Who gave Israel a nuclear bomb?

Tel Aviv’s nuclear programme has been an open secret for decades. Who started it?

A picture taken on March 8, 2014 show a partial view of the Dimona nuclear power plant in the southern Israeli Negev desert. Jack Guez / AFP
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In the middle of May 1967, two Egyptian fighter jets penetrated Israeli airspace and flew over the town of Dimona, in the middle of the Negev desert. Israeli jets scrambled to intercept them but failed. A few days later, a second Egyptian jet entered Israel and again flew over Dimona in broad daylight. Israeli jets engaged the aircraft but were unable to shoot it down.

Israeli leaders were worried. Dimona, a dusty town far from population centres, was the site of the country’s secret nuclear programme. The Israelis became convinced that Egypt not only knew of the programme, but intended to attack it – as, many years later, the Israelis would do to suspected nuclear sites in Iraq and Syria. Two weeks later, Israel fired the first shots of the 1967 war.

The results of that war are well-known: 50 years of occupation and dispossession. In all those years, although it has been an open secret that Israel possessed nuclear weapons, it has never been admitted, even by those governments that helped Israel acquire them. One side note to the recent coverage of the war was the existence of a small nuclear device that Israel intended to explode inside Egypt if it felt it was going to lose the war.

That detail has gone almost unnoticed in western reporting of the war, but it tallies with the known facts of Israel’s nuclear programme – that the country was so determined to hold on to Palestinian lands after 1948, that it embarked on a clandestine nuclear programme that it was willing to use above ground, heedless of the consequences to civilians, even its own, and of international law.

Israel had long wanted a nuclear weapon of its own, but was isolated diplomatically in the years after its founding in 1948. But by the mid-1950s, that had changed. Western powers were so concerned at the rise of Arab nationalism, and in particular the leadership of Gamal Abdel Nasser, that they conspired in 1956 to use Israel to attack Egypt and bring down Nasser. That plan failed, but it began a long association between the West and Israel.

It was France, in particular, enraged by the failure in 1956, that began building Israel’s bomb. By the end of the 1950s, there were hundreds of French scientists and technicians living in Dimona, teaching Israelis how to master the nuclear fuel cycle. Later, other western countries, including Britain, helped.

In the years since, the Israelis openly lied to the United States during inspections, supported brutal regimes like Apartheid South Africa in order to get its hands on materials, conducted test explosions in violation of international treaties, spied on allies and censored the press at home. When a disgruntled technician, Mordechai Vanunu, told the world Israel had nuclear weapons in 1986, he was drugged by Israeli agents, kidnapped and jailed for nearly 20 years after a secret trial.

Israel’s nuclear programme continues to this day. The West appears to treat Israel’s nuclear weapons the same way it treats its occupation of Palestine: as an inconvenient fact to be ignored if possible, in the hope that both crimes will somehow be forgotten.