ISRAEL: A 'huge warehouse' of nuclear weapons



US President George Bush continues to demand that the United Nations Security Council endorse a massive military attack on Iraq on the basis of tenuous "evidence" that Saddam Hussein might have the capability to develop nuclear weapons in the future. Yet, Washington and the corporate mass media hypocritically ignore the fact that there is only one country in the Middle East that does possess nuclear weapons. That country is Israel. Israel doesn't just have a nuclear weapons program, it possesses an arsenal of up to 300 nuclear weapons.

According to the Federation of American Scientists, Israel's attempt to accumulate a nuclear arsenal began with the establishment of a science corps (HEMED GIMMEL) within the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) in 1948. HEMED GIMMEL surveyed the Negev desert in 1949 for uranium reserves. In 1952, the Israel Atomic Energy Commission was created.

In 1956, France agreed to provide Israel with an 18-megawatt nuclear reactor. After Israel's 1956 invasion of Egypt, the agreement was revised to provide a 24-megawatt reactor. France purchased heavy water from Norway for the reactor, breaking assurances to the Norwegian government that it would not transfer the water to a third country. French customs officials were misled over the destination of reactor components.

The complex to house the reactor was constructed at Dimona, in the northern region of the Negev desert. A special organisation, the Office of Science Liaisons, was created to protect Israel's nuclear weapons program and keep it secret. Israel's ruses to hide the nature of the Dimona project included describing it as a "manganese plant".

In 1960, the Israeli and French governments fell out over the project. France demanded that Israel make the Dimona project public and allow international inspections of the facility. However, France agreed to finish shipping the reactor components and Israel assured Paris that it would not construct nuclear weapons. In 1964, the reactor became operational.

The United States, Israel's primary provider of military aid, also was aware of Israel's nuclear project. According to Sir Timothy Garden, a fellow at Indiana University, Israel signed a nuclear cooperation agreement with the US in 1954. In 1958, US spy planes photographed the Dimona complex. Israel purchased a smaller reactor (unlikely to aid in nuclear weapons production) from the US, which became operational in 1960.

US role

US Atomic Energy Commission inspections of the Dimona facilities in the late 1960s were hampered by the Israeli government's non-cooperation. In addition to controlling the timing and extent of the inspections, Israel constructed false control panels and bricked up corridors to fool AEC teams.

Significantly, an October 1969 US government memo, reporting on discussions between State Department officials and a representative from the AEC, implied that the US government had no problem with Israel possessing the facilities for building nuclear weapons, noting that "the [AEC] team has drawn the inference that the US government is not prepared to support a real 'inspection' effort in which the team members can feel authorised to ask directly pertinent questions and/or insist on being allowed to look at records, logs, materials and the like. The team has in many subtle ways been cautioned to avoid controversy, 'be gentlemen' and not take issue with the obvious will of the hosts. On one occasion it seems that the team was criticised roundly by the Israelis for having 'acted like inspectors'."

By late 1964, Dimona was producing approximately 8 kilograms of plutonium per year, enough for Israel to build one to two nuclear weapons once it was reprocessed.

Garden wrote in Can Deterrence Last? (Buchan & Enright, London, 1984) that, "Having established a steady production system for plutonium fissile material, a reprocessing plan was necessary for rapid conversion to weapons' grade ore. The design of such a plant is distinctive, and there is thus agreement that Israel did not build one.

"The reason for this omission appears to be that Israel was successful in illegally acquiring a significant stock of enriched uranium. CIA reports have revealed that Israel obtained 'large quantities of enriched uranium by clandestine means'. The New York Times report of this reminded readers of the loss of highly enriched uranium from the Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corporation in Apollo, Pennsylvania, in 1965...

"If Israel did manage to obtain nuclear weapon material in 1965, it would explain why no plutonium reprocessing plant was built. With an assured uranium capability, it could use the slower, but politically uncontroversial, method of 'hot laboratory' plutonium separation gradually to increase its stockpile."

Apartheid ally

From 1967 until the 1980s, Israel relied on apartheid South Africa for the supply of approximately 550 tons of uranium for the Dimona complex. It is rumoured that the two countries staged a joint nuclear weapon test in the Indian Ocean in September 1979. An article in the April 20, 1997, Ha'aretz claimed that Israel helped South Africa develop nuclear weapons in the early 1980s. Former South African Defence Force chief of staff Constand Viljoen told Ha'aretz, "We wanted to get nuclear knowledge from whoever we could, also from Israel".

Public confirmation of Israel's production of nuclear weapons was provided in 1986, when Mordechai Vanunu provided the British Sunday Times with photographs of Israel's nuclear facilities. Vanunu was a technician at the Dimona Machon 2 facility from 1976 to 1985, before being dismissed for his involvement in left-wing, pro-Palestinian politics. Machon 2 produces plutonium and components for nuclear bombs.

According to Vanunu, Israel already possessed 200 nuclear weapons by 1986. Before the Times published the story, Vanunu was lured to Rome by an agent of Mossad, Israel's infamous secret police. In Rome, he was kidnapped and taken back to Israel, where he was convicted at a secret trial and jailed.

The transcripts of Vanunu's trial remained classified until sections were publicly released by the Israeli government in November 1999, after the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot petitioned the District Court in Jerusalem.

Vanunu was sentenced to 18 years in prison. He spent the first 11-and-a- half years in solitary confinement. According to Vanunu's brother Asher, Ashkelon Prison, where Mordechai is imprisoned, does not intend to release him until April 22, 2004, five months before the expiration of his sentence.

After completing two-thirds of his sentence, Vanunu sought parole. His request was first rejected in 1998 and then every six months thereafter. Be'er Sheva Distict Court is due to hear Vanunu's application for release in late October. According to the October 9 Ha'aretz, "[Vanunu] plans to argue that last year, [Israeli foreign minister Shimon] Peres told a [Israeli] Channel Two documentary more about Israel's nuclear capability than Vanunu ever told the [Sunday Times]".

Knesset 'debate'

The controversy over Vanunu and Israel's secret nuclear weapons arsenal led to the first-ever Knesset debate on nuclear policy in early 2000. The February 3, 2000 Yediot Ahronot described the debate: "MK [member of the Knesset] Issam Makhoul (Hadash) made history when he declared: 'Israel has 200-300 atom bombs'. Minister Ramon, who responded for the government, repeated the statement: 'Israel will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East.'

"'It is not the messenger Vanunu who is the problem, rather the policy of all Israeli governments, who have turned this small piece of land into a poisoned and poisoning nuclear waste bin, which could take us all to heaven in a nuclear mushroom', warned MK Issam Makhoul (Hadash) in the Knesset yesterday.

"MK Makhoul made history, when he received permission to table a proposal on Israel's nuclear policy, which led to the first open debate of its kind. Members of the Likud, the National Religious Party, Shas and others chose to leave the assembly in protest just as Makhoul started speaking.

"MK Makhoul stated, that Israel is in sixth place in the world as far as concerns the amount of high quality plutonium in its possession. 'The entire world knows that Israel is a huge warehouse of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, that serves as a cornerstone for the nuclear arms race in the Middle East', Makhoul accused. According to him, Israel has '200-300 atomic bombs.'

"Members of the Knesset responded with shouts to the speech by MK Makhoul. 'You are committing a crime against Israeli Arabs today', shouted MK Ophir Pinnes, chairman of the coalition. 'If anyone needed justification why Arab Knesset Members should not be members of the Foreign Affairs and Security Committee, you just provided it', said MK Yosef Pritzky (Shinui)."

From Green Left Weekly, October 30, 2002.
Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.

If you like our work, become a supporter

Green Left is a vital social-change project and aims to make all content available online, without paywalls. With no corporate sponsors or advertising, we rely on support and donations from readers like you.

For just $5 per month get the Green Left digital edition in your inbox each week. For $10 per month get the above and the print edition delivered to your door. You can also add a donation to your support by choosing the solidarity option of $20 per month.

Freecall now on 1800 634 206 or follow the support link below to make a secure supporter payment or donation online.