Blowing up commercial airliners and an entire stadium full of spectators were just two of the plans ordered by the former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in his long quest to assassinate the late PLO leader, Yasser Arafat. Sharon was among a group of senior Israeli hawks within the military and intelligence community who believed that assassinating Arafat would solve the “Palestinian problem”. For decades, Israeli security officials hatched elaborate plans to kill the elusive Palestinian leader through methods usually associated with terrorists.
The revelations are made in a new book, Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations, by Ronen Bergman. In an excerpt published in the New York Times Magazine, the intelligence correspondent for Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper claims that Sharon ordered a civilian aircraft carrying Arafat and dozens of passengers to be blown up in 1982.
No other target, according to Bergman, had “bedevilled” and “vexed” the “Israeli assassination apparatus” more than Arafat. To the fear and dismay of Israel, the Palestinian leader was quickly becoming a statesmanlike figure in the eyes of the world and assassinating the symbol of Palestinian resistance without risking international outrage was becoming almost impossible.
For decades, Israel’s political leaders and security officials wrangled over the diplomatic consequence of their actions and the need to assassinate symbols of Palestinian resistance. Mindful of the former, and unable to confirm whether Arafat had boarded the plane, Mossad officers pulled the plug on the mission to destroy the plane carrying 30 wounded Palestinian children from Athens. The children were survivors of the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre, victims of another of Sharon’s many acts of terrorism.
The former Israeli Prime Minister, Bergman points out, had adopted a plan to create chaos and instability amongst Israel’s neighbours. The plan was explained by one of Bergman’s main sources of the revelations in the book, Aluf Meir Dagan, a former Israeli General and Director of Mossad. Dagan, who was in charge of many assassination operations, said“the aim was to cause chaos among the Palestinians and Syrians in Lebanon, without leaving an Israeli fingerprint, to give them the feeling that they were constantly under attack and to instil them with a sense of insecurity.” In order to do that, explains Bergman, Ukrainian-born Dagan and his crew recruited Lebanese Druze, Christians and Shia Muslims who resented the Palestinians and wanted them out of their country.
Bergman paints an image of a security community in Tel-Aviv in constant doubt and self-reflection: “Can a nation use the methods of terrorism? Can it harm innocent civilians in the process? What are the costs? Where is the line?” Despite the self-doubt over the moral and legal implications of the assassination operations, Bergman said he had discovered a “hidden history” of operations after interviewing hundreds of people from the intelligence and defence establishments.
Israel’s shadowy assassination programme set in motion another daring plot to bomb an entire stadium; it was called “Operation Olympia”. Agents planted a massive set of bombs on 1 January 1982 under a VIP section being built in a Beirut stadium. According to Bergman, the PLO was going to celebrate the anniversary of its first operation against Israel. It was, he points out, an opportunity to destroy the entire Palestinian leadership in one go.
“Everything was ready. The resulting death and destruction were expected to be ‘of unprecedented proportions, even in terms of Lebanon,’ in the words of a very senior Israeli officer.” The operation, however, was shut down because “the whole world will be after us,” an opposing group of officials feared.
Sharon’s obsession with killing Arafat was part of his radical political vision, Bergman points out. If Palestinian resistance was snuffed out by killing its main symbol, then “Israeli forces would conquer Lebanon and expel the Palestinians to Jordan, where they would be a majority able to establish a Palestinian state in place of the Hashemite Kingdom. This, Sharon reckoned, would eliminate the Palestinian demand for a state in the West Bank, which thus would become part of Israel.” It was a “fantastical plan” that would only be possible by killing Arafat. As far as Sharon was concerned, “symbols were as important as body counts.”
Dozens of operations are listed in the book. Bergman believes that “Israel has used assassination in the place of war, killing half a dozen Iranian nuclear scientists, for instance, rather than launching a military attack.” He goes on to suggest that, in the end, Israel got its man by using radiation poising to kill the then President Yasser Arafat.
As with its niche military and security products, Israel’s assassination techniques have become highly sought after, claims Bergman. President George W Bush adopted many of them after 9/11. “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.”
In what seems like the first ever comprehensive look at Israel’s use of state-sponsored killings, Bergman also unpacks the motives of officials taking part in the assassination programmes. Many of the officers, the author reveals, simply cited the Talmud, central text of Rabbinic Judaism, to explain their actions: “If someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first.”
Bergman goes on to makes a staggering conclusion. “In my reporting,” he says, “I found that since World War II, Israel has used assassination and targeted-killing more than any other country in the West, in many cases endangering the lives of civilians.”
This is the country, we need to remind ourselves, which claims to be “the only democracy in the Middle East.”