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Commentary

Safety Is Still On Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction

April 04, 2002|AVIGDOR HASELKORN

The violence in Israel and the occupied territories has stirred fears that the conflict will spiral into the use of unconventional weaponry. These fears are exaggerated.

While it is true that if the Palestinians possessed weapons of mass destruction they would have little compunction about using them, the fact that they haven't been used strongly suggests they lack them.

The political groundwork for such an escalation, though, has already been laid down by Yasser Arafat in his repeated accusations that Israel has used poison gas against his people. And many Palestinians believe that such attacks could indeed defeat Israel, or at least punish it for its "crimes."

Israel has no incentive to resort to any means other than those currently employed in the conflict.

For Israel, unconventional weapons are an option of last resort.

Although Palestinian militants have dabbled in chemical warfare since the 1970s, their efforts have been amateurish.

For example, since 1994 traces of various toxic chemicals have been found in at least five Palestinian bombing attacks. The most recent time was Dec. 1, when at least one of two bombs detonated simultaneously by suicide attackers in downtown Jerusalem contained rat poison.

In all cases, however, the blasts destroyed the pesticides' potency, thus preventing chemical injuries to the victims.

The situation could change, though, if some outside element were to undertake a mission using unconventional weapons on behalf of the Palestinians, or provide them the required arms and training.

For example, it has been reported that Nabil Oukal--Osama bin Laden's envoy to Gaza and the West Bank who was arrested by Israeli security in June 2000--was interested in poisoning water sources.

More worrisome, the London Times on Jan. 2 quoted "Israeli intelligence chiefs" expressing concern that the leaders of the military wing of Hamas living in Qatar, Syria and Jordan were "becoming ambitious and are trying to get hold of sarin and other nerve gases."

It is unclear if Bin Laden's Al Qaeda organization could pull off a major attack using weapons of mass destruction. Using Sept. 11 as an indicator, it would seem more likely that such an attack would come in the form of a suicide mission on a country's own chemical, biological or nuclear facilities.

But in a state so preoccupied with security as Israel, such an attack would not be easy.

Moreover, rogue states like Syria or Iran have so far refrained from transferring toxic agents to any of the terrorist organizations they sponsor. They apparently appreciate the risks that such a consignment would potentially expose them to.

The exception could be Iraq's Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi leader believes that the Bush administration is gunning for him. His capacity to deliver chemical or biological agents via missiles or airplanes is insufficient to deter the U.S., and a desperate Hussein could view Palestinian suicide terrorists as an attractive option to deliver his weapons of mass destruction.

The Iraqi leader already is doing all he can to encourage suicide attacks against Israelis as a means to interfere with Washington's war plans. Even if he were to go, he would rather be remembered by his last "gift" to the Palestinians than by his chemical attacks on Kurds and Iranians.

But Israel is very much on guard for such nightmares and would do all in its power to preempt the threat. Even if its efforts failed, an unconventional Israeli response would be far from automatic. Much would depend on the impact of the attack. For instance, past Palestinian chemical warfare has not elicited harsh Israeli responses because the attacks themselves were so ineffective.

After the 1991 Gulf War, then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir hinted he would have kept his cool as long as Israeli casualties were light--even if Hussein had unleashed weapons of mass destruction against Israel. Shamir believed that his restraint would have enabled the U.S. to solve the Hussein problem once and for all.

Today, the situation is similar, and the Israeli civilian population is better protected against chemical or biological agents than a decade ago. Still, it is certain that if Israel suffered mass casualties as a result of a Palestinian terrorist attack using weapons of mass destruction, its response would be overwhelming. Yet it need not be a response using unconventional weapons. Indeed, given the growing presence of U.S. troops in Iraq's vicinity, there is a good chance it will not be.

*

Avigdor Haselkorn is the author of "The Continuing Storm: Iraq, Poisonous Weapons and Deterrence" (Yale University Press, 1999).

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