At UN nuclear conference, China, Iran, Oman decry Israeli minister’s comment on Gaza

Beijing says Amichai Eliyahu’s suggestion Israel could nuke Strip was ‘extremely irresponsible and disturbing,’ as nations gather for fourth confab aimed at nuclear-free Mideast

The UN flag flies at half staff outside the United Nations headquarters in New York on November 13, 2023, in memory of those killed in the Israel-Hamas conflict. (ANGELA WEISS / AFP)
The UN flag flies at half staff outside the United Nations headquarters in New York on November 13, 2023, in memory of those killed in the Israel-Hamas conflict. (ANGELA WEISS / AFP)

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — China, Iran and a multitude of Arab nations condemned an Israeli minister’s statement last week that a nuclear bomb on the Gaza Strip was an option in the Israel-Hamas war, calling the remark a threat to the world.

At Monday’s long-planned opening of a United Nations conference whose goal is to establish a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East, many ambassadors expressed condemnations and criticisms of comments by Heritage Minister Amichai Eliyahu, who later called his remarks in a radio interview “metaphorical.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quickly disavowed the comments and suspended him from cabinet meetings.

Israel has neither confirmed nor denied its nuclear capability. It is widely believed to possess nuclear weapons, and a former employee at its nuclear reactor served 18 years in Israeli prison for leaking details and pictures of Israel’s alleged nuclear arsenal program to a British newspaper in 1986.

Eliyahu, a member of National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir’s far-right Otzma Yehudit party, was speaking last week in answer to a question in a radio interview.

“Your expectation is that tomorrow morning we’d drop what amounts to some kind of nuclear bomb on all of Gaza, flattening them, eliminating everybody there…” the interviewer for Radio Kol Berama said. “That’s one way,” Eliyahu responded. “The second way is to work out what’s important to them, what scares them, what deters them.”

China’s deputy UN ambassador Geng Shuang said Beijing was “shocked,” calling the statements “extremely irresponsible and disturbing” and should be universally condemned.

He urged Israeli officials to retract the statement and become a party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, considered the cornerstone of nuclear disarmament, as a non-nuclear weapon state “as soon as possible.”

Heritage Minister Amichai Eliyahu arrives at a meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on January 29, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Geng said China is ready to join other countries “to inject new impetus” to establishing a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Mideast, saying there is greater urgency because of the situation in the current region.

UN disarmament chief Izumi Nakamitsu, who opened Monday’s fourth conference, didn’t mention Israel. But she said: “Any threat to use nuclear weapons is inadmissible.”

Nakamitsu reiterated the “urgency… of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction,” stressing that “cool heads and diplomatic efforts” must prevail to achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians, based on a two-state solution.

Oman’s UN Ambassador Mohamed Al-Hassan, speaking on behalf of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council which includes Saudi Arabia, said the threat to use nuclear weapons in Gaza “reaffirms the extremes and brutality of the Israeli occupation against the Palestinian people” and their “disregard for innocent life.”

He called on the UN Security Council and the IAEA to take decisive action on the matter.

Lebanon’s Charge d’Affaires Hadi Hachem also condemned Eliyahu’s comments, stressing that “this self-acknowledgment of having nuclear weapons and the threat of using them by its officials, poses a serious threat to both regional and international peace and security.”

He urged Israel to stop “such rhetoric or posturing” and join the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear weapon state.

Iran’s UN Ambassador Amir Saeid Iravani addresses the UN General Assembly, February 23, 2023 at UN headquarters. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

Iran’s UN Ambassador Amir Iravani told the conference the nuclear threats directed toward Palestinians by high-ranking Israeli officials highlight Israel’s “pride” in having these weapons in its hands.

“The secrecy surrounding Israel’s nuclear capabilities poses a significant threat to regional stability,” he said. “In these critical times, the imperative to establish such a zone in the Middle East has never been more urgent.”

Israel did not speak Monday, but Netanyahu has said his country’s biggest threat remains the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran, and it is prepared to prevent that from happening.

Efforts to create a nuclear-weapon-free zone date back to the 1960s and include a call by parties to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 1995 and a 1998 General Assembly resolution asking countries to contribute to establishing it. The first UN conference aimed at creating a zone was held in November 2019.

Russia’s ambassador to the IAEA and other UN organizations based in Vienna, Mikhail Ulyanov, told delegates Monday that given the new escalation of violence in the Middle East, a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the region “is more pertinent than ever.”

But he said Moscow is “extremely uncomfortable” that along with the two other sponsors of the 1995 resolution – the United States and the United Kingdom – the promise to establish a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Mideast has not been met after almost 30 years.

And for more than 20 years, “there’s been almost no progress whatsoever,” he said.

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