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Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel's Targeted Assassinations by Ronen Bergman

Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel's Targeted Assassinations by Ronen Bergman
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“Israel is the world leader in assassinations,” said Edward Lucas in The Times. In the past 70 years, no country has killed a greater number of its enemies with “such expert use of bombs, bullets and poisons” – some 2,300 in total, according to this “meticulous” book. In Rise and Kill First, Ronen Bergman charts the history of Israel’s assassination programme, from its origins before the country was founded to the present day. As national security editor of Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s largest daily newspaper, Bergman “enjoys unrivalled access” to sources inside Mossad and Israel’s other intelligence agencies, and his book is packed with “revelations”. One of the most striking scoops concerns Wadie Haddad, the co-founder of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, who died in agony in 1978 – because, we learn, an Israeli agent swapped his toothpaste “for an identical-seeming tube containing a lethal poison”. However, Bergman’s book isn’t “just an account of ruthless derring-do”: he explores the legal quandaries surrounding assassinations, and avoids “lapsing into gratuitous gore”.

The book’s title is taken from the Talmud, which advises: “If someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first.” Israel’s leaders have ruthlessly honoured this creed, said Glenn Frankel in The Washington Post – finding ever more inventive ways to strike their targets (including, once, using “poisoned baklava”). Bergman’s book catalogues such “storied triumphs” as the assassinations of the German nuclear scientists who worked for Egypt in the 1950s and 1960s, and the targeting of the men behind the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Yet he doesn’t shy away from the programme’s many “chilling” aspects, including the attempts by the country’s secret agencies to circumvent legal restrictions on targeted killings.

As well as being “a stunning feat of research and a riveting read”, this book is a “testament to the author’s personal courage”, said Dominic Sandbrook in The Sunday Times. Bergman has been interrogated and, while researching the book, threatened with charges of “aggravated espionage”. This context makes his even-handedness especially impressive: while he is willing to criticise Israel – suggesting, for example, that many agents have been “unforgivably casual about civilian casualties” – he also argues against adopting “cheap, moralistic conclusions”. Often “exciting” and “sometimes moving”, this book may at times have a “hint of John le Carré”, but it “always has a moral core”.