Israel’s special pass to cross the moral red line
Daily Mail 2009: A white phosphorus shell fired by the Israeli military explodes over the Gaza strip earlier this year. The chemical ignites on contact with the air, and causes severe burns. The US is accused of using the weapon illegally in Afghanistan. Photo by Reuters.
By Richard Silverstein, Tikun Olam
September 13, 2013
While the Syrian regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons is a criminal act if true, and deserving of prosecution before the International Criminal Court–let’s not all become moral hypocrites on the subject. Most major military powers have chemical weapons. Some have even used them. Among the more commonly known are Saddam’s use against his Iranian enemies during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. He also used them against the Kurds in Halabja.
The U.S. and Russia both have chemical weapons programs. In fact, a rogue U.S. chemical weapons researcher may’ve caused the anthrax scare that killed a number of innocent Americans and tossed the country into a panic just after 9/11.
In the ancient era, Rome and her Germanic tribal enemies each poisoned wells with chemical agents. The first modern mass use of such weapons in war occurred during World War I when Germany used chlorine gas on the battlefield.
But the U.S. too has a rich history of using chemical agents in war. During the Vietnam War we used Agent Orange profusely to defoliate the terrain in which the Vietcong hid. The peripheral impact was to poison not just the enemy (500,000 children were born with various deformities and disabilities as a result), but our own troops, who were also severely affected. In the battle for Fallujah, the U.S. used massive amounts of white phosphorus and depleted uranium weapons, which have caused excess cancer deaths, fetal deformities and other horrific impacts on local residents. All these uses were in direct contravention of international conventions.
Israel too has a long history of research into, and use of both chemical and biological weapons. This goes all the way back to the State’s founding in 1948. In the tense lead-up to the War, Israeli forces introduced typhus and dysentery into the water systems of Acre and Gaza, resulting in numerous illnesses and deaths. Egypt arrested two Israeli agents it found in Gaza and tried and convicted them. After they escaped and were recaptured the two were hung.
Moshe Dayan, a leading Palmach commander during the War, even brought home vials of such poison, one of which was broken by his son, Assi, who contracted typhus and nearly died. As his mother nursed him back to health, his father was far away fighting, and possibly poisoning, Arabs.
Israel first began formal research in 1956** at the direction of David Ben Gurion. This was the same year the then prime minister sent his young protegé, Shimon Peres to France to begin negotiations for the nuclear reactor that would bring Israel its first nuclear weapon in 1967.
This interesting essay* suggests that at the dawn of Israel’s WMD development (1956) there was a furious debate on the subject between Chaim Weizmann, himself a chemist, and other scientists allied with military and intelligence interests. Weizmann was adamantly opposed to the “black science” of chemical warfare. Instead, he proposed creating an Institute devoted to “pure science.” This plan resulted in the founding of the Weizmann Institute, which itself makes significant contributions to Israel’s military capabilities.
But those on the other side of this debate also won out when Ben Gurion ordered the creation of Israel’s first chemical and biological weapons lab. It was housed in an abandoned Palestinian villa in Ness Ziona. The local Palestinians fled during the Nakba and the military commandeered the grounds to create the new facility. The lab’s first director was Ephraim Katzir, who eventually became Israel’s fourth president.**
Chemical and biological agents have often been used on the battlefield by Israel. UN researchers detected radiation in bomb craters in Lebanon after the 2006 indicating depleted uranium weapons may’ve been used. White phosphorus was used in Gaza in a densely populated urban environment, a use specifically outlawed under international law. Israel has also used the ghoulish DIME weapon whose impacts I’ve described here.
Biological weapons are often used by Israeli covert operatives and assassins. They did so in the case of Khaled Meshal, who was injected with a fatal dose of ricin in Amman. He only lived because King Hussein demanded that Prime Minister Netanyahu provide an antidote, which saved Khaled’s life. Mahmoud al-Mabouh was killed with chemical agents by Mossad assassins in Dubai in 2009. Mossad agents also accidentally murdered an Israeli engineer suspected of selling military secrets to Egypt. After being kidnapped, during the flight back to Israel he was given an overdose and died. His body was dropped into the ocean and the story was suppressed for 50 years.
Ness Ziona develops all of these weapons for use by the IDF and Israeli intelligence. The lab there is a closely guarded secret. Israelis know almost nothing about what goes on there. And they prefer it that way. A form of plausible deniability that might also be called moral amnesia. There is little or no public debate about the various forms of WMD Israel possesses. The military prefers it that way. Public knowledge or debate on these issues would just distract the security forces from going about their jobs of protecting the State and its citizens. The public itself sees these issues as far too complicated for them to have educated opinions about them. And so the military is given carte blanche.
Israel not only refuses to join the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty, it refuses to ratify the chemical weapons convention (which it has signed). There are only five nations in the world which haven’t ratified the convention: Israel, North Korea, Lebanon, Syria and Egypt. Interestingly, a Middle Eastern nation that belongs to both is Iran. Many analysts believe that Syria and Egypt developed their own chemical weapons capability as a form of insurance and deterrence against Israel’s nuclear weapons cache. The world turned a blind eye to what these Arab nations did because the world also turned a blind eye to Israel’s nuclear capability. It was a devil’s bargain.
Until now. Bashar al-Assad has changed the calculus of WMD in the region with his purported use of chemical weapons. While any deployment of such weapons is criminal and inexcusable, it’s quite hypocritical to single out Syria when Israel itself has far larger stores of chemical, biological and nuclear weaponry.
It’s completely justified to demand that Syria rid itself of chemical weapons, especially since it’s apparently used them and killed civilians. But it’s hypocritical not to demand all states in the region that have CW to rid themselves of it and to join any international conventions which they’ve refused to sign. Israel’s foreign ministry spokesflack, Yigal Palmor, created a marvelous smokescreen behind which Israel hid, impregnable against demands that it join:
Unfortunately…other countries in the Middle East, including those that have used chemical weapons recently or in the past, or are believed to be working to improve their chemical capabilities, have failed to follow suit and have indicated that their position would remain unchanged even if Israel ratifies the convention,” Palmor said in a written statement. “Some of these states don’t recognize Israel’s right to exist and blatantly call to annihilate it. In this context, the chemical weapons threat against Israel and its civilian population is neither theoretical nor distant. Terror organizations, acting as proxies for certain regional states, similarly pose a chemical weapons threat. These threats cannot be ignored by Israel, in the assessment of possible ratification of the convention.
Let’s see how we may parse the lies and inanities of this statement. First, “believed to be:” Israel is believed to be improving its chemical weapons capability. In fact, its arsenal is second to none. No other state in the region can come close. So whether any other state is improving its arsenal is irrelevant.
Second, no other state that I know of has said it would refuse to sign even if Israel did. In fact, Egypt and Syria in the past have said just the opposite: that they would sign the convention if Israel joined NPT (which for Arab states is the most frightening weapons Israel possesses).
Third, no Middle Eastern state that has chemical weapons has denied Israel’s right to exist or called to annihilate it. That claim is simply made up out of whole cloth. As for the claim that the threat of chemical weapons from these countries is neither “theoretical nor distant,” that too is simply a fabrication. Israel faces no serious threat from chemical weapons. And should you wish to argue that Assad might use such agents against Israel–it’s far different using them against defenceless civilians than using them against the fourth most powerful military in the world. Assad would be wiped out if he tried something like that and he knows it. The only one who apparently doesn’t is Yigal Palmor.
As for the argument that “terror organizations” pose such a threat: none has ever used chemical agents against Israel, while Israel has used such weapons. In short, Israel has no plausible reason to refuse to sign the convention, except that it wishes not to have any international oversight or restrictions upon its military capabilities. Israel knows that its WMD arsenal would flagrantly violate every treaty or convention it might sign. It would either have to disarm or be in violation. It would much rather see Iran, an NPT and CW convention signatory, fry under the glare of an international inspection regime, than suffer the same fate itself.
Another argument Israel offers to defend retention of its WMD capability is that its neighbors, whether wild-eyed ayatollahs (Iran) or brutal dictators (Syria), can’t be trusted to have such weapons, while Israel can. It’s the old “villa in the jungle” syndrome. Israel is the lone civilized nation among a stew of savage tribes and states. Israel is the west’s proxy in the region, doing the Lord’s work in exerting a civilizing influence on the natives. Yes, this is rhetoric Israeli officials have used and apparently believe.
Nevertheless, both the U.S. and Israel are hypocrites regarding WMD. Of course, it is correct to demand transparency and accountability from Assad. As long as we hold ourselves to a similar standard.
*Traces of poison Israel, not Iraq, holds that distinction of being the first country in the region to use weapons of mass destruction with genocidal intent. Salman Abu-Sitta digs into a dark history. Al Ahram weekly, March 2003
**See also Israel’s Fourth President, Ephraim Katzir, Founded IDF Biological Weapons Program, Richard Silverstein, December 2012