Israel and Chemical/Biological Weapons: History, Deterrence, and Arms Control

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Israel and Chemical/Biological Weapons:

History, Deterrence, and Arms Control


Dr. Avner Cohen is Senior Fellow at the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland, as well as the Program on Security and Disarmament, at the University of Maryland. He is the author of Israel and the Bomb (New York Columbia University Press, 1998).

In April 1948, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding Klingberg espionage case, as well as the 1991 Gulf War father and first prime minister, wrote a letter to Ehud and the subsequent revelations about Iraq’s chemical and

Avriel, one of the Jewish Agency’s operatives in Eu- biological programs, have aroused public curiosity and rope, ordering him to seek out and recruit East European speculation regarding Israel’s capabilities in the CBW field. Jewish scientists who could “either increase the capacity Yet details about these programs—their history, strategic to kill masses or to cure masses; both are important.” 2 rationale, and technical capabilities—remain shrouded in One of the scientists Avriel recruited was a 30-year old secrecy. epidemiologist and colonel in the Red Army named

A comparison with Israel’s nuclear weapons (NW) pro-Avraham Marcus Klingberg. In time, Klingberg became gram highlights this point. Although Israel has not acknowl-one of Israel’s leading scientists in the area of chemical edged possessing NW and has declared that it “will not and biological weapons (CBW). He was among the found-be the first to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle ing members and, subsequently, the deputy director of

East,” the existence of the Israeli bomb has been the the Israel Institute of Biological Research (IIBR) in Ness world’s worst kept secret since about 1970. 4 That is not Ziona, a dozen miles southeast of Tel Aviv. the case, however, for Israel’s other potential non-con-

Decades later in 1983, Professor Klingberg was secretly ventional capabilities, especially biological weapons (BW). arrested, tried, and convicted as a Soviet spy. It took an- To this day, the Israeli government has issued no policy other decade until the espionage case at IIBR—one of statement on biological arms control, and it has neither Israel’s most sensitive defense research facilities—was signed nor ratified the 1972 Biological Weapons Conven-publicized. To this day, the Israeli security establishment tion (BWC). treats all details of the Klingberg case as highly classified.3

This paper is an effort to penetrate the “black box” of Until the news of Klingberg’s arrest and imprisonment was the Israeli CBW programs. The first part provides a brief published, there was almost no public reference to Israel’s overview of the evolution of Israeli attitudes and percep-CBW programs. The limited disclosures about the

The Nonproliferation Review/Fall-Winter 2001 27


tions on non-conventional weaponry. The second part perior to us in intellectual prowess.” 5 As Shimon Peres attempts to trace, decode, and interpret Israeli history, put it, “Ben-Gurion believed that science could compen-attitudes, and current capabilities in the area of CBW, es- sate for what Nature has denied us.” 6 pecially BW. The third part places the CBW issue in the broader context of Israeli defense policy, deterrence, and Historical memories arms control, both vis-à-vis Iraq and other hostile states

The state of Israel was born in the shadow of two trau-in the region. Finally, the paper reviews and examines matic historical experiences: the Nazi Holocaust and the Israel’s approach to CBW arms control and disarmament,

1948 War of Independence. The memory of these events and how accession to the BWC and the Chemical Weap-provided the subtext for Ben-Gurion’s pursuit of non-con-ons Convention (CWC) would affect Israeli security and ventional weaponry (in particular, the nuclear project). As economic interests. All of the research for this paper was a student in Istanbul, Ben-Gurion witnessed the genocide conducted exclusively with open sources. of the Armenian minority in Turkey during World War I.

This horrifying experience gave him an early lesson that

ISRAEL AND NON-CONVENTIONAL WEAPONS ethnic minorities that could not protect themselves in a

Ben-Gurion’s desire to seek out scientists who could hostile environment faced the real threat of genocide. The “either increase the capacity to kill masses or to cure subsequent Nazi Holocaust and the failure of the world masses” implied—in the 1948 context—an interest in bio- to save the Jews from Hitler forced Ben-Gurion to recog-logical warfare, but it also reflected a more general na- nize that his people were equally vulnerable. As the Nazis tional imperative. In its pursuit of national survival, Israel decimated the Jews of Europe, the leaders of the Yishuv, could not avoid developing indigenous non-conventional the Zionist community in Palestine under the British man-capabilities. Since then, this imperative has remained the date, felt utterly helpless. 7 The determination to prevent driving force behind Israel’s pursuit of non-conventional a similar catastrophe from happening again strengthened weapons. To understand why Israel committed early on Ben-Gurion’s campaign for Jewish statehood after World to acquiring such weaponry, one must look beyond geo- War II. politics and state interests. Three factors were critical in

Imbued with the lessons of the Holocaust, Ben-Gurion shaping Israeli attitudes on matters of security and sur-was consumed by fears for Israel’s long-term security vival: (1) the Zionist ethos that led to the establishment of because of the geopolitical realities of the Arab-Israeli con-Israel as a nation-state; (2) the key historical memories flict.8 As the War of Independence concluded in 1949 with that shaped Israel’s approach to national security; (3) the an impressive Israeli victory, Ben-Gurion was already unique group of leaders who were committed to the pur-worried about Israel’s future. He became convinced that suit of non-conventional weapons. the cessation of hostilities would not lead to a lasting peace, but would be only a temporary pause before the next round

Zionist ethos of Arab-Israeli fighting.9 Two decades later, in a letter to

From its early days, the ethos of the Zionist movement U.S. President John F. Kennedy, Ben-Gurion stressed stressed the role of science and technology in advancing Israel’s “unique security problem.” Another Holocaust the dream of establishing a Jewish state. For Ben-Gurion, could happen to the Jewish people, he wrote, because of scientific and technological achievements were the hall- the depth of Arab enmity towards Israel. “It is not our marks of the Zionist revolution, a secular manifestation democratic system, or our borders and independence alone of the notion of the Jews as the “chosen people.” For him, which are threatened, but our very physical existence is science and technology had two key roles to play in the at stake. What was done to six million of our brethren realization of Zionism: (1) to advance the Jewish home- twenty years ago . . . could be done to the two million land intellectually and materially; and (2) to provide it a Jews of Israel, if, God forbid, the Israel Defense Forces better defense against its external enemies. This ethos high- are defeated.” 10 lighted the view that science and technology could com- Ben-Gurion’s strategic pessimism regarding the Arab-pensate for Israel’s small population and lack of natural Israeli conflict was rooted in three fundamental convic-resources. “We are inferior to other peoples in our num- tions: bers, dispersion, and the characteristics of our political (1) The Arab-Israeli conflict ran deep and was not ame-life,” Ben-Gurion remarked, “but no other people is su- nable to a quick diplomatic solution. Only when the

28 The Nonproliferation Review/Fall-Winter 2001


Arabs were convinced that Israel could not be eradi- It is important to recognize that as a matter of national cated by force and accepted their losses as final would policy, Israel’s pursuit of the non-conventional option—lasting peace become possible. in all three areas—has always been a somewhat reluctant (2) The conventionally armed Israel Defense Forces one. Although Ben-Gurion believed firmly that Israel must (IDF) would have great difficulty deterring a pan-Arab possess a non-conventional option for situations of last war coalition. Given the geopolitical asymmetries of the resort, he and other Israeli leaders also recognized that Arab-Israeli conflict, conventional weapons might not Israeli interests required that non-conventional weapons be sufficient to ensure victory. not be introduced into the Arab-Israeli conflict. Because (3) After the Holocaust, the small Jewish community of Israel’s geopolitical predicament, it was more vulner-in the Middle East, lacking a formal alliance with an able to non-conventional weaponry than its larger Arab outside power, required an existential insurance policy enemies. If Israel’s own pursuit of these weapons led hos-for “a rainy day.” 11 tile Arab states to obtain them as well, the search for absolute security would become self-defeating. Israeli leaders Ben-Gurion’s conviction that the Holocaust might not have always been aware of this predicament, and the re-be a single and unique event in Jewish history but a result has been a determined but covert pursuit of a multi-curring threat became engraved in Israel’s collective psyche pronged non-conventional option. Even more than thirty and its concept of national security. Beginning in the early years after crossing the nuclear threshold, Israel has al-1950s, Israeli military planners considered a scenario in ways been extremely cautious to avoid any actions that which a pan-Arab military coalition would launch a war would confirm its nuclear capability. As a matter of state against Israel with the aim of liberating Palestine and de-policy, supported by a strong national consensus, Israel stroying the Jewish State. This worst-case contingency has made great efforts to keep its nuclear profile became known as mikre ha-kol, the “everything sce-

“opaque.” 13 Israel’ s policy on CBW is generally similar nario.” 12 Israel’ s pursuit of non-conventional weaponry to its opaque nuclear policy. Still, there are some impor-was a direct answer to Ben-Gurion’s fundamental anxi-tant differences in perceptions and policy between the two eties about national survival. Ensuring that the Holocaust areas, as well as between chemical weapons (CW) and would never happen again to the Jewish people meant that

BW. Israel must have the capability to deter such a calamity—if necessary by threatening to inflict a holocaust on its enemies. This conviction led the new state of Israel to ISRAEL’S EARLY CBW PROGRAMS build infrastructure and capabilities in all three areas of To understand the direction of Israel’s early quest for non-conventional weaponry, notwithstanding the great non-conventional weaponry, one must look at the scien-effort and cost involved. tists who were close to Ben-Gurion in the 1940s. Prominent among them were Ernst David Bergmann (born Unique group of leaders 1903), the scientific director of the Sieff Institute in

Rehovot, and the Katachalsky brothers, Aharon (born A human alliance was indispensable for Israel’s deci-

1913) and Ephraim (born 1916).14 All were educated and sion to pursue non-conventional weaponry; without it, worked in the fields of chemistry and microbiology. These such a large-scale national commitment could not have scientists cultivated—perhaps even planted—in Ben-been set in motion. The alliance consisted initially of Prime

Gurion the view that Israel’s competitive edge in the Minister Ben-Gurion and his loyal scientific lieutenant, struggle for survival depended on investing in science and Professor Ernst David Bergmann. In the mid-1950s, the technology. young Shimon Peres, Ben-Gurion’s chief aide, joined them. This triumvirate was critical in achieving the vision In the 1930s, the Katachalsky brothers were among the of a nuclear Israel. Less well known is the fact that the first to study chemistry at the Hebrew University, where three men also played a central role in Israel’s pursuit of they completed both undergraduate and graduate univer-CBW capabilities. Despite the differences between Israel’s sity work conducting molecular research that linked or-nuclear, chemical, and biological weapon programs, there ganic chemistry with microbiology. They both received a are intriguing historical and organizational parallels, link- Ph.D in macromolecular chemistry in 1941. Parallel to ages, and interactions among them. their studies, they were also active members of the

Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary organization in Pales-

The Nonproliferation Review/Fall-Winter 2001 29


tine. During the mid-1940s, before Bergmann returned to The creation of HEMED BEIT was controversial from Palestine, Aharon Katachalsky was said to be the scien- the outset. In 1993, in an extraordinary, “reluctant” inter-tist closest to Ben-Gurion.15 In the mid-1940s, a small view with journalist Sara Leibovitz-Dar of the Israeli news-scientific department was founded within the Haganah. paper Hadashot, Ephraim Katachalsky (who later took As a young lecturer at the Hebrew University in 1946-47, the Hebrew surname Katzir) and Alexander Keynan ex-Aharon recruited science students to form the first units plained the circumstances that led to the establishment of dedicated to experimenting with weaponry and explosives. HEMED BEIT.21 Katachalsky stressed the historical con-Subsequently, in 1948, a Science Corps, known by its text. It was only two years after a group of Holocaust Hebrew acronym HEMED, was established within the survivors had sought his assistance to avenge the Nazi IDF.16 Ephraim Katachalsky was in the United States in genocide of the Jews through a mass poisoning of reser-1947, studying with Edwin Cohen at Harvard University voirs in Germany’s largest cities. 22 Moreover, as a matter and with Herman Mark at the Brooklyn Polytechnic In- of historical context, every major combatant state in World stitute. When he returned to Israel in late May 1948, he War II had a BW program.23 Reflecting almost 45 years was appointed commander of HEMED. later on the rationale behind the founding of HEMED

BEIT, Katzir noted the following: By 1948, Professor Bergmann was already a well-es-

I was involved in HEMED BEIT from the be-tablished organic chemist. Since the mid-1930s, he had ginning. We planned various activities, to get a been a protégé of Chaim Weizmann—an eminent Zionist sense what CBW is and how could we build a scientist and political rival of Ben-Gurion—but in the late potential [in this area] should there be a need 1940s became increasingly drawn to Ben-Gurion’s con-for such a potential. We needed to know how viction that science and technology were critical for Israel’s to defend [against such weapons]. . . . I thought future.17 Indeed, Bergmann fit Ben-Gurion’s ideal of a that we ought to know what was going on in scientist: one who did applied research in the service of this field. We knew that in the surrounding coun-the Zionist revolution.18 In August 1948 Ben-Gurion ap-tries others were also developing BW. [We be-pointed Bergmann as the head of the scientific depart-lieved that] scientists should contribute to the ment of the newly founded IDF, and three years later he strengthening of the State of Israel. 24 became the prime minister’s scientific advisor at the Ministry of Defense (MOD).19 Although Bergmann is best In fact, this retrospective account is inaccurate and self-known today as the father of the Israeli nuclear program— serving. No evidence suggests that in 1948 any of the sur-he founded the Israel Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC) rounding Arab countries were developing BW, and in 1952 and shaped its early activities—his contribution HEMED BEIT was probably not created for defensive to the establishment of Israel’s CBW capabilities was even purposes. Moreover, there was a climate of deep ambiva-more crucial. lence and even opposition within HEMED regarding the creation of HEMED BEIT and the whole issue of BW.

In early 1948, Alexander Keynan (born 1921), a Ph.D.

HEMED’s military commander, Colonel Shlomo Gur, was student in microbiology who headed a small group of stu-uncomfortable about the new biological unit under his dents at the pre-medical school of Hebrew University, command. “The initiative did not come from Ben-Gurion,” urged General Yigal Yadin, the Haganah operations chief,

Gur recalled in that 1993 interview, “but from the scien-and Prime Minister Ben-Gurion to establish a new unit tists themselves, although someone [General Yadin] cared within HEMED devoted to biological warfare. Yadin and to move them from Jerusalem and gave them a house in-Bergmann gave their blessing to the idea, and Ben-Gurion side the grove, where they did what they did.” 25 Over time, needed little persuasion to approve it. On February 18, according to Colonel Gur, the commanders of the bio-1948, by order of Yadin, Keynan left Jerusalem for Jaffa logical unit did not report about their operations to HEMED (a town adjacent to Tel Aviv), where he set up his new headquarters but rather directly to General Yadin.26 unit, named HEMED BEIT. The unit subsequently relocated to Abu Kabir, a former Arab village just few miles Gur did not hide his personal ambivalence about bio-south of Tel Aviv. After the 1948 war, HEMED BEIT logical warfare and elected to know as little as possible moved to its permanent location in a single building in a about “his” biological unit. “Physically, I sat at HEMED remote orange grove outside the town of Ness Ziona.20 headquarters in Tel Aviv, and in those days it was difficult to travel,” he explained. “I was also mentally remote

30 The Nonproliferation Review/Fall-Winter 2001


from them.” 27 Looking back, Gur said that his opposi- of the captured Israelis, David Horin. He reportedly ad-tion to HEMED BEIT was based on an instinctive feeling mitted that their commander had given them a canteen that BW were “dirty” and that Israel had no need to re- filled with dysentery and typhoid bacteria “to be thrown sort to them. When journalist Leibovitz-Dar asked Gur in into the well to kill the Egyptian army.” 33 The four Israe-1993 whether his opposition had been motivated by con- lis were put on trial, convicted, and executed by hanging cern about harming civilian noncombatants, he responded three months later.34 that he might have had such thoughts, “but it becomes

Israel firmly denied the Egyptian allegations of bacte-articulated in such fashion only now when you ask me riological warfare, calling them a “wicked libel.” The Is-about this. In those days I did not think about those things, raeli government admitted only that the four soldiers were I simply had a mental opposition to it. I thought that our involved in an intelligence operation aimed at monitoring war effort had no need for that.” 28 military movements and assessing the morale of the Arab

Tight secrecy characterized all matters related to population. In 1993, when Leibovitz-Dar asked the com-HEMED BEIT, and the biological unit was insulated from mander of the Gaza operation whether the soldiers had all other HEMED units. To this day, there is no public been sent to gather intelligence or to complete a BW mis-record of HEMED BEIT’s operations during the 1948 sion, he refused to respond. “You will not get answers on war—indeed, all archival material relating to the unit is these questions,” he said angrily. “Not from me, and not classified and unavailable to scholars—and Israeli histori- from anyone. . . .” 35 When Leibovitz-Dar asked former ans have not shown any great interest in exploring this HEMED chief Colonel Shlomo Gur whether he was aware subject. Still, rumors about secret BW operations in Pal- of HEMED BEIT’s secret operations during the 1948 War estinian villages and towns have persisted for years.29 Dr. of Independence, he responded somewhat vaguely, “[w]e Uri Milstein, an iconoclastic Israeli military historian, main- heard about the typhoid epidemics in Acre and about the tains, “in many conquered Arab villages, the water sup- Gaza operations. There were many rumors, but I did not ply was poisoned to prevent the inhabitants from coming know whether they were true or not.” 36 back.” 30

It seems that many people knew something about these It is believed that one of the largest operations in this operations, but both the participants and later historians campaign was in the Arab coastal town of Acre, north of chose to avoid the issue, which gradually became a na-Haifa, shortly before it was conquered by the IDF on May tional taboo. Leibovitz-Dar, in her 1993 article, noted the 17, 1948. According to Milstein, the typhoid epidemic that great difficulties she faced in getting people to discuss the spread in Acre in the days before the town fell to the Is- history. “Everybody who had something to do with those raeli forces was not the result of wartime chaos but rather activities prefers today to keep silent,” she wrote. a deliberate covert action by the IDF—the contamination What was done then, with deep conviction and of Acre’s water supply. Milstein even named the com- zealotry, is nowadays concealed with shame. pany commander who was involved in the operation. When Among the living, most preferred to keep silent, journalist Leibovitz-Dar found this individual in 1993, he meetings were cancelled at the last moment, refused to talk. “Why do you look for troubles that took phones were hung up when people understood place forty-five years ago?” he asked. “I know nothing what was involved. “Not everything we did in about this. What would you gain by publishing it. . . .Why those days requires discussion,” said Ephraim do you need to publish?” 31 Katzir.37

The success of the Acre operation may have persuaded Despite the official silence, it appears there is little doubt Israeli decisionmakers to continue with these activities.32 now about the mission of the failed Gaza operation. Still, On May 23, 1948, Egyptian soldiers in the Gaza area unresolved questions remain about HEMED BEIT’s ac-caught four Israeli soldiers disguised as Arabs near water tivities during the 1948 war. For example, was the failed wells. A statement issued by the Egyptian Ministry of Gaza operation an isolated Israeli experiment with BW Defense on May 29 stated that four “Zionists” had been that ended with that failure, or part of a larger campaign? caught trying to infect artesian wells in Gaza with “a liq- If the latter is true, how widespread was the campaign, uid, which was discovered to contain the germs of dysen- and against whom was it directed? What was the strate-tery and typhoid.” According to the Egyptian statement, gic rationale? Specifically, is Milstein correct in suggest-a confession had been obtained during interrogation of one ing that the purpose of the campaign to contaminate the

The Nonproliferation Review/Fall-Winter 2001 31


water supplies of conquered Palestinian villages was to place only three years after the end of World War II, at a prevent the refugees from returning? If so, who autho- time when the Zionist movement had just begun to grapple rized the campaign? And how effective was it? with the devastating blow the Jewish people had suffered in the Nazi Holocaust. One should also consider the mili-

The nearly complete absence of Israeli BW activities tary situation as seen by the Haganah leaders in early in the Palestinian narrative of the 1948 war (known to

1948, the time when HEMED BEIT was created. In re-the Palestinians as Al-Nakba or “cataclysm”) is both in-sponse to the imminent possibility of an invasion by the triguing and revealing. A scan of mainstream Internet sites

Arab states, the Haganah prepared a broad strategic plan, discussing the war, including that of the Center for Re-known as Plan D, to address such a contingency. This search and Documentation on Palestinian Society at Birzeit plan included provisions for the expulsion of hostile or University, turned up no references to Israeli use of bac-potentially hostile Palestinian villagers. During April-May teriological warfare, biological warfare, or well poisonings

1948, Haganah commanders implemented elements of during the war.38 This fact indicates that claims of Israeli

Plan D by clearing vital roads and Palestinian communi-BW are not central to the official Palestinian version of ties in border areas. In the words of historian Benny events. Nevertheless, rare mentions of “bacteriological

Morris, warfare” can be found in some Palestinian documents

There was never, during April-May, any na-from the time. For example, on July 22, 1948, the Palestional-political or General Staff decision to ex-tinian Arab Higher Committee submitted a 13-page memo-pel “the Arabs” from the Jewish state’s areas. randum to the United Nations accusing “Palestinian Jews”

There was no “plan” or policy decision. The of various war crimes, including “bacteriological war-matter was never discussed in the supreme po-fare.” 39 According to this document, “[f]or several years litical decision-making bodies; but it was under-the Zionists have planned and prepared for the use of stood by all concerned that, militarily, in the bacterial warfare. To that end, they set up laboratories in struggle to survive, the fewer Arabs remaining Palestine.” The memorandum stated there was “some” behind and along the front lines the better and, evidence, albeit inconclusive, that the Zionists were re-politically, the fewer Arabs remaining in the Jew-sponsible for an outbreak of cholera in Egypt in Novem-ish state, the better. At each level of command ber 1947, and in Syrian villages near the Palestine-Syrian and execution Haganah officers in those April-border in February 1948. The memorandum also refers

June days when the fate of the state hung in to the communiqué by the Egyptian Ministry of Defense the balance, simply “understood” what the mili-of May 28, 1948, regarding the capture of the four “Zi-tary and political exigencies of survival re-onists” in Gaza. 40 quired.42

In 1999, a Palestinian physician, Dr. Salman Abu Sitta,

One must also recall that until mid-1948, the creation speaking before the British House of Commons, claimed of a Jewish state was by no means a certain proposition: that in 1948, “even bacteriological warfare was used by the Yishuv leadership still feared the possibility of Zionist poisoning wells and infecting drinking water with malaria defeat and possibly even annihilation.43 Moreover, estab-and typhus. That was the case in Gaza in the summer of lishing a strong Jewish majority in the conquered territo-1948, as Ben-Gurion admitted in his diary.” 41 Interest-ries was seen as essential for the future Jewish state. The ingly, however, no known Palestinian sources allege that founders of HEMED BEIT shared this mindset: they were the epidemics in Acre resulted from Israeli sabotage. The committed to do whatever was necessary to create a Jew-absence of Arab reports on this incident may suggest ei-ish homeland in the land of Israel.44 They firmly believed ther that the “bacteriological warfare” campaign, if it oc-that, after the Holocaust, this sacred mission could not be curred, had limited results, or that in the chaos of war the derailed by the luxury of moral revulsion against “dirty Palestinian refugees were unaware of the campaign. Also, weapons.” If microbiology could help in providing the if the BW operations aimed primarily at preventing the means to establish the Jewish state, so be it. return of the Palestinian population to their deserted villages as Milstein claims, this could explain the relative lack

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