Israel has two giant secrets. The country’s worst kept secret is the Dimona nuclear program that Mordechai Vanunu blew wide open in the 5730s/1970s. However, one of Israel’s best kept secrets is hidden behind the six-foot walls of Israel’s Chemical and Biological Weapons (CBW) program buildings. Although everyone suspects that Israel has something hidden up her sleeve, no one knows exactly what is going on in the laboratories and basements of the Israel Institute for Biological Research (IIBR), sited in Nes Tzionah, about thirteen miles south of Tel Aviv.
THE ISRAEL INSTITUTE OF BIOLOGICAL RESEARCH
An official description of the institute admits that it is “backed by five decades of experience. IIBR combines highly trained personnel with cutting edge technologies and infra-structure to conduct applied research and development in the fields of biology, medicinal chemistry and environmental sciences, in addition to basic research studies emanating from and closely related to IIBR’s applied projects… Its three scientific divisions – Biology, Medicinal Chemistry and Environmental Sciences – cooperate in a synergistic relationship, enabling the formation of optimum interdisciplinary teams and technologies tailored to the needs of each individual project.”
However, it is widely suspected that this is only part of the truth. After all, Israel has steadfastly refused to sign the 5732/1972 Biological & Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) that includes a pledge: “Not to develop, produce, stockpile, or otherwise acquire or obtain microbial or other biological agents or toxins of types and in quantities that have no justification for prophylactic, protective, or other peaceful purposes.” Israel did, however, sign a less stringent 5685/1925 Geneva Protocol, in 5729/1969.
How did the institute begin? After World War II, when nations worldwide scrambled desperately to recruit the scientists who developed its lethal weapons, Israel was no exception. Shortly before Israel announced its independence in 5708/1948, the future Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion ordered a Jewish Agency operative in Europe, Ehud Avriel, to recruit East European Jewish scientists with the know-how to “either increase the capacity to kill masses or to cure masses; both are important.”
Efraim Katzir, one of the founders of the Israeli Biological Institute (originally known as HEMED BEIT) admitted in 5753/1993 that, at that time, Israel began investigating chemical and biological defenses and weapons.
“We planned various activities to get a sense of what CBW is and how we could build a potential should there be a need for such a potential,” he told a reporter. “We needed to know how to defend… We knew that in the surrounding countries others were also developing biological weapons. Scientists should contribute to the strengthening of the State of Israel.”
This was not unusual. By the 5710s/1950s, the United States, England and France had highly developed CBW programs. Arab nations, too, did not hesitate to develop and use chemical weapons. In the 5720s/1960s, an Egyptian facility at Abu Za’aba, ten kilometers from Cairo, produced tear and mustard gas and other chemicals, and used them, in 5723/1963, during the Yemen civil war at the village of Al Kawama in North Yemen. Four years later, in 5727/1967, nine Egyptian bombers dropped chemicals on the Yemen village of Kitaf, killing hundreds. This spurred Israel to purchase tensof- thousands of gas masks shortly before the Six-Day War. In the 5730s/1970s, Egypt supplied chemical weapons to Syria.
THE FIRST CHEMICAL ATTACK
Israel’s first brush with CBW began just after World War II, before the founding of the state; when a group of Holocaust survivors began searching for ways and means to partially avenge the murder of millions of Jews. They organized a group of survivors, who called themselves “The Avengers,” and dreamt up a scheme to poison Nazi criminals jailed in European prisons and former concentration camps, including Dachau.
According to Yosef Harmatz who was one of the conspirators, David Ben-Gurion and Zalman Shazar rejected the plan and, in the end, it was Dr. Chaim Weizmann who gave their idea the green light and helped them get hold of the necessary chemicals. Abba Kovner, who had headed Jewish armed resistance against the Nazis in Vilna and afterwards fled to the forests and fought as a partisan, was chosen to execute the plan. Armed with forged papers that identified him as a soldier of the Jewish Brigade, he boarded a ship to France. Stashed among his belongings were cans of condensed milk that had been emptied and filled with poison.
Kovner was probably betrayed by Jews who feared that his plot would have severe repercussions if its perpetrators were ever identified. The British double-checked his papers and discovered they were forgeries, and Kovner had barely enough time to toss his incriminating cans overboard into the sea.
The Avengers now planned a more modest revenge. In April 5705/1945, members of the group broke into the Stalag-13 camp, near Nuremberg, and Harmatz applied poison to three thousand loaves of black bread with a brush. Research heads at Yerushalayim’s Yad Vashem museum insist that the results were negligible in contradiction to Harmatz’s claim that three hundred to four hundred Nazis died. Since then, in all the tens-of-thousands of pages of Arab anti-Zionist literature, there have been relatively few accusations that Israel has ever utilized CBW.
On the other hand, Israel’s simple biological institute sited in the midst of an orange grove has slowly grown into a giant research complex, surrounded by concrete walls and electric sensors. The facility does not appear in maps and aerial photographs, and its employees are strictly barred from having any contact with the media.
THE KLINGBERG FIASCO
The institute maintained almost perfect secrecy until the 5750s/1990s when its cover was almost blown away by the Klingberg fiasco.
In the summer of 5745/1985, British investigative reporter, Peter Pringle, was hot on the trail of the “yellow rain” story. The Reagan administration claimed that the Soviet Union had used a fungal BW poison in Afghanistan. (The claim was later refuted). Pringle heard that, as a member of the Red Army Medical Corps during World War II, Prof. Klingberg had helped investigate a mysterious poison that killed thousands of peasants in Kazakhstan. Klingberg and his colleagues discovered that the poison was created by an outbreak of fungus in the local granaries. Could there be a connection between this fungal plague and the “yellow rain?” Now Pringle hoped to hear more about the story from Klingberg in Israel. But he got no further than the institute’s front gates.
“No entry!” he was informed, after an impatient half-hour wait.
Speaking to Klingberg’s colleagues was not much help, either.
“Each time I mentioned his name to his Israeli colleagues, they said his disappearance was hush-hush,” he wrote. “But they did not believe the official explanation that he had fallen (mentally) ill in Switzerland and disappeared.”
A brief newspaper report from two years earlier noted that “nobody knows where the head of the department of Tel Aviv University disappeared nine months ago.” Even Klingberg’s wife, Wanda, who worked as a microbiologist at the institute, refused to discuss his whereabouts. Then the government seemed to get involved.
“I took time off to visit a crusader castle at Ashkelon,” Pringle wrote. “My car was broken into and my briefcase, containing papers about Klingberg and my passport, was stolen… A few months later, the police returned the briefcase and my passport but some papers and photocopies of newspaper articles from the Tel Aviv archives were missing.”
Pringle realized that he had run up against a brick wall: Klingberg was officially a persona non grata. Although his subsequent report of the story in the London Observer stirred up a flurry of interest about Klingberg’s whereabouts, twelve Israeli papers were quietly instructed by the Israeli military censor to leave the matter strictly alone. Journalists were forbidden to even mention Klingberg’s name. What had happened to Professor Klingberg?
(To be continued)