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Israel’s Fourth President, Ephraim Katzir, Founded IDF Biological Weapons Program

I recently wrote a post which recounted two episodes in Israeli history in which the IDF resorted to biological warfare against its Arab enemies. In one case, Moshe Dayan brought home tubes containing typhus to be used in poisoning the water supply of the Jordanian Legion (which instead infected the Israeli leader’s son, Assi with the disease); and another, in which Palmach infiltrators attempted to poison Gaza’s water supply, but were caught and executed.

ephraim katzir

Ephraim Katzir, Israel’s 4th president, and founder of its biological warfare program

In the course of my post, I referred to Israel’s highly advanced chemical and biological warfare unit in Ness Ziona, which is known to produce weapons used in poisoning or assassinating Mossad targets (among other things). But I didn’t know that this highly secretive facility was founded by Israel’s fourth president, Ephraim Katzir. Avner Cohen, the leading Israeli historian of his nation’s WMD programs, wrote a paper in 2002 in which he recounted a highly reluctant interview that Katzir gave to Hadashot journalist, Sara Leibovich-Dar, in which he dissembled his way through a self-serving account of the WMD program he created. Here is Cohen’s account, which quotes the original article (the initials “BW” refer to biological weapons):

In 1993, in an extraordinary, “reluctant” interview with journalist Sara Leibovitz-Dar of the Israeli newspaper Hadashot, Ephraim Katachalsky (who later took the Hebrew surname Katzir) and Alexander Keynan explained the circumstances that led to the establishment of HEMED BEIT.

Katachalsky stressed the historical context. It was only two years after a group of Holocaust survivors had sought his assistance to avenge the Nazi genocide of the Jews through a mass poisoning of reservoirs in Germany’s largest cities. Moreover, as a matter of historical context, every major combatant state in World War II had a BW program.

Reflecting almost 45 years later on the rationale behind the founding of HEMED BEIT, Katzir noted the following:

“I was involved in HEMED BEIT from the beginning. We planned various activities, to get a sense what CBW is and how could we build a potential [in this area] should there be a need for such a potential. We needed to know how to defend [against such weapons]. . . . I thought that we ought to know what was going on in this field. We knew that in the surrounding countries others were also developing BW. [We believed that] scientists should contribute to the strengthening of the State of Israel.”

In fact, this retrospective account is inaccurate and self-serving. No evidence suggests that in 1948 any of the surrounding Arab countries were developing BW, and HEMED BEIT was probably not created for defensive purposes.

In fact, Katzir’s defense of his work reminds me of the arguments advanced by anti-Soviet Cold Warrior Edward Teller defending development of the hydrogen bomb and other American WMD. The arguments also aren’t far removed from arguments advanced today by Israeli generals to defend their use of weapons and tactics banned (or at least condemned) by international law including white phosphorus, cluster munitions and DIME.

But what’s especially important about Katzir’s role is that he, a biophysicist engaged in scientific research of highly dubious moral or utilitarian purpose (a view supported by the nominal IDF commander of Hemed Beit at the time of its founding, who wanted nothing to do with it for this reason), became Israel’s president. It is common knowledge that Israel’s prime ministers have blood on their hands from Yitzhak Shamir to Menachem Begin to Ariel Sharon; and that they could, at one point in their careers, have been called terrorists. But this involvement of the highest levels of Israeli leadership with chemical and biological weapons is much less well-known. It would be as if Edward Teller had become president of the United States and his political position somehow vindicated the fact that he used science in order to both advance American strategic dominance in the world and introduce WMD that could kill half the human race (or more).

Leibovich-Dar also delved into other incidents in which Israel used biological weapons against its enemies. Until I read this, I had no idea that the IDF had actually poisoned the water supplies of many Palestinian villages in 1948, the largest of whom was Acre, in which a typhus epidemic raged in the days before Israel conquered it in 1948. This was a campaign not only to panic inhabitants into leaving, it was meant to prevent them from returning. In this sense, the use of biological weapons was a tool of the Nakba, a way to guarantee that expelled Palestinians could not return to their native villages and re-populate them.

Cohen discovered research by a Dutch journalist that proves that Ness Ziona had an important scientific component devoted to the study of nerve gas toxins. It also specialized in chemical agents that could incapacitate individuals for periods of time. Such weapons were used regularly by the Mossad when it kidnapped and transported individuals from Adolph Eichmann to Mordecai Vanunu to Israelis who spied for the enemy, back to Israel for trial. It was used as recently as 2011, when Mossad agents incapacitated Dirar Abusisi after kidnapping him in Ukraine and shipping him on a plane in a coffin to Israel.

The Israeli historian also notes that an El Al plane crashed on take-off from Holland’s Schiphol Airport in 1992. In 1998, then PM Bibi Netanyahu acknowledged the plane had been carrying “a chemical component” of sarin gas. He lied in claiming it was being imported to test gas masks. In fact, tons of various chemical agents used to produce sarin were in the plane’s cargo and destined for Ness Ziona to be used in its chemical warfare experiments. The plane completely burned on impact and the surrounding residents suffered massive and damaging health impacts for years afterward. It’s inconceivable that Israel was never held to account for this horrific accident, which further illustrates the grave danger such chemical weapons programs pose to the unsuspecting world. There have been at least four major accidents at Ness Ziona in period from 1987-2002 which killed at least four people.

Cohen notes tellingly that Israel has refused to ratify either the Chemical Weapons or Biological Weapons Conventions. The U.S., he writes, maintains a list of 12 nations which have offensive chemical or biological weapons programs. None of the twelve include Israel, but two nations are unnamed. I’ll let you be the judge of their identities.

In light of the clamor among western nations against Syria’s alleged preparation of chemical weapons for use by the Assad regime against rebel fighters (remember too, the 1991 uproar about Saddam Hussein arming his SCUDs with chemical weapons?), it’s important to keep in mind that Israel has even more sophisticated capabilities and has used them in the past (not just in the 1948 incidents mentioned above, but also in the assassinations of Khaled Meshal, Mahmoud al-Mabouh, and possibly Yasser Arafat, for example). For that reason alone, and because Israel has willingly used other banned weapons, it’s critical to monitor its potential use of chemical or biological weapons.

Iran is a case in point. Israel has many targets, both facilities and individuals, it would want to eliminate. There may be a temptation to use such agents in the event of an Israeli attack on Iran. Israel would probably never use chemical or biological weapons as indiscriminately as putting them on missiles. But it might use them in more highly targeted and less traceable ways.

There is another important dimension of Leivovich-Dar’s article that Cohen emphasizes. No one wanted to talk about Israel’s use of biological weapons. Cohen notes that all the archives involving Hemed Beit are permanently sealed and few, if any Israeli historians have clamored for it to be opened. The Israeli journalist expands further on this:

“Everybody who had something to do with those activities prefers today to keep silent…What was done then, with deep conviction and zealotry, is nowadays concealed with shame. Among the living, most preferred to keep silent, meetings were cancelled at the last moment, phones were hung up when people understood what was involved. ‘Not everything we did in those days requires discussion,’ said Ephraim Katzir.”

Luckily we have historians and journalists who think otherwise.

Katzir was an unwilling interviewee. After the article was submitted to the IDF censor, they refused to allow its publication. Only after an appeal to a special censorship appeals panel was the article approved. In other words, Israel’s military powers that be didn’t want the public to know about Ness Ziona, about Israel’s chemical weapons capabilities, and they didn’t want the public to know about Katzir’s scientific role in developing WMD.

Students of the Holocaust often talk about how much the German people knew about the Holocaust while it was happening. In the case of Israel’s WMD programs, a similar dynamic is in play. Israelis (including many journalists and academics who would ordinarily be expected to delve into such issues) shy away from delicate national security issues. There are clearly many moral quandaries that they represent, but it is all subsumed under security, as if existential matters trump matters of morality. That allows Israelis to abandon the subject to their “betters,” the generals and politicians who manage it all for them. It’s a Faustian bargain, but one that has held since the earliest days of the State.

{ 15 comments… add one }
  • Deïr Yassin December 9, 2012, 2:54 AM

    The second link to Avner Cohen’s paper doesn’t work. It’s really worth a read.
    If ever Hopmhi comes around (with his “antisemitic tripe” that “you only find in Arab newspapers”), I encourage him to read p. 31 about the well poisoning in Akka and Gaza. Avner mentions Uri Milstein, an Israeli military historian: “Milstein suggests that the purpose of the campaign to contaminate water supplies of conquered Palestinian villages was to prevent refugees from returning”

  • Fred Plester December 9, 2012, 4:54 AM

    I’d be very interested in hearing more about Israeli research into covert chemical incapacitants, as would the Senior Investigating Officer in the Gareth Williams murder case.

  • Tibor December 9, 2012, 12:56 PM

    Historical context is important for understanding things. These were the early decades of Israel and its small population (in a smaller area), most of it still carrying the not too far in time traumatic memories of the Holocaust, were constantly exposed to a bombardment of threats from the Arab world with “we shall throw you soon into the sea” being a mild one. That created a real fear that the Arabs are capable of employing anything against Israel, including bio warfare, so it is necessary for it to understanding that tool: how to defend against it and possibly also possess it is as a deterrent (to others that may consider using it). Clearly now, from a perspective of a much bigger in population, bigger in territorial size, far more self-confident and technologically advanced State of Israel, it must look differently.
    It should be understood that the huge efforts that the Arab world invested in antagonizing Israel in its early years and the intense physical and psychological intimidation had a part in molding the Israeli psyche. However, it has somewhat relaxed recently as many in Israel and in the Arab world matured in many ways in this regard and take a more realistic view of things. But this is now, and that was then.

    • mary December 9, 2012, 3:14 PM

      “It should be understood that the huge efforts that the Arab world invested in antagonizing Israel in its early years and the intense physical and psychological intimidation had a part in molding the Israeli psyche.”

      What would those “huge efforts,” and who made them?

      A country who began developing a nuclear weapons program by 1950 experienced “intense physical and psychological intimidation” from defeated Arab armies and unarmed Palestinians languishing in UN tents?

      This is how “intimidated” Israel was during its first years:

      “On May 31 1950, the Israeli army forced 120 Palestinian “infiltrators” into two crowded trucks and drove them to Arava, a point on the Jordanian border, then forced them to march across the desert, firing shots over their heads to urge them on. According to Alec Kirkbride, the British minister in Amman, over 30 died of thirst and starvation during the forced march. The group had spent the past weeks in a makeshift detention center in Qatra that Kirkbride described as ” a concentration camp…run on Nazi lines.” One survivor, according to Morris, had his fingernails torn out.

      “John Glubb, the latter-day Lawrence of Arabia who had trained the Jordanian army, witnessed the scene with horror. “The Jews want them all to emigrate,” he wrote. “They therefore try to persuade them with rubber coshes and by tearing off their fingernails whenever they get the chance… I do not know whether this is the policy of the Israel cabinet, but it must certainly be known and winked at on a ministerial level… The brutality is too general to be due only to the sadism of ordinary soldiers.””


  • Arie Brand December 9, 2012, 10:02 PM

    Richard wrote:

    “an El Al plane crashed on take-off from Holland’s Schiphol Airport in 1992. In 1998, then PM Bibi Netanyahu acknowledged the plane had been carrying “a chemical component” of sarin gas. He lied in claiming it was being imported to test gas masks. In fact, tons of various chemical agents used to produce sarin were in the plane’s cargo and destined for Ness Ziona to be used in its chemical warfare experiments. The plane completely burned on impact and the surrounding residents suffered massive and damaging health impacts for years afterward. It’s inconceivable that Israel was never held to account for this horrific accident,”

    Richard this accident in which at least 43 people were killed (possibly more because the working class neighbourhood concerned was known to harbour illegal and unregistered migrants) led to years of political commotion in Holland and considerable tension with Israel.

    There were rumours that the plane was loaded with poisonous materials that caused the subsequent health problems of many residents there. It was also rumored that, immediately after the accident, some twenty men in white “astronaut” suits were noticed, of whom some were overheard to speak a foreign language, and were observed to take things away from the scene of the accident. Year after year questions were asked in parliament about these matters until it was decided, more than six years after the accident, in autumn 1998, to set up a parliamentary inquiry commission. In the Dutch set up such commissions have the power of a “Royal Commission” in Britain (and Australia) or a Senate Inquiry in the US viz. the power to summon witnesses and to hear these under oath.

    At round about the same time (on 30 September 1998) the Dutch quality paper NRC/Handelsblad came with revelations about a cargo list for this EL Al Boeing it had got hold of. Allegedly it had 240 liters DMMP on board, a substance that can be used to produce the nerve gas Sarin though it has wider applications. Sarin is produced in a three stage process, so the paper said, in which thionylchloride, hydrogenfluoride and isopropanol are added. Two of these materials viz. hydrogenfluoride and isopropanol were also mentioned on the cargo list. The stuff was destined for the Israeli Institute for Biological Research in Ness-Ziona and came from Solkatronic Chemicals in Morrisville, USA. The paper claims that 240 liters of DMMP can be used to produce 270 kilos of Sarin, a quantity that has in itself no military significance. On the other hand it is also far too much for mere research on the detection of and protection against Sarin. Other similar institutes use for that purpose only a few hundred grams per year. My conclusion (not that of the paper) is that this quantity was merely part of a regular supply that probably was used for the production of Sarin. This conclusion finds some support in the statement before the parliamentary inquiry commission, made on 12th March 1999 by Dutch ex-PM Ruud Lubbers, that Israel imported almost a ton of DMMP over a span of one and a half year.

    In itself that was, in 1992, not illegal. The Convention against Chemical Weapons (CWC), that makes it illegal to deliver these materials to a non signatory of the CWC such as Israel, only came into force in april 1997.

    A few days after NRC.Handelsblad came with its revelations Netanyahu stated that the Boeing had 190 liters of DMMP on board which, he said, was needed to test gas masks. A spokesperson for El Al, Nachman Klieman, and Res. Major Genral Amos Lapidot both claimed that the Dutch government had already known about that for six years.

    The parliamentary inquiry meanwhile had to deal with Israeli unwillingness to hand over documents. The documents for about twenty tons of the load were missing. This caused considerable tension and the Israeli Minister of Transport and the Director of El Al saw fit to speak in February 1999 of anti-semitic tendencies in the Netherlands. They didn’t have to worry about the Commissions report however. It was produced in April 1999 and claimed that now the documentation for all of the cargo was complete. The missing documents for those twenty tons finally came from an American source. The commission said literally : “The comission neither can nor desires to pronounce with this analysis on the cargo that was actually present in the AXG, since nobody is able now to control this cargo and to verify the cargo documents, for obvious reasons”. About the health complaints of the residents concerned it said that “it had, after studying the house airway bills, come to the conclusion that the contents of the cargo were such that these provided no extra risks caused by the crash for residents and those who had come to their assistance.” A later independent inquiry also confirmed that these health troubles could all be explained from the post traumatic stress disorders caused by the crash. It seems indeed to be the case that the possible constituents for Sarin that were on board, if these were the only possible source of trouble, do, in themselves, not pose a health risk. They were moreover, so we are told, no doubt all consumed in the enormous fire that followed the crash.

    Parliament in general was not happy with the report that almost led to a cabinet crisis because it put the finger on various mistakes made by the responsibile ministers in providing information and in not showing any real interest in the concerns of the residents. It accepted the recommendations of the report but not its conclusions (on which, ironically, the recommendations were based). There was no further talk about the nature of the cargo.

    The mystery of the twenty men in “white astronaut suits”, some of whom were overheard “to speak a foreign language”, has never been solved – though several more or less official providers of aid at the site of the crash later declared that they had worn white throw-away overalls. Personally I believe this story to be just a product of the rumour mill that always works overtime at such occasions.

    • Richard Silverstein December 10, 2012, 2:38 AM

      Thanks for your contribution to the discussion and for offering a more comprehensive, rigorous portrait of the crash and its aftermath than I did.

    • Fred Plester December 10, 2012, 3:57 AM

      There are a lot of Dutch people who believe that the abduction of Willeke Dost from her foster home, was fabricated to cover-up her death in this incident. However, It’s not immediately clear why this should have been needed in her case and not in anybody else’s.

      My one view is that the bleeding obvious is true: she was snatched by a paedophile ring and they’ve been planting conspiracy theories about it ever since, to cover their own tracks. The timing does match up, though, and there apparently was someone in the disaster area whom she had visited.

      • Richard Silverstein December 10, 2012, 10:22 PM

        Off topic Fred.

        • Fred Plester December 11, 2012, 6:42 AM

          Sorry, but I was trying to make the point that an awful lot of rumour and theory about that crash is dodgy, and, as one of Blair’s ministers said of 9/11 “this is an excellent day for burying bad news.”

    • Fred Plester December 10, 2012, 4:00 AM

      If you’ve got hydrogen fluoride, I wouldn’t look much further for the causes of long-term health troubles.

  • Arie Brand December 9, 2012, 10:22 PM

    I should add that according to the NRC/Handelsblad article I referred to the production of Sarin for battle field uses requires very large amounts of DMMP. The paper even spoke of several tons a day. So one ton in one and a half year is a different story. Yet it also seems to be far too much for just the testing of gas masks.

    DMMP is since 1987 part of the core list of eight chemicals most subject to risky proliferation. This list has been drawn up by the so called Australia group, a club of mainly western countries founded to make an end to the easy acquisition of these materials.

    I should also add that El Al has (or had) a privileged position at Amsterdam Airport (Schiphol) which excludes (excluded) it from normal scrutiny.

    • mary December 10, 2012, 1:57 AM

      Thank you, Arie. This information is terrifying. And disgusting to read yet again how Israel gets a free pass when it comes to regulations imposed on other countries. Israel’s nuclear program narrative reads the same way.

    • Fred Plester December 10, 2012, 4:02 AM

      How about the production of enough Sarin for murders and mass executions in controlled conditions, rather than on the battlefield? A ton of Sarin would go a long, long way, then.

  • Arie Brand December 10, 2012, 12:19 PM

    Yes I must say what makes me a bit sceptical about this Dutch parliamentary report is this privileged position that El Al was given at Schiphol. I don’t know whether this is still the case but apparently El Al planes were never inspected by customs or the Dutch Flight Safety Board. What is known is that Schiphol, where El Al planes refuel(ed), played (plays?) a vital role in American arms transports to Israel. This was also the case in the Yom Kipur war. In fact Henk Vredeling, who was then the first Dutch socialist Minister of Defence (even though he had protested that he was “allergic to uniforms” and could not distinguish a lieutenant from a general), took it on himself to send Dutch weapons to Israel without informing the Prime Minister and other colleagues in the Dutch cabinet and without the necessary licences. Vredeling had played a role in the Dutch resistance during the German occupation and justified his action by saying that he wanted to help prevent a second holocaust. Vredeling was not alone then in his illusions about that little robber state on the Mediterranean. It was a general Dutch disease from which the country only seems to recuperate very slowly.

    The Arab nations were not amused and singled out the US and Holland for “special treatment” in the oil boycot that followed the 1973 war.

    • mary December 11, 2012, 12:30 AM

      I was in high school during that famous oil boycott. I recall that Holland was singled out along with the US but I didn’t understand why. Thank you for that piece of information. I now know what I’m going to be googling today.

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