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  • Members of the Israel Defense Forces simulate a nuclear drill.

    Members of the Israel Defense Forces simulate a nuclear drill. | Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Published 5 January 2018
The fact that Israel possesses nuclear weapons is not in dispute, but how did it procure them and with whose help? Val Reynoso investigates.

Israel's nuclear-weapons program was initiated by the founding prime minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, who stated that Israel could only survive as a newly formed, fiscally poor nation if it possessed nuclear weapons to deter militaries, such as those from then-enemies Egypt and Jordan.

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Israel made an agreement in 1957 with France, which helped install a plutonium-based facility in the Israeli city of Dimona. The United States was a close political ally to Israel, but was not prepared to provide Israel with nuclear weapons. The nuclear facility was built under extreme secrecy in the Israeli Negev desert near Dimona in 1958.

The construction occurred a year after former Israeli director-general of the Ministry of Defense, Shimon Peres, established a technical cooperation and political agreement with France on the reactor and reprocessing plant and that Israel would only use plutonium for what they defined as peaceful purposes.  

Around 1960, US intelligence discovered Israel's nuclear facility in Dimona, which obligated Ben-Gurion to publicly continue the nuclear program. Israel also obtained resources from Norway, which gave them heavy water to moderate the Dimona reactor; additionally, in 1960, Norway repurchased 20 tons of heavy water from the UK and exported it to Israel from there.  

Heavy water reactors speed the acceleration of uranium to create fuel. Heavy water also produces an enormous amount of electricity which then forms nuclear waste. The nuclear waste is then pumped into a reprocessing plant to produce highly toxic plutonium.  Furthermore, declassified intelligence documents show that the UK suspected that Israel was going to use the heavy water for plutonium production.  

Nuclear Discretion

During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israel likely installed its first ballistic missile that had nuclear capacity, which challenged its discretion with nuclear activities. Moreover, Israel attained 10 tons of uranium yellowcake from the South African apartheid government in 1965 under the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. In 1976, Israel and South Africa agreed to eliminate the bilateral safeguards, which gave Israel access to another 500 tons of uranium – adding onto the 100 tons South Africa sold to Israel in exchange for 30 grams of tritium – to use for the Dimona plutonium production reactor, which also emits an immense amount of radiation. Recently declassified UK and US documents show a previously undisclosed Israeli purchase of approximately 100 tons of Argentinian yellowcake in 1963-1964 without IAEA safeguards.

Despite the refusal to deny or explicitly confirm the existence of the nuclear-weapons program, Israeli technician Mordechai Vanunu exposed this information in 1986. Moreover, US sting operations and legal cases demonstrate that Israel also likely still makes unlawful nuclear obtainments.

With regard to international WMD non-proliferation conventions, Israel has either not become a signatory of these conventions or has yet to ratify them. The international Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was signed on July 1 1968 by the United States, USSR, UK, France and China, with the goal of preventing the spread of nuclear weapons from participating countries to non-nuclear nations that aspired to obtain weapons. The NPT entered into force in 1970 and since then 187 parties have joined, including the P5 (United States, Russia, UK, France, China).

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is accountable for the safeguards system established by the NPT; these are used to confirm assent with the NPT through inspections administered by the IAEA. Safeguards also help prevent the usage of fissile material for weapons utilization. Israel did not sign the NPT in 1968 and has resisted pressure from Arab states to do so and accept all IAEA safeguards.   

On September 25 1996, Israel signed the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) at the UN headquarters in New York City, but has not ratified it yet. Israel refused to participate at the UN Conference on Disarmament in August 1998 to negotiate on a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT). Netanyahu even stated that Israel will never sign the FMCT regardless of any pressures placed on the country to do so. Since Israel has not ratified the NPT, CTBT or FMCT, it is not legally in violation of these treaties and conventions despite being in possession of nuclear weapons.  

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Post-1955, Israel was allied with the United States, UK and France. The United States assisted Israel in the construction of a nuclear-energy program. On September 1969, US President Richard Nixon and Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir held a meeting at the White House where they established the unofficial policy for Israel that is still intact to this day.

The policy elaborates that Israel would not publicly acknowledge or display its nuclear weapons program and the United States would accept this, as well as not take any measures to stop the program. In addition, the Atoms for Peace Initiative was a nuclear cooperation agreement in 1955 between the United States and Israel, through which the United States gave Israel a small research reactor under bilateral safeguards and peace provisions; this was the first time Israel sought nuclear help from the United States. Israel proceeded to ask the United States for a reactor that would produce plutonium, under the comprehension that said technology would not satisfy Israel's needs for a nuclear arsenal.

Israel also strengthened ties with France through typical arms purchases, allocation of intelligence and partnership in nuclear research. The UK has also demonstrated support for the Israeli nuclear program, since documents in the British National Archives reveal that the UK exported 20 tons of heavy water to Israel for £1.5m (US$2m) in 1958, which was crucial to Israeli plutonium production at the Dimona nuclear reactor.  

Among Israel's enemies are regional powers such as Syria and Iran, and non-state proxies such as Hamas and Hezbollah. Israel launched Operation Orchard on September 6 2007, which was an airstrike against what was suspected to be a Syrian nuclear arsenal near Al-Kibar, Syria, with the purpose of averting Syria from developing a nuclear weapons capability.

Secret Operations

As of late, Israel has supported the United States and EU in placing economic sanctions on Iran and initiating secret operations with the purpose of delaying the Iranian nuclear program. These secret operations include murdering vital Iranian scientists, disrupting Iranian equipment supply networks, and development of computer viruses such as the Stuxnet and Flame viruses, which were allegedly created by the United States and Israel in order to infect Iran's Natanz Enrichment Complex.

Despite this, Iran still installs centrifuges and produces significantly more low-enriched uranium. Due to this, some senior Israeli officials have suggested taking military action against Iranian nuclear facilities.

Israel has initiated three main military campaigns in Gaza Strip with the justification of attempting to defeat Hamas: Operation Cast Lead in December 2008, Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012, and Operation Protective Edge in July 2014. Hamas allegedly claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing in 2008 in Dimona, where the Israeli nuclear facility is located.

In February 2017, Hezbollah's leader Hassan Nasrallah threatened Israel's nuclear reactor in a statement he made claiming his rockets have the capacity to reach the nuclear facility in Dimona. In response, a senior Israeli minister threatened Lebanese infrastructure.

Ultimately, Israel indeed possesses nuclear weapons and has been able to construct its nuclear arsenal in Dimona with the help of its predominantly Western allies.

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