Friday, September 20, 2013

The Inside Story Of Israel’s Chemical and Biological Arsenal

Syria’s consent to a deal that would catalogue, locate and eventually see the destruction of its vast chemical weapons arsenal has brought Israel and its various arms programs closer to the international spotlight, raising questions about what it does and does not possess and what strategic purposes its weapons serve.
Speaking to Russia’s state-run Rossiya-24 TV last week, Bashar Assad called on Israel to sign all relevant international treaties. “If we want stability in the Middle East, all the countries in the region should stick to [international] agreements,And Israel is the first state that should do so, since Israel possessed nuclear, chemical, biological and all other kinds of weapons of mass destruction,” said the Syrian president
In April 1948, before the state declared its independence, future prime minister David Ben-Gurion, according to Michael Keren’s “Ben-Gurion and the Intellectuals,” instructed a Jewish Agency official in Europe to seek out Jewish scientists who could “either increase the capacity to kill masses or to cure masses; both are important.”
The Search Began With Biological Weapons. Avner Cohen, a professor of Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and an outspoken critic of Israel’s policy of ambiguity as regards WMDs, put the date at February 18, 1948, when the Haganah’s chief operations officer, Yigal Yadin, sent a microbiology student named Alexander Keynan down to Jaffa to establish a unit called HEMED BEIT.
Keynan and the original HEMED commander, Ephraim Katzir, a future president of Israel, “planned various activities, to get a sense what chemical and biological weapons are and how we could build a potential should there be a need for such a potential,” Cohen quoted Katzir as telling the Hadashot newspaper in 1993 in a comprehensive article for The Nonproliferation Review.
This potential, at least in part, apparently existed even before the founding of the state. Abba Kovner, the famous poet and partisan fighter, is depicted in Dina Porat’s “The Fall of a Sparrow: The Life and Times of Abba Kovner” as having traveled to pre-state Palestine after the war and receiving poison from Katzir in order to kill incarcerated SS officers in Europe.
He was apprehended on board a British ship and threw the poison overboard before his arrest.
Several years later, in May 1948, forces from the Carmel Brigade of the Haganah allegedly used a biological weapon in the battle for Acre.
“I spoke to the company commander from Battalion 21 of the Carmel Brigade, who poured the stuff into the water supply,” said military historian Uri Milstein in a phone interview. Milstein, a controversial figure in Israel, said that the man had since died, that the material had been delivered to the battalion by Moshe Dayan, and that the container had been filled with the typhus bacterium.
“Apparently, or rather more than apparently, wells were poisoned too in order to stop villagers from returning to villages,” he added.
After the war, HEMED BEIT relocated to a building in an orange grove just outside Ness Tziona, where it has remained. Today it is called the Israel Institute for Biological Research, “a governmental, applied research institute specializing in the fields of biology, medicinal chemistry and environmental sciences.”
The institute publishes a great deal of defense-related research and is widely cited academically and is highly regarded.
What is clear is that Israel has not signed the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention; that the deputy director of the biological institute, Professor Marcus Klingberg, was covertly arrested by the Shin Bet on January 19, 1983, and subsequently charged with spying for the KGB for more than three decades (Klingberg, perhaps the most damaging spy in Israel’s history, spent the first 10 years of his 20-year sentence in solitary confinement, under a pseudonym); and that on two occasions the Mossad attempted to assassinate people using biological weapons.
The first known Israeli assassination with biological weapons was Dr. Wadi Haddad, a Palestinian terrorist, who was the first to hijack an El Al plane, in July 1968, and one of the commanders of the Entebbe hijacking in 1976. One year later, he was given Belgian chocolate “coated by Mossad specialists with a lethal biological poison,” according to Aaron J. Klein’s “Striking Back.” [Full disclosure: this reporter translated the book.] He lost his appetite, he lost weight, and his immune system collapsed. On March 30, 1978, in an East German hospital, he died.
On September 25, 1997, shortly after 10 a.m., two Mossad combatants approached Hamas official Khaled Mashal and released into his ear a potentially fatal dose of a synthetic opiate called Fetanyl, according to foreign sources. ”I felt a loud noise in my ear. It was like a boom, like an electric shock. Then I had shivering sensation in my body like an electric shock,” Mashal told Alan Cowell of The New York Times.
Within two hours he was close to respiratory collapse and would have died had Mishka Ben David, a senior Mossad officer, not provided the Jordanian authorities with the antidote.

Chemical Weapons

In 1955, sure that war with Egypt loomed on the horizon, Ben-Gurion pushed the defense establishment to produce a nonconventional capacity to respond to any such assault from Egypt. “He ordered that this nonconventional capability be operationalized – i.e., weaponized and stockpiled – as soon as possible and before a war with Egypt broke out,” Cohen wrote in an article published in The Nonproliferation Review in the 2001 Fall-Winter edition. “The ‘cheap nonconventional capability’ that preceded the nuclear option was chemical, not biological,” he added.
In July 1990, in perhaps the most straightforward indication of Israeli capacities, then-science minister Yuval Ne’eman was quoted in The New York Times as having told Israel Radio that if Saddam Hussein attacked Israel, ”In my opinion, we have an excellent response, and that is to threaten Hussein with the same merchandise.”
In 1992, the crash of an El Al 747 near Amsterdam revealed — according to a paper by Jean Pascal Zanders, a senior research fellow at the European Institute for Security Studies — that the cargo contained three of the four precursors to sarin, including dimethyl methylphosphonate (DMMP).” The compound has several legitimate civilian uses, Zanders wrote, but “the secrecy with which the investigation of the accident and the recovery and clean-up operations were conducted, fed speculation over its true purpose.”
Finally, last week Foreign Policy magazine discovered an old CIA document, which revealed that US spy satellites in 1982 located “a probable CW [chemcial weapon] nerve agent production facility and a storage facility… at the Dimona Sensitive Storage Area in the Negev Desert. Other CW production is believed to exist within a well-developed Israeli chemical industry.”
Israel has clung to a policy of ambiguity. But while it has not so much as spoken a single official word about the BWC. When the treaty was put into force in 1997, though, Israel remained on the sidelines and refrained from ratifying it.
Karmon called this position “a sort of half pregnancy,” and said that, since Israel has a significant interest in getting rid of the regional chemical threat, and since it possesses “other deterrent capacities,” it would do well to sign.

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