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.
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.
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.
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.
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.