By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS | 16 December 2023 (IDN) — When a junior minister proposed dropping a nuclear bomb on Gaza as “one way of dealing with the threat of Hamas”, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu instantly shot down the proposal and took the unusual step of suspending the politically far-right minister.
Netanyahu’s swift action last month apparently came amid a broad outcry over the comments made by Amichay Eliyahu, the Minister of Heritage from the ultranationalist Jewish Power Party (JPP).
Perhaps Netanyahu was conscious of the fact–that even in an unlikely nuclear attack on Gaza—the fallout, described as potentially suicidal, will be equally disastrous on Israel.
Israel is currently under attack from militant groups based in several Middle Eastern countries, including Lebanon, Syria and Yemen—and some supported or armed by Iran.
But it is unlikely it will go nuclear—also proving a longstanding fallacious argument that the threat of nuclear weapons has done more for world peace than anything else—at least so far.
Tariq Rauf, former Head of Verification and Security Policy at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), told IDN: “Yes, any use of nuclear weapons by Israel, or any other State in the Middle East, would undoubtedly have transboundary transport of fallout”.
This will include radioactive debris, airborne radioactive particles (such as happened after Chernobyl accident to neighbouring States and even as far as Sweden, which first raised the alarm) and pollute rivers and lakes and soil,” he warned.
According to the World Nuclear Association, the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986 was the result of a flawed reactor design that was operated with inadequately trained personnel.
The resulting steam explosion and fires released at least 5% of the radioactive reactor core into the environment, with the deposition of radioactive materials in many parts of Europe.
The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation concluded in 2006 that, apart from some 5000 thyroid cancers (resulting in 15 fatalities), “there is no evidence of a major public health impact attributable to radiation exposure 20 years after the accident.”
“And some 350,000 people were evacuated as a result of the accident, but resettlement of areas from which people were relocated is ongoing”.
According to an Associated Press (AP) report last month, Israel has neither confirmed nor denied its nuclear capability. It is widely believed to possess nuclear weapons, and a former employee at its nuclear reactor served 18 years in Israeli prison for leaking details and pictures of Israel’s alleged nuclear arsenal program to a British newspaper in 1986.
Randy Rydell, senior political affairs officer (retired) at the UN’s Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA), told IDN: “My own thoughts on this relate to the implications of these threats for the longstanding proposal for a WMD-free zone in the region.”
“In my view, this significantly strengthens the case for pursuing—and actually achieving—that zone,” he said, referring to a longstanding proposal for a nuclear-weapons-free (NWF) zone in the Middle East.
“The catastrophic humanitarian consequences of using such weapons—once again, upon a city—combined with the certain global repercussions of that act (political, strategic and environmental), all suggest to me that Israel won’t likely use such weapons (presuming they have them) because they would do nothing to serve Israel’s own security interests”, he said.
“What further proof is needed to show that these weapons are militarily useless and dangerous even to possess? Can a better case be made to move forward with the zone?,” Rydell asked.
Dr M.V. Ramana, Professor and Simons Chair in Disarmament, Global and Human Security, School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, told IDN there is no official information about Israel’s nuclear weapons.
In their Nuclear Notebook entry for Israel in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Hans Kristensen and Matt Korda conclude that “the most credible stockpile number is less than one hundred warheads, probably on the order of 90 warheads for delivery by aircraft, land-based ballistic missiles, and possibly sea-based cruise missiles”
Israel is not known to have hydrogen bombs but only boosted fission weapons, which might have a yield in the tens of kilotons of TNT equivalent, he pointed out.
“In the unlikely eventuality that such a weapon is detonated in the centre of Gaza city, there are two possibilities: the weapon could be exploded at ground level or it could be exploded in the air, at an altitude where the resulting fireball will not come into contact with the ground. “
Providing a deeper analysis, Dr Ramana said using the Nukemap program developed by Alex Wellerstein, one can calculate that for the case of a ground level (surface) explosion of a 50 kiloton weapon, the region subject to a radiation level exceeding 1 rad/hour is around 2,800 square kilometres, with the furthest distances likely to face this level of fallout being as high as 164 kilometres.
“Which specific areas are contaminated with radiation will depend, in part, on the wind direction. In principle, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem lie within this distance from Gaza city.”
But it is not necessary that a nuclear weapon will be exploded at ground level: the first nuclear bombs were exploded high in the air, he pointed out.
“If that is the case, there will be little or no radioactive fallout but the area subject do “moderate blast damage radius” will be much larger, 21.1 squared kilometres as opposed to 8.94 squared kilometres in the case of a ground level explosion,” he explained.
Depending on what the military officials want to inflict: either destroy the most number of buildings or contaminate the most amount of land, they might choose different options, declared Dr Ramana. [IDN-InDepthNews]
Photo: The Times of Israel reported on 3 June 2013 that Israel has 80 nuclear warheads. The image shows a WE117B nuclear missile, developed by the UK in the 1960s. Illustrative photo: CC BY Cloudsurfer_UK/Flickr.