‘Should there be a need’: The inside story of Israel’s chemical and biological arsenal

What weapons does the Jewish state possess? Why did it seek them? And could Assad’s apparent capitulation prompt calls for a wider cleansing?

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

A postal service employe walks next to columns of gas mask kits at a distribution center in Jerusalem, August 29, 2013 (photo credit: Flash90)
A postal service employe walks next to columns of gas mask kits at a distribution center in Jerusalem, August 29, 2013 (photo credit: Flash90)

Syria’s consent to a deal that would catalogue, locate and eventually see the destruction of its vast chemical weapons arsenal has brought Israel and its various arms programs closer to the international spotlight, raising questions about what it does and does not possess and what strategic purposes its weapons serve.

Speaking to Russia’s state-run Rossiya-24 TV last week, Bashar Assad called on Israel to sign all relevant international treaties. “If we want stability in the Middle East, all the countries in the region should stick to [international] agreements,” said the Syrian president, who is believed to have gassed his own people on seven different occasions, according to a new report from the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism. “And Israel is the first state that should do so, since Israel possessed nuclear, chemical, biological and all other kinds of weapons of mass destruction.”

Israel, built on the ashes of the Holocaust and with a sense of persistent persecution etched into its consciousness, has in fact been drawn, since the earliest days of its existence, to those sorts of weapons. In April 1948, before the state declared its independence, future prime minister David Ben-Gurion, according to Michael Keren’s “Ben-Gurion and the Intellectuals,” instructed a Jewish Agency official in Europe to seek out Jewish scientists who could “either increase the capacity to kill masses or to cure masses; both are important.”

The search began with biological weapons. Avner Cohen, a professor of Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and an outspoken critic of Israel’s policy of ambiguity as regards WMDs, put the date at February 18, 1948, when the Haganah’s chief operations officer, Yigal Yadin, sent a microbiology student named Alexander Keynan down to Jaffa to establish a unit called HEMED BEIT.

Keynan and the original HEMED commander, Ephraim Katzir, a future president of Israel, “planned various activities, to get a sense what chemical and biological weapons are and how we could build a potential should there be a need for such a potential,” Cohen quoted Katzir as telling the Hadashot newspaper in 1993 in a comprehensive article for The Nonproliferation Review.

Satellite image of the parking lot outside the Syrian scientific research facility after it was allegedly struck by the IAF in late January. (photo credit: image capture from Channel 2)
Satellite image of the parking lot outside the Syrian scientific research facility after it was allegedly struck by the IAF in late January. (photo credit: image capture from Channel 2)

This potential, at least in part, apparently existed even before the founding of the state. Abba Kovner, the famous poet and partisan fighter, is depicted in Dina Porat’s “The Fall of a Sparrow: The Life and Times of Abba Kovner” as having traveled to pre-state Palestine after the war and receiving poison from Katzir in order to kill incarcerated SS officers in Europe.

He was apprehended on board a British ship and threw the poison overboard before his arrest.

Several years later, in May 1948, forces from the Carmel Brigade of the Haganah allegedly used a biological weapon in the battle for Acre.

“I spoke to the company commander from Battalion 21 of the Carmel Brigade, who poured the stuff into the water supply,” said military historian Uri Milstein in a phone interview. Milstein, a controversial figure in Israel, said that the man had since died, that the material had been delivered to the battalion by Moshe Dayan, and that the container had been filled with the typhus bacterium.

“Apparently, or rather more than apparently, wells were poisoned too in order to stop villagers from returning to villages,” he added.

After the war, HEMED BEIT relocated to a building in an orange grove just outside Ness Tziona, where it has remained. Today it is called the Israel Institute for Biological Research, “a governmental, applied research institute specializing in the fields of biology, medicinal chemistry and environmental sciences.”

The institute publishes a great deal of defense-related research and is widely cited academically and is highly regarded.

In terms of possible offensive capacities, very little is known.

What is clear is that Israel has not signed the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention; that the deputy director of the biological institute, Professor Marcus Klingberg, was covertly arrested by the Shin Bet on January 19, 1983, and subsequently charged with spying for the KGB for more than three decades (Klingberg, perhaps the most damaging spy in Israel’s history, spent the first 10 years of his 20-year sentence in solitary confinement, under a pseudonym); and that on two occasions the Mossad attempted to assassinate people using biological weapons.

The first known Israeli assassination with biological weapons was Dr. Wadi Haddad, a Palestinian terrorist, who was the first to hijack an El Al plane, in July 1968, and one of the commanders of the Entebbe hijacking in 1976. One year later, he was given Belgian chocolate “coated by Mossad specialists with a lethal biological poison,” according to Aaron J. Klein’s “Striking Back.” [Full disclosure: this reporter translated the book.] He lost his appetite, he lost weight, and his immune system collapsed. On March 30, 1978, in an East German hospital, he died.

On September 25, 1997, shortly after 10 a.m., two Mossad combatants approached Hamas official Khaled Mashal and released into his ear a potentially fatal dose of a synthetic opiate called Fetanyl, according to foreign sources. ”I felt a loud noise in my ear. It was like a boom, like an electric shock. Then I had shivering sensation in my body like an electric shock,” Mashal told Alan Cowell of The New York Times.

Hamas leader Khaled Mashal, left, congratulates Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood party's leader for winning the biggest number of seats in parliamentary elections in Cairo, January 21, 2012 (photo credit: AP)
Hamas leader Khaled Mashal, left, congratulates Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood party’s leader for winning the biggest number of seats in parliamentary elections in Cairo, January 21, 2012 (photo credit: AP)

Within two hours he was close to respiratory collapse and would have died had Mishka Ben David, a senior Mossad officer, not provided the Jordanian authorities with the antidote.

Chemical weapons

In 1955, sure that war with Egypt loomed on the horizon, Ben-Gurion pushed the defense establishment to produce a nonconventional capacity to respond to any such assault from Egypt. “He ordered that this nonconventional capability be operationalized – i.e., weaponized and stockpiled – as soon as possible and before a war with Egypt broke out,” Cohen wrote in an article published in The Nonproliferation Review in the 2001 Fall-Winter edition. “The ‘cheap nonconventional capability’ that preceded the nuclear option was chemical, not biological,” he added.

In June 1963 Egypt used chemical weapons in the Yemen civil war. The first usage was considered primitive. But in subsequent years and, most alarmingly from an Israeli perspective, in the months and days leading up to the Six Day War in 1967, Egypt fired chemical bombs on villages, killing hundreds; the last attack occurred on May 10, 1967, three weeks before the start of the war and four days before Egypt began amassing troops in the Sinai desert.

In July 1990, in perhaps the most straightforward indication of Israeli capacities, then-science minister Yuval Ne’eman was quoted in The New York Times as having told Israel Radio that if Saddam Hussein attacked Israel, ”In my opinion, we have an excellent response, and that is to threaten Hussein with the same merchandise.”

In 1992, the crash of an El Al 747 near Amsterdam revealed — according to a paper by Jean Pascal Zanders, a senior research fellow at the European Institute for Security Studies — that the cargo contained three of the four precursors to sarin, including dimethyl methylphosphonate (DMMP).” The compound has several legitimate civilian uses, Zanders wrote, but “the secrecy with which the investigation of the accident and the recovery and clean-up operations were conducted, fed speculation over its true purpose.”

Finally, last week Foreign Policy magazine discovered an old CIA document, which revealed that US spy satellites in 1982 located “a probable CW [chemcial weapon] nerve agent production facility and a storage facility… at the Dimona Sensitive Storage Area in the Negev Desert. Other CW production is believed to exist within a well-developed Israeli chemical industry.”

Syria and Israel

Presuming the CIA is correct and Israel has those weapons, or at least had them at one point and maintains the capacity to create them on demand, in what way does Syria’s recent agreement to destroy its chemical weapons change the picture?

The first element is time. Syria has agreed to list and locate its enormous chemical arsenal and for it to be destroyed by mid-2014. This is a highly optimistic timetable. “I’d say it’s somewhere between unreal and surreal,” said Ely Karmon, a senior research fellow at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism and the teacher of a masters course on WMDs.

In Iraq, he said, it took six years for the UNSCOM inspectors to complete their work, from 1991 to 1997, and in the final report they still conceded that there were “550 filled munitions unaccounted for and 2,000 unfilled munitions.”

In Libya, another Middle East state that is a signatory to both the chemical and biological weapons conventions, a mustard gas facility was found in the Jufra district in late 2011, Karmon noted. Aside from the fact that the discovery points, yet again, to the limits of any inspection regime, even a highly regarded one such as the Chemical Weapons Convention, it also speaks to the timetable. “More than two years later,” he said, “and the Libyan experts are now in Germany studying. They haven’t even begun the work [of destroying the weapons].”

The US, a pioneer in chemical weapons destruction technology, ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1997. Today, the destruction continues. It has been ongoing for 28 years, The New York Times reported earlier this week, and has cost $35 billion.

That is the cautious method. In Syria, it remains to be seen whether the deal includes the conveyance of the weapons to a destruction facility in Russia or the US or whether the intent is to destroy the weapons in Syria. Both options have drawbacks.

In Syria, Karmon said, there would be no way to build a destruction facility so long as the war raged on. This would mean either crudely disposing of the weapons, as was occasionally done in Iraq, or transporting them out of the country, either by truck or ship, which Karmon said is “very complicated and very dangerous.”

Lt. Col. (res) Dany Shoham, a BESA Center fellow, a former senior intelligence analyst with the IDF and an expert in chemical and biological warfare, was more optimistic, saying that any sort of destruction regime would require “a huge technological effort” but that it was doable, outside Syria, so long as there existed the — nearly regionally extinct — combination of fair play and goodwill.

While the two experts basically agreed that implementation within Syria was highly unlikely during the war, they largely disagreed about Israel’s reaction to Syria’s moves. Shoham said that while Iran had signed and ratified the CWC in March 1997 and the Biologocal Weapons Convention in 1973, the Islamic republic has amassed significant covert stores of chemical weapons. “So long as Iran and Egypt maintain their arsenals, Israel should not change its position,” he said.

Israel has clung to a policy of ambiguity. But while it has not so much as spoken a single official word about the BWC — Syria and Egypt signed the treaty but didn’t ratify it, and the latter is suspected of possessing some such weapons — it did sign the CWC on January 13, 1993. When the treaty was put into force in 1997, though, Israel remained on the sidelines and refrained from ratifying it.

Karmon called this position “a sort of half pregnancy,” and said that, since Israel has a significant interest in getting rid of the regional chemical threat, and since it possesses “other deterrent capacities,” it would do well to sign.

This position was wholeheartedly endorsed by Cohen, the author of “Israel and the Bomb” and “The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain with the Bomb.”

Professor Avner Cohen (Photo credit: James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies)
Professor Avner Cohen (Photo credit: James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies)

He said he “strongly doubts” Israel has deployable chemical or biological weapons in its arsenal at this time. If Syria stays on the path of disarmament, he added, Israel would do well to itself, to the region and to the world to follow suit, and of its own volition. “Already now Israel should tell the world we will contribute our own share at the right time to the international effort,” he said.

Ambiguity about those weapons makes no sense, he contended, “especially because Israel probably doesn’t have any. It’s just posturing.”

Regarding Israel’s alleged nuclear capacity and the possibility that ratifying the CWC and the BWC might, as he wrote in his article in The Nonproliferation Review, “be abused to infringe on the sanctity of Dimona,” Cohen said that “there are various safeguards in place” and that the likelihood of such an eventuality was low.

Moreover, from a military perspective and from a deterrence standpoint, Israel, which today is said to possess 80 nuclear warheads, according to a recent report in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, “has all the reasons in the world,” he said, “to join the global consensus in abolishing both chemical and biological weapons from the face of the earth.”

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed