was taking, flying from one place to the other, [in order to] take out a commercial airline flying over the Mediterranean. So killing Arafat, but [also] killing other hundreds of civilian innocent passengers [aboard that plane].

[I]t never happened, because the supreme command of the Air Force rebelled against Sharon … made sure that this operation is just undoable. It jammed the communication, it did all sorts of other tricks, just making sure that this will never happen. Making sure that Israel will not be stained forever with this horrible war crime.

When I came to the second high-ranking Air Force commander, I was sure that he's not going to [confirm the story], and I didn't even start to speak with him [about it]. I just went around the story [asking], “What happened in [this] day? And what happened in that day?” And at a certain point, he said, “Ronen, why are you here? … I sense that there is something else that you want to ask.” So I asked. And … this is a very tough officer, [so] I was sure that he's going to just ask me to leave [and refuse to tell me anything]. Instead, his gaze changed. He looked at me and he said, “Ronen, you know what? I have been waiting for 30 years … for someone to ask me about that.” And he stood up and he walked to the other side of this huge office, and he moved furniture. There was a safe behind this; he opened the safe. He came back with all the documents, the relevant documents to that operation. He said [that he had kept them for the day that someone would come and ask him]. “Because I think that the world needs to know.” And that chapter in the book, … the details, … they're all taken from the documents that were kept in that safe of that officer.

Zero Day: How did the public react when that story came out?

Bergman: It had very loud echoes in Israel. Everybody spoke about that and quoted the story. Of course, it created the political discussion and debate that you can expect … [It brought up] questions — the legal, the moral, the defense questions — [about] using these kinds of means….

The debate remains [about] the effectiveness, the legality, and the morality of using targeted killing as a main weapon…. Is it effective? Is it worthwhile? [T]his discussion … is not just relevant to Israel, it's relevant to many, many other countries [that engage in killings].

Zero Day: You do address that [in the book]… [Y]ou talk about how there was anticipation … that [the assassination of specific people] would actually control the Intifada, that it would control suicide bombings.… And in some cases, you say that there was a drop in activity — [in the case of] suicide bombings, for example, it was quite effective, but ... it couldn't quell the Intifada [Arab uprising in the Occupied Territories] …. Do [targeted killings ever] achieve the aims?

Bergman: It does depend on the way this is performed, whether this is part of an overall strategy, whether it's done as an ongoing effort … whether it's done against specific people who are being identified as part of a complicated operational chain….

[Y]ou mentioned quite rightly the case of the… suicide bombers.… They were coming into Israel in the second Intifada … between 2000 and 2004. And … for some time it was seen that there's nothing you can do [to stop them]. How can you stop a person who doesn't need anything but some kind of indoctrination, … and he's holding or carrying the suicide belt and he needs to cross into Israel and aboard the bus [or] get into a kindergarten or shopping mall and just turn the switch from off to on…. How do you stop them? It turns out that you cannot stop those people. Or you can, but there are many more [of them who will come after them]…. But it turns out that when you target the people above them … the bomb makers and the indoctrinators and the communicators and the regional commanders.… [Targeting] the organizations sending the suicide bombers was the only thing … that was able to stop those people from coming.

Zero Day: We talked a bit about the rebellion of the commanders [who opposed] the proposal to kill Arafat. There was [another] really interesting case of rebellion that you describe, [involving] a young analyst…. His name was Amir, and he was assigned to Unit 8200, which is the signals intelligence unit of the military, and he rebelled against an order to bomb a target. Tell that story about how that came about.

Bergman: [T]he story evolves from a question that was clear in old times but became trickier and trickier and far less sharp with technology [that makes it possible to kill from afar]…. Who has the authority, at least the moral authority if not the legal one, to declare an operation illegal, to say “I am not going to obey this order because this order is manifestly illegal”?…. With technology, the pilot in the cockpit, he doesn't know who is going to be dying because of his bomb. [But] the intelligence officer … [who] sits many, many kilometers [away] … in a bunker, behind monitors looking at feeds of intelligence, he knows much more. And in [this] case, … a very young but smart and very stubborn and opinionated intelligence officer … came to the conclusion that a raid against Fatah headquarters in the Gaza Strip [was] going to kill civilians and not … terrorists. And he stopped the operation. He stopped the feed of intelligence … so the F-16 [plane] didn't get the confirmation [the pilot needed to fire the missiles],… and the operation was canceled…. [A]fterwards,… it created panic in Israel. It reached the prime minister, Ariel Sharon…[It was] one of the most tense [times] in Israeli history; people were killed everyday by suicide bombers…. And Ariel Sharon was afraid if this guy refused an order, this will lead to many others to do the same. [T]hey, of course, threw [Amir] from the military. [T]hey wanted to court martial him, but in the end they decided that this will just attract too much attention.

For me, … beside the stories of people working undercover in a hostile country for years … those two stories of the commanders of the Israeli Air Force [who defied the order to shoot Arafat’s plane] and that young intelligence officer who … disobeyed a direct order knowing that they are going to pay a very high price … those are my heroes from the book. And I think that they have done something remarkable.

Zero Day: I kept focusing on the responses that people gave you about regrets or no regrets that they had.… You had one former pilot who said: “If you want to know what I feel when I release a bomb, I feel a slight shudder in the wing as the result of the release of the bomb…. And that's all, that's what I feel.” He had absolutely no sort of connection with the consequences of dropping the bomb. And [then] there was … Ze’ev Amit … who was involved in the murder of a man named Herbert Cukers, who was a Latvian Nazi war criminal. This was in the early years of Israel. And that murder turned particularly violent and gruesome when Cukers fought back with exceptional strength…. And for years after that, you write, [Amit] suffered from horrific nightmares…. I'm wondering how many people, when you interviewed them, expressed some kind of regret or remorse … as a result of the operations that they engaged in?

Bergman: [S]urprisingly, the number of people expressing regret or [who] say they have some kind of post trauma is very low.… There is research in the Israeli Air Force about some … drone pilots that suggested they suffer from some kind of PTSD. But … the number of people who would openly say, “I have nightmares” … this is something that … in Israel, this macho environment,… people will be sort of ashamed to acknowledge. But Israel is also a country with people who are very opinionated, especially people who served in the military and in the intelligence community. And if they have regrets, or if they would think that something was done wrong, I think that most of them will express that.

I must say, in [the] vast, vast majority of cases, I found people who are very at peace with what they have done. They believe that those people deserved to die. They believe that what they have done was a necessary evil, in order to prevent a much bigger evil.

There was a guy … who was a Holocaust survivor, and then became a Mossad operative — Nehemia Meiri was the name. [At the age of 12, all of Meiri’s family members were rounded up by Gestapo at the edges of a pit and shot; Meiri lay in the pit beneath their bodies and survived.] If you … remember the movie Munich by Steven Spielberg, it deals mainly with the … targeted killing operations in Europe and in Lebanon, following the massacre of the Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympic Games in 1972. Nehemia Meiri … was the man with the gun behind most of those assassinations, and I asked him… “When you go to sleep, before you close your eyes, do you think about the people that you killed? Do you dream about them?” And he said, “I have never dreamed or thought of them. I believe each one of them deserved two bullets in the chest and one in the head. If I dreamed about things [I dreamed about] the Muselmänner [the starving, sick inmates in the Nazi death camps] and the bodies of…my family [that were killed in Poland].”

Zero Day: You describe [a policy in which Israeli assassins] wouldn’t kill civilians and … in particular, children. And yet in a number of [targeted killings conducted by Israel] there were children in a car that was hit by a Hellfire missile, or children in an apartment…. You’re saying that even in those cases there is no regret?

Bergman: When suicide bombers started to come [into Israel], it was decided that the only way to confront them [was] with drones and aircraft.… Of course when you do something with flying vehicles [the] collateral damage is severe. And here’s the… diabolical dilemma…. [Say, for example,] you know about a Hamas operative who has already sent suicide bombers that killed 344 people … and injured more than 1,000. And he knows that he's a target [and] moves from place to place trying to hide, but also moving from place to place with his wife as a human shield. Doesn’t leave her sight, keeps her very close, because he knows that the Israelis are going to be very hesitant to kill a woman…. And the dilemma is here … [Y]ou have a very small window of opportunity of knowing where this guy is, but [knowing] with high chance that if you drop the bomb, his wife will be killed as well.

Zero Day: You [write in the book] that in the mid 90s, the Mossad and AMAN’s Special Operations Executive hacked the computer network of Al-Sammed al-Iktisadi — Fatah’s financial arm. You said they transferred money from one account to another in order to sow distrust [and make people think] that someone was embezzling money. I’m wondering if you can provide a little more information about that operation.

Bergman: Al-Sammed al-Iktisadi was the financial wing of the PLO that controlled a lot of assets, flow of money…. PLO was a very rich organization, and … some of those databases of Al-Sammed al-Iktisadi used software called Lotus 1-2-3, and they were able to hack into that and create [havoc] in the flow of money and [give] the impression that some of those operatives of Al-Sammed al-Iktisadi stole the money, moved it to the wrong account…. I think it gave the first proof to Israel that a lot can be done through computers, just from sitting in the office. This is one of the very first operations that led to the establishment of units dedicated to what was then seen as science fiction — the use of computers and signal intelligence not just in order to collect intelligence, which by itself was rare and unique, but also in order to do things that manipulate the data or later to change things in the real world, like destroying centrifuges for the enrichment of uranium through cyber….

Zero Day: How much money was transferred and what were the consequences for the people the fingers were pointed at?

Bergman: I don’t recall how much money was transferred, but it was a lot. It was enough, in any case, to really create the image as if … some of those … operatives are stealing the money. Some of them were put in jail, some of them were tortured. Some were beaten. And there was even a story that at least one of them was killed. But the whole thing paralyzed much of the financial infrastructure of the PLO, which was the purpose of the hackers in the first place.

Zero Day: Talk about the threats to intimidate you while you were writing the book…. Your phone was bugged, your emails were hacked…. How does this affect your ability to get sources to speak with you if they know you're under intense surveillance?

Bergman: When launching the book in New York, someone — this was at the 92nd Street [YMCA] in New York — … someone approached me and started speaking Hebrew, someone I didn't know. He introduced himself. He said, “You don’t know me, but I know you.” [I said,] “From where, if I can ask?” “From television.”

I said, “Ah you saw an interview with me.” He said, “No, not this kind of television. I’m talking about the monitors in the surveillance van.” This guy was running a special unit in one of the intelligence services [that] was surveilling me, was following me for months in 2001 when I did an interview with a guy about the nuclear secrets of Israel.

Zero Day: Have you had difficulties getting people to speak with you [because of the surveillance on you]?

Bergman: People tend not to speak over the phone. In general, 95 to 96 percent of the interviews in the book were done in person, when the phones were removed from the location of the interview.

Zero Day: But you were being physically surveilled as well.

Bergman: Shin Bet collects the metadata from [the communications of] all Israelis all the time, since 2003. So in order to make sure that I am not spotted with someone I need to take very severe precautions…. [W]hen you are a one-man show, which journalists are, there’s very little you can do. Unless you just want to deal with operational security [all the time] and not do your work. So I’m trying to identify what are the most sensitive parts of my work; what are the areas where sources are at risk, put a lot of emphasis on operation security with those.… I cannot get into details.… [But] if Shin Bet or Mossad or CIA are running a whole operation against me, I just need to make sure there are a few points where they will have blank spots [in their surveillance].