Israeli, Syrian Nuclear, Other Efforts Probed
al-Watan al-'Arabi 21 Nov 97 pp 35-37
For months now, political and military pundits have been sounding a
note of warning that thanks to Binyamin Netanyahu's policies and America's
bias toward Israel, the region was headed for a military explosion. These
apprehensions have become even more credible as the past few weeks saw
attempts to revive the peace process hit a brick wall. With signs of
increased tension and reports of military preparations for a new type of
war, experts have been speculating about the scenarios of such hostilities.
One such report, coinciding with the drums of a possible war between Iraq
and the United States, suggests that the region is in for a missile, rather
than conventional war, which will see a recourse to biological, chemical,
and possibly nuclear weapons of mass destruction. That is the picture that
emerges based on spy satellite pictures and intelligence about contacts
between the Israelis and Americans.
Perhaps the most alarming of these reports is one that says American
military experts are at the advanced stage of construction of an
underground nuclear weapons warehouse close to the West Bank village of
Kfar Zakariya as an alternative site for tunnels that the Israelis dug in
the mountainside of that sandy area, which, since the early 70s, has been
their main center for experiments on long- range missiles fitted with
In the Swiss city of Geneva, European intelligence sources disclosed
at the beginning of the month that American experts who had been in the
Hebrew state in early February 1996, held secret meetings over four days
with their Israeli counterparts this January in Washington. The Americans
brought with them to Tel Aviv the designs of underground rocket shelters
situated on the eastern coast of the United States and the "Los Alamos"
region in New Mexico, the biggest sites for nuclear and rocket experiments,
so the Israelis could model their warehouse on the American facilities,
after it became clear that the existing Israeli tunnels would not be able
to survive a rocket attack.
The sources cited numerous reports, which they had seen over the past
six months, that another group of US experts were working with the Israelis
to make improvements to the sites where Israeli nuclear weapons were
assembled in the central Galilee and the storage sites in the northeastern
mountains close to the Syrian border. The move was made after experts from
the two countries realized that the fortifications as they stood had no
sufficient safeguards against a potential nuclear fallout.
The report said the nuclear reactor in Dimona in the Negev -- Israel's
main facility for the production of nuclear, chemical, and germ weapons --
was now a beehive of activity in what seems to be further fortification and
addition or replacement of equipment. Reports have circulated since the
early 90s of accidents, including blasts and radioactive fallout in that
old reactor, resulting in many deaths among the facility's staff and the
evacuation of populated areas around it.
The report describes the existing rocket tunnels in the West Bank
hills as being "primitive" so that, in a war situation, the Israelis would
have to roll out the rockets one at a time and then ready them for
launching from exposed pads, in which case a missile or two coming, say,
from Syria, Iraq, or Iran could bury all of them in the debris of collapsed
rocks and thus knock out Israel's nuclear arsenal.
In contrast, the American designs call for digging underground
warehouses, which in some places run 100 meters deep, each housing one
long-range rocket and are sealed with impenetrable metal and concrete
The European intelligence report discloses that the joint
American-Israeli operation calls for constructing 50 underground Jericho-1
and Jericho-2 rocket launching sites. These missiles will be fitted with
nuclear war heads and the centers will also include facilities for the
stockpiling and production of unconventional arms.
This US restoration effort, projected to the last two years, comes in
the wake of spy satellite images revealed by the Ministries of Defense in
Paris and Moscow in November of the past year showing upward of 200 Israeli
nuclear weapons deployed in eight sites and fitted on medium- and
long-range rockets and in aircraft ready for takeoff at short notice.
Among them are sites close to Israel's borders with Syria and Lebanon.
British analysts in the defense industry media report that this
unprecedented Russian-French revelation confirms beyond all doubt how far
along Israel's nuclear program is. Officially, however, Israel continues
to deny that it has a nuclear program.
American military expert Harold Hogg, writing in the reputable British
Defense publication Janes, reports that the satellite pictures allowed a
penetration of Israel's fortified sites and a tracking of its nuclear
arsenal as far as the upper Galilee overlooking Lebanese territory. The
reactor, which produces plutonium for atomic weapons, adds Hogg, is
situated south in Dimona in the Negev Desert. The design and experiment
center, according to the American expert, lies in the coastal region of
Soreq , which is rated as the most
important US nuclear experiment center in Los Alamos.
Israel assembles its nuclear arms in Yodefat in the Galilee and, adds Hogg, the long-range missiles, including
the more advanced Jericho-2 variety, are built in the Bir Yaqov region in
the central part of the country. The nuclear weapons are housed in the
Eilabun region close to the border with
Syria and to the assembly center. The rocket-launching center and the main
base, where weapons of mass destruction are deployed, are near the West
Bank heights of Kfar Zakariya -- a place suited to warehouses, including
underground ones in view of the sandy and rocky formation of the area and
the abundance of caves there. Hogg cites intelligence reports as saying
that the building of warehouses in the area began in 1979 and were ready
for use in the seventies. Based on satellite photos, they
are still the most active of Israel's nuclear sites. The old part includes
four conspicuous buildings with access to underground fortifications that
have been home to the mobile Jericho-1 for the past 10 years. Lately,
these shelters have housed special nuclear bombs to be transported by
American F-4-S and F-16-S aircraft based several kilometers to the north.
To the south of these buildings, numerous roads have been built, all
leading to underground fortifications comparable to the Iraqi military
shelters whose sites in and around al-Basrah and Baghdad, as well as in
other locales, were uncovered by the second Gulf war. The Israeli
facilities are surrounded by five surface-to-surface missile launching
The official Russian and French photos show that the most recent of
the Israeli missile bases was built in the southeast of the country in the
late eighties and early nineties. They house the long-range Jericho-2
missile, whose program is co-funded by the United States. Since 1989,
other spy satellite images unveiled the building of shelters in that
region, but these had no walls or fortifications. Beginning in 1991,
however, the pictures began to show walls surrounding that missile center,
and work on them was completed a year later.
The spy satellite pictures, which seem to have been taken at the end
of last year, show there are major roads and other smaller ones leading off
them, all ending in nuclear shelters housing 50 missiles of the Jericho-2
type fitted with nuclear warheads ready for launching. According to
European intelligence services, Jericho-2 had its first successful test on
14 September 1989, travelling 800 miles before falling in the sea to the
west of the Greek island of Crete.
The spy satellite pictures shed light on Israel's nuclear weapons
strategy. Israel's atomic weapons are sited on West Bank heights in the
heart of Israel, thus rendering it a defensible area and the last part of
the country that could fall in enemy hands in a major war situation.
Hogg commented on that detail by saying that on the strength of
evidence gathered by world powers, it seems that Israel does not regard its
nuclear arms as the first choice option in any war with the Arabs or other
nations. Rather, the nuclear option would be Israel's last resort and only
if its very existence was at stake.
Hogg, in effect, refutes news reports circulating in the Western press
over the past year that the United States barred Israel from directing a
nuclear strike at Baghdad lest the Iraqis retaliate with missiles fitted
with chemical or biological warheads of the binary chemical type vaunted by
Saddam Husayn before the occupation of Kuwait.
The last resort option does not correspond with a report leaked last
month to Western capitals that in March of this year, Binyamin Netanyahu
issued his second warning to Syria that Israel would respond with nuclear
weapons to any surprise Syrian attack on Israeli cities with missiles
fitted with chemical warheads.
In response to the Israeli warning, communicated by the United States,
Syria's Defense Minister Mustafa Talas declared that "Israel's nuclear
threats do not frighten us and we will respond to any Israeli aggression in
the manner appropriate to us."
The leaks suggest that Israel's first warning that it could unleash
nuclear weapons at Syria came in a lecture delivered by Israel's late Prime
Minister Yitzhaq Rabin shortly after the end of the second Gulf war. At
that time, Rabin said that as "defense minister, I believe it is my duty to
make it clear that any attack by Syrians directed at Tel Aviv using
long-range missiles will elicit a 100-fold Israeli response directed at
Damascus and other Syrian cities. The only deterrence to the use of such
missiles is for Damascus to learn that it will suffer over three times Tel
Aviv's level of devastation; this is not the right moment for me to divulge
the kind of deterrence that Israel has against that eventuality." Rabin
must have been thinking of the nuclear option.
In April, the Yafo Strategic Research Institute warned in a study
commissioned by Israel's Ministry of Defense, and shared with the Pentagon
in Washington within the framework of a data exchange program provided for
in a bilateral defense pact, that Syria was going all out in its
preparations for a possible confrontation in the near future with Israel,
based on a reckoning by the country's top military officers that Israel has
no military response to an intense Syrian rocket offensive. That explains
why, for over the past two years, the Syrians have been making sharp cuts
in the allocations budgeted for their land and air forces and diverting the
funds for the development of long-range missiles.
The study finds that Syria's increased attention to the so-called
"strategic rockets arm" was based on lessons learned from the war
experiences of other countries in the region and a realization of its air
force's relative weakness. The study adds, however: "Syria has yet to
appreciate the scale of an Israeli response to any rockets it may send in
David Every, the Israeli minister of defense's assistant for strategy,
is quoted in the study as stating that "as a result of Israel's lack of
deterrent power against Syria's surface-to-surface missiles, there now
represents a major strategic threat to Israel, which applies equally to
such countries as Iran, Egypt, and Iraq, which are also active in the
development of such types of weapons."
Damascus, according to intelligence sources, is now convinced that the
opportunity is there for it to pose a missile threat to Israel with the
latter's missile capability and other methods of deterrence not yet
operational. "In other words, the mere threat of a rocket attack should
provide Syria with an umbrella for the foreseeable future under which it
can take limited military action against Israel with the object of breaking
the logjam in the Middle East peace process without the fear of illiciting
a powerful military response from the Israeli Army," add the sources.
"The conventional wisdom among the Syrians," these sources add, "is
that, for now, there is no response in Israel's arsenal to these Syrian
rockets, and so, in the event of a Syrian offensive in the Golan Heights
using conventional weapons, the Netanyahu government would hold back from a
strong military response in order to avert a Syrian missile strike."
Thus haunted by the fear that Syria might resort to using rockets to
tie Israel's hands in any probable military skirmishes, Israel recently
diverted a good deal of money and effort toward the development of weapons
to counter the Syrian threat.
Over the past few weeks, there has been a resurgence of talk in Israel
about the threat that advanced missiles in neighboring states, not the
least Syria, posed to the country. Certain Israeli circles have made the
claim that spy satellites have taken pictures of construction work on a
large scale on a missile network in northern Syria featuring B and C Scud
missile bases that were immune to any attacks from the air, comparable to
those that Saddam Husayn had built in Iraq.
The Israelis shared with the Americans intelligence reports purporting
that the Syrian military now possessed numerous types of sophisticated
missiles including 18 Scud B launching pads of the 300-mile range that
could carry 1000-kg warheads and eight Scud C launching pads of 600-km
range and capable of carrying 750-kg warheads. The Syrians are said to be
in possession of 250 missiles of these two types. The Syrian missile
arsenal also boasts 18 rocket launching pads for the old Frog type missile,
which was used in the 1973 October war and that has 70-km range and 18
rocket launching pads for the S.S. 21 Scarabs, which have a range of 120
Based on that "missile threat," Israel approached the Pentagon about
the new nuclear depth bomb designed to penetrate underground fortifications
to counter any Syrian attack using missiles with chemical warheads.
Circles close to the Israeli Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv have
disclosed that, while in the US on 10 November, the country's Chief of
Staff Amnon Shahak asked for that new nuclear depth bomb.
The circles did not indicate whether Shahak secured the Americans'
approval or not, although from a logical point of view, there was no reason
why the United States should not oblige and arm an ally like Israel with
that type of weapon for defensive, rather than offensive purposes.
Tel Aviv is in possession of a variety of the depth bomb, which it
deployed in the destruction of the Iraqi nuclear reactor back in 1981. The
Israeli version of this type of bomb is not adequate any more, however.
The London newspaper The Independent, meanwhile, has disclosed that
Shahak did not go home empty-handed. He secured Washington's consent to
the immediate sale to Israel of 98,000 155-millimeter long-range artillery
bombs worth $30 million to be deducted from the annual US military aid
appropriations to the Hebrew State.
The paper said, not without a vein of irony, that the Israelis "did
not explain why they needed a huge quantity of ammunition six years after
the United States initiated the Middle East peace process in Madrid."
In the course of the past week, Russian intelligence sources said that
the United States supplied six of its B-52 bombers with the first new
nuclear depth bombs. American scientists, said the Russians, have put the
finishing touches on that bomb at the start of the second Gulf war.
Members of the Western alliance ranged against Iraq were surprised to
discover that, helped by Japan and Germany, Iraq had built underground
shelters of such depths that no weapon in the West's arsenal could reach
The first hint of the nuclear depth bomb was made in early 1996 when
former US Secretary of Defense William Perry threatened that the United
States would hit the new chemical plant that the Americans claimed the
Libyans were on the verge of completing in the Tarhunah region of the
Libyan desert if work at the facility was not brought to a halt. The
American magazine Time reported at the time that the defense secretary must
have made the threat with the new nuclear depth bomb in the back of his
Sources at the US Defense Department report that these new bombs are
able to penetrate all sorts of rocky terrain and thick layers of iron
sheets or concrete. They can penetrate as deep as 100 feet, or 33 meters.
The sources add that they were used twice against underground Iraqi
shelters but did not carry nuclear warheads; the improved version was
introduced after the second Gulf war. It is possible that it was one of
those bombs that destroyed the huge chemicals warehouse near al-Basrah,
gases from which were blown over to Kuwaiti and Saudi territory and
affected over 100,000 American and British servicemen with what has come to
be known as the "Gulf war syndrome" and whose existence has been admitted
both by Washington and London under sustained pressure from those who have
shown signs of the condition.
Paul Robinson, head of the American Sandia National Laboratories said
in May 1997 that the new nuclear depth bomb had become operational,
describing it as a "auto-directed nuclear bomb the effectiveness of which
is only matched by the known nuclear bomb."
The bomb was designed "so as to get underground the biggest possible
amount of the energy produced by a nuclear explosion."
William Bidon, an expert on the US nuclear scene, says the message
that the United States wants to send by building the new weapon is that the
conventional nuclear bomb might have outgrown its usefulness since it is
not possible to use it in a future war like the last one that was fought in
the Gulf. In order to make use of the usual nuclear weapon acceptable in
an unconventional war, therefore, we began to develop the new nuclear depth