UN atomic chief condemns 'loose talk' of Israeli nuclear strike on Gaza

Israeli minister drew outrage for saying use of atomic bomb was an option in Hamas conflict

Rafael Grossi urged Israel to join the global non-proliferation treaty on nuclear weapons. EPA
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The head of the UN’s atomic watchdog has warned against “loose talk” of using doomsday weapons, after an Israeli minister was suspended for hinting at a nuclear strike on Gaza.

The November 5 comments by Heritage Minister Amihai Eliyahu, who said the use of an atomic bomb would be “one option” in Gaza, caused a backlash from Middle East countries and even Israel’s ally the US.

Rafael Grossi, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, declined to comment directly on Mr Eliyahu’s remarks during a board meeting of the UN agency in Vienna.

But he said there was a “wide agreement” in the world “on the fact that a nuclear war cannot be won and therefore should never be fought”.

“Any loose talk about using nuclear weapons is, at best, unacceptable,” he said.

Mr Grossi also urged Israel – which has a policy of neither confirming nor denying that it possesses nuclear arms – to join the global non-proliferation treaty from which it is one of few missing countries.

He said the IAEA had made “repeated calls” for “all countries in the Middle East, and this includes Israel, to join [the treaty] and to open all their nuclear facilities to comprehensive safeguards inspections”.

Mr Eliyahu was demoted from attending cabinet meetings after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said his statement on the Israel-Gaza war was “not based in reality”.

Asked by a radio interviewer about a possible use of “some kind of atomic bomb” against Gaza, the Israeli minister had replied: “That’s one option.” He later claimed his comment was metaphorical.

In the backlash from Arab states, the UAE’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed its “categorical rejection of the threat of using nuclear weapons”, while Saudi Arabia called for the minister’s dismissal.

The US said it was glad the “completely unacceptable” comments were “immediately repudiated” by Mr Netanyahu, who has overseen a bombardment of Gaza since Hamas attacked Israel on October 7.

Senior UN officials have similarly urged Russia to refrain from sabre-rattling rhetoric, after President Vladimir Putin raised fears of a possible nuclear attack on Ukraine.

Five nuclear-armed countries – Russia, the US, the UK, France and China – are parties to the non-proliferation treaty, while Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea do not accept it despite being widely known or assumed to have atomic weapons.

Updated: November 22, 2023, 2:54 PM