This is the third installment in a multi-part examination of Israeli nuclear development in the Negev Desert. Part One can be read here, and Part Two, here.
This article relies on publically accessible media and archival documents—texts that often convey the dominant ideological tone, even within commonly perceived “neutral” sources (for example, government reports or “objective” journalists). Media that has informed the article include long-since declassified FBI and CIA files, transcripts of speeches, Canadian conference documents, archives from clearly identified institutes, as well as archived and contemporary news reports. Using these primary and secondary sources, the intention here is not restate all that which can be found in extant chronologies but to consider the context in which this information arises. The first section of this retrospective essay will begin by situating Israeli nuclear development within its early historical context and national mythology. It naturally includes Israel’s public emergence as a militarized nuclear threat during the Six Day War. It will then look at Israel’s collaboration with the apartheid government of South Africa on procuring uranium, the diversion of uranium from the United States, and exchanging technological expertise with other allies. The second part of this article will look at the ongoing Israeli implementation of radioactive materials in weapons and zones attacked during military operations, including Lebanon in 2006. It will then focus on the role of secondary sources of refined uranium, like the agricultural phosphate industry, for the production of nuclear arms. It will also look at how the nuclear and phosphate/chemical mining industries in the Negev Desert play into Israel’s colonial project, illegal settlement of the West Bank, and persecution of Bedouin peoples in the Negev.
This text owes a great deal to the archival efforts of Israeli-American historian Avner Cohen, who compiled interviews with key Israeli officials relating to the early days of Israel’s construction of the Dimona reactor. Cohen’s work is unique in North American media as an Israeli voice critical of Israeli nuclear arms proliferation. Cohen has maintained criticism not only of the historical events of the Israeli nuclear program, despite his description in 2003 of Golda Meir’s decision not to deploy a nuclear bomb in the East Sinai in 1973 as demonstrating “to the world that Israel was a responsible and trusted nuclear custodian.” Cohen’s interviews are compiled in an archive at the Wilson Centre Nuclear Proliferation International History Project, which is sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation and in part by the New York-based Leon Levy Foundation, a philanthropic organization supporting humanities and projects around Jewish culture. Historical events quoted in Cohen’s interviews and the documents he has collected, as well as other sources in this text, are predominantly fragmented across government websites or written about with an episodic approach to Israel’s nuclear ambitions. Another debt is held by Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem which holds parallels between the creation of the “Jewish State” as a Nazi solution to the Jewish question, into the present catastrophe of the Jewish State of Israel that advocates for the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and the displacement of Bedouin from their homelands. A porous mythology has been spun around Israel’s colonial project. The burden of historical sorrow in Arendt’s work is amplified so much more as we fall prey to a cultural amnesia erasing the greatest threats to our shared humanity. Indeed, the same patterns are playing out, though with a distinct shift of face.
The Negev (al-Naqab in Arabic) is a vast desert, spanning the West Bank and Jordan at its east, and Gaza and the Egyptian border to the west. The Negev is the site of Israel’s most recent settlement projects which involve the construction of new military bases, the relocation of technological and industrial centres, and intensification of civilian settlement. Israel intends to establish more permanent settlements in the Negev that would significantly increase the population in the sparsely populated region, when much of Israel’s population is presently concentrated around the urban centres of Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Jerusalem.
The settlement plan is to be administered by a new branch of the Ministry of the Defense, known as the Southern Relocation Administration, which has approved the construction of at least five new towns in the Negev. The colonial project and its efforts of ethnic cleansing are made clear in the words of Israeli Housing Minister Yoav Galant, quoted by The Times of Israel in 2015, referring to Israel’s “responsibility to bring about a settling of the Negev, to increase possibilities for employment and tourism there, and to turn it into a desired and flourishing area, in accordance with the Zionist vision.”
Previous sections of this piece explore Israel’s history of nuclear development more explicitly, while showing how the ideology of Zionist nationalism has contributed to the construction of an apartheid state. The nation-building project of Zionism sees the occupation of Palestine as the reclamation of a Biblical homeland that justifies the expulsion of Arab peoples and the displacement of pre-existing towns and cities. The Israeli state imposes apartheid conditions on Palestinians and Bedouin by denying state services and rights to full autonomy, by razing and occupying non-Jewish towns, and by deliberately dumping toxic materials near communities of the West Bank and Gaza. This section will explore Israel’s expanding settlement into the Negev, with the understanding that, alongside military and industrial construction, the expansion of civilian settlements is an essential component of Israeli military strategy.
Israeli soldiers of the Paratroopers Brigade train in an urban warfare training at a training base, in southern Israel. (photo credit: Kobi Gideon / Flash90)
Most Israeli military facilities are concentrated towards the north of the country, with bases near the Golan Heights, and the cities of Haifa, Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv. Israel intends to shift some of this military personnel towards the south, offering an incentive to IDF soldiers in the form of grants for their relocation deeper into the Negev. A few of Israel’s existing military bases in the Negev include the airbases of Hatzerim, Nevatim and Ramon, the Shizafon Base, and the 80th “Edom” Division near the southern port town of Eilat. Anticipating the construction of the new Israeli towns in the Negev, Lt.-Col. Itai Sagi was quoted earlier in 2018 by The Algemeiner, saying that “the first bulldozers will be on the ground in 2019. This is a national maneuver. It’s not something the military is doing alone.”
The redistribution of Israeli military forces is intended to move upwards of 19,000 soldiers from the IDF’s digital combat and cyber intelligence units to new facilities, such as the extended campus of Gav-Yam Negev Advanced Technologies Park east of Be’er Sheva. Israeli weapons manufacturing company RAFAEL Advanced Defense Systems is one private military company that intends to open a new research and development centre at the Gav Yam.1 The construction contract for the Be’er Sheva campus, which spans twenty-five years and is worth $2 billion, was awarded by the Israeli Ministry of Defense to Israel’s largest construction company Shikun & Binui Ltd., and Africa Israel Investments Ltd.2
The new Israel Defense Forces city of training bases in the Negev (via American Associates Ben-Gurion University of the Negev)
Another new military training base in the Negev is located near the city of Yeruham, called the Ariel Sharon IDF Combined Instructional Center—otherwise known as Ir HaBahadim, or City of Training Bases. In 2014, Moshe Ya’alon, Defense Minister at the time, stated, “Moving IDF units to the Negev is a nationalist and significant move, and the defense system headed by me is making all the efforts to promote it and to implement it for the benefit of the IDF, the Negev and the state of Israel.” According to the Jerusalem Post, “The Defense Ministry has been promoting the project to prospective international investors and even overseas benefactors. The sports center at the training base, for example, is being funded by American-Jewish donors.”3
Marcus Family Campus of the Advanced Technologies Park (ATP)
The settlement plan for the Negev also includes shifting the concentration of technology companies, in addition to the military, from the metropolitan regions around Tel Aviv towards the south. According to former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, the intensification of settlement in the Negev will “bring the Silicon Valley to the Negev desert.”4 A few of the international technological facilities that have recently settled in the Negev include “EMC Corp., the U.S.-based data storage and cloud computing company, Deutsche Telekom AG, Oracle Corp., and IBM Corp.” Intel announced in May 2018 that it would establish a flagship facility in Kiryat Gat (43 km north of Be’er Sheva). Recent Canadian financial aid in Israel’s expansion into the Negev includes a $2 million investment into the Advanced Technologies Park, and a partnership with BGN Ltd. (the technology transfer company of Ben-Gurion University) on a military “cybersecurity” research partnership to develop “adversarial artificial intelligence.”
The industrial sector often employs Palestinian workers, who commute from the West Bank or Gaza, passing through Israel’s military checkpoints every day. Many Israeli factories are located within the West Bank, past the Green Line in what constitutes Palestinian territory. Industrial zones like that of Mishor Adumim, manufacture products like “plastic, cement, leather tanning, detergents, textile dying, aluminium and electro-plating” and often subject Palestinian workers to toxic pollutants and are negligent of health regulations.They also offer pay below Israeli minimum wage. Israel’s infrastructural domination of the majority of the Negev, and its encroaching expansion into the West Bank while restricting Palestinian development, forces Palestinian workers into an economic dependency on Israeli industries. Israeli media, however, depicts the presence of Palestinian workers in these factories as evidence of “coexistence” and “economic success." Israeli companies have continued to establish their manufacturing plants and operations within Palestinian borders, in a clear violation of international law.
The carbonated drink machine company SodaStream, for example, famously came under international pressure in 2015 from the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement. The pressures exerted by BDS forced SodaStream to relocate a factory that was illegally constructed by the company inside the West Bank, at the Mishor Adumim industrial zone. SodaStream employed at least 500 Palestinian workers prior to the relocation of its factory to the Negev. The factory was relocated into the Negev, to the suburb of Levahim. SodaStream’s move out of the West Bank was a success for BDS, which directly forced an Israeli enterprise out of the Palestinian territories, and dramatically decreased the company’s revenues during the campaign. This second factory, however, now occupies a site that had previously been slated for Bedouin resettlement.
This military and industrial development in the Negev goes hand-in-hand with the expansion of Israeli civilian settlements, and the forcible displacement of non-Jewish communities in the region. The restriction of opportunities to develop self-governance, social services and industrial infrastructure means that the monopolization of Palestinian workers by Israeli industries must also be understood as a military tactic of civilian oppression. As stated in The Times of Israel, the Israeli consolidation of military and technological centres will free up land in the centre of the country that is “worth tens of billions of dollars,” to then be sold to private developers for civilian housing. Minister of Construction and Housing Yoav Galant was quoted in the The Jerusalem Post remarking on “Ben Gurion’s dream of Jewish settlement in the Negev,” saying“In order to strengthen the existing communities, we have signed roof agreements in the past three years in Beer Sheva, Sderot, Dimona, Netivot, and Ofakim.”
The plan for intensified civilian settlement in the Negev assumes that the construction of around eleven new towns, “plus an industrial area, would be along Route 25, the highway connecting Beersheba and Dimona.” Route 25 is a corridor between the newly constructed military bases and the Negev Nuclear Research Facility in the town of Dimona. Within this projected settlement of the Negev, the Israeli government also intends to triple the population of Dimona from 35,000 and expand its current infrastructure with the construction of thousands of new housing units. Former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman announced in May 2018 of the approval of 2,500 new settlement units for immediate construction in the West Bank, with 1,400 others approved to be built later. Lieberman was quoted in Reuters using the Biblical names for the West Bank. “We will promote building,” he said, “in all of Judea and Samaria.”
STATE OF LEGAL EXCEPTION
Israeli settlement of Ariel near the occupied West Bank city of Nablus. (Photo by AFP)
The Knesset’s plans for thousands of housing units is in blatant violation of international law, as they are explicitly designated for construction within Palestinian territories, outside the borders defined by the 2003 Geneva Initiative. The Swiss-sponsored effort stipulates that Israeli and Palestinian borders are observed in accord with the 1967 Green Line, with agreed territorial exchange and division of Jerusalem along ethnic lines. Israel has continuously violated this agreement and constructed settlements and industrial infrastructure outside of the Green Line.
These illegal settlements anticipate permanence, recalling David Ben-Gurion’s “organic wall” of border settlements. In their brazen extension deeper into West Bank, Israeli suburbs push the Israeli border of “legal exception” further into the Palestinian Territories and over Bedouin communities. In 2018, for example, Israel had already razed Palestinian villages in the West Bank regions of Jenin and Hebron for the construction of the separation wall inside Palestinian borders.
As explored in the second part of this series, Israeli occupation has historically mobilized its population with a mythology of “pioneering” a frontier, which fosters a perception of the occupied territories as barren and poor, and the Arab populations as uncivilized. In his essay “The Geometry of Occupation,” Eyal Weizman writes, "Recurring frontier myths tell of the fragile 'immigrant' [Israeli] hardened into a 'native,' transgressing the limit between civilization and the wilderness, combating barbaric forces, gaining his right to settlement in the destruction of local 'evil' forces, and finally becoming something of the 'natives' just destroyed."
In the Knesset’s announcement of expansion into the Negev, we can also hear the echoes of early colonial Zionist rhetoric around a “blooming Negev” and “turning the desert green.” This narrative distorts the reality of Israeli occupation, the state’s aggressive land expropriation and razing of Bedouin communities. This narrative of a barren Negev is further twisted for the Zionist purpose, when pre-existing Arab settlement is represented as “taking over.” At Arutz Sheva (Israeli National News), Moshe Cohen writes that there is “a marked lack of Jewish settlement in the area, with the result that Arabs – especially Bedouin – have taken over large parcels of land.”
Further, he also notes, "A recent report by the Jerusalem-based watchdog group NGO Monitor said that numerous leftist organizations have been assisting Bedouin groups in 'taking over' the Negev, with activities such as hampering the Jewish National Fund (JNF) in its Negev forestation project, a project which could have prevented illegal Bedouin takeover of national land."
It is in fact the “Negev forestation project” Cohen refers to that is “illegal takeover,” constituting a land-grab by the Israeli state under the façade of creating “nature reserves.” The reforestation project of the Forest of Yatir has expanded over Bedouin towns, like the village of Atir, where Bedouin had already been resettled in 1948, from their original communities. Parts of tribal land farmed by the Bedouin began to be transferred in the 1960s to the Jewish National Fund (JNF). According to ADALAH: The Legal Centre For Arab Minority Rights in Israel, documents by Israel’s National Council for Planning and Building seemed to describe the Atir region as being desolate, “totally empty of residents”—this misrepresentation of vacancy seemingly justifying Israeli expansion and settlement. In another absurd statement, the Bedouin have even been accused by the Knesset for “agricultural terrorism.”
Jabal al-Baba residents are facing an uncertain future (Courtesy Bimkom, via Al Jazeera)
The Bedouin have traditionally abided by tribal laws, passing down land ownership through generations for dwelling and cultivation. Since the 1948 Nakba, the Knesset has refused to recognize this pre-existing land-ownership as legitimate, repeatedly forcing entire Bedouin villages into resettlement. Removing them from areas near new Kibbutz settlements, the Israeli state forced the relocation of Bedouin to state-cordoned and segregated towns, which are similar to the structure of government-sanctioned First Nations reserves in Canada.
Encircled by Israeli borders, Bedouin communities cannot exercise political autonomy. The villages to which Bedouin tribes are assigned are entirely subjected to state authorization and forced into dependency on state institutions. Towns must receive a “permit” for construction from Israel or they are deemed illegal and demolished. However, this permit system is a superficial measure only, as so-called “legal” towns are demolished just as easily, while illegally constructed Jewish towns like that of Sheizaf are retroactively legalized.
The Israeli state continues to arbitrarily demolish Bedouin villages in the West Bank, such as Khan al-Ahmar which was located near the Mishor Adumim industrial zone, or Jabal al Baba near the Israeli settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, in order to build Jewish settlements. The Israeli Mishor Adumim industrial zone is located past the Green Line, within the Palestinian borders of the West Bank. When Israeli officials designated the village of Khan al-Ahmar as illegal and a “security threat,” an order was issued for the Bedouin to pack up their possessions and tear down their own homes before October 1, 2018. By April 2018, there were already Israeli bulldozers on the site, and Bedouin evacuation was depicted in Israeli news as “voluntary.”
On top of the razed town of Umm al-Hiran, the state is building the new Israeli town it similarly calls Hiran. A bylaw document shared by Palestinian legal centre Adalah outlined the regulations for residency admittance to Hiran as exclusive to “a Jewish Israeli citizen or permanent resident of Israel who observes the Torah and commandments according to Orthodox Jewish values.”
Israeli bulldozers raze the Bedouin village of Khan al Ahmar. (Image via Red Action)
The forced displacement of Bedouin and Palestinians imposes a dependency upon the charity of a colonial government. This perpetual razing and resettlement is a type of violence as psychological as it is physical, erasing both the material presence and the history of Arab peoples in the Negev, enacting policies that deny political autonomy and a sense of permanency, making people refugees on their own land. The destruction of Arab towns in the West Bank and within Israeli borders is a clear violation of international law, given that the impetus is ethnic cleansing. Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda explicitly referred to the razing of Khan al-Ahmar as a war crime in 2018, at the International Criminal Court at The Hague, stating “It bears recalling, as a general matter, that extensive destruction of property without military necessity and population transfers in an occupied territory constitute war crimes under the Rome Statute.”
It is not enough that the Knesset arbitrarily decides where to shuffle communities that have already been displaced from their homes; the areas to which Bedouin are relocated by the Israeli state are often unsanitary and near sites of hazardous waste disposal. The residents of Khan al-Ahmar were ordered to move to one of two designated, temporary locations designated by the Israeli Civil Administration until a “permanent” Bedouin village could be built. One of these locations would be located beside a garbage dump in the nearby Bedouin town of Hura, while the other would be in proximity to a sewage treatment facility near Mitzpe Jericho.
Industrial waste becomes its own form of warfare, making the land unarable and causing severe medical issues for nearby residents. Industrial waste products from power stations and mines, leaked agricultural pesticides, and inadequately disposed unsanitary medical equipment are the cause of prolonged environmental contamination across the Negev. Israel has repeatedly demonstrated negligence, if not strategically targeted the disposal of contaminated waste, towards the people it wishes to displace. Palestinian cities in the West Bank are often treated as dumping sites for Israeli industries, such as with the disposal of “500 barrels of insecticide” near Hebron or of chickens infected with avian flu near Nablus.
It is already well known that Israel dumps sewage waste into West Bank aquifers, contaminating water with toxic elements like chloride, arsenic, cadmium, mercury, and lead. “A Seeping Time Bomb: Pollution of the Mountain Aquifer by Sewage” is a report from 2006 that examined the contamination of fresh water sources by pollutants, noting that the water in many wells and springs in the West Bank was “unfit for consumption” due to the presence of nitrates and fecal matter. The report indicated that one of the biggest impediments to proper sewage treatment was Israel’s withholding of permits and security clearance for donor infrastructure (largely from Germany) to construct proper infrastructure in Palestine.
Israel is able to exert control by imposing unsanitary conditions and economic dependency on Palestinians over a long term. In much the same way, Israel does not necessarily have to launch a nuclear bomb to suffer its toxic effects. Nuclear waste from the Dimona reactor contains high concentrations of Caesium-137, an element that does not occur naturally and is associated with spent nuclear fuel. In 2016, the Negev Nuclear Research Centre was looking for alternative dump sites for nuclear waste from plutonium processing at the Dimona reactor. Sites being considered were in the northeastern Negev—that is, once again, near the city of Hebron in the West Bank. Israel had already been accused by Syrian government officials in 2003 and 2009 of burying nuclear waste in tunnels dug by the IDF into Mount Hermon in the Golan Heights.
Elevated radiation levels and the presence of non-natural isotopes have been detected near the Palestinian city of Hebron, just north of the Negev Nuclear Research Facility. A report from 2008 by Jaber Al Tmaizy (Coordinator of the Farmer’s Union in the City of Hebron) documents the elevated presence of unnatural radioactive elements, higher than background levels of radiation, in the soil in Hebron. Another report by Dr. Mahmoud Sa’adeh, head of the Palestinian delegation for International Physicists for the Prevention of Nuclear War, indicated dramatic increases in cancer detected in residents of Hebron. High rates of cancer have also been detected in Palestinian towns of Yatta, Al-Samu’a and al-Daharieh, all near Hebron. Another dumping ground for Israeli nuclear waste is in the Gaza Strip, near Al Bereij refugee camp and the town of Deir El Balah.
Through the lens of industrial expansion and civilian displacement in the Negev region, we return to the role of the Negev Nuclear Research Facility and its place within Zionist imperialism guiding Israel’s expansion. The nuclear process is not isolated to the processing facilities and the reactor, much less to the military bases where missiles might be transported or stored. This process involves the mining, uncovering of the land, and eventual contamination of natural environments, and of human settlements. Israel must not only be held accountable for the explicit military development of nuclear weapons, but also for the weaponization of slower processes of contamination and decay.
1. Founded in 1948 as the Science Corps of the IDF, RAFAEL became an “autonomous company” under Ministry of Defense in 1958, evolved from the Science Corps into the National Weapons Development Authority. It was privatized in the 1990s. The echo of RAFAEL’s early nuclear forays remains in the names of some of its projects like “Samson”.
2. On August 6, 2018, Shikun and Binui was bought by American-Israeli [diamond dealer and investor], Naty Saidoff. Saidoff is also the vice-president of an Israeli lobbying group called StandWithUs, which works to influence American policy towards Israeli national interests. According to Reuters, Shikun and Binui was under investigation in August 2018 for charges of bribing officials in Kenya, allegedly committed by current and former employees of a company subsidiary. “Israel police question billionaire Arison in Shikun bribery probe”, Tova Cohen and Avi Rabinovitch, Reuters, August 12, 2018. Both Africa Israel and Shikun & Binui are currently being investigated for bribery charges.
3. This redistribution of Israeli military forces south to the Negev also includes a strengthening presence of U.S. military with the recent construction of the first permanent U.S. air force military base, with a ballistic missile radar, inside the Mashabim Air Base. Mashabim is located just west of the nuclear hub of Dimona and the industrial city of Yeruham. While Israeli media depicted the new construction as a permanent military “base”, the United States requested a change to the terminology, instead referring to the new construction as a “living facility”.
4. Lieberman resigned in November 2018 following disagreement with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in which Netanyahu opted for a ceasefire with Hamas in Gaza. Lieberman’s resignation was accompanied by that of Sofa Landver, Minister of Aliyah and Integration.
Lital Khaikin is a Russian-Canadian author and publisher living in Montréal ( Tiohtià:ke ). Her literary writing has appeared in numerous publications including 3:AM Magazine, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Berfrois, and the “Vestiges” journal by Black Sun Lit, and some of her poetry has been translated into Italian. She has contributed journalism to Canadian publications like Briarpatch and the Media Co-op, writing about industrial development, extractive industries, and militarism. Some of this work has been translated into Mandarin for the Taiwanese publication Coolloud Collective. She has previously edited with the team of continent. journal, and has participated in residencies in Germany, Austria, and Denmark. She is the founder and publisher of The Green Violin, a slow-burning ‘samizdat’-style literary press for the free distribution of poetry, essays, prose, and literary paraphernalia.