[Editor's Note: This article follows up on a
longer study, "The
Israeli poison gas attacks: A preliminary investigation," by the author,
that was used extensively in a BBC television documentary, "Israel's Secret
Weapon," which aired in March 2003.]
"On June 10th, 2004, the two clinics in Al-Zawiya
treated 130 patients for gas inhalation. The patients were children, women,
old people and young men. Dr. Abu Madi related that there was a high number
of cases of [tetany], spasm in legs and hands, connected to the nervous
system. Pupils were dilated...Other symptoms included shock,
semi-consciousness, hyperventilation, irritation and sweating."
Thus reads a report by medical units serving the West Bank village of Al-Zawiya, where nonviolent resistance to Israel’s impending wall has been extraordinarily resolute. According to the medical report (procured by the International Middle East Media Center - IMEMC), "the gas used against the protestors is not tear gas but possibly a nerve gas."
The following day, Israel’s ‘Peace Bloc’, Gush Shalom, began a press release with the following quote from Al-Zawiya: "What the army used here yesterday was not tear gas. We know what tear gas is, what it feels like. That was something totally different…. When we were still a long way off from where the bulldozers were working, they started shooting things like this one (holding up a dark green metal tube with the inscription "Hand and rifle grenade no.400" - in English). Black smoke came out. Anyone who breathed it lost consciousness immediately, more than a hundred people. They remained unconscious for nearly 24 hours. One is still unconscious, at Rapidiya Hospital in Nablus. They had high fever and their muscles became rigid. Some needed urgent blood transfusion. Now, is this a way of dispersing a demonstration, or is it chemical warfare?"
The incident in Al-Zawiya appears to be the tenth attack by Israeli soldiers using an "unknown gas" against Palestinian civilians since early 2001. We have photographs of the canisters. We have film of victims suffering in the hospital. We have interviews with Palestinian and European doctors who have treated the victims. And we presumably have hundreds, perhaps thousands, of survivors. But we know nothing of their fate. Despite the evidence, we have not inquired.
Though it is a state secret, Israel’s development of chemical and biological weapons has been known and analyzed for decades. From the typhoid poisoning of Palestinian wells and water supplies in 1948 to the conversion of F-16s into nerve gas ‘crop dusters’ in 1998, Israel has always demonstrated a strong interest in developing CBW agents and methods for their dispersal.
In 1992 an El Al 747 flying nerve gas ingredients from the US to Israel crashed into an Amsterdam apartment building. According to Salman Abu-Sitta, president of the Palestine Land Society, the respected Dutch daily NRC Handelsblad followed up the crash with an in-depth investigation of the Israel Institute for Biological Research (IIBR), Israel’s CBW complex in Nes Ziona. The paper reportedly found "strong links" with several US CBW and medical research centers, "close cooperation between IIBR and the British-American biological warfare programme", and "extensive collaboration on BW research with Germany and Holland."
At IIBR, doctors publish world-class research in acetylcholine, the mother lode of nerve gas design. The Nes Ziona complex is reputed to have invented an "undetectable" poison-needle gun for "clean" assassinations. In September 1997, two days after Jordan’s King Hussein told Israeli PM Netanyahu that Hamas was seeking negotiations, Mossad agents in Jordan attempted to kill Hamas leader Khaled Misha’al with a lethal dose of fentanyl.
For years, rumors persisted that Israel was using or testing unknown chemical agents on Palestinian civilians. The rumors began to reveal their substance February 12, 2001, when Israel began a six-week campaign of "novel gas" attacks in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. By chance, American filmmaker James Longley arrived in Khan Younis, Gaza in the middle of the first attack. That afternoon he began filming the victims. His award-winning film, Gaza Strip, documents the naked reality of Israel’s chemical weaponry—the canisters, the doctors, the eyewitnesses, and the hideous suffering of the victims, many of whom remained hospitalized for days or weeks.
The February 12 gassing of neighborhoods in Khan Younis presaged the attacks that followed. When the gas canisters landed, they began to billow clouds of either white or black, sooty smoke. The gas was non-irritating and initially odorless, changing to a sweet, minty fragrance after a few minutes. One victim recalled, "the smell was good. You want to breathe more. You feel good when you inhale it." The smoke often shifted to a "rainbow" of changing colors.
From five to thirty minutes after breathing the gas, victims began to feel sick and have difficulty breathing. A searing pain began to wrench their gut, followed by vomiting, sometimes of blood, then complete hysteria and extremely violent convulsions. Many victims suffered a relentless syndrome for days or weeks afterward, alternating between convulsions and periods of conscious, twitching, vomiting agony. Palestinians agreed: "This is like nothing we've ever seen before."
Forty people were admitted to Al-Nasser Hospital "in an odd state of hysteria and nervous breakdown", suffering from "fainting and spasms." Sixteen gas patients had to be transferred to the intensive care unit. Doctors "reported the Israeli use of gas that appeared to cause convulsions."
At the Gharbi refugee camp, thirty-two people "were treated for serious injuries" following exposure to the gas. Dr. Salakh Shami at Al-Amal Hospital reported the hospital receiving "about 130 patients suffering from gas inhalation from February 12."
Bewildered medical personnel had "never seen anything..like the gas at Tufa." Victims were "jumping up and down, left and right..thrashing limbs around", suffering "convulsions..a kind of hysteria. They were all shaking." Others were already unconscious. An hour or two later, they would come to. And the convulsions and the vomiting and disorientation and pain would return.
The following day, February 13, Israeli forces again deployed the strange new gas canisters in Khan Younis. Over forty new gas victims, "including a number of children..from 1 to 5 years-old", arrived at Al-Nasser Hospital and the hospital of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society.
The news began to trickle out. "Palestinian security services have accused the Israeli army of using nerve gas during a gunbattle yesterday", reported AFX News Limited, noting "the army has strongly denied the charges." The Voice of Palestine reported that "specialists believe that this is an internationally banned nerve gas." Those who inhaled the gas "suffered a nervous breakdown and vomited blood."
The next day, Deutsche Presse-Agentur quoted Dr. Yasser Sheikh Ali from Al-Nasser Hospital: "Israel has been using a powerful type of tear gas against the Palestinians that causes convulsions and spasms." According to DPA, more than 80 Palestinians…reported that Israeli soldiers had used the white smoky gas, but Israel denied doing so."
The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) reported that on February 15 three more canisters of the poison gas were fired at houses in the Khan Younis camp, and "another 11 Palestinian civilians, mostly children, suffered from suffocation and spasms due to gas inhalation." British journalist Graham Usher wrote that Khan Younis civilians were "incapacitated" by "a ‘new’ form of toxic gas."
PA President Yasser Arafat publicly "accused Israel of using poison gas." The IDF issued a second denial. Israeli Communications Minister Ben-Eliezer called reports of gas casualties in Khan Younis "incorrect and false." Senior PA minister Nabil Shaath said that a sample of the gas would be sent to "an international center for analysis." The results, if any, were never divulged.
On February 18, Israeli soldiers near the Neve Dekalim settlement reportedly fired four poison gas canisters at Palestinian houses in Khan Younis. Later that afternoon, more canisters were fired, forcing Palestinians to flee their homes. PCHR reported that "41 Palestinian civilians, mostly children and women, suffered from suffocation and spasms." By PCHR’s count, 238 Palestinians were affected by poison gas attacks between February 12 and February 20. Twenty-seven of the victims were still hospitalized on the 22nd.
On March 2, an unknown gas was used against civilians in the West Bank town of Al-Bireh. Israeli soldiers reportedly fired "canisters of a highly effective black gas similar to the one used in Khan Yunis three weeks ago."
Twenty-four days later, Israeli forces east of Gaza City used a gas that "left symptoms different from those of the gas used first in Khan Yunis starting from February 12", although several similarities also appeared. In this attack the onset of abdominal pain seemed to be delayed.
On March 30, medical professionals in Nablus reported Israeli soldiers using the new poison gas against Palestinian demonstrators.
British journalist Jonathan Cook reported a March gas attack on the schoolyard of Al-Khader village, near Bethlehem. Thirteen year-old Sliman Salah was playing when a gas canister landed next to him, "enveloping him in a cloud of gas described by witnesses as an unfamiliar, yellow colour." Large doses of anti-convulsants were required to control the boy’s seizures and maintain consciousness. His symptoms "were finally brought under control five days after his exposure to the gas. But Salah’s father says the boy is still suffering from stomach pains, vomiting, dizziness and breathing problems."
In its March, 2003 special report, Israel’s Secret Weapon, BBC Television reviewed this series of gas attacks, noting, "The Israeli army has used new unidentified weapons. In February 2001 a new gas was used in Gaza. A hundred and eighty patients were admitted to hospitals with severe convulsions….Israel is outside chemical and biological weapons treaties and still refuses to say what the new gas was."
In my amateur analysis of the reported comments of victims, eyewitnesses and medical professionals regarding this series of attacks, I identified thirty-three distinct symptoms attributed to the unidentified gas. All but three of these symptoms appear to be typical of nerve gas poisoning. Tareg Bey, a chemical warfare expert at the University of California-Irvine, told the Chicago Reader that the symptoms described to him "all fit really well to nerve gas", though he was puzzled by the reported fragrance and skin rashes.
In an October 9, 2003 article, Jennifer Loewenstein and Angela Gaff asked, "What gas is Israel using?" They reported the story of Mukhles Burgal, a Palestinian prisoner caught in a brutal attack inside Israel’s Ashkelon prison. The "guards forced their way into the crowded cell, spraying two canisters of some type of gas. Some of the 14 prisoners passed out…The effects of the gas were severe muscle spasms and an overwhelming sensation of not being able to breathe."
Two days later, Palestine Monitor reported that Israeli forces in Rafah were allegedly "firing gas grenades containing a black gas believed to be adamatite [editor's note: the reporter probably meant adamsite]– the use of which is forbidden according to international law. Medical authorities urged people to avoid the gas at all costs, as it not only causes difficulty in breathing but seriously affects the nervous system." For some reason, PCHR’s press release from the same day, an apparent source of these reports, is no longer available. On the 14th, eyewitness Laura Gordon wrote, "The army used some kind of nerve gas for the first time in Rafah, leaving people in convulsions for days."
Following the recent gas attack in Al-Zawiya, town officials reportedly told Al Ayyam newspaper, "the Israeli occupation troops were using an illegal substance that caused nerve spasms and that several cases had been transferred to Nablus hospitals."
The PA’s International Press Center reported that "official and public sources in Al-Zawya asserted that those who have inhaled the tear gas IOF troops fired at them four days ago are still suffering from the effects of the gas…a number of those citizens have already had amnesias or partial memory loss, in addition to cramps…in addition to strange cramps every three hours… those who inhaled the gas are still suffering severe pains in the joints and nausea for four days now. Eyewitnesses recalled that the Israeli soldiers were keen on picking the empty tear gas canisters.." Journalists told IPC "that the gas was in different colors they have never seen coming out of a tear gas canister before, and that some gases had an unrecalled smell."
According to IMEMC, "[T]ens of demonstrators who inhaled this gas had partial memory loss. Dr. Bassam Abu Madi told IMEMC that the some of those who inhaled the gas had severe choking and some contraction in their feet and arm muscles. Eyewitnesses said the gas has a strange smell and a reddish-brownish color." [corrected copy] In a follow up story, IMEMC concluded that "protesters were attacked with gas that is not like the tear gas. Those who inhaled the gas suffered some memory loss while others had other symptoms of a nerve gas. Yet this was not medically confirmed for lack of laboratories to inspect the gas canisters collected from the scene."
Al Jazeera reported the opinion of Awni Khatib, a professor of chemistry at Hebron University; "the new symptoms–particularly the violent convulsions experienced by some Palestinian protesters outside the village of Sawiya [Zawiya], southwest of Nablus, suggest that the Israeli army may be using a new class of chemicals that lie somewhere between normal tear gas and chemical weapons."
Israel’s repeated use of highly toxic unknown chemicals against Palestinian civilians is now an open secret. We can expect these attacks to continue until a concerted effort is made to determine the facts and hold Israel accountable. So far, the international human rights community has steadfastly ignored the mounting evidence.
When will professional investigators begin to retrieve and test the gas canisters? Why has no one but James Longley bothered to document interviews with victims, doctors, and other eyewitnesses? In a world in which one country’s mere possession of chemical weapons can be an excuse for international retribution, how another country’s use of chemical weapons against civilians be dismissed as a "regrettably excessive" tactic of crowd control?
Our silence is poisoning Palestine.
James Brooks is a writer, activist, and volunteer webmaster for Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine/Israel (www.vtp.org).
Other Articles by James Brooks
* Who's Afraid Of International Law?
* Israel's New War Machine Opens the Abyss: "We Didn't Know" Will Be No Excuse
Send Hans Blix to Nes Ziona: Palestinian Civilians Attacked with Poison Gas