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Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations by Ronen Bergman, Random House, US $35.00, Pp 784, January 2018, ISBN 978-1400069712

Given the systematic and continued persecution of Jewish people over the last twenty-five centuries, it is only natural that the only Jewish state in the world needs to take exceptional security measures. The best way to make Israel secure comes from Talmud which says, “If someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first.” The instinct to rise up and kill the enemy comes naturally to Israeli security agencies which have used the target killings to eliminate the enemies of the state of Israel, both in response to attacks against the Israeli people and preemptively. In Rise and Kill First, Ronen Bergman says that Israel has assassinated more people than any other country in the Western world since World War II. Ronen Bergman deals mainly with the assassinations carried out by the Mossad, Shin Bet, and the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), in both peacetime and wartime — as well as, by underground militias in the pre-state era, once it was established.

As the author of five bestselling Hebrew-language nonfiction books and The Secret War with Iran, and the senior correspondent for military and intelligence affairs for Yedioth Ahronoth and a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, Ronen Bergman has the right scholarly credentials to write on this important national security policy issue. Ronen Bergman says that “killing the diver” or assassination or liquidation is more fraught and controversial than all other means democracies use to protect their security which is why, in America, it is called “target killings” for legal reasons. Ronen Bergman says that the use of assassination by a state touches two very difficult dilemmas. First, is it effective? Can the elimination of an individual, or a number of individuals, make the world a safer place? Second, is it morally and legally justified? Is it legitimate, both ethically and judicially, for a country to employ the gravest of all crimes in any code of ethics or law – the premeditated taking of a human life – in order to protect its own citizens?

Bergman says that, on innumerable occasions, Israeli leaders have weighed what would be the best way to defend its national security and, out of all the options, have time and again decided on clandestine operations, with assassination the method of choice. They believed this would solve difficult problems faced by the state, and sometimes change the course of history. In many cases, Israeli leaders have even determined that in order to kill the designated target, it is moral and legal to endanger the lives of innocent civilians who may happen to find themselves in the line of fire. They believe harming such people is a necessary evil.

According to Bergman, up until the start of the Second Palestinian Intifada, in September 2000, when Israel first began to respond to suicide bombings with the daily use of armed drones to perform assassinations, the state had conducted some 500 targeted killing operations. At least 1,000 people — both civilians and combatants — were killed in these operations. During the Second Intifada, Israel carried out some 1,000 more operations, of which 168 succeeded. Since then, up until the writing of this book, Israel has executed some 800 targeted killing operations, almost all of which were part of the rounds of warfare against Hamas in the Gaza Strip in 2008, 2012, and 2014 or Mossad operations across the Middle East against Palestinian, Syrian and Iranian targets. By contrast, during the presidency of George W. Bush, the United States of America carried out 48 targeted killing operations, and under President Obama, there were 353 such attacks.

Israel has used the target killings in a very systematic way and developed new and effective techniques, so much so that even the United States has borrowed them and incorporated them in its national security policy in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Bergman says that the United States has taken the intelligence-gathering and assassination techniques developed in Israel as a model, and after 9/11 and President George Bush’s decision to launch a campaign of targeted killings against Al-Qaeda, it transplanted some of these methods into its own intelligence and war-on-terror systems. The command-and-control systems, the war rooms, the methods of information gathering, and the technology of the pilotless aircraft, or drones, that now serve the Americans and their allies were all in large part developed in Israel. This makes it appropriate to study the moral price that has been paid, and still is being paid, for the use of such power.

Rise and Kill First is a very insightful study of how Israel uses target assassination of its enemies and terrorists as an instrument of its defense policy. Ronen Bergman shows that Israel tops the list of countries that target assassinate their enemies as part of their national security policy. He also shows that Israel has perfected the art of target assassinations to the extent that even the United States borrowed target assassination techniques from Israel in the wake the of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Rise and Kill First is a meticulously researched and brilliantly written book. It should be an essential reading for the students and policy makers of national security policy.

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