Palestine Fact Sheets - Israeli Weapons of Mass Destruction
Israel is believed to be the sixth nation in the world and the first in the Middle East to have developed and acquired nuclear weapons.
For the past forty years, Israel has maintained an ambiguous position regarding its weapons stockpile, neither confirming nor denying its existence, however, most experts and non-proliferation analysts agree (1) that Israel has somewhere in the region of 100 to 200 nuclear warheads. In addition to this the country is believed to posses a stockpile of chemical weapons and has an active biological weapons program, which has developed several weapons agents.
“Israel follows a policy of what Avner Cohen calls nuclear opacity – visibly possessing nuclear weapons while denying their existence. This has allowed Israel to enjoy the benefits of being a nuclear weapons state in terms of deterrence without having to suffer the international repercussions of acknowledging their arsenal” (2).
The Israeli bomb: historical background (3)
Plans for a nuclear research program had been made within a year of the establishment of the Israeli state in 1948. Due to Israel’s precarious position in the Middle East, the bomb was considered a centerpiece of its security against hostile neighbors.
In 1949 Israeli scientists began exploration of the Negev Desert, finding low-grade uranium deposits near Beersheba. Meanwhile, promising students were sent abroad to study engineering and physics at Israeli government expense.
The Israel Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC) was secretly founded in 1952 and placed under the control of the Defense Ministry.
It was France, however, which provided assistance to Israel for the construction of the first nuclear research reactor at Dimona, in the Negev Desert. Nuclear cooperation between the two countries, initiated in the early 1950’s, became problematic when France began to pressure Israel to make the project public and to submit to international inspections of the site. After French disengagement in the early 1960's, Israel progressed on its own. (Some believe that French-Israeli cooperation extended to secret nuclear tests (4)
Lacking uranium reserves – Israel's own uranium sources consist solely of the small phosphate deposits in the Negev – a new collaboration with South Africa developed and continued through the 1970s and 1980s, whereby Israel supplied the technology and expertise for the ''Apartheid Bomb'', and South Africa provided the uranium for Israel’s Dimona reactor.
A nuclear explosion in the southern Indian Ocean in 1979 was suspected to be a joint South African-Israeli test.
Israel also obtained uranium oxide, known as yellow cake, from West Germany (5) and probably from Portugal.
“The United States has adopted a nuclear double standard in the Middle East, acquiescing in the possession of nuclear weapons by Israel while strongly opposing their possession by its neighbors, with Iran being the most prominent contemporary example” (6).
The US was, from the very beginning, involved in the Israeli nuclear program, training Israeli scientists and providing technology including a small research reactor under the ‘’Atoms for Peace’’ program in 1955 (7).
The United States became aware of Dimona's existence after U-2 spy planes in 1958 captured the facility's construction. Israel initially said it was a textile plant; two years later US intelligence identified the site as a nuclear reactor, the C.I.A. voicing concerns that it was part of a weapons program.
On December 1960, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion told the Israeli Parliament that a nuclear reactor was under construction for ''peaceful purposes'' only.
After refusing to allow regular international inspections, Israel eventually undertook a commitment with the US to use the facility for peaceful purposes and to admit an inspection team. These inspections began in 1962 and continued until 1969, but inspectors reported they found no evidence of a weapons program. In fact it is now known they saw only the above ground element of the Dimona complex, the underground plant was kept hidden during the inspections.
By early 1968, Carl Duckett, head of the C.I.A. directorate of science and technology, concluded Israel had nuclear weapons, which he announced in testimony he gave to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 1974. Duckett said his assessment was based largely on conversations he held with Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb, who visited Israel several times and supported its nuclear program.
In 1969, President Nixon struck a deal with Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir: as long as Israel did not go public with its nuclear weapons program or test weapons openly, the US would stop its inspections and turn a blind eye to its program.
”Israeli impunity relies on America for its sustenance and the nuclear question is a case of point: US law is very clear in banning foreign aid to countries that either do not sign or fail to obey the NPT, but somehow more than $ 3 billion in illegal funds gets from Washington to Israel every year with nary a world of protest on Capitol Hill” (8).
Finally the proof: the Vanunu revelations
Israel’s sophisticated nuclear program was revealed for the first time in 1986 by Israeli nuclear scientist Mordechai Vanunu. The technician dismissed from Dimona secretly smuggled photographs and scientific data of the complex out of Israel, and his story was published in the London Sunday Times (9). His information led to the conclusion that Israel had produced enough plutonium for 100/200 nuclear devices since it went on line in 1964, that the Dimona reactor's capacity had been expanded several fold and that Israel was producing enough plutonium to make ten to twelve bombs per year.
Vanunu also exposed the system used to conceal the manufacture of weapons from US inspectors: a false wall had been built to hide elevators that descended six stories below ground to where plutonium was refined and bomb parts manufactured.
Shortly before the article was published, a female agent from Israel's intelligence service lured Vanunu from London to Rome. He was drugged, kidnapped and brought back to Israel where he was convicted of treason by a secret security court and sentenced to 18 years in prison, 11 of which he spent in isolated confinement. Vanunu is now set for release next month, 21 April 2004, having completed his entire 18 years sentence. There have been reports that Israeli Prime minister, Ariel Sharon, has opted to impose restrictions on Vanunu’s freedom of movement after his release (10).
To find more information about this important affair and support the campaign for Vanunu’s release, please visit the website: http://www.vanunu.freeserve.co.uk
“…debating the nuclear program is taboo. The Israeli Atomic Energy Commission is one of the country’s most secretive organizations. Its budget is secret and its facilities are off limits and employees face harsh sanctions if they talk about its operations. Even the name of the chief of nuclear security was a secret until two years ago” (11).
Israel’s arsenal of mass destruction (12)
“The Israel arsenal of weapons of mass destruction clearly dwarfs the actual or potential arsenals of all other Middle Eastern states combined, and is vastly greater than any conceivable need for deterrence” (13).
Estimates of the Israeli nuclear arsenal range from 100 to 200 nuclear warheads; some believe that the arsenal may also include thermonuclear weapons.
Israel’s nuclear program is centered at the Negev Nuclear Research Center, outside the town of Dimona (14). The Dimona site has a plutonium/tritium production reactor, an underground chemical separation plant and nuclear component fabrication facilities. The reactor has produced plutonium free from international controls since 1963.
Israel in not a party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
There is no confirmed evidence of Israeli production or stockpiling of such weapons, despite allegations of its possession of a sophisticated chemical weapons program.
Some reports have suggested an offensive CW program is located at the Israel Institute for Biological Research in Nes Tziyona.
Production capability for mustard and nerve agents is suspected after the El Al crash in October 1992 in Amsterdam, led to the discovery of approximately 50 gallons of dimethyl methylphosphonate (a widely used stimulant for defensive research but also a possible precursor of sarin nerve agent) destined for Tel Aviv.
Israel has signed but not ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention.
While there is no indication of a production effort Israel is widely thought to possess the ability to produce biological weapons. Reportedly, extensive research in the field is conducted at the Biological Research Institute in Nes Tziyona.
Furthermore, the Israeli army is alleged to have poisoned Palestinian water wells with typhoid and dysentery bacteria during the 1948 war, but proof of such events is difficult to determine (15).
Israel is not a signatory to the Biological Weapons Convention.
Israel’s arsenal comprises ballistic and cruise missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and the Arrow theater defense missile, one of the only functioning missile defense systems in the world.
Israel has developed two different kinds of nuclear-capable missile: The Jericho I, capable of delivering a 750-kilogram warhead a distance of 235-500 kilometers; and the Jericho II, with 1500 kilometer-range, long enough to reach the southern border of the Soviet Union. It is most likely that a Jericho III, with 4.800 kilometer-range, is also already developed.
In addition, Israel’s successful satellite launches using the Shavit space launch vehicle (SLV), suggest that Israel could quickly convert the Shavit into a long-range ballistic missile with an intercontinental capability of up to 7000 Km, depending on the weight of the warhead.
Israel is not a member of the Missile Technology Control Regime, though it has pledged to abide by the MTCR Guidelines.
Israel and the International Law on disarmament (16)
Along with Pakistan and India, Israel remains one of only three countries that have refused to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty (17) (NPT), the global agreement aimed at stopping the spread of nuclear weapons through inspections and sanctions. The UN General Assembly and the International Atomic Energy Agency (18) (IAEA) General Conference have adopted 13 resolutions since 1987 appealing Israel to join the Treaty, but all have been ignored.
Israel has signed but not ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention (19) (CWC), which prohibits the development, production or acquiring of chemical weapons and requires those in possession to destroy existing stocks and production facilities. The CWC contains a strict mechanism for verifying compliance by states with the provisions of the convention.
Israel is not a party to the Biological Weapons Conventions (20) (BWC), which prohibits the development, production, stockpiling, acquisition and transfer of pathogens or toxins in types and quantities that have no justification for prophylactic, protective and other peaceful purposes. However, the absence of any formal monitoring mechanism to ensure compliance, and the possibility to use many biological agents for non-military uses, have limited the effectiveness of the BWC.
There is no universal treaty specifically governing the development, deployment or use of missiles. Nonetheless a Missile Technology Control Regime (21) (MTCR) was set up in 1987 to control the export of ballistic and cruise missile technologies capable of delivering nuclear warheads. It is a voluntary agreement only, and has no enforcement, administrative or verification structures (22). Israel, although not a member, has agreed to keep to MTCR guidelines.
The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (23) (CTBT), which bans all nuclear test explosions, for military or civil purposes, has not yet entered into force. Israel signed the treaty in 1996, but not ratified.
“Possessing chemical and biological weapons, an extremely sophisticated nuclear arsenal, and an aggressive strategy for their actual use, Israel provides the major regional impetus for the development of weapons of mass destruction and represents an acute threat to peace and stability in the Middle East” (24).
(1) Precise assessment of a state's capabilities is difficult because most weapons of mass destruction programs remain secret and cannot be verified independently.
(2) Federation of American Scientists http://www.fas.org/nuke/guide/israel/doctrine/index.html
(3) Avner Cohen “Israel and the bomb”, 1998, http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/israel/
Avner Cohen “Most favored nation”, 1995, http://www.thebulletin.org/issues/1995/jf95/jf95Cohen.html
Warner D. Farr “The Third Temple’s Holy of Holies: Israel’s nuclear weapons”, 1999, http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/cpc-pubs/farr.htm
Federation of American Scientists, 2000, http://www.fas.org/nuke/guide/israel/nuke/index.html
(4) Allegedly, underground tests were conducted in the Negev in 1963 and at Al-Naqab, Negev, in October 1966.
(5) Reportedly, I n 1964, Israel obtained 200 tons of yellow cake from West Germany.
(6) Marvin Miller and Lawrence Scheinman “Israel, India and Pakistan: engaging the non-NPT States in the Non-Proliferation Treaty”, December 2003 http://www.armscontrol.org/act/2003_12/MillerandScheinman.asp
(7) Under a now expired bilateral cooperation agreement, the US supplied a research reactor to Israel at the Nahal Soreq Nuclear Research Center. The reactor, which should be used solely for civil purposes, is under IAEA safeguards.
(8) The Daily Star, 16/07/2003.
(9) London Sunday Times, 12 October 1986.
(10) Haaretz, 27 February 2004, http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/398836.html
(11) Dougles Frantz ‘’Israel extends nuclear weapons capability’’, Los Angeles Times, 11 October 2003.
(12) Monterey Institute of International Studies http://cns.miis.edu/research/wmdme/israel.htm
Nuclear Threat Initiative (a US-based think-tank) http://www.nti.org/e_research/e1_israel_1.html#nuclear
Federation of American Scientists http://www.fas.org/nuke/guide/israel
Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) http://www.csis.org/mideast/stable/3h.html
(13) John Steinbach “Israeli weapons of mass destruction: a threat to peace”, 2002, http://www.wagingpeace.org/articles/2002/03/00_steinbach_israeli-wmd.htm
(14) To see a map of Israel’s nuclear sites click here
(15) http://www.nti.org/e_research/e1_israel_1.html; Avner Cohen ’’Israel and Chemical/Biological Weapons: History, deterrence and Arms Controls“, pp 31-32 http://cns.miis.edu/pubs/npr/vol08/83/83cohen.pdf ; Salman Abu-Sitta ’’Traces of poison’’ http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2003/627/focus.htm
(16) United Nation’s website on Weapons of Mass Destruction http://disarmament2.un.org/wmd/
(17) The NPT, whose objective is to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology, to promote cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy and to further the goal of achieving general and complete disarmament, was opened for signature in 1968 and entered into force in 1970.
(18) The International Atomic Energy Agency is the world's center of cooperation in the nuclear field. It has the responsibility to verify compliance of member states with the NPT and to promote cooperation in the field of peaceful nuclear technology.
(19) The CWC opened for signature on 13 January 1993 and entered into force on 29 April 1997. Significant non-signing states include Egypt, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Syria and Yugoslavia.
(20) The BWC, which incorporate the 1925 Geneva Protocol banning "bacteriological methods of warfare", was opened for signature on 10 April 1972 and entered into force on 26 March 1975. Egypt, Syria and the United Arab Emirates have signed but not ratified the Convention.
(21) MTCR membership now consists of most states capable of developing missiles with a range of over 300 Km. Notable exceptions include India, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea and Pakistan.
(22) For more information, visit http://www.nti.org/f_wmd411/mtcr.html
(23) The CTBT was opened for signature on 24 September 1996. It will enter into force 180 days after 44 nuclear-capable States, identified in a list annexed to the treaty, have ratified it.
(24) John Steinbach “Israeli Weapons of Mass Destruction: a Threat to Peace”, March 2002.
Last Updated March 2004