The Price of Dissent

Israel’s most famous nuclear whistleblower is released soon. His government flaunts its weapons with impunity

Here’s a question. Which country’s “nuclear capability is arguably the most secretive weapons of mass destruction programme in the world” according to a recent BBC documentary? Not, as you may think, Iraq, or even Syria, Iran, or North Korea. It actually refers to Israel, the US and UK’s biggest ally in the Middle East. Indeed both Iran and North Korea, two of the unfortunates on Bush’s “axis of evil”, have for all their manifest faults, signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty which Israel still fails to do.

There currently exists a strange situation in the Middle East where official enemies are told that any attempts to “hide” weapons of mass destruction from international scrutiny is the highest form of delinquency, enough to warrant bombardment by the full might of the US and its allies, meanwhile the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) quite happily works on the assumption that Israel possesses large stockpiles of nuclear weapons even through the Israeli government has never admitted so. Indeed the IAEA’s concerns are that Israel’s weapons programme is not dangerous because of intent to build (like our official enemies) but because its nuclear programme is already so extensive that is sets a dangerous example.

The head of the IAEA Mohamed El-Baradei recently commented in an interview with the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, “My fear is that, without such a dialogue [between Israel and its neighbours], there will be continued incentive for the region’s countries to develop weapons of mass destruction to match the Israeli arsenal.”

It is often not recognised that resolution 687, passed by the United Nations after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1991, and which laid the basis for the eventual invasion of Iraq 12 years later, actually calls for a “nuclear-weapons-free zone in the region of the Middle East,” which obviously includes Israel. Israel’s desire to be heavily armed has also led it into alliances with some less than honourable regimes. During the 1970s and 1980s the government in Apartheid South Africa was the main supplier of uranium for Israel’s Dimona nuclear plant.

Israel’s nuclear programme has only been revealed thanks to the actions of two courageous Israelis. The first, Avner Cohen, wrote a book in which he meticulously documented the development of Israel’s nuclear programme since the 1960s and the lies told to the rest of the world.

The second courageous individual is Mordecai Vanunu. He worked as a technician at Israel’s nuclear installation in Dimona for ten years. The fact that the Middle East’s only supposed democracy was stockpiling up to 200 nuclear warheads without a word of debate or authorisation from its own citizens led him to provide evidence of Israel’s nuclear capability to the Sunday Times. For this he was kidnapped whilst in Rome by Israeli secret service agents and sentenced, in a secret trial, to 18 years in an Israeli jail. It’s worth noting the treatment of Vanunu in comparison with the treatment of the Israeli soldier charged with the fatal shooting of British activist Tom Hurndall. Military commanders say the latter will spend a year in jail at most, if found guilty.

Vanunu was held in complete isolation for 11 years, and thankfully is due for release in April this year. His story begs a worrying question; if this is what the Israeli establishment does to one its own citizens who dares to dissent, then what is it doing on a daily basis to those Palestinians who dare to challenge its illegal presence in the occupied territories?

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