OF ALL THE MEANS that democracies use to protect their security, there is none more fraught and controversial than “killing the driver”, assassination.
Israel’s reliance on assassination as a military tool did not happen by chance, but rather stems from the revolutionary and activist roots of the Zionist movement.
The six million would be avenged and let it be known that “no Nazi will place a foot on the soil of the Land of Israel.”
Since World War II, Israel has assassinated more people than any other country in the Western world. They have developed the most robust, streamlined assassination machine in history.
The members of Hashomer who led the Haganah at the outset were even willing to commit acts of violence against fellow Jews.
“You need to know how to forgive. You need to know how to forgive the enemy. However, we have no authority to forgive people like bin Laden. That, only God can do. Our job is to arrange a meeting between them. In my laboratory, I opened a matchmaker’s office, a bureau that arranged such meetings. I orchestrated more than thirty such meetings.” Natan Rotberg
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?
MEIR DAGAN, CHIEF OF the Israeli Mossad, legendary spy and assassin, walked into the room, leaning on his cane.
He’d been using it ever since he was wounded by a mine laid by Palestinian terrorists he was fighting in the Gaza Strip as a young special-ops officer in the 1970s. Dagan, who knew a thing or two about the power of myths and symbols, was careful not to deny the rumors that there was a blade concealed in the cane, which he could bare with a push of a button.
Dagan was a short man, so dark-skinned that people were always surprised to hear that he was from Polish origins, and he had a potbelly with a presence of its own. On this occasion he was wearing a simple open-necked shirt, light black pants, and black shoes, and it looked as if he’d not paid any special attention to his appearance. There was something about him that expressed a direct, terse self-confidence, and a quiet, sometimes menacing charisma.
The conference room that Dagan entered that afternoon, on January 8, 2011, was in the Mossad Academy, north of Tel Aviv. For the first time ever, the head of the espionage agency was meeting with journalists in the heart of one of Israel’s most closely guarded and secret installations.
Dagan had no love for the media. “I’ve reached the conclusion that it is an insatiable monster,” he would tell me later, “so there’s no point in maintaining a relationship with it.” Nevertheless, three days before the meeting, I and a number of other correspondents had received a confidential invitation. I was surprised. For an entire decade I had been leveling some harsh criticism at the Mossad, and in particular at Dagan, making him very angry.
The Mossad did everything it could to give the affair a cloak-and-dagger atmosphere. We were told to come to the parking lot of Cinema City, a movie theater complex not far from Mossad HQ, and to leave everything in our cars except notebooks and writing implements. “You will be carefully searched, and we want to avoid any unpleasantness,” our escorts told us. From there we were driven in a bus with dark tinted windows to the Mossad headquarters complex. We passed through a number of electric gates and electronic signs warning those entering what was permitted and what forbidden inside the perimeter. Then came a thorough scanning with metal detectors to make sure we hadn’t brought any video or audio recording equipment. We entered the conference room, and Dagan came in a few minutes after us, walking around and shaking hands. When he got to me, he gripped my hand for a moment and said with a smile, “You really are some kind of a bandit.”
Then he sat down. He was flanked by the spokesman of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the chief military censor, a female brigadier general. (The Mossad is a unit of the prime minister’s office, and, under national law, reporting on any of its activities is subject to censorship.) Both of these officials believed that Dagan had called the meeting merely to bid a formal farewell to the people who had covered his tenure, and that he would say nothing substantive.
They were wrong. The surprise was evident on the face of the prime minister’s spokesperson, whose eyes got wider and wider as Dagan continued speaking.
“There are advantages to having a back injury,” Dagan said, opening his address. “You get a doctor’s certificate confirming that you’re not spineless.” Very quickly, we realized that this was no mere wisecrack, as Dagan launched into a vehement attack on the prime minister of Israel. Benjamin Netanyahu, Dagan claimed, was behaving irresponsibly and, for his own egotistical reasons, leading the country into disaster. “That someone is elected does not mean that he is smart” was one of his jibes.
This was the last day of Dagan’s term as the Mossad’s director. Netanyahu was showing him the door, and Dagan, whose life’s dream had been to hold the position of Israel’s top spy, was not going to stand by with folded arms. The acute crisis of confidence between the two men had flared up around two issues, and both of them were intimately connected to Meir Dagan’s weapon of choice: assassination.
“That someone is elected does not mean that he is smart” Meir Dagan
Eight years earlier, Ariel Sharon had appointed Dagan to the Mossad post and put him in charge of disrupting the Iranian nuclear weapons project, which both men saw as an existential threat to Israel. Dagan acted in a number of ways to fulfill this task. The most difficult way, but also the most effective, Dagan believed, was to identify iran’s key nuclear and missile scientists, locate them, and kill them. The Mossad pinpointed fifteen such targets, of whom it eliminated six, mostly when they were on their way to work in the morning, by means of bombs with short time fuses, attached to their cars by a motorcyclist. In addition, a general of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, who was in charge of the missile project, was blown up in his headquarters together with seventeen of his men.
These operations and many others initiated by the Mossad, some in collaboration with the United States, were all successful, but Netanyahu and his defense minister, Ehud Barak, had begun to feel that their utility was declining. They decided that clandestine measures could no longer effectively delay the Iranian nuclear project, and that only a massive aerial bombardment of the Iranians’ nuclear facilities would successfully halt their progress toward acquiring such weapons.
Dagan strongly opposed this idea. Indeed, it flew in the face of everything he believed in: that open warfare should be waged only when “the sword is on our throat,” or as a last resort, in situations in which there was no other choice. Everything else could and should be handled through clandestine means.
“Assassinations,” he said, “have an effect on morale, as well as a practical effect. I don’t think there were many who could have replaced Napoleon, or a president like Roosevelt or a prime minister like Churchill. The personal aspect certainly plays a role. It’s true that anyone can be replaced, but there’s a difference between a replacement with guts and some lifeless character.”
Furthermore, the use of assassination, in Dagan’s view, “is a lot more moral” than waging all-out war. Neutralizing a few major figures is enough to make the latter option unnecessary and save the lives of untold numbers of soldiers and civilians on both sides. A large-scale attack against Iran would lead to a large-scale conflict across the Middle East, and even then it likely would not cause enough damage to the Iranian installations.
Finally, from Dagan’s point of view, if Israel started a war with Iran, it would be an indictment of his entire career. History books would show that he had not fulfilled the task that Sharon had given him: to put an end to Iranian nuclear acquisition using covert means, without recourse to an open assault.
Dagan’s opposition, and similar heavy pressure from the top military and intelligence chiefs, forced the repeated postponement of the attack on Iran. Dagan even briefed CIA Director Leon Panetta about the Israeli plan (the prime minister alleges he did so without permission), and soon President Obama was also warning Netanyahu not to attack.
The tension between the two men escalated even higher in 2010, seven years into Dagan’s tenure. Dagan had dispatched a hit team of twenty-seven Mossad operatives to Dubai to eliminate a senior official of the Palestinian terror group Hamas. They did the job: the assassins injected him with a paralyzing drug in his hotel room and made their getaway from the country before the body was discovered. But just a short while after their departure, due to a series of gross errors they made, forgetting to take into account Dubai’s innumerable CCTV cameras; using the same phony passports that the operatives had previously used to enter Dubai in order to follow the target; and a phone setup that the local police had no trouble in cracking, the whole world was soon watching video footage of their faces and a complete record of their movements. The discovery that this was a Mossad operation caused serious operational damage to the agency, as well as profound embarrassment to the State of Israel, which had once again been caught using fake passports of friendly Western countries for its agents. “But you told me it would be easy and simple, that the risk of things going wrong was close to zero,” Netanyahu fumed at Dagan, and ordered him to suspend many of the pending assassination plans and other operations until further notice.
The confrontation between Dagan and Netanyahu became more and more acute until Netanyahu (according to his version) decided not to extend Dagan’s tenure, or (in Dagan’s words) “I simply got sick of him and I decided to retire.”
At that briefing in the Mossad Academy and in a number of later interviews for this book, Dagan displayed robust confidence that the Mossad, under his leadership, would have been able to stop the Iranians from making nuclear weapons by means of assassinations and other pinpoint measures, for instance, working with the United States to keep the Iranians from being able to import critical parts for their nuclear project that they could not manufacture themselves. “If we manage to prevent Iran from obtaining some of the components, this would seriously damage their project. In a car there are 25,000 parts on average. Imagine if one hundred of them are missing. It would be very hard to make it go. “On the other hand,” Dagan added with a smile, returning to his favorite modus operandi, “sometimes it’s most effective to kill the driver, and that’s that.”
OF ALL THE MEANS that democracies use to protect their security, there is none more fraught and controversial than “killing the driver”, assassination.
Some, euphemistically, call it “liquidation.” The American intelligence community calls it, for legal reasons, “targeted killings.” In practice, these terms amount to the same thing: killing a specific individual in order to achieve a specific goal, saving the lives of people the target intends to kill, averting a dangerous act that he is about to perpetrate, and sometimes removing a leader in order to change the course of history.
The use of assassinations 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?
This book deals mainly with the assassinations and targeted killings carried out by the Mossad and by other arms of the Israeli government, in both peacetime and wartime, as well as, in the early chapters, by the underground militias in the pre-state era, organizations that were to become the army and intelligence services of the state, once it was established.
Since World War II, Israel has assassinated more people than any other country in the Western world. On innumerable occasions, its 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. This, they believed, would solve difficult problems faced by the state, and sometimes change the course of history. In many cases, Israel’s 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. Harming such people, they believe, is a necessary evil.
The numbers speak for themselves. 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. In these, at least 1,000 people were killed, both civilians and combatants. 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, according to one estimate, and under President Barack Obama there were 353 such attacks.
Israel’s reliance on assassination as a military tool did not happen by chance, but rather stems from the revolutionary and activist roots of the Zionist movement, from the trauma of the Holocaust, and from the sense among Israel’s leaders and citizens that the country and its people are perpetually in danger of annihilation and that, as in the Holocaust, no one will come to their aid when that happens.
Because of Israel’s tiny dimensions, the attempts by the Arab states to destroy it even before it was established, their continued threats to do so, and the perpetual menace of Arab terrorism, the country evolved a highly effective military and, arguably, the best intelligence community in the world. They, in turn, have developed the most robust, streamlined assassination machine in history.
The following pages will detail the secrets of that machine, the fruit of a mixed marriage between guerrilla warfare and the military might of a technological powerhouse, its operatives, leaders, methods, deliberations, successes, and failures, as well as the moral costs. They will illustrate how two separate legal systems have arisen in Israel, one for ordinary citizens and one for the intelligence community and defense establishment. The latter system has allowed, with a nod and a wink from the government, highly problematic acts of assassination, with no parliamentary or public scrutiny, resulting in the loss of many innocent lives.
On the other hand, the assassination weapon, based on intelligence that is “nothing less than exquisite”, to quote the former head of the NSA and the CIA, General Michael Hayden, is what made Israel’s war on terror the most effective ever waged by a Western country. On numerous occasions, it was targeted killing that saved Israel from very grave cases.
The Mossad and Israel’s other intelligence arms have done away with individuals who were identified as direct threats to national security, and killing them has also sent a bigger message: If you are an enemy of Israel, we will find and kill you, wherever you are. This message has indeed been heard around the world. Occasional blunders have only enhanced the Mossad’s aggressive and merciless reputation, not a bad thing, when the goal of deterrence is as important as the goal of preempting specific hostile acts.
The assassinations were not all carried out by small, closed groups. The more complex they became, the more people took part, sometimes as many as hundreds, the majority of them below the age of twenty-five. Sometimes these young people will come with their commanders to meet the prime minister, the only one authorized to green-light an assassination, in order to explain the operation and get final approval. Such forums, in which most of the participants advocating for someone’s death are under the age of thirty, are probably unique to Israel. Some of the low ranking officers involved in these meetings have advanced over the years to become national leaders and even prime ministers themselves. What marks have remained imprinted on them from the times they took part in hit operations?
The United States has taken the intelligence gathering and assassination techniques developed in Israel as a model, and after 9/11 and President 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.
Nowadays, when the same kind of extrajudicial killing that Israel has used for decades is being used daily by America against its enemies, it is appropriate not only to admire the impressive operational capabilities that Israel has built, but also to study the high moral price that has been paid, and still is being paid, for the use of such power.
IN BLOOD AND FIRE
ON SEPTEMBER 29, 1944, David Shomron hid in the gloom of St. George Street, not far from the Romanian Church in Jerusalem. A church building was used as officers’ lodgings by the British authorities governing Palestine, and Shomron was waiting for one of those officers, a man named Tom Wilkin, to leave.
Wilkin was the commander of the Jewish unit at the Criminal investigation Department (CID) of the British Mandate for Palestine, and he was very good at his job, especially the part that involved infiltrating and disrupting the fractious Jewish underground. Aggressive, yet also exceptionally patient and calculating, Wilkin spoke fluent Hebrew, and after thirteen years of service in Palestine, he had an extensive network of informants. Thanks to the intelligence they provided, underground fighters were arrested, their weapons caches were seized, and their planned operations, aimed at forcing the British to leave Palestine, were foiled.
Which was why Shomron was going to kill him.
Shomron and his partner that night, Yaakov Banai (code named Mazal, “Luck”), were operatives with Lehi, the most radical of the Zionist underground movements fighting the British in the early 1940s. Though Lehi was the acronym for the Hebrew phrase “fighters for the freedom of Israel,” the British considered it a terrorist organization, referring to it dismissively as the Stern Gang, after its founder, the romantic ultra-nationalist Avraham Stern. Stern and his tiny band of followers employed a targeted mayhem of assassinations and bombings, a campaign of “personal terror,” as Lehi’s operations chief (and later Israeli prime minister), Yitzhak Shamir, called it.
Wilkin knew he was a target. Lehi already had tried to kill him and his boss, Geoffrey Morton, nearly three years earlier, in its first, clumsy operation. On January 20, 1942, assassins planted bombs on the roof and inside the building of 8 Yael Street, in Tel Aviv. Instead they ended up killing three police officers-two Jews and an Englishman, who arrived before Wilkin and Morton and tripped the charges. Later, Morton fled Palestine after being wounded in another attempt on his life, that one in retribution for Morton having shot Stern dead.
None of those details, the back-and-forth of who killed whom and in what order, mattered to Shomron. The British occupied the land the Zionists saw as rightfully theirs, that was what mattered, and Shamir had issued a death sentence against Wilkin.
For Shomron and his comrades, Wilkin was not a person but rather a target, prominent and high value. “We were too busy and hungry to think about the British and their families,” Shomron said decades later.
After discovering that Wilkin was residing in the Romanian Church annex, the assassins set out on their mission. Shomron and Banai had revolvers and hand grenades in their pockets. Additional Lehi operatives were in the vicinity, smartly dressed in suits and hats to look like Englishmen.
Wilkin left the officers’ lodgings in the church and headed for the ClD’s facility in the Russian Compound, where underground suspects were held and interrogated. As always, he was wary, scanning the street as he walked and keeping one hand in his pocket all the time. As he passed the corner of St. George and Mea Shearim Streets, a youngster sitting outside the neighborhood grocery store got up and dropped his hat. This was the signal, and the two assassins began walking toward Wilkin, identifying him according to the photographs they’d studied. Shomron and Banai let him pass, gripping their revolvers with sweating palms.
Then they turned around and drew.
“Before we did it, Mazal [Banai] said, ‘Let me shoot first,” Shomron recalled. “But when we saw him, I guess I couldn’t restrain myself. I shot first.”
Between them, Banai and Shomron fired fourteen times. Eleven of those bullets hit Wilkin. “He managed to turn around and draw his pistol,” Shomron said, “but then he fell face first. A spurt of blood came out of his forehead, like a fountain. It was not such a pretty picture.”
Shomron and Banai darted back into the shadows and made off in a taxi in which another Lehi man was waiting for them.
“The only thing that hurt me was that we forgot to take the briefcase in which he had all his documents,” Shomron said. Other than that, “I didn’t feel anything, not even a little twinge of guilt. We believed the more coffins that reached London, the closer the day of freedom would be.”
THE IDEA THAT THE return of the People of Israel to the Land of Israel could be achieved only by force was not born with Stern and his Lehi comrades.
The roots of that strategy can be traced to eight men who gathered in a stifling one room apartment overlooking an orange grove in Jaffa on September 29, 1907, exactly thirty seven years before a fountain of blood spurted from Wilkin’s head, when Palestine was still part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. The flat was rented by Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, a young Russian who’d immigrated to Ottoman Palestine earlier that year. Like the others in his apartment that night, all emigrants from the Russian empire, sitting on a straw mat spread on the floor of the candlelit room, he was a committed Zionist, albeit part of a splinter sect that had once threatened to end the movement.
Zionism as a political ideology had been founded in 1896 when Viennese Jewish journalist Theodor Herzl published Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State). He had been deeply affected while covering the trial in Paris of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish army officer unjustly accused and convicted of treason.
In his book, Herzl argued that anti-Semitism was so deeply ingrained in European culture that the Jewish people could achieve true freedom and safety only in a nation-state of their own. The Jewish elite of Western Europe, who’d managed to carve out comfortable lives for themselves, mostly rejected Herzl. But his ideas resonated with poor and working-class Jews of Eastern Europe, who suffered repeated pogroms and continual oppression and to which some of them responded by aligning themselves with leftist uprisings.
Herzl himself saw Palestine, the Jews’ ancestral homeland, as the ideal location for a future Jewish state, but he maintained that any settlement there would have to be handled deliberately and delicately, through proper diplomatic channels and with international sanction, if a Jewish nation was to survive in peace. Herzl’s view came to be known as political Zionism.
Ben-Zvi and his seven comrades, on the other hand, were-like most other Russian Jews, practical Zionists. Rather than wait for the rest of the world to give them a home, they believed in creating one themselves, in going to Palestine, working the land, making the desert bloom. They would take what they believed to be rightfully theirs, and they would defend what they had taken.
This put the practical Zionists in immediate conflict with most of the Jews already living in Palestine. As a tiny minority in an Arab land, many of them peddlers and religious scholars and functionaries under the Ottoman regime, they preferred to keep a low profile. Through Mustafasubservience and compromise and bribery, these established Palestinian Jews had managed to buy themselves relative peace and a measure of security.
But Ben-Zvi and the other newcomers were appalled at the conditions their fellow Jews tolerated. Many were living in abject poverty and had no means of defending themselves, utterly at the mercy of the Arab majority and the venal officials of the corrupt Ottoman Empire. Arab mobs attacked and plundered Jewish settlements, rarely with any consequences. Worse, as Ben-Zvi and the others saw it, those same settlements had consigned their defense to Arab guards, who in turn would sometimes collaborate with attacking mobs.
Ben-Zvi and his friends found this situation to be unsustainable and intolerable. Some were former members of Russian left-wing revolutionary movements inspired by the People’s Will (Narodnaya Volya), an aggressive anti-tsarist guerrilla movement that employed terrorist tactics, including assassinations.
Disappointed by the abortive 1905 revolution in Russia, which in the end produced only minimal constitutional reforms, some of these socialist revolutionaries, social democrats, and liberals moved to Ottoman Palestine to reestablish a Jewish state.
They all were desperately poor, barely scraping by, earning pennies at teaching jobs or manual labor in the fields and orange groves, often going hungry. But they were proud Zionists. If they were going to create a nation, they first had to defend themselves. So they slipped through the streets of Jaffa in pairs and alone, making their way to the secret meeting in Ben-Zvi’s apartment.
That night, those eight people formed the first Hebrew fighting force of the modern age. They decreed that, from then forward, everything would be different from the image of the weak and persecuted Jew all across the globe. Only Jews would defend Jews in Palestine.
They named their fledgling army Bar-Giora, after one of the leaders of the Great Jewish Revolt against the Roman Empire, in the first century. On their banner, they paid homage to that ancient rebellion and predicted their future. “In blood and fire Judea fell,” it read. “In blood and fire Judea will rise.”
Judea would indeed rise. Ben-Zvi would one day be the Jewish nation’s second president. Yet first there would be much fire, and much blood.
BAR-GIORA WAS NOT, AT first, a popular movement. But more Jews arrived in Palestine from Russia and Eastern Europe every year, 35,000 between 1905 and 1914, bringing with them that same determined philosophy of practical Zionism.
With more like-minded Jews flooding into the Yishuv, as the Jewish community in Palestine was called, Bar-Giora in 1909 was reconstituted into the larger and more aggressive Hashomer (Hebrew for “the Guard”). By 1912, Hashomer was defending fourteen settlements. Yet it was also developing offensive, albeit clandestine, capabilities, preparing for what practical Zionists saw as an inevitable eventual war to take control of Palestine. Hashomer therefore saw itself as the nucleus for a future Jewish army and intelligence service.
Mounted on their horses, Hashomer vigilantes raided a few Arab settlements to punish residents who had harmed Jews, sometimes beating them up, sometimes executing them. In one case, a special clandestine assembly of Hashomer members decided to eliminate a Bedouin policeman, Aref al-Arsan, who had assisted the Turks and tortured Jewish prisoners. He was shot dead by Hashomer in June 1916.
Hashomer did not recoil from using force to assert its authority over other Jews, either. During World War I, Hashomer was violently opposed to NILI, a Jewish spy network working for the British in Ottoman Palestine. Hashomer feared that the Turks would discover the spies and wreak vengeance against the entire Jewish community. When they failed to get NILI to cease operations or to hand over a stash of gold coins they’d received from the British, they made an attempt on the life of Yosef Lishansky, one of its members, managing only to wound him.
In 1920, Hashomer evolved again, now into the Haganah (Hebrew for “Defense”). Though it was not specifically legal, the British authorities, who had been ruling the country for about three years, tolerated the Haganah as the paramilitary defensive arm of the Yishuv. The Histadrut, the socialist labor union of the Jews in Israel that was founded in the same year, and the Jewish Agency, the Yishuv’s autonomous governing authority, established a few years later, both headed by David Ben-Gurion, maintained command over the secret organization.
Ben-Gurion was born David Yosef Grijn in Plo’nsk, Poland, in 1886. From an early age, he followed in his father’s footsteps as a Zionist activist. In 1906, he migrated to Palestine and, thanks to his charisma and determination, soon became one of the leaders of the Yishuv, despite his youth. He then changed his name to Ben-Gurion, after another of the leaders of the revolt against the Romans.
Haganah in its early years was influenced by the spirit and aggressive attitude of Hashomer. On May 1, 1921, an Arab mob massacred fourteen Jews in an immigrants’ hostel in Jaffa. After learning that an Arab police officer by the name of Tewfik Bey had helped the mob get into the hostel, Haganah sent a hit squad to dispose of him, and on January 17, 1923, he was shot dead in the middle of a Tel Aviv street. “As a matter of honor,” he was shot from the front and not in the back, according to one of those involved, and the intention was “to show the Arabs that their deeds are not forgotten and their day will come, even if belatedly.”
The members of Hashomer who led the Haganah at the outset were even willing to commit acts of violence against fellow Jews. Jacob de Haan was a Dutch born Haredi-an ultra-Orthodox Jew, living in Jerusalem in the early 1920s. He was a propagandist for the Haredi belief that only the Messiah could establish a Jewish state, that God alone would decide when to return the Jews to their ancestral homeland, and that humans trying to expedite the process were committing a grave sin. In other words, de Haan was a staunch anti-Zionist, and he was surprisingly adept at swaying international opinion. To Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, by now a prominent Haganah leader, that made de Haan dangerous. So he ordered his death.
On June 30, 1924, just a day before de Haan was to travel to London to ask the British government to reconsider its promise to establish a Jewish nation in Palestine, two assassins shot him three times as he emerged from a synagogue on Jaffa Road in Jerusalem.
Ben-Gurion, however, took a dim view of such acts. He realized that in order to win even partial recognition from the British for Zionist aims, he would have to enforce orderly and more moderate norms on the semi-underground militia under his command. Hashomer’s brave and lethal lone riders were replaced after the de Haan murder by an organized, hierarchical armed force. Ben-Gurion ordered Haganah to desist from using targeted killings. “As to personal terror, Ben-Gurion’s line was consistently and steadily against it,” Haganah commander Yisrael Galili testified later, and he recounted a number of instances in which Ben-Gurion had refused to approve proposals for hits against individual Arabs. These included the Palestinian leader Hajj Amin al-Husseini and other members of the Arab Higher Committee, and British personnel, such as a senior official in the Mandate’s lands authority who was obstructing Jewish settlement projects.
Not everyone was eager to acquiesce to Ben-Gurion. Avraham Tehomi, the man who shot de Haan, despised the moderate line Ben-Gurion took against the British and the Arabs, and, together with some other leading figures, he quit Haganah and in 1931 formed the Irgun Zvai Leumi, the “National Military Organization” whose Hebrew acronym is Etzel, usually referred to in English as IZL or the Irgun. This radical right-wing group was commanded in the 1940s by Menachem Begin, who in 1977 was to become prime minister of Israel. Inside the Irgun, too, there were clashes, personal and ideological. Opponents of Begin’s agreement to cooperate with Britain in its war against the Nazis broke away and formed Lehi. For these men, any cooperation with Britain was anathema.
These two dissident groups both advocated, to different degrees, the use of targeted killings against the Arab and British enemy, and against Jews they considered dangerous to their cause. Ben-Gurion remained adamant that targeted killings would not be used as a weapon and even took aggressive measures against those who did not obey his orders.
But then World War II ended, and everything, even the views of the obstinate Ben-Gurion, changed.
DURING WORLD WAR II, some 38,000 Jews from Palestine volunteered to help and serve in the British Army in Europe. The British formed the so-called Jewish Brigade, albeit somewhat reluctantly and only after being pressured by the Yishuv’s civilian leadership.
Unsure exactly what to do with the Brigade, the British first sent it to train in Egypt. It was there, in mid-1944, that its members first heard of the Nazi campaign of Jewish annihilation. When they were finally sent to Europe to fight in Italy and Austria, they witnessed the horrors of the Holocaust firsthand and were among the first to send detailed reports to Ben-Gurion and other leaders of the Yishuv.
One of those soldiers was Mordechai Gichon, who later would be one of the founders of Israeli military intelligence. Born in Berlin in 1922, Gichon had a father who was Russian and a mother who was the scion of a famous German-Jewish family, niece of Rabbi Leo Baeck, a leader of Germany’s Liberal (Reform) Jews. Gichon’s family moved to Palestine in 1933, after Mordechai had been required in his German school to give the Nazi salute and sing the party anthem.
He returned as a soldier to a Europe in ruins, his people nearly destroyed, their communities smoldering ruins. “The Jewish people had been humiliated, trampled, murdered,” he said. “Now was the time to strike back, to take revenge. In my dreams, when I enlisted, revenge took the form of me arresting my best friend from Germany, whose name was Detlef, the son of a police major. That’s how I would restore lost Jewish honor.”
It was that sense of lost honor, of a people’s humiliation, as much as rage at the Nazis, that drove men like Gichon. He first met the Jewish refugees on the border between Austria and Italy. The men of the Brigade fed them, took off their own uniforms to clothe them against the cold, tried to draw out of them details of the atrocities they had undergone. He remembers an encounter in June 1945 in which a female refugee came up to him.
“She broke away from her group and spoke to me in German,” he said. “She said, ‘You, the soldiers of the Brigade, are the sons of Bar Kokhba’”, the great hero of the Second Jewish Revolt against the Romans, in AD. 132-135. “She said, ‘I will always remember your insignia and what you did for us.”’
Gichon was flattered by the Bar Kokhba analogy, but for her praise and gratitude, Gichon felt only pity and shame. If the Jews in the Brigade were the sons of Bar Kokhba, who were these Jews? The soldiers from the Land of Israel, standing erect, tough, and strong, saw the Holocaust survivors as victims who needed help, but also as part of the European Jewry who had allowed themselves to be massacred. They embodied the cowardly, feeble stereotype of the Jews of the Diaspora, the Exile, in traditional Jewish and Zionist parlance, who surrendered rather than fought back, who did not know how to shoot or wield a weapon. It was that image, in its most extreme version, the Jew as a Muselmann, prisoners’ slang for the emaciated, zombie-like inmates hovering near death in the Nazi camps, that the new Jews of the Yishuv rejected.
“My brain could not grasp, not then and not today, how it could have been that there were tens of thousands of Jews in a camp with only a few German guards, but they did not rise up, they simply went like lambs to the slaughter,” Gichon said more than sixty years later. “Why didn’t they tear the Germans to shreds? I’ve always said that no such thing could happen in the Land of Israel. Had those communities had leaders worthy of the name, the entire business would have looked completely different.”
In the years following the war, the Zionists of the Yishuv would prove, both to the world and, more important, to themselves, that Jews would never again go to such slaughter, and that Jewish blood would not come cheaply.
The six million would be avenged.
“We thought we could not rest until we had exacted blood for blood, death for death,” said Hanoch Bartov, a highly regarded Israeli novelist who enlisted in the Brigade a month before his seventeenth birthday.
Such vengeance, though, atrocity for atrocity would violate the rules of war and likely be disastrous for the Zionist cause. Ben-Gurion, practical as always, publicly said as much: “Revenge now is an act of no national value. It cannot restore life to the millions who were murdered.”
Still, the Haganah’s leaders privately understood the need for some sort of retribution, both to satisfy the troops who had been exposed to the atrocities and also to achieve some degree of historical justice and deter future attempts to slaughter Jews. Thus, they sanctioned some types of reprisals against the Nazis and their accomplices. Immediately after the war, a secret unit, authorized and controlled by the Haganah high command and unknown to the British commanders, was set up within the Brigade. It was called Gmul, Hebrew for “Recompense.” The unit’s mission was “revenge, but not a robber’s revenge,” as a secret memo at the time put it. “Revenge against those SS men who themselves took part in the slaughter.”
“We looked for big fish,” Mordechai Gichon said, breaking a vow of silence among the Gmul commanders that he’d kept for more than sixty years. “The senior Nazis who had managed to shed their uniforms and return to their homes.”
The Gmul agents worked undercover even as they performed their regular Brigade duties. Gichon himself assumed two fake identities, one as a German civilian, the other as a British major, as he hunted Nazis. In expeditions under his German cover, Gichon recovered the Gestapo archives in Tarvisio, Villach, and Klagenfurt, to which fleeing Nazis had set fire but only a small part of which actually burned. Operating as the British major, he gleaned more names from Yugoslavian Communists who were still afraid to carry out revenge attacks themselves. A few Jews in American intelligence also were willing to help by handing over information they had on escaped Nazis, which they thought the Palestinian Jews would use to better effect than the American military.
Coercion worked, too. In June 1945, Gmul agents found a Polish-born German couple who lived in Tarvisio. The wife had been involved in transferring stolen Jewish property from Austria and Italy to Germany, and her husband had helped run the regional Gestapo office. The Palestinian Jewish soldiers offered them a stark choice: cooperate or die.
“The guy broke and said he was willing to cooperate,” said Yisrael Karmi, who interrogated the couple and later, after Israel was born, would become the commander of the Israeli Army’s military police. “I assigned him to prepare lists of all the senior officials that he knew and who had worked with the Gestapo and the SS. Name, date of birth, education, and positions.”
The result was a dramatic intelligence breakthrough, a list of dozens of names. Gmul’s men tracked down each missing NAZI, finding some wounded in a local hospital, where they were being treated under stolen ALIASES, and then pressured those men to provide more information. They promised each German he would not be harmed if he cooperated, so most did. Then, when they were no longer useful, Gmul agents shot them and dumped the bodies. There was no sense in leaving them alive to tip the British command to Gmul’s clandestine mission.
Once a particular name had been verified, the second phase began: locating the target and gathering information for the final killing mission.
Gichon, who’d been born in Germany, often was assigned that job. “No one suspected me,” he said. “My vocal cords were of Berlin stock. I’d go to the corner grocery store or pub or even just knock on a door to convey greetings from someone. Most of the time, the people would respond to their real names, or recoil into vague silence, which was as good as a confirmation.” Once the identification was confirmed, Gichon would track the German’s movements and provide a detailed sketch of the house where he lived or the area that had been chosen for the abduction.
The killers themselves worked in teams of no more than five men. When meeting their target, they generally wore British military police uniforms, and they typically told their target they had come to take a man named so-and-so for interrogation. Most of the time, the German came without objection. As one of the unit’s soldiers, Shalom Giladi, related in his testimony to the Haganah Archive, the Nazi was sometimes killed instantly, and other times transported to some remote spot before being killed. “In time we developed quiet, rapid, and efficient methods of taking care of the SS men who fell into our hands,” he said.
“As anyone who has ever gotten into a pickup truck knows, a person hoisting himself up into one braces his foot on the rear running board, leans forward under the canvas canopy, and sort of rolls in. The man lying in wait inside the truck would take advantage of this natural tilt of the body.
The minute the German’s head protruded into the gloom, the ambusher would bend over him and wrap his arms under his chin, around his throat, in a kind of reverse choke hold, and, carrying that into a throttle embrace, the ambusher would fall back flat on the mattress, which absorbed every sound. The backward fall, while gripping the German’s head, would suffocate the German and break his neck instantly.
One day, a female SS officer escaped from an English detention camp next to our base. After the British discovered that the officer had escaped, they sent out photographs of her taken during her imprisonment, front and side view, to all the military police stations. We went through the refugee camp and identified her. When we addressed her in German, she played the fool and said she only knew Hungarian. That wasn’t a problem. A Hungarian kid went up to her and said: “A ship carrying illegal immigrants from Hungary is about to sail for Palestine. Pack up your belongings quietly and come with us.” She had no choice but to take the bait and went with us in the truck. During this operation, I sat with Zaro [Meir Zorea, later an IDF general] in the back while Karmi drove. The order Karmi gave us was: “When I get some distance to a suitable deserted place, I’ll honk the horn. That will be the sign to get rid of her.”
That’s what happened. Her last scream in German was: “Was ist los?” (“What’s going on?”). To make sure she was dead, Karmi shot her and we gave her body and the surroundings the appearance of a violent rape.
In most cases we brought the Nazis to a small line of fortifications in the mountains. There were fortified caves there, abandoned. Most of those facing their executions would lose their Nazi arrogance when they heard that we were Jews. “Have mercy on my wife and children!” We would ask him how many such screams the Nazis had heard in the extermination camps from their Jewish victims.”
The operation lasted only three months, from May to July, during which time Gmul killed somewhere between one hundred and two hundred people. Several historians who’ve researched Gmul’s operations maintain that the methods used to identify targets were insufficient, and that many innocents were killed. On many occasions, those critics argue, Gmul teams were exploited by their sources to carry out personal vendettas; in other cases, operatives simply identified the wrong person.
Gmul was closed down when the British, who’d heard complaints about disappearances from German families, grasped what was going on. They decided not to investigate further, but to transfer the Jewish Brigade to Belgium and the Netherlands, away from the Germans, and Haganah command issued a firm order to cease revenge operations. The Brigade’s new priorities, according to the Haganah, not the British, were to look after Holocaust survivors, to help organize the immigration of refugees to Palestine in the face of British opposition, and to appropriate weapons for the Yishuv.
YET, THOUGH THEY ORDERED Gmul to stop killing Germans in Europe, the Haganah’s leaders did not forsake retribution. The vengeance that had been halted in Europe, they decided, would be carried on in Palestine itself.
Members of the German Tempelgesellschaft (the Templer sect) had been expelled from Palestine by the British at the beginning of the war because of their nationality and Nazi sympathies. Many joined the German war effort and took an active part in the persecution and annihilation of the Jews. When the war ended, some of them returned to their former homes, in Sarona, in the heart of Tel Aviv, and other locations.
The leader of the Templers in Palestine was a man named Gotthilf Wagner, a wealthy industrialist who assisted the Wehrmacht and the Gestapo during the war. A Holocaust survivor by the name of Shalom Friedman, who was posing as a Hungarian priest, related that in 1944 he met Wagner, who “boasted that he was at Auschwitz and Buchenwald twice. When he was in Auschwitz, they brought out a large group of Jews, the youngest ones, and poured flammable liquid over them. ‘I asked them if they knew there was a hell on earth, and when they ignited them I told them that this was the fate awaiting their brethren in Palestine.” After the war, Wagner organized the attempts to allow the Templers to return to Palestine.
Rafi Eitan, the son of Jewish pioneers from Russia, was seventeen at the time. “Here come exultant Germans, who had been members of the Nazi Party, who enlisted to the Wehrmacht and SS, and they want to return to their property when all the Jewish property outside was destroyed,” he said.
Eitan was a member of a seventeen man force from the Haganah’s “special company” sent to liquidate Wagner, under a direct order from the Haganah high command. The Haganah chief of staff, Yitzhak Sadeh, realized that this was not a regular military operation and summoned the two men who had been selected to squeeze the trigger. To encourage them, he told them about a man he had shot with his pistol in Russia as revenge for a pogrom.
On March 22, 1946, after painstaking intelligence gathering, the hit squad lay in wait for Wagner in Tel Aviv. They forced him off the road onto a sandy lot at 123 Levinsky Street and shot him. Haganah’s underground radio station, Kol Yisraei (the Voice of Israel), announced the following day, “The wellknown Nazi Gotthilf Wagner, head of the German community in Palestine, was executed yesterday by the Hebrew underground. Let it be known that no Nazi will place a foot on the soil of the Land of Israel.”
Shortly thereafter, Haganah assassinated two other Templers in the Galilee and two more in Haifa, where the sect had also established communities.
“It had an immediate effect,” Eitan said. “The Templers disappeared from the country, leaving everything behind, and were never seen again.” The Templers’ neighborhood in Tel Aviv, Sarona, would become the headquarters of Israel’s armed forces and intelligence services. And Eitan, an assassin at seventeen, would help found the Mossad’s targeted killing unit.
The killing of the Templers was not merely a continuation of the acts of revenge against the Nazis in Europe, but signified a major change in policy. The lessons that the new Jews of Palestine learned from the Holocaust were that the Jewish people would always be under the threat of destruction, that others could not be relied upon to protect the Jews, and that the only way to do so was to have an independent state.
A people living with this sense of perpetual danger of annihilation is going to take any and all measures, however extreme, to obtain security, and will relate to international laws and norms in a marginal manner, if at all.
From now on, Ben-Gurion and the Haganah would adopt targeted killings, guerrilla warfare, and terrorist attacks as additional tools, above and beyond the propaganda and political measures that had always been used, in the effort to achieve the goal of a state and to preserve it. What had only a few years before been a means used only by the outcast extremists of Lehi and the Irgun was now seen by the mainstream as a viable weapon.
At first, Haganah units began assassinating Arabs who had murdered Jewish civilians. Then the militia’s high command ordered a “special company” to begin “personal terror operations,” a term used at the time for the targeted killings of officers of the British CID who had persecuted the Jewish underground and acted against the Jewish immigration to the Land of Israel. They were ordered to “blow up British intelligence centers that acted against Jewish acquisition of weapons” and “to take retaliatory action in cases where British military courts sentence Haganah members to death.”
Ben-Gurion foresaw that a Jewish state would soon be established in Palestine and that the new nation would immediately be forced to fight a war against Arabs in Palestine and repel invasions by the armies of neighboring Arab states.
The Haganah command thus also began secretly preparing for this all-out war, and as part of the preparations, an order, code named Zarzir (or Starling) was issued, providing for the assassination of the heads of the Arab population of Palestine.
WHILE THE HAGANAH SLOWLY stepped up the use of targeted killings, the radical undergrounds had their killing campaign in full motion, trying to push the British out of Palestine.
Yitzhak Shamir, now in command of Lehi, resolved not only to eliminate key figures of the British Mandate locally, killing CID personnel and making numerous attempts to do the same to the Jerusalem police chief, Michael Joseph McConnell, and the high commissioner, Sir Harold McMichael, but also Englishmen in other countries who posed a threat to his political objective. Walter Edward Guinness, more formally known as Lord Moyne, for example, was the British resident minister of state in Cairo, which was also under British rule. The Jews in Palestine considered Moyne a flagrant anti-Semite who had assiduously used his position to restrict the Yishuv’s power by significantly reducing immigration quotas for Holocaust survivors.
Shamir ordered Moyne killed. He sent two Lehi operatives, Eliyahu Hakim and Eliyahu Bet-Zuri, to Cairo, where they waited at the door to Moyne’s house. When Moyne pulled up, his secretary in the car with him, Hakim and Bet-Zuri sprinted to the car. One of them shoved a pistol through the window, aimed it at Moyne’s head, and fired three times. Moyne gripped his throat. “Oh, they’ve shot us!” he cried, and then slumped forward in his seat. Still, it was an amateurish operation. Shamir had counseled his young killers to arrange to escape in a car, but instead they fled on slow-moving bicycles. Egyptian police quickly apprehended them, and Hakim and Bet-Zuri were tried, convicted, and, six months later, hanged.
The assassination had a decisive effect on British officials, though not the one Shamir had envisioned. As Israel would learn repeatedly in future years, it is very hard to predict how history will proceed after someone is shot in the head.
After the unmitigated evil of the Holocaust, the attempted extermination of an entire people in Europe, there was growing sympathy in the West for the Zionist cause.
According to some accounts, up until the first week of November 1944, Britain’s prime minister, Winston Churchill, had been pushing his cabinet to support the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. He rallied several influential figures to back the initiative, including Lord Moyne. It is not a stretch to assume, then, that Churchill might well have arrived at the Yalta summit with Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin with a clear, positive policy regarding the future of a Jewish state, had Lehi not intervened. Instead, after the Cairo killing, Churchill labeled the attackers “a new group of gangsters” and announced that he was reconsidering his position.
And the killing continued. On July 22, 1946, members of Menachem Begin’s Irgun planted 350 KG explosives in the south wing of the King David Hotel, in Jerusalem, where the British Mandate’s administration and army and intelligence offices were housed. A warning call from the Irgun apparently was dismissed as a hoax; the building was not evacuated before a massive explosion ripped through it. Ninety-one people were killed, and forty-five wounded.
This was not the targeted killing of a despised British official or a guerrilla attack on a police station. Instead, it was plainly an act of terror, aimed at a target with numerous civilians inside. Most damningly, many Jews were among the casualties.
The King David Hotel bombing sparked a fierce dispute in the Yishuv. Ben-Gurion immediately denounced the Irgun and called it “an enemy of the Jewish people.”
But the extremists were not deterred.
Three months after the King David attack, on October 31, a Lehi cell, again acting on their own, without Ben-Gurion’s approval or knowledge, bombed the British embassy in Rome. The embassy building was severely damaged, but thanks to the fact that the operation took place at night, only a security guard and two Italian pedestrians were injured.
Almost immediately after that, Lehi mailed letter bombs to every senior British cabinet member in London. On one level, this effort was a spectacular failure, not a single letter exploded, but on another, Lehi had made its point, and its reach, clear. The files of MI5, Britain’s security service, showed that Zionist terrorism was considered the most serious threat to British national security at the time, even more serious than the Soviet Union. Irgun cells in Britain were established, according to one MI5 memo, “to beat the dog in its own kennel.” British intelligence sources warned of a wave of attacks on “selected VIPs,” among them Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin and even Prime Minister Clement Attlee himself. At the end of 1947, a report to the British high commissioner tallied the casualties of the previous two years: 176 British Mandate personnel and civilians killed.
“Only these actions, these executions, caused the British to leave,” David Shomron said, decades after he shot Tom Wilkin dead on a Jerusalem street. “If Avraham Stern had not begun the war, the State of Israel would not have come into being.”
Avraham Stern, leader and founder of Lehi
One may argue with these statements. The shrinking British Empire ceded control of the majority of its colonies, including many countries where terror tactics had not been employed, due to economic reasons and increased demands for independence from the native populations. India, for instance, gained its independence right around the same time.
Nevertheless, Shomron and his ilk were firmly convinced that their own bravery and their extreme methods had brought about the departure of the British.
And it was the men who fought that bloody underground war, guerrillas, assassins, terrorists, who would play a central role in the building of the new state of Israel’s armed forces and intelligence community.
A SECRET WORLD IS BORN
ON NOVEMBER 29, 1947, the United Nations General Assembly voted to divide Palestine, carving out a sovereign Jewish homeland. The partition wouldn’t go into effect until six months later, but Arab attacks began the very next day. Hassan Salameh, the commander of the Palestinian forces in the southern part of the country, and his fighters ambushed two Israeli buses near the town of Petah-Tikva, murdering eight passengers and injuring many others. Civil war between Palestinian Arabs and Jews had begun. The day after the bus attacks, Salameh stood in the central square of the Arab port city of Jaffa. “Palestine will turn into a bloodbath,” he promised his countrymen. He kept that promise: During the next two weeks, 48 Jews were killed and 155 wounded.
Salameh, who led a force of five hundred guerrillas and even directly attacked Tel Aviv, became a hero in the Arab world, lionized in the press. The Egyptian magazine Al-Musawar published an enormous photograph of Salameh briefing his forces in its January 12, 1948, issue, under the banner headline THE HERO HASSAN SALAMEH, COMMANDER OF THE SOUTHERN FRONT.
Ben-Gurion had prepared for such assaults. To his thinking, Palestine’s Arabs were the enemy, and the British, who would continue to rule until the partition took formal effect in May 1948, were their abettors. The Jews could depend only on themselves and their rudimentary defenses. Most of the Haganah troops were poorly trained and poorly equipped, their arms hidden in secret caches to avoid confiscation by the British. They were men and women who had served in the British Army, bolstered by new immigrants who had survived the Holocaust (some of them Red Army veterans), but they were vastly outnumbered by the combined forces of the Arab states. Ben-Gurion was aware of the estimations of the CIA and other intelligence services that the Jews would collapse under Arab attack. Some of his own people weren’t confident of victory. But Ben-Gurion, at least outwardly, displayed confidence in the Haganah’s ability to win.
To bridge the numerical gap, the Haganah’s plan, then, was to use selective force, picking targets for maximum effectiveness. As part of this conception, a month into the civil war, its high command launched Operation Starling, which named twenty-three leaders of the Palestinian Arabs who were to be targeted.
The mission, according to Haganah’s commander in chief, Yaakov Dori, was threefold: “Elimination or capture of the leaders of the Arab political parties; strikes against political centers; strikes against Arab economic and manufacturing centers.”
Hassan Salameh was at the top of the list of targets. Under the leadership of Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the grand mufti of Jerusalem and spiritual leader of the Palestinian Arabs, Salameh had helped lead the Arab Revolt of 1936, in which Arab guerrillas for three years attacked both British and Jewish targets.
Both al-Husseini and Salameh fled Palestine after they were put on the British Mandate’s most wanted list. In 1942, they joined forces with the SS and the Abwehr, the Nazis’ military intelligence agency, to plot Operation Atlas. It was a grandiose plan in which German and Arab commandos would parachute into Palestine and poison Tel Aviv’s water supply in order to kill as many Jews as possible, rousing the country’s Arabs to fight a holy war against the British occupiers. It failed miserably when the British, having cracked the Nazis’ Enigma code, captured Salameh and four others after they dropped into a desert ravine near Jericho on October 6, 1944.
After World War II, the British released al-Husseini and Salameh. The Jewish Agency’s Political Department, which oversaw much of the Yishuv’s covert activity in Europe, tried to locate the former and kill him several times between 1945 and 1948. The motive was partly revenge for the mufti’s alliance with Hitler, but it was also defensive: Al-Husseini might have been out of the country, but he was still actively involved in organizing attacks on Jewish settlements in northern Palestine and in attempts to assassinate Jewish leaders. Due to a lack of intelligence and trained operational personnel, all those attempts failed.
The hunt for Salameh, the first Haganah operation to integrate human and electronic intelligence, began promisingly. A unit belonging to SHAI, the Haganah’s intelligence branch, and commanded by Isser Harel, tapped into the central telephone trunk line that connected Jaffa with the rest of the country. Harel had a toolshed built on the grounds of the nearby Mikveh Israel agricultural school and filled it with pruning shears and lawn mowers. But hidden in a pit under the floor was a listening device clipped to the copper wires of Jaffa’s phone system. “I’ll never forget the face of the Arabic-speaking SHAI operative who put on a set of headphones and listened to the first conversation,” Harel later wrote in his memoir. “His mouth gaped in astonishment and he waved his hand emotionally to silence the others who were tensely waiting. The lines were bursting with conversations that political leaders and the chiefs of armed contingents were conducting with their colleagues.” One of the speakers was Salameh. In one of the intercepted calls, SHAI learned he would be traveling to Jaffa. Haganah agents planned to ambush him by felling a tree to block the road on which his car would be traveling.
But the ambush failed, and it was not the last failure. Salameh survived multiple assassination attempts before falling in combat in June 1948, his killer unaware of his identity. Almost all of the other Operation Starling targeted killing bids also failed, because of faulty intelligence or flawed performances by the unskilled and inexperienced hit men.
THE ONLY OPERATIONS THAT did succeed were all carried out by two of the Haganah’s elite units, both of which belonged to the Palmach, the militia’s only well-trained and fairly weII-armed corps. One of these units was the Palyam, the “marine company,” and the other was “the Arab Platoon,” a clandestine commando unit whose members operated disguised as Arabs.
Palyam, the naval company, was ordered to take over the port in Haifa, Palestine’s most important maritime gateway, as soon as the British departed. Its task was to steal as much of the weaponry and equipment the British were beginning to ship out as possible, and to prevent the Arabs from doing likewise.
“We focused on the Arab arms acquirers in Haifa and the north. We searched for them and killed them,” recalled Avraham Dar, one of the Palyam men.
Dar, who was a native English speaker, and two other Palyam men posed as British soldiers wanting to sell stolen gear to the Palestinians for a large amount of cash. A rendezvous was set up for the exchange near an abandoned flour mill on the outskirts of an Arab village. The three Jews, wearing British uniforms, were at the meeting place when the Palestinians arrived. Four others who were hiding nearby waited for the signal and then fell upon the Arabs, killing them with metal pipes. “We feared that gunshots would wake the neighbors, and we decided on a silent operation,” said Dar.
The Arab Platoon was established when the Haganah decided it needed a nucleus of trained fighters who could operate deep inside enemy lines, gathering information and carrying out sabotage and targeted killing missions. The training of its men, most of them immigrants from Arab lands, included commando tactics and explosives, but also intensive study of Islam and Arab customs. They were nicknamed Mistaravim, the name by which Jewish communities went in some Arab countries, where they practiced the Jewish religion, but were similar to the Arabs in all other respects-dress, language, social customs, etc.
Cooperation between the two units produced an attempt on the life of Sheikh Nimr al-Khatib, a head of the Islamic organizations of Palestine, one of the original targets of Operation Starling, because of his considerable influence over the Palestinian street. The Mistaravim could move around without being stopped by either the British or the Arabs. In February 1948, they ambushed al-Khatib when he returned from a trip to Damascus with a carload of ammunition. He was badly wounded, left Palestine, and removed himself from any active political roles.
A few days later, Avraham Dar heard from one of his port worker informants that a group of Arabs in a café had been talking about their plan to detonate a vehicle packed with explosives in a crowded Jewish section of Haifa. The British ambulance that they had acquired for this purpose was being readied in a garage in Nazareth Road, in the Arab part of the city. The Mistaravim prepared a bomb of their own in a truck that they drove into the Arab district, posing as workers engaged in fixing a burst pipe, and parked next to the wall of the garage. “What are you doing here? No parking here! Move the truck!” the men in the garage yelled at them in Arabic.
“Right away, we’re just getting a drink, and we need to take a leak” the Mistaravim replied in Arabic, adding a few juicy curses. They walked away to a waiting car, and minutes later their bomb went off, detonating the one in the ambulance as well, and killing the five Palestinians working on it.
ON MAY 14, 1948, Ben-Gurion declared the establishment of the new state of Israel and became its first prime minister and minister of defense. He knew what to expect next.
Years earlier, Ben-Gurion had ordered the formation of a deep network of sources in the Arab countries. Now, three days before the establishment of Israel, Reuven Shiloah, director of the Political Department of the Jewish Agency, the agency’s intelligence division, had informed him that “the Arab states have decided finally to launch a simultaneous attack on May 15. They are relying on the lack of heavy armaments and a Hebrew air force.” Shiloah provided many details about the attack plan.
The information was accurate.
At midnight, after the state was declared, seven armies attacked. They far outnumbered and were infinitely better equipped than the Jewish forces, and they achieved significant gains early on, conquering settlements and inflicting casualties.
The secretary general of the Arab League, Abdul Rahman Azzam Pasha, declared, “This will be a war of great destruction and slaughter that will be remembered like the massacres carried out by the Mongols and the Crusaders.”
But the Jews, now officially “Israelis”, rapidly regrouped and even went on the offensive. After a month, a truce was mediated by the United Nations special envoy, Count Folke Bernadotte. Both sides were exhausted and in need of rest and resupply.
When fighting resumed, the tables were turned and, with excellent intelligence and battle management, along with the help of many Holocaust survivors who had only just arrived from Europe, the Israelis drove the Arab forces back and eventually conquered far more territory than had been allocated to the Jewish state in the UN partition plan.
Though Israel had repelled superior armies, Ben-Gurion was not sanguine about the embryonic Israel Defense Forces’ short-term victory. The Arabs might have lost the first battles, but they, both those who lived in Palestine and those in the Arab states surrounding Israel, refused to accept the legitimacy of the new nation. They vowed to destroy Israel and return the refugees to their homes.
Ben-Gurion knew the IDF couldn’t hope to defend Israel’s long, convoluted borders through sheer manpower. From the remnants of the Haganah’s SHAI intelligence operations, he had to begin building a proper espionage system fit for a legitimate state.
On June 7, Ben-Gurion summoned his top aides, headed by Shiloah, to his office in the former Templer colony in Tel Aviv. “Intelligence is one of the military and political tools that we urgently need for this war,” Shiloah wrote in a memo to Ben-Gurion. “It will have to become a permanent tool, including in our peacetime political apparatus.”
Ben-Gurion did not need to be persuaded. After all, a large part of the surprising, against-all-odds establishment of the state, and its defense, was owed to the effective use of accurate intelligence.
That day, he ordered the establishment of three agencies. The first was the Intelligence Department of the IsraeI Defense Forces General Staff, later commonly referred to by its Hebrew acronym, AMAN. Second was the Shin Bet (acronym for the General Security Service), responsible for internal security and created as a sort of hybrid between the American FBI and the British Ml5. (The organization later changed its name to the Israeli Security Agency, but most Israelis still refer to it by its acronym, Shabak, or, more commonly, as in this book, as Shin Bet.) And a third, the Political Department, now belonging to the new Foreign Ministry, instead of the Jewish Agency, would engage in foreign espionage and intelligence collection. Abandoned Templer homes in the Sarona neighborhood, near the Defense Ministry, were assigned to each outfit, putting Ben-Gurion’s office at the center of an ostensibly organized force of security services.
But nothing in those first months and years was so tidy. Remnants of Haganah agencies were absorbed into various security services or spy rings, then shuffled and reabsorbed into another. Add to that the myriad turf battles and clashing egos of what were essentially revolutionaries, and much was chaos in the espionage underground. “They were hard years,” said Isser Harel, one of the founding fathers of Israeli intelligence. “We had to establish a country and defend it. But the structure of the services and the division of labor was determined without any systematic judgment, without discussions with all the relevant people, in an almost dilettantish and conspiratorial way.”
Under normal conditions, administrators would establish clear boundaries and procedures, and field agents would patiently cultivate sources of information over a period of years. But Israel did not have this luxury. Its intelligence operations had to be built on the fly and under siege, while the young country was fighting for its very existence.
THE FIRST CHALLENGE THAT Ben-Gurion’s spies faced was an internal one: There were Jews who blatantly defied his authority, among them the remnants of the right-wing underground movements. An extreme example of this defiance was the Altalena affair, in June 1948. A ship by that name, dispatched from Europe by the Irgun, was due to arrive, carrying immigrants and arms. But the organization refused to hand all the weapons over to the army of the new state, insisting that some of them be given to still intact units of its own. Ben-Gurion, who had been informed of the plans by agents inside Irgun, ordered that the ship be taken over by force. In the ensuing fight, it was sunk, and sixteen Irgun fighters and three IDF soldiers were killed. Shortly afterward, security forces rounded up two hundred Irgun members all over the country, effectively ending its existence.
Yitzhak Shamir and the Lehi operatives under his command also refused to accept the more moderate Ben-Gurion’s authority. Over the summer, during the truce, UN envoy Bernadotte crafted a tentative peace plan that would have ended the fighting. But the plan was unacceptable to Lehi and Shamir, who accused Bernadotte of collaborating with the Nazis during World War II and of drafting a proposal that would redraw Israeli borders in such a way, including giving most of the Negev and Jerusalem to the Arabs, and putting the Haifa port and Lydda airport under international control, as well as obliging the Jewish state to take back 300,000 Arab refugees, that the country would not survive.
Lehi issued several public warnings, in the form of notices posted in the streets of cities: ADVICE TO THE AGENT BERNADOTTE: CLEAR OUT OF OUR COUNTRY. The underground radio was even more outspoken, declaring, “The Count will end up like the Lord” (a reference to the assassinated Lord Moyne). Bernadotte ignored the warnings, and even ordered UN observers not to carry arms, saying, “The United Nations flag protects us.”
Convinced that the envoy’s plan would be accepted, Shamir ordered his assassination. On September 17, four months after statehood was declared, and the day after Bernadotte submitted his plan to the UN Security Council, he was traveling with his entourage in a convoy of three white DeSoto sedans from UN headquarters to the Rehavia neighborhood of Jewish Jerusalem, when a jeep blocked their way. Three young men wearing peaked caps jumped out. Two of them shot the tires of the UN vehicles, and the third, Yehoshua Cohen, opened the door of the car Bernadotte was traveling in and opened fire with his Schmeisser MP40 submachine gun. The first burst hit the man sitting next to Bernadotte, a French colonel by the name of André Serot, but the next, more accurate, hit the count in the chest. Both men were killed. The whole attack was over in seconds, “like thunder and lightning, the time it takes to fire fifty rounds,” is the way the Israeli liaison officer, Captain Moshe Hillman, who was in the car with the victims, described it. The perpetrators were never caught.
The assassination infuriated and profoundly embarrassed the Jewish leadership. The Security Council condemned it as “a cowardly act which appears to have been committed by a criminal group of terrorists in Jerusalem,” and The New York Times wrote the following day, “No Arab armies could have done so much harm to the Jewish state in so short atime.”
Ben-Gurion saw Lehi’s rogue operation as a serious challenge to his authority, one that could lead to a coup or even a civil war. He reacted immediately, outlawing both the Irgun and Lehi. He ordered Shin Bet chief Isser Harel to round up Lehi members. Topping the wanted list was Yitzhak Shamir. He wasn’t captured, but many others were, and they were locked up under heavy guard. Lehi ceased to exist as an organization.
Ben-Gurion was grateful to Harel for his vigorous action against the underground and made him the number-one intelligence official in the country.
A short, solid, and driven man, Isser Harel was influenced by the Russian Bolshevik revolutionary movement and its use of sabotage, guerrilla warfare, and assassination, but he abhorred communism. Under his direction, the Shin Bet kept constant surveillance and conducted political espionage against Ben-Gurion’s political opponents, the leftwing socialist and Communist parties, and the rightwing Herut party formed by veterans of Irgun and Lehi.
Meanwhile, Ben-Gurion and his foreign minister, Moshe Sharett, were at loggerheads over what policy should be adopted toward the Arabs. Sharett was the most prominent of Israel’s early leaders who believed diplomacy was the best way to achieve regional peace and thus secure the country. Even before independence, he made secret overtures to Jordan’s King Abdullah and Lebanon’s prime minister, Riad al-Solh, who would be instrumental in forming the coalition of invading Arabs, and who already had been largely responsible for the Palestinian militias that exacted heavy losses on the pre-state Yishuv. Despite al-Solh’s virulently anti Jewish rhetoric and anti Israel actions, he secretly met with Eliyahu Sasson, one of Sharett’s deputies, several times in Paris in late 1948 to discuss a peace agreement. “If we want to establish contacts with the Arabs to end the war,” said Sasson when Sharett, enthusiastic about his secret contacts, took him to report to the cabinet, “we have to be in contact with those people who are now in power. With those who have declared war on us and who are having trouble continuing.”
Those diplomatic overtures obviously were not effective, and Ben-Gurion, on December 12, 1948, ordered military intelligence agents to assassinate al-Solh.
“Sharett was vehemently opposed to the idea,” recalled Asher (Arthur) Ben-Natan, a leading figure in the Foreign Ministry’s Political Department, the arm responsible for covert activities abroad. “And when our department was asked to help military intelligence execute the order, through our contacts in Beirut, he countermanded the order, effectively killing it.”
This incident, plus a number of other clashes between Harel and Sharett, made Ben-Gurion’s blood boil. He considered diplomacy a weak substitute for a strong military and robust intelligence, and he viewed Sharett, personally, as a competitor who threatened the prime minister’s control. In December 1949, Ben-Gurion removed the Political Department from the control of the Foreign Ministry and placed it under his direct command. He later gave the agency a new name: the Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations. More commonly, though, it was known simply as “the Institute”, the Mossad.
With the establishment of the Mossad, Israeli inteIligence services coalesced into the three pronged community that survives in more or less the same form today: AMAN, the military intelligence arm that supplies information to the IDF; the Shin Bet, responsible for internal intelligence, counterterror, and counterespionage; and the Mossad, which deals with covert activities beyond the country’s borders.
More important, it was a victory for those who saw the future of the Israeli state as more dependent upon a strong army and intelligence community than upon diplomacy. That victory was embodied in real estate: The former Templer homes in Tel Aviv that the Political Department had occupied were handed over to the Mossad. It was also a personal victory for Isser Harel. Already in charge of the Shin Bet, he was installed as the chief of the Mossad as well, making him one of the most powerful, and secretive figures in early Israeli history.
From that point on, Israeli foreign and security policy would be determined by jousting between Tel Aviv, where the military high command, the intelligence headquarters, and the Defense Ministry were located, and where Ben-Gurion spent most of his time, and Jerusalem, where the Foreign Ministry was housed in a cluster of prefabricated huts. Tel Aviv always had the upper hand.
Ben-Gurion kept all of the agencies under his direct control. The Mossad and the Shin Bet were under him in his capacity as prime minister, and military intelligence fell under his purview because he was also minister of defense. It was an enormous concentration of covert, and political, power. Yet from the beginning, it was kept officially hidden from the Israeli public. Ben-Gurion forbade anyone from acknowledging, let alone revealing, that this sprawling web of official institutions even existed. In fact, mentioning the name Shin Bet or Mossad in public was prohibited until the 1960s. Because their existence could not be acknowledged, Ben-Gurion prevented the creation of a legal basis for those same agencies’ operations. No law laid out their goals, roles, missions, powers, or budgets or the relations between them.
In other words, Israeli intelligence from the outset occupied a shadow realm, one adjacent to yet separate from the country’s democratic institutions. The activities of the intelligence community, most of it (Shin Bet and the Mossad) under the direct command of the prime minister, took place without any effective supervision by Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, or by any other independent external body.
In this shadow realm, “state security” was used to justify a large number of actions and operations that, in the visible world, would have been subject to criminal prosecution and long prison terms: constant surveillance of citizens because of their ethnic or political affiliations; interrogation methods that included prolonged detention without judicial sanction, and torture; perjury in the courts and concealment of the truth from counsel and judges.
The most notable example was targeted killing. In Israeli law, there is no death penalty, but Ben-Gurion circumvented this by giving himself the authority to order extrajudicial executions.
The justification for maintaining that shadow realm was that anything other than complete secrecy could lead to situations that would threaten the very existence of Israel. Israel had inherited from the British Mandate a legal system that included state of emergency provisions to enforce order and suppress rebellions. Among those provisions was a requirement that all print and broadcast media submit any reports on intelligence and army activities to a military censor, who vetoed much of the material. The state of emergency has not been rescinded as of the time of this writing. But as a sop to the hungry media, Ben-Gurion was shrewd enough to establish an Editors Committee, which was composed of the editors in chief of the print and radio news outlets. From time to time, Ben-Gurion himself, or someone representing him, would appear before the committee to share covert tidbits while explaining why those tidbits could never, under any circumstances, be released to the public. The editors were thrilled because they had gained for themselves entrée to the twilight realm and its mysteries. In gratitude, they imposed on themselves a level of self-censorship that went beyond even that imposed by the actual censor.
IN JULY 1952, AN exhibit of paintings by the Franco German artist Charles Duvall opened at the National Museum in Cairo. Duvall, a tall young man with a cigarette permanently dangling from his lip, had moved to Egypt from Paris two years earlier, announcing that he’d “fallen in love with the land of the Nile.” The Cairo press published a number of fawning pieces about Duvall and his work, strongly influenced, the critics said, by Picasso, and he soon became a fixture in high society. Indeed, the Egyptian minister of culture attended the opening of Duvall’s show and even purchased two of the paintings that he left on loan to the museum, where they would hang for the next twenty-three years.
Five months later, when his show had closed, Duvall said that his mother had fallen ill and he had to rush back to Paris to care for her. After his return to France, he sent a few letters to old friends in Egypt, and then he was never heard from again.
Duvall’s real name was Shlomo Cohen-Abarbanel, and he was an Israeli spy. He was the youngest of four sons born to a prominent rabbi in Hamburg in Germany. In the winter of 1933, as the Nazis rose to power and began enforcing race laws, the family fled to France and then Palestine. Fourteen years later, in 1947, Cohen-Abarbanel, whose artistic abilities had been apparent since he was a toddler, returned to Paris to study painting at the age of twenty-seven. A short time later, Haganah intelligence personnel heard about his talents and recruited him to forge passports and papers to be used by European and North African Jews being smuggled into Palestine in violation of British immigration laws. It was the beginning of a long career in espionage. Portraying himself as a bohemian artist, Cohen-Abarbanel operated networks of agents in Egypt and recruited new agents throughout the Arab world. He collected information about Nazi war criminals who had taken refuge in the Middle East, and he reported to his superiors on the initial attempts of German rocket scientists to sell their services to Arab armies. When he returned to Israel in 1952, he pushed his superiors in the young intelligence agency the Mossad to invest more resources into finding and killing Nazis.
A short time after taking command of the Mossad, Isser Harel asked Cohen-Abarbanel to design an official emblem for the agency. The artist shut himself in his room and emerged with a design, which he’d drawn by hand. At its center was a seven-branched menorah, the sacred lamp that stood in the Temple in Jerusalem that the Romans destroyed in AD. 70. The seal also bore a legendverse 6 from chapter 24 of the Book of Proverbs, authored, according to Jewish tradition, by King Solomon himself: “For by subterfuge you will make war.” This was later changed to another line from Proverbs (chapter 11, verse 14), which reads, “Where there is no subterfuge, the nation falls, but in the multitude of counselors there is safety.” Cohen-Abarbanel’s meaning could not have been clearer: using covert stratagems, the Mossad would be the supreme shield of the new Jewish commonwealth, ensuring that never again would Jews be dishonored, that never again would Judea fall.
The Mossad’s charter, written by Harel, was equally broad and ambitious. The organization’s purpose, according to its official orders, was “secret collection of information (strategic, political, operational) outside the country’s borders; carrying out special operations outside Israel’s borders; thwarting the development and acquisition of unconventional weapons by hostile states; prevention of terror attacks against Israeli and Jewish targets outside Israel; development and maintenance of intelligence and political ties with countries that do not maintain diplomatic relations with Israel; bringing to Israel Jews from countries that refused to allow them to leave, and creating frameworks for the defense of the Jews still in those countries.” In other words, it was charged with not only protecting Israel and its citizens but also standing as a sentinel for world Jewry.
ISRAEL’S YOUNG INTELLIGENCE SERVICES had to offer a response to a series of challenges presented by the ring of twenty-one hostile Arab nations that surrounded Israel and threatened to destroy it. There were those in the top echelons of the defense establishment who believed that these challenges would best be met by the use of pinpointed special operations far beyond enemy lines.
To this end, AMAN set up a unit called Intelligence Service 13 (which in Jewish tradition is considered a lucky number). Avraham Dar, now one of its prominent officers, went to Egypt in 1951 to set up a network of agents culled from local Zionist activists. On various pretexts, the recruits traveled to Europe, and then to Israel for training in espionage and sabotage. Outlining the goal of his network, Dar explained that “the central problem that made Egypt so antagonistic to Israel was the way King Farouk ran the government. If we could get rid of that obstacle many problems would be solved. In other words”, and here Dar turned to a Spanish proverb, “no dog, no rabies.”
King Farouk , Queen Farida and his daughters
Getting rid of “the dog” proved to be unnecessary, Farouk soon was overthrown in a coup. And AMAN’s assumption that things would be better when he was gone turned out to be totally groundless. However, the idea that this already established Egyptian network could be employed to change the course of history in the region was simply too tempting for Israel’s leaders to let go. AMAN decided to use these local agents against the Free Officers Movement, which had just recently ousted Farouk, “aiming to undermine Western confidence in the Egyptian regime by causing public insecurity and provoking demonstrations, arrests, and retaliatory actions, with Israel’s role remaining unexposed.” But the whole operation ended in catastrophe.
Despite intensive training, AMAN’s recruits were amateurish and sloppy, and all of their sabotage operations ended in failure. Eventually, eleven operatives were ferreted out by Egyptian authorities. Some were executed after short trials, and one killed himself after suffering gruesome torture. The lucky ones were sentenced to long prison terms and hard labor.
The ensuing turmoil gave rise to a major political dispute that raged in Israel for many years, over whether AMAN had received the approval of the political establishment for these abortive operations.
The main lesson drawn by Israel was that local Jews should never be recruited in hostile “target” countries. Their capture was almost certain to end in death, and send ripples throughout the entire Jewish community. Despite the temptation to use people who were already on the ground and didn’t need to establish a cover story, Israel almost never again did.
However, the underlying conviction that Israel could act boldly and change history through special operations behind enemy lines remained, and was in fact cemented in place as the core principle of Israel’s security doctrine. Indeed, this philosophy, that special ops behind enemy lines should be at least one of the country’s primary methods of national defense, would predominate among Israel’s political and intelligence establishment all the way up to the present day.
And while many of the world’s established nations kept a separation between the intelligence outfits that gathered information and the operations units that utilized that information to conduct clandestine missions, from the very beginning Israel’s special forces were an integral part of its intelligence agencies. In America, for instance, specialoperations units Delta Force and SEAL Team Six are components of the Joint Special Operations Command, not the CIA or military intelligence. In Israel, however, special operations units were under the direct control of the intelligence agencies Mossad and AMAN.
The goal was to continually translate gathered intelligence into operations. While other nations at the time were also gathering intelligence during peacetime, they did so only to be prepared in case war broke out, or to authorize the occasional special-ops attack. Israel, on the other hand, would constantly use its intelligence to develop special-ops attacks behind enemy lines, in the hope of avoiding all-out warfare entirely.
THE FASHIONING OF AN emblem, a charter, and a military philosophy was one thing. Implementation, as Harel was soon to learn, was another thing altogether, especially when it came to aggressive action.
The Mossad’s first major operation ended badly. In November 1954, a captain in the Israeli Navy named Alexander Yisrael, a philandering grifter deeply in debt, slipped out of the country on a bogus passport and tried to sell top-secret documents to the Egyptian embassy in Rome. A Mossad agent working in that embassy tipped off his superiors in Tel Aviv, who immediately began to develop a plan to kidnap Yisraeli and return him to Israel for trial as a traitor.
For Harel, this was a critical test, both for the security of the nation and his career. In those formative years, the heads of all the agencies jockeyed for power and prestige, and one significant failure could prove professionally fatal. He assembled a top-notch team of Mossad and Shin Bet operatives to grab Yisraeli in Europe. He put his second cousin, Rafi Eitan, who as a teenager had assassinated two German Templers, in charge.
Eitan says that “there were some who proposed finding Yisraeli and killing him as quickly as possible. But Harel squelched this immediately. ‘We don’t kill Jews,’ he said, and declared this was to be an abduction operation.” Harel himself said, “It never occurred to me to issue an order to kill one of our own. I wanted him to be brought to Israel and put on trial for treason.”
This is an important point. There is a tradition of mutual responsibility in Judaism, and a deep connection among all Jews, as if they are one big family. These values are seen as having kept the Jewish people alive as a nation throughout the two thousand years of exile, and for a Jew to harm another Jew is considered intolerable. Back in the days of the Palestinian underground, when it was effectively impossible to hold trials, eliminating Jewish traitors was deemed legitimate to a certain extent, but not after the state was established. “We do not kill Jews”, even if they were believed to be a grave danger to national security, became an iron law of the Israeli intelligence community.
The plan unfolded perfectly at first. Eitan and three others pinched Yisraeli after he’d been stopped by another Mossad female asset at a Paris intersection. The captive was taken to a safe house, where a Mossad doctor injected him with a sedative and placed him in a crate typically used to transfer arms, before putting him on a long, multi-stop flight on an Israeli Air Force cargo plane. At every stop, Yisraeli was injected again until, just as the plane touched down in Athens, he suffered a massive seizure and died. Following Harel’s orders, one of Eitan’s men ended up dumping the body from the back of the plane into the sea.
Harel’s people fed the Israeli press false information that Yisraeli, who left behind a pregnant wife, had stolen money and settled somewhere in South America. Harel, who was very embarrassed that an operation of his had ended in the death of a Jew, ordered that all the records on the case be secreted deep in one of the Mossad’s safes. But Harel’s rivals kept a copy of some of the documents, to be used against him someday if so required.
Harel also came to the conclusion that there was an urgent need for the formation of a special unit specifically designed to carry out sabotage and targeted killing missions. He began searching for “trained fighters, tough and loyal, who would not hesitate to squeeze the trigger when necessary.” He found them in the last place he would have been expected to look: the veterans of the Irgun and Lehi, against whom he had once fought a bitter struggle.
Ben-Gurion had forbidden the employment of any former members of the right-wing underground in government departments, and many of them were jobless, frustrated, and hungry for action. The Shin Bet believed that some of them were dangerous and were liable to start underground movements against the regime.
Harel aimed to kill two birds: to set up his specialops unit, and to get the underground fighters into action under his command, outside the borders of the state.
Irgun parade in 1948
David Shomron, Yitzhak Shamir, and those of their comrades in the Irgun and Lehi who were deemed tough and daring enough were invited to Harel’s home in north Tel Aviv and sworn in. This was the establishment of Mifratz, Hebrew for “Gulf” or “Bay,” the Mossad’s first hit team.
THE BUREAU FOR ARRANGING MEETINGS WITH GOD
ISRAEL’S WAR OF INDEPENDENCE officially ended with armistice agreements in 1949. The unofficial fighting never stopped. Throughout the early 1950s, the country was constantly infiltrated by Arabs from the parts of Palestine that remained in Arab hands after the war, namely, the Gaza Strip, in the south, which was administered by Egypt, and the West Bank, in the east, which Jordan had annexed. The IDF estimated that in 1952, about sixteen thousand infiltrations occurred (eleven thousand from Jordan and the rest from Egypt). Some of those infiltrators were refugees who had fled during the War of Independence, either voluntarily or involuntarily, and were trying to return to their villages and salvage what was left of their property. But many others were militants whose objective was to kill Jews and spread terror. They called themselves fedayeen“those who self-sacrifice.”
The Egyptians, despite having signed an armistice, quickly realized that the fedayeen could fight a proxy war on their behalf. With proper training and supervision, those Palestinian militants could wreak substantial havoc on Israel while giving Egypt the cover of plausible deniabiiity.
A young captain in Egyptian military intelligence, Mustafa Hafez, was put in charge of organizing the fedayeen. Beginning in mid-1953, Hafez (along with Salah Mustafa, the Egyptian military attache in Jordan’s capital, Amman) started recruiting and training guerrilla squads to be dispatched into Israel’s south. For years, those squads, six hundred fedayeen in total, sneaked across the border from Gaza and laid waste to anything they could. They blew up water pipes, set fire to fields, bombed train tracks, mined roads; they murdered farmers in their fields and yeshiva students at study, altogether some one thousand civilians between 1951 and 1955. They spread panic and fear to the point that Israelis refrained from driving at night on main roads in the south.
The proxy squads were considered a huge success. The Israelis couldn’t hold Egypt or Jordan directly responsible. They would respond instead by recruiting their own proxies, turning Arabs into informers, collecting intelligence on fedayeen targets, and then assassinating them. Those tasks were assigned, for the most part, to an IDF intelligence team known as Unit 504.
Some of the men of Unit 504 had been raised in Arab neighborhoods of Palestine and thus were intimately familiar with the language and customs of the locals. Unit 504 was under the command of Rehavia Vardi. Polish-born, Vardi had served as a senior Haganah intelligence officer prior to the establishment of the state, and he was known for his sharp wit and blunt statements. “Every Arab,” he said, “can be recruited on the basis of one of the three PS, praise, payment or pussy.” Whether through those three Ps or other means, Vardi and his men recruited four hundred to five hundred agents, who passed on invaluable information in the period between 1948 and 1956. Those recruits, in turn, provided Unit 504 with information on a number of senior fedayeen dispatchers. Several were identified, located, and targeted, and in ten to fifteen of those cases, the Israelis persuaded their Arab agents to place a bomb near that target.
That was when they would call Unit 188. That was when they required the services of Natan Rotberg.
“IT WAS ALL VERY, very secret,” Rotberg said. “We were not allowed to mention the names of units; we were not allowed to tell anyone where we were going or where we were serving or, it goes without saying, what we were doing.”
Rotberg, a thick-necked and good-natured kibbutznik with a bushy mustache, was one of a small group, only a few hundred men, who took part in forming the original triumvirate of AMAN, Shin Bet, and the Mossad. In 1951, when Rotberg was assigned to a marine commando unit called Shayetet 13 (Flotilla 13), Israeli intelligence set up a secret facility north of Tel Aviv to teach “special demolitions” and manufacture sophisticated bombs. Rotberg, Flotilla 13’s explosives officer, was appointed to run it.
Rotberg had a large vat installed in which he mixed TNT and pentaerythritol tetranitrate and other chemicals into deadly concoctions. But though his mixtures were designed to kill people, he claimed that he did not act with hatred in his heart. “You need to know how to forgive,” he said. “You need to know how to forgive the enemy. However, we have no authority to forgive people like bin Laden. That, only God can do. Our job is to arrange a meeting between them. In my laboratory, I opened a matchmaker’s office, a bureau that arranged such meetings. I orchestrated more than thirty such meetings.”
When Rehavia Vardi and his men had identified a target, they would go to Rotberg for the bomb. “At first we worked with double-bottomed wicker baskets,” Rotberg said. “I would cushion the bottom part of the basket with impermeable paper and pour the concoction in from the vat. Then we’d put on a cover and, above that, fill it up with fruits and vegetables. For the triggering mechanism, we used pencils into which we inserted ampoules filled with acid that ate away at the cover until it reached the detonator, activated it, and set off the charge. The problem with the acid was that weather conditions affected the time it took to eat away the cover, producing nonuniform timing. A bomb in the Gaza Strip would go off at a different time than one in the West Bank, where it is generally colder. We then switched to clocks, which are much more accurate.”
But Rotberg’s bombs were hardly enough to solve the fedayeen problem. According to several sources, explosives killed only seven targets between mid-1951 and mid-1953, while in the process killing six civilians.
The attacks continued unabated, terrorizing Israeli civilians, humiliating the Israel Defense Forces. Vardi and his men, talented as they were at recruiting agents, managed to glean only sparse information about the identities of the fedayeen handlers, and even when the unit did ferret out specific targets, the IDF was unable to find or kill them. “We had our limitations,” says Yigal Simon, a Unit 504 veteran and later on its commander. “We didn’t always have intelligence, we couldn’t send our agents everywhere, and they didn’t appreciate us enough in the IDF. It was important to the high command to show that the IDF, Jewish hands, could execute these actions.”…
RISE AND KILL FIRST: The Secret History Of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations
by Ronen Bergman
get it at Amazon.com