Forty years ago, Wadie Haddad was one of the world’s most wanted men. Bold, determined, ruthless, Haddad was the founder of the far-Left Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
He trained notorious terrorist Carlos the Jackal and masterminded the hijack of an Air France plane that was flown to Entebbe in Uganda and later rescued by Israeli commandos.
Not surprisingly, the Israeli secret service, Mossad, wanted him dead. But six years after they first put out a ‘kill order’, Haddad was still very much alive, living in apparent comfort in Baghdad.
What happened next was worthy of a James Bond thriller. On January 10, 1978, a Mossad agent inside Haddad’s inner circle, known only as Sadness, switched his toothpaste for an identical tube laced with a deadly toxin, developed in a secret laboratory near Tel Aviv.
Every time Haddad brushed his teeth, a tiny quantity of the toxin worked its way through his gums into his bloodstream.
Little by little, he began to die. His Palestinian friends contacted the East German secret police, who flew him to a hospital in East Berlin. Ten days later, bleeding from every orifice, Haddad died in agony.
The doctors were baffled. But back in Israel, Mossad congratulated itself on a job well done.
What happened to Haddad, argues Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman in a riveting new book, was merely the most melodramatic example of what is now an enduring pattern.
Israel, a country born in bloodshed, has become the world leader in assassinations.
The numbers alone are extraordinary. Not only have Mossad’s secret agents killed more people than the agents of any other state since World War II, but the pace has rapidly increased, with some 800 operations in the past decade.
The number of deaths will never be known for sure, but they are in the thousands.
There is, of course, something irresistibly fascinating about the idea of the globe-trotting secret agent, moving through the murky world of Middle Eastern politics with a licence to kill. And some of Bergman’s stories do have the flavour of a Hollywood spy blockbuster.
One operation in 1968 was directly inspired by the film The Manchurian Candidate, with Mossad hiring a Swedish-born psychologist to brainwash a Palestinian prisoner into murdering Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation.
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The psychologist picked a suitable prisoner and spent three months hypnotising him with the simple message: ‘Arafat bad. He must be removed’.
The prisoner, known only as Fatkhi, was trained to shoot at pictures of Arafat, hidden in a specially prepared room.
On December 19, 1968, a Mossad team smuggled Fatkhi across the River Jordan, from where he was supposed to infiltrate Arafat’s headquarters.
Then they waited. Five hours later, news came. Fatkhi had wasted no time. He had gone straight to a police station and accused Mossad of trying to brainwash him. The operation was an abject failure.
In recent years, however, Mossad has lived up to its reputation as the most efficient secret killing machine in the world. One operation in Dubai proves the point. In January 2010, a team of several dozen Mossad agents flew to the oil-rich emirate on false passports, wearing wigs and false moustaches.
Disguised as tourists and tennis players – some of them even carried racquets – they broke into a room at the luxurious Al-Bustan Hotel.
There they waited for their quarry, top Hamas operative Mahmoud al-Mabhouh. As soon as al-Mabhouh let himself into his room, they grabbed him and used a high-tech ultrasound instrument to inject poison into his neck without even breaking the skin.
He died within moments. Four hours later, most of the team had already flown out of Dubai. Job done.
All this might sound swashbuckling or heroic. In reality, there is nothing glamorous about Bergman’s story.
Indeed, the first man to die in his book is not some Palestinian terrorist or Left-wing extremist. It is a British policeman: Detective Superintendent Tom Wilkin, from Aldeburgh on the Suffolk coast.
In the autumn of 1944, Wilkin was in Jerusalem, where he was in charge of cracking down on Zionist guerillas.
At the time, Jerusalem was part of British-governed Palestine, where the authorities were struggling to keep a lid on the tensions between Zionists – who wanted an independent Jewish state – and their Palestinian neighbours.
To the Jewish militants in the terrorist Stern Gang, Wilkin was not a man. He was a target. In September, 1944, as he was strolling down a street, a boy sitting outside a grocery store threw down his hat – a sign the target was in range.
Moments later, two young Jewish men opened fire with revolvers. Wilkin ‘managed to turn around and draw his pistol,’ one assailant, David Shomron, recalled, ‘but then he fell face first. A spurt of blood came out of his forehead, like a fountain.’
Shomron did not feel the slightest remorse. ‘Not even a little twinge of guilt,’ he said later. ‘We believed the more coffins that reached London, the closer the day of freedom would be.’
That terrible phrase – ‘the more coffins that reached London’ – captures the mood of Bergman’s book. For, as cold-blooded as this sounds, Shomron was proved right.
Faced with a wave of killings, including the infamous 1946 bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, in which 91 mostly British officials were killed, Clement Attlee’s government decided to get out. The Zionists got what they wanted.
But the blood that gushed from poor Tom Wilkin’s head would soon become a torrent.
The state of Israel was born amid brutal ethnic cleansing, with Jewish and Palestinian neighbours slaughtering one another in their thousands, while the new country’s Arab neighbours tried to strangle it at birth. It is hardly surprising that, ever since, Israel’s leaders have been driven by insecurity. After all, Israel has always been surrounded by hostile states, most of which deny that it even has the right to exist.
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On top of that, no Israeli can ever forget the awful shadow of the Holocaust, in which six million Jews were slaughtered by the Nazis.
Even today, hatred of Jews remains a monstrous feature of Europe’s political landscape – as evidenced by the appalling goings – on inside the Labour Party, where leader Jeremy Corbyn and his friends have turned a blind eye to the resurgence of the most poisonous anti-Semitism. No wonder, then, that in the struggle for survival, Israel’s leaders have reached so often for the bomb and bullet.
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‘If someone comes to kill you,’ says the sacred Jewish text, the Talmud, ‘rise up and kill him first.’
As Bergman argues, that has been the principle guiding Mossad, as well as Israel’s internal security service Shin Bet and the army intelligence agency Aman, since the state’s foundation 70 years ago.
Former Mossad director Meir Dagan, who ordered hundreds of assassinations between 2002 and 2011, kept a picture of his Polish-born grandfather, on his knees and surrounded by German soldiers, moments before he was shot and thrown into a mass grave.
The lesson, Dagan told Bergman before his death in 2016, was that ‘most of the Jews in the Holocaust died without fighting. We must never reach that situation again, kneeling, without the ability to fight for our lives.’
Bergman’s own story, by the way, is fascinating. Although this book has earned him a reputation as a whistle-blower, he is the very antithesis of a simplistic, bleeding-hearted activist.
Born in 1972 to parents who were both Holocaust survivors, he did his national service in the intelligence unit of Israel’s Military Police Corps, has a PhD from Cambridge and is now a senior correspondent for Israel’s largest newspaper.
Based on 1,000 interviews and vast numbers of leaked documents, his book often reads like a John le Carre novel. But it took considerable courage for him to publish it.
While he was working on it, the chief of the Israel Defense Forces accused him of ‘aggravated espionage’ and even asked the security services to take action against him.
Why? The reason is that Bergman sheds an unsparing light on the human cost of Israel’s targeted killings policy. He shows, for example, that when operations have taken place overseas, Israel’s agents were, and probably still are, unforgivably casual about civilian victims.
Perhaps the most chilling section of his book concerns an operation in 1973 – and which was about as far from the glamour and romance of a James Bond thriller as you could possibly imagine.
That summer, Mossad was on the hunt for Ali Hassan Salameh, one of the most wanted men in the world. Salameh was chief of operations for Black September, the Palestinian terrorist group that murdered 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics.
Mossad wanted him dead, but the trail had gone cold. Then came a miracle. In Lillehammer, Norway, an Israeli secret agent spotted Salameh in a cafe. Word went back to Tel Aviv and a hit squad was assembled. On July 21, as Salameh and his girlfriend got off a bus on their way home from the cinema, the assassins were waiting in a rented Volvo. They leaped out of the car, fired eight shots, jumped back in their car and screeched away, leaving their target in a pool of blood.
It was almost the perfect hit, but for just one problem. They had killed the wrong man.
It was not Salameh, but Ahmed Bouchikhi, a Moroccan waiter with a heavily pregnant wife.
In the aftermath, Norwegian police arrested six Israeli agents. Five served time in Norway, though all were released quickly under a secret deal. When the five returned to Israel, they were greeted as heroes. Few questioned the basic morality of the operation; it was just a shame, they thought, that Mossad had got the wrong man.
But they did get him eventually. On January 22, 1979, Salameh had just left his Beirut apartment when a female Israeli agent, watching from her balcony, pressed a button and a gigantic car bomb ripped through the street.
Eight bystanders were also killed, including a German nun and a British student, but nobody at Mossad cared. ‘You get used to killing,’ explains former security chief Ami Ayalon. ‘Human life becomes easy to dispose of. You spend a quarter of an hour, 20 minutes, on who to kill.’
In a chillingly familiar phrase, Ayalon even calls this the ‘banality of evil’ – words borrowed from the German philosopher Hannah Arendt, who used it to describe the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. That tells its own story.
And although Bergman shows why decent people can feel they have no choice but to take terrible decisions, he also shows the consequences of crossing the line between good and evil.
In the early Eighties, for example, Israeli defence minister, and later prime minister, Ariel Sharon’s obsession with killing Yasser Arafat led him into one of the darkest chapters in Israel’s modern history. At the time, Israel was embroiled in a horrific civil war in Lebanon, which killed at least 120,000 people.
There, on Sharon’s orders, his army colluded with the local Christian Phalange, a militia who murdered hundreds, if not thousands, of Muslims in a Beirut slaughterhouse, cut off their ears as souvenirs and buried their bodies in lime pits. Almost incredibly, Sharon did not stop there.
Some of Bergman’s interviewees told him that on five occasions in 1982, Sharon seriously contemplated shooting down an ordinary civilian airliner when he heard that Arafat might be aboard.
On each occasion the Israeli military refused to obey, sometimes deliberately dithering until it was too late. Had they not done so, hundreds of ordinary passengers would have died in what Bergman calls ‘an intentional war crime’.
No doubt all this will be grist to the mill of Israel’s critics. On the Left, in particular, criticism of Israel has become an automatic reflex, often tinged with more than a hint of anti-Semitism.
There are, of course, good reasons to be critical of Israel. I find it impossible to justify its harsh treatment of the defeated Palestinians, or its callous, cynical policy of expanding Israeli settlements on Palestinian land.
Yet after all the Jews have suffered – pogroms, persecution and the unspeakable obscenity of the Holocaust – what reasonable person would begrudge them a homeland of their own?
And who can blame them for fighting to defend that homeland from those who would destroy it?
Ever since 1948, as Bergman himself points out, the threats to Israel’s existence have been only too real. One of his book’s most powerful images is a picture of an Israeli woman, drenched in her own blood, being carried away after a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv.
Sharon used to show it to foreign diplomats whenever they questioned Israel’s targeted assassination programme. Given Israel’s bloody history and dangerous present, I understand why its agents feel they must act as they do.
The question, though, is whether the killings are working. For the past 70 years, the deaths have piled up, yet still there is no peace. The blood flows, but still Israel is not safe.
Its enemies, of course, deserve a large share of the blame. But perhaps killing has become so easy that Israel’s leaders have stopped looking for other solutions. Either way, the end is nowhere in sight – and so Mossad’s killings go on. Because of their secretive nature, they rarely make the headlines.
But even as you are reading these words, someone, somewhere, is planning the next hit.
Rise And Kill First: The Secret History Of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations, by Ronen Bergman, is published by John Murray, price £20.
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