Time for a dossier on Israel

Israeli plane carrying weapons of mass destruction

(11 October 2002) -- The tenth anniversary of the crash of El Al flight LY1862 in the Netherlands passed virtually unnoticed by the world's media. On 4 October 1992, a Boeing 747 airliner of the Israeli airline El Al crashed into apartment blocks at Bijlmermeer, near Schiphol Airport, south-east of Amsterdam, en route from New York to Tel Aviv (MEI 585, 598). At least 47 people were killed and over a thousand local residents fell ill to respiratory, neurological and mobility ailments and experienced a rise in cancer and birth defects.

Facing official Dutch and Israeli stone-walling, an independent Dutch nuclear research group discovered that the plane used depleted uranium as ballast. In 1998 the Dutch daily Handelsblad revealed even deadlier material in the cargo: flight LY1862 was carrying 10 tons of chemicals, including hydrofluoric acid, isopropanol and dimethyl methylphosphonate (DMMP) -- three of the four chemicals used in the production of sarin nerve gas. A belated Dutch parliamentary enquiry into the crash discovered unpublicized weekly flights from New York to Tel Aviv stopping off at Schiphol, where cargoes were not inspected and -- as the Dutch attorney general testified -- El Al security staff worked for Mossad. In the words of an investigator working on behalf of the Bijlmermeer survivors, Schiphol had become, and continues to be, "a hub for secret weapons transfers."

"Invisible" facilities

The DMMP was supplied by Solkatronic Chemicals Inc. of Morrisville, Pennsylvania, and was destined for the Israeli Institute for Biological Research (IIBR) at Nes Ziona, near Tel Aviv. As MEI noted in 1998, the IIBR is "the Israeli military and intelligence community's front organization for the development, testing and production of chemical and biological weapons." A "senior Israeli intelligence source" told the Sunday Times: "There is hardly a single known or unknown form of chemical or biological weapons which is not manufactured at Nes Ziona." The IIBR is not shown on maps, and access to it was denied even to members of the Knesset's foreign affairs and defence committees, who were concerned about health risks to the neighbourhood.

The 1993 report by the US Office of Technology Assessment for Congress states that Israel has "undeclared offensive chemical warfare capabilities" and is "generally reported as having an undeclared offensive biological warfare programme". The Sussex-Harvard Information Bank on Chemical and Biological Warfare Armament reports that Israel allegedly used poison gas in the 1960s and early 1980s, chemical warfare against Egyptian forces in 1948, and against Palestinians in 1969 and during the first Intifada. The Sunday Times reported in 1998 that Israel's F-16s had been equipped to carry chemical and biological weapons manufactured at Nes Ziona, and that crews were trained to fit an active chemical or biological weapon within minutes of receiving a command.

The newspaper also reported that it was at Nes Ziona where research into an "ethno-bomb" was carried out. One of the most disturbing revelations made during the South African Truth and Reconciliation Committee hearings was that the apartheid regime and its ally Israel were cooperating on such a project. Scientists reportedly pinpointed a particular characteristic in the genetic profile of certain Arab communities, particularly in Iraq, and were trying to engineer deadly micro-organisms that attack only those bearing the distinctive genes. The disease could be spread by spraying the organisms into the air or putting them in water supplies.

Israel's nuclear weapons programme is better documented than its biological and chemical weapons programme but remains as "invisible" as the Nes Ziona plant. There is no doubt that Israel's nuclear capability was developed from the 1950s at Dimona in the Negev, with French and then American and South African assistance. In 1986 the Moroccan-born Israeli scientist Mordechai Vanunu blew the whistle on the activities at Dimona, claiming it had produced "over 200" nuclear warheads. Five years later a US Strategic Air Command report said Israel had between 75 and 200 nuclear weapons. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (BAS) estimates Israel has "over 185" nuclear weapons. The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) estimates "over 100, but not significantly over 200". The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimates 200. In 2000, Israeli MK Issam Mahoul broke the parliamentary taboo on discussing Israel's official policy of "nuclear ambiguity" and stated that Israel had 2-300 nuclear warheads. Jane's Intelligence Review estimated in 1997 that Israel had over 400 thermonuclear and nuclear weapons. The Campaign to Free Vanunu estimates 500 nuclear warheads.

Blind spots

In both the 1967 and 1973 wars, Israel reportedly put nuclear warheads on a number of missiles. In August this year Anthony Cordesman of the Centre for Strategic International Studies told the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee that were Israel to feel threatened by attack from Iraq it might retaliate with nuclear strikes on Iraqi cities not yet occupied by US forces. Despite the overwhelming evidence of Israel's nuclear weapons and readiness to deploy them, London and Washington refuse to see them. A spokeswoman for the Foreign Office told MEI: "Britain continues to encourage Israel to ratify the Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear state." There is a similar blind spot in the US, where a 2001 Pentagon report omitted Israel from a list of states with nuclear weapons capability.

Evidence about Israel's nuclear weaponry that the Foreign Office and Pentagon, among others, refuse to acknowledge, includes well sourced information about Israel's delivery systems. The latest edition of Nuclear Notebook says Israel's F-16 squadrons based at Nevatim and Ramon are the most likely warplanes to carry nuclear warheads and that a small group of pilots has been trained for nuclear strikes. Israel's F-4s, F-15s and Jaguars are also nuclear-capable. The newsletter adds that Israel possesses ground-to-air missiles -- the Jericho I, Jericho II and Shavit -- that can be equipped with nuclear warheads. The Jericho I has a range of 500km and can be fired from stationary positions or from mobile launchers. Jericho II missiles can travel 1,500km and are kept, according to the BAS, at the Zechariya base 45km south-east of Tel Aviv. The Shavit intercontinental ballistic missile, which launches Israel's Ofek spy satellites from the Palmahim air base south of Tel Aviv, could deliver a nuclear payload 8,000km away. Between July 1999 and October 2000, the Israeli navy reportedly took delivery of three Dolphin-class submarines -- Dolphin, Leviathan and Tekuma -- which are believed to have been modified to carry nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. A considerable body of research suggests that Israel also possesses a tactical nuclear capability, including small nuclear landmines and strategic nuclear warheads that it can fire from cannons.

Notwithstanding a white-washing, complicit visit to Dimona by a Norwegian team in 1961 that "verified" that exports of heavy water were not being put to illicit use, and a farcical visit there in 1969 by an American team that was guided around a fake control room, there has been no known scrutiny of Israel's non-conventional weapons programmes. Israel has not signed the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, and while it did sign up to the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1993, it is yet to ratify it. UN Security Council Resolution 487, of June 1981, "calls upon Israel urgently to place its nuclear facilities under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards," and Resolution 687 of April 1991 notes "the threat that all weapons of mass destruction pose to peace and security in the area and -- the need to work towards the establishment of a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East."

Meanwhile, Washington marshals an international campaign to force inspection and dismantlement of Iraq's comparatively modest (at best) weapons of mass destruction programmes and the probable overthrow of the regime that pursues them. Mordechai Vanunu may be expecting his release in 2004, but no one is predicting when there might be international scrutiny of Dimona and Nes Ziona, or of the unpublicized, weekly El Al flights between New York and Tel Aviv.

*Neil Sammonds is editor of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign's Palestine News in London, UK and writes on freedom of expression in the Middle East for Index on Censorship

Middle East International Magazine (UK)

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