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Hush, hush about Israel's bomb

Al-Ahram Weekly
27 November - 3 December 2003

By Jonathan Cook

At midday on Friday, 24 October, Issam Makhoul, an Arab member of the Israeli parliament, and his wife Suad got into their two cars outside their home in the centre of Haifa. Issam Makhoul reversed his Knesset-supplied Ford out of the driveway as his wife started the engine of the family Honda to collect their twin children from school.

Seconds later an explosion flooded Suad Makhoul's car with flames. She leapt from the vehicle moments before the fire could engulf her.

Today, Makhoul's house is under a 24-hour guard and he is escorted everywhere in public by an army-trained bodyguard -- of the kind usually accompanying senior government ministers and defence officials.

The Shin Bet security services, who have told Makhoul that the explosion was caused by a small bomb placed under the car, have refused to comment further. There has been almost no coverage in either the Israeli or foreign media, and a Haifa court has issued a gag order on information related to the case.

Makhoul has possibly the lowest profile of the 10 Arab members of the Knesset, most of whom appear readier than Makhoul to make headlines in the Hebrew media by being drawn into verbal, and occasionally physical, combat with right- wing MPs in the chamber.

Makhoul belongs to Jubha, the "quietest" of the Arab factions. The party is contained within the joint Arab and Jewish Communist bloc known as the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality, which uniquely puts co-existence between the two main communities at the heart of its political platform.

Other Arab MPs belong to Azmi Bishara's secular nationalist Tajamu Party and the Islamic Movement, whose spiritual leader is Sheikh Raed Salah.

These two have been far more outspoken and as a consequence are the subject of public witch- hunts. Both are now embroiled in criminal trials initiated by Attorney-General Elyakim Rubinstein, apparently at the behest of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

So what thrust the white-haired, mild- mannered Makhoul into a situation in which he was specially targeted for assassination?

According to Israeli Army Radio, Knesset security officials are working on the assumption that criminal elements within the Arab minority were responsible for the attack. That seems far less probable than that the would-be assassins selected Makhoul because he has been an almost solitary critic of Israel's most sensitive ó if widely known -- secret: that it has stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), including nuclear arms.

For decades Israel has refused to confirm the now well-documented fact that it has a significant arsenal of nuclear warheads -- the only country in the Middle East known to have successfully developed such a programme. Estimates suggest it has as many as 300 warheads, some of which, if the latest reports are to be believed, have been fitted to cruise missiles aboard Dolphin submarines, putting every Arab state within range of an Israeli strike.

With the connivance of the West -- in particular the US, Britain, France, Germany and South Africa -- Israel has been allowed to do all this unchecked at its nuclear weapons factory at Dimona in the Negev, and without signing the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Today it is believed to have nuclear weapons bases at Haifa, Kfar Zechariah, and Eilaboun and Yodfat in the Galilee.

Israel also has an advanced biological weapons programme based at Nes Tsiona, south of Tel Aviv, where it is reported to have been working on new toxins, including a nerve agent that can attack genes found only in Arabs.

Makhoul gained notoriety in February 2000 for trying to cut through Israel's policy of "nuclear ambiguity" -- its refusal publicly to discuss its possession of warheads -- by raising the issue of the country's atomic programme in the Knesset, the first time such a debate had ever been staged. His speech provoked an outpouring of vitriol from Jewish MPs, who accused him of being a traitor and tried to have him ejected from the chamber.

During the stormy debate, Makhoul appealed for the release of Mordechai Vanunu, the scientist turned whistleblower who in 1986 exposed Israel's secret weapons programme at Dimona. Vanunu was later abducted by Mossad agents and has been in prison, much of the time in solitary confinement, ever since.

Makhoul told the other MPs: "Vanunu is not the problem. The problem is the Israeli government's policy. A policy that's turned a small territory into a poisonous nuclear waste bin ... which could make us all disappear in a nuclear cloud."

Most right-wing MPs were not in the chamber to protest: they had stormed out before Makhoul got up to speak. Instead left-wing MPs shouted abuse, including Ophir Pines of Labour who called out: "You are committing a crime against Israeli Arabs today."

Makhoul outraged the Israeli government and the general public again, in June this year, by appearing in the BBC documentary "Israel's Secret Weapon", which examined in detail Israel's record of acquiring WMDs and its concerted effort to intimidate those who try to speak out.

In one scene a series of officials refuse to give an interview to the BBC reporter over the phone, several saying that they do not want to suffer Vanunu's fate. Makhoul, on the other hand, is shown castigating Israel for dragging the region into a nuclear arms race.

The broadcast so angered Israel that it cut all official ties with the BBC, including its reporters; a ban that was only reversed this week after the BBC -- in what was widely seen as an attempt to ingratiate itself with the Sharon government -- agreed to set up a Mideast news ombudsman to ensure the "impartiality" of its reports.

Few Israeli officials are prepared to link the bomb attack with the MP's campaign against the country's nuclear arsenal. The producers of the BBC programme e-mailed Makhoul after the explosion to say they hoped it was not the result of the broadcast.

However, Roman Bronfman, a Haifa member of the Knesset from the Meretz Party who has close contacts with Israel's large Russian community, says he has heard that a group of extreme right-wing Russian students at the Technion technical college in Haifa planted the device. Four groups at the college are believed to have openly opposed Makhoul's nuclear views. Bronfman has handed a list of suspects to the police, though so far no action has been taken.

Sources close to Makhoul, however, believe that the assassination plot cannot be lightly dismissed as the work of fanatics. The police have told the MP that the culprits must have carried out detailed research of his movements before deciding where and when to plant the bomb.

But the size of the bomb, weighing less than one kilogramme, suggests it was meant less to kill and more to send a message -- not the usual tactics of a Jewish terror cell.

The attack also follows a campaign of widespread incitement against Makhoul, which the authorities, including the attorney-general, have done nothing to curb.

Typical was an interview of Makhoul on a Tel Aviv radio talk show with a former right-wing Knesset member, Shmuel Platto Sharon, two weeks after the assassination attempt and close to the anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin's assassination by right-wing extremists.

Although ostensibly there to talk about Israel's nuclear policies, Makhoul is interrupted by Sharon who barks at him with the question, " Why do you hate us?", and the statement, "You are dangerous". Later Sharon again interrupts to say, "You have no business being here [in Israel] -- you should go to Palestine." He then adds: "I know your game. You eat Jews. People like you shouldn't stay in this country."

Friends of Makhoul fear that the climate of hatred against him is receiving official sanction. Some of the continuing official hostility towards Makhoul may derive from his determination to create an anti-nuclear campaign inside Israel. He observes: "Israel is the only nuclear state in the world that hasn't developed a 'ban the bomb' movement, either within the peace camp or the green movement. Here uniquely, it seems, the Israeli bomb is seen as a peaceful bomb. Those who call themselves peace activists are really apologists for Israel's continuing nuclear policy."

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