On March 14, 1988, the Israeli cabinet under prime minister Yitzhak Shamir met to approve the killing of PLO leader Khalil al-Wazir or Abu Jihad, who was Yasser Arafat’s closest ally. The first Intefada had started from December 1987. Abu Jihad was directing it from Tunis. Rabin, who as former PM had approved his killing, was hesitant to sign as he feared adverse international reaction. However, finance minister Moshe Nissim, son of the chief rabbi of Israel, persuaded him, quoting a Talmudic precept: “If a man comes to kill you, rise early and kill him first”.
This is the ‘religious sanction’ for ‘targeted assassinations’ by Mossad and IDF (Israeli Defence Force) quoted by Ronen Bergman in his deeply researched book. Bergman is an investigative reporter with Israeli paper Yedioth Ahronoth, which is an involved party in a police bribery case against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He gets chilling details of the Caesarea’s (a unit of Mossad) assassinations and their ‘surveillance evasion tradecraft’ despite rigid censorship. He says: “Since World War II, Israel has assassinated more people than any other country in the Western world”. Till 2000, Israel killed at least 1,000 Palestinians, including civilians in armed drone strikes. During the second Intefada, Israel carried out 1,000 more strikes, of which only 168 succeeded. “Since then..., Israel has executed some 800 targeted killings operations”. As against this, America carried out only 401 drone strikes through Bush-Obama presidencies.
Did such massive killings protect Israel? Abu Jihad’s killing had the opposite effect: It intensified the first Intefada, which lasted till 1993, killing 277 Israelis and 1,962 Palestinians. It also proved foreign minister Shimon Peres’s earlier warning that Abu Jihad was a moderate who could have checked Arafat. The author quotes Aman’s (Military Intelligence) chief Amnon Lipkin- Shahak, after the killing: “He (Abu Jihad) could have made a significant contribution to the peace process”. The author says: “If the adored and charismatic Abu Jihad had been alive, Hamas might not have been able to consolidate large parts of the Palestinian public”.
Abu Jihad’s killing only intensified the first Intefada. He could have checked Arafat, Shimon Peres said. Bergman feels his absence helped Hamas have its immense sway.
In fact, I had written in January 2009, quoting Israeli pianist-conductor Daniel Barenboim, that it was Israel that had encouraged Hamas to weaken Arafat. Bergman ridicules PM Netanyahu, who “had launched his international career by presenting himself as an expert on terrorism”, saying that he would not succumb to demands for release of terrorists for Israeli hostages. Yet he was forced to order the humiliating Gilad Shalit exchange in 2011 in which a lone Israeli soldier, kept as hostage by Hamas since 2006 was exchanged for 1,027 Hamas prisoners. This was because Israeli intelligence agencies, despite their legendary technical prowess, could not locate Shalit in Gaza’s 365 sq. kms. Also, as Bergman says, Iranian intelligence was advising Hamas during that period.
The second wrong decision was the assassination of moderate Lebanese Shia leader Abbas al-Mussavi. On February 16, 1992 Israel proudly described it as the first-ever drone-guided Hellfire missile assassination. It was to check the growing Iranian influence on Hezbollah. This also backfired, as Mussavi’s successor, Sayyid Hassan Nasarallah, “was blacker than black”, more radical than Mussavi. Nasarallah chose Imad Mughniyeh to intensify guerilla tactics against Israeli occupation in southern Lebanon. He rained Iranian rockets on northern Israel, attacked a synagogue in Istanbul, killed the Israel embassy’s security officer in Turkey and attacked their embassy in Argentina, all within days of Mussavi’s killing. Nasarallah made things so difficult that Israel was forced to vacate southern Lebanon in 2000.
The killing of Al-Mabhouh, Hamas’s weapons procurement chief in Dubai’s Al-Bustan Rotana Hotel on January 19, 2010, also exposed the sloppy tradecraft of Mossad’s Caesarea, who used cash for hotel charges, utilised the same Austrian telephone number for contacts and, most surprisingly, the same fictitious passports for four consecutive visits to Dubai. In 2009, they poisoned Al-Mabbouh’s drink but he just fainted. In 2010, 27 members arrived in Dubai but their images were trapped by the hotel’s multiple CCTVs. Although all departed from Dubai within four hours of the assassination, they had left enough traces for police chief Khalfan to expose Mossad to global ridicule by beaming the film all over the world. Not only that, he also demanded arrest warrants against Netanyahu, Mossad chief Meir Dagan and the 27 assassins. It was as bad for Mossad as their 1997 botched operation to assassinate Khalid Mashal, the leader of Hamas.
Israel Intelligence Community’s record “has been one of a long string of tactical successes”, says Bergman, “but also disastrous strategic failures”.