By Mouin Rabbani
On October 4, 1992, El Al cargo flight LY1862, which originated at New York's John F. Kennedy Airport, took off from Amsterdam's Schiphol airport for Tel Aviv. Approximately 10 minutes later, the Boeing 747-200 ploughed into the Groeneveen and Kruitberg apartment buildings in Bijlmermeer, a south-eastern suburb.
In addition to all three crew members, 43 inhabitants are known to have been killed. Since many undocumented immigrants lived in the incinerated buildings, the actual death toll was almost certainly higher.
Whereas the initial investigation concentrated on the causes of the disaster, a systematic yet incompetent pattern of obfuscation by the Israeli and Dutch authorities concerning the doomed flight's cargo led to mounting suspicion that LY1862 was transporting more than the alleged "perfumes and gift articles".
Indeed, the past six years have witnessed a steady series of disclosures in the Dutch media relating to Israel's use of El Al passenger and cargo flights to transport "strategic military goods" from the United States to Israel via Amsterdam, as well as routine fraud by Israel's state airline over freight documents.
Nerve gas revelations
The most shocking revelation so far was made on September 30, when editors Harm van den Berg and Karel Knip of the prestigious Dutch daily NRC Handelsblad provided their readers with incontrovertible documentation that LY1862 was transporting three of the four components required for the manufacture of Sarin nerve gas.
Sarin, a highly lethal chemical weapon outlawed by international convention, is last known to have been used in the March 1995 Tokyo subway attack, in which several grams of the gas killed 12 commuters and injured more than 5000.
According to freight documents uncovered by NRC Handelsblad, LY1862 was carrying 10 18.9-litre plastic drums of dimethyl methylphosphonate (DMMP), and smaller amounts of the Sarin precursors isopropanol and hydrogen fluoride (no revelations have been made regarding the remaining precursor, thionylchloride).
The 189 litres of DMMP, sufficient for the production of 270 kg of Sarin, had been supplied by Solkatronic Chemicals of Morristown, Pennsylvania, in the US, also Israel's supplier of the lethal CS and CN gases, which have been used by its military and police forces to kill dozens of Palestinians (including many infants) in the occupied territories during the past decade. ("Specialty gases" and "security-related products" are just a few of the goodies advertised on the company's web site, <http://www.solkatronic.com>.)
Although DMMP is subject to stringent export controls by the US government, John Swanciger, executive vice-president of Solkatronic, confirmed that his firm applied for and received the required Department of Commerce export licences.
He added that this was the case not once, but twice: after the initial consignment was scattered all over Bijlmermeer, and despite a subsequent tightening of US export regulations, Solkatronic was allowed to replenish Israel's chemical arsenal with an identical second shipment.
Swanciger also stated that Israel is the only foreign country to have ordered DMMP from his firm.
The role of IIBR
According to the Shipper's Declaration of Dangerous Goods uncovered by NRC Handelsblad, the DMMP consignment was intended for use by the Israel Institute for Biological Research (IIBR) in Nes Ziona, near Tel Aviv.
(A second batch was ordered by Shalom Chemicals of Nes Ziona, a firm which, according to Ha'aretz, nobody has ever heard of and may be presumed to be a cover for 1IBR.)
Among those concerned with the proliferation of unconventional weapons, it is common knowledge that IIBR is the Israeli military and intelligence community's front organisation for the development, testing and production of chemical and biological weapons.
As demonstrated by Mossad's attempted murder of a Hamas leader in Jordan last year (in which IIBR supplied both the lethal poison and its antidote), it is also a pioneer in the field of medical warfare.
An anonymous biologist formerly associated with IIBR, quoted on October 4 by Uzi Nahmaini in the London Sunday Times, states, "There is hardly a single known or unknown form of chemical or biological weapon ... which is not manufactured at the institute".
Nahmaini adds that the highly secretive gas factory is "surrounded by a 6ft-high concrete wall topped with sensors that reveal the exact location of any intruders, but [it] is erased from local and aerial survey maps". He notes that at least six of the installation's employees have been killed in "work accidents" and that even members of the Knesset are denied entry.
The common view of IIBR's unsavoury activities is shared by residents of Nes Ziona and, apparently, Israel's Supreme Court as well: several weeks ago, the Nes Ziona local council obtained a Supreme Court injunction barring the poison centre from expanding by 5.7 hectares on the grounds that its programs pose a potentially catastrophic public health hazard.
LY1862's cargo also explains why the doomed flight's pilot rejected repeated demands by Schiphol air traffic control to attempt an emergency landing in the direction of the nearby Ijsselmeer lake, instead making straight for Schiphol with precisely the consequences traffic control feared most. According to chemical warfare experts, DMMP reacts "furiously" with water, and would have resulted in a calamity too frightening to contemplate.
True to form, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's media adviser, David Bar-Ilan, immediately issued an angry and categorical denial in response to the NRC Handelsblad story, emphasising in the strongest possible terms that LY1862 was not carrying Sarin precursors.
The Israeli defence ministry, which not coincidentally functions as IIBR's spokesperson, issued a more cryptic declaration that the flight was carrying no dangerous goods but that "this statement only concerns cargo intended for the ministry of defence".
Despite such efforts, Israel's disinformation campaign collapsed some 12 hours later. El Al spokesperson Nachman Kleiman, who since 1992 had remained steadfast in his tongue-tied account that El Al was unaware of the specific items transported on LY1862 but had fully disclosed these specifics to the Dutch authorities after the accident, was forced to concede that the flight was indeed transporting three of Sarin's four precursors.
Rather pathetically, he concluded with a claim that El Al's activities were entirely consistent with relevant regulations.
Among the immediate beneficiaries of the latest disclosures are the 700 Bijlmermeer residents and emergency workers who continue to suffer from medical and psychological conditions not dissimilar to those experienced by soldiers and civilians after the Gulf war in 1991.
Whereas initial suspicions centred on exposure to incinerated radioactive material (presumably the depleted uranium used by Boeing in the construction process, although with El Al one can never be sure), a major study is now under way to determine the role, if any, of exposure to the nerve gas ingredients aboard LY1862. The affected individuals are outraged that a possible cause of their illnesses has been kept hidden from them for six years.
Disinformation and obfuscation
The investigation into the LY1862 crash, which one Dutch researcher has likened to "a puzzle in which nearly half the pieces are missing and most of the rest are heavily damaged", has already resulted in a number of official inquiries.
On account of Israeli stonewalling and disinformation, and a campaign of obfuscation by the Dutch government and law enforcement agencies, they have produced more questions than answers. Indeed, even before the latest disclosures, outraged parliamentarians passed a motion to begin a full parliamentary inquiry into the El Al affair.
Among questions still to be answered are why neither of LY1862's flight data recorders have yet to surface, and the matter of two groups of "men in white suits".
The latter, whose presence at the crash site immediately and several hours after the disaster has been alleged in sworn affidavits by Bijlmermeer residents, emergency crew members and law enforcement personnel, were said to be wearing thick protective clothing (one group was likened to "astronauts"), which permitted them to "walk through the flames unaffected" and disappear with various pieces of debris.
Although a report in June 1998 did its best to minimise the allegations and dismiss them as figments of the imagination, it nowhere contains a clear and categorical denial of the allegations themselves.
The accounts, some of which claim that the second group arrived in vehicles bearing French licence plates, raise the possibility that operatives from Mossad's European headquarters in Paris were involved in the removal of evidence. Staff attached to the Mossad station at Schiphol airport, and covert Dutch (or NATO) emergency units, may also be shown to have been involved if the allegations are ever seriously investigated.
Another aspect requiring clarification concerns the multiple and contradictory freight documents supplied to Dutch authorities.
A Dutch TV program early this year featured statements by former El Al employees at Frankfurt airport and elsewhere that they regularly tampered with such documents on behalf of their superiors.
The Amsterdam engineering firm Omegam, which investigated the crash site, discovered extensive traces of tributylphosphate (TBP) and concluded that at least several hundred litres of the liquid must have been aboard. Yet TBP, a fairly common industrial chemical which can also be employed to recycle uranium and plutonium from spent fuel rods in a process Mordechai Vanunu revealed is used in Israel, appears nowhere in LY1862's freight documents.
The parliamentary inquiry is expected to concentrate on Israel's refusal to provide full and timely information to the Dutch authorities, including the fact that the nature of 20,000kg of LY1862's cargo has yet to be clarified.
No less important, the Dutch government's own process of disclosure will also come under scrutiny. Prime Minister Wim Kok's complaint about Israel's lack of cooperation in the wake of the latest revelations notwithstanding, there is considerable evidence that his government (and particularly the ministry of transport) at various points held back, and subsequently failed to make known the significance of, technical and other information in its possession.
Allegations that government agencies, perhaps in collaboration with their Israeli counterparts, worked to conceal aspects of the affair may also be discussed.
It remains unclear whether the role of Schiphol airport as the key transit point for the "strategic military goods" routinely flown by El Al from New York to Tel Aviv will be critically assessed by the parliamentary inquiry. Had El Al transported its morbid cargo through rather than to Dutch territory (as may well have been the case with the second DMMP consignment), it would scarcely have raised an eyebrow.
For the same reason, the functional extraterritoriality enjoyed by El Al and Mossad at Schiphol, where the Dutch authorities as a rule ask no questions and monitor nothing concerning the activities of their Israeli guests, exempting them from national and international laws and regulations, is likely to be studiously ignored.
It is ironic that shortly after the LY1862 disaster, The Hague was chosen as the seat of the United Nations Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
No less ironic is the role of the US in this affair. It now appears that during precisely the same period that Washington has been using Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction as a pretext to prolong the economic siege of Iraq, it has itself been actively engaged in chemical weapons proliferation in the Middle East.
[Reprinted, slightly abridged, from Middle East International, October 16.]