Debunking the "ethno-bomb"

Debunking the "ethno-bomb:" U.S. experts are skeptical Israel has developed a biological weapon that can target Arabs.

Published December 2, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

American biological warfare experts are reacting skeptically to a report that Israel is working on a biological weapon that could infect and kill Arabs but not Jews.

The top secret Israeli "ethno-bomb" project is the product of medical research that has identified distinctive genes carried by some Arabs, particularly Iraqis, according to a report last month in the London Sunday Times. The project's aim is to manufacture a genetically engineered bacterium or virus that would kill certain Arab ethnic groups, the paper said.

The notion that the Jewish state is developing a bomb targeting people by "race" outraged some members of Israel's parliament. But ethics and morality aside, American experts are skeptical that such a weapon is possible today.

"I think it's nonsense," said Bill Richardson, a deputy assistant secretary of defense responsible for chemical and biological warfare programs in the Reagan and Bush administrations. Even if an "ethno-bomb" were developed in a petri dish, he said, "there's a long leap from having a mechanism to having an environmental viability, a weapon, or vector, or means of dissemination," he said.

Likewise, Dr. Daphne Kamely, a leading microbiologist who has worked on environmental safety issues for the Defense Department, as well as the National Institutes for Health and the Environmental Protection Agency, said, "That sounds too far-fetched to me."

"It's like saying to a person, because your skin is black, the rest of you is different, too," added Kamely, who has led several delegations to Middle East scientific conferences. "It's not. It just doesn't make much sense, from a scientific point of view."

One hurdle in assessing the report is that Israel's chemical and biological weapons program is shrouded in secrecy. The program is said to be based at the biological institute in Nes Tziyona, the main research facility for Israel's clandestine arsenal of chemical and biological weapons.

"I have no doubt that Israel has worked on both chemical and biological offensive things for a long time," Richardson said. "I don't think you'll find much on it. We've always seemed to have a double standard on Israel, compared to talking about the threats from other countries. There's no doubt they've had stuff for years, but getting anybody to say anything publicly about it is going to be pretty hard."

Yoram Shapira, a scientific attaché at the Israeli embassy in Washington, said he hadn't read the story and wouldn't comment on it.

Richardson and others said Israel's biotechnology industry is as good as, if not better than, that of the United States, having pioneered such devices as pregnancy tests and means of detecting an anthrax attack.

"Basically, that's pretty much state of the art in biological detection right now, little tickets or strips that change color, or a tape that goes through a machine and changes color when it detects anthrax," Richardson said.

Dr. Victor Delvecchio, a University of Scranton (Pa.) scientist who has developed means for detecting poisonous gases, said the "ethno-bomb" was "theoretically possible, but I don't know if it's been done yet. I don't think we know enough about the human genome yet to say that one particular race has a particular gene that could be targeted by these organisms. But again, theoretically, it's possible."

White scientists in South Africa tried for years to develop a "pigmentation weapon" targeting blacks but failed, according to Dr. Daan Goosen, who ran one of the apartheid regime's chemical and biological warfare plants. The regime did produce a wide variety of poisons and assassination devices, such as a lipstick injected with the drug ecstasy, but the program was more Keystone Kops than Frankenstein, according to many analysts. Reacting to the London Times story in November, a leading South Africa weekly, the Mail & Guardian, ridiculed Israel if it was depending on any South African expertise for its "ethno-bomb."

"I don't want to say it's not possible," said Kamely. "They have [research institutes], they're capable of doing research that's equivalent to ours if not further ahead of ours. [But] you're talking about producing a complex immunological reaction in an entire population. It doesn't sound possible."

Delvecchio was only slightly less dismissive. "Yeah, you could probably do it," he said. "Again, it's theoretically possible, but we don't have the database of human genes to do this yet, as far as I'm concerned."

Deploying such a weapon also holds mind-boggling challenges, pointed out Louis Toscano, a former Jerusalem bureau chief for United Press International and author of "Triple Cross," a 1990 book on the leaking of Israel's nuclear secret.

"I've never had much doubt that they were producing a limited arsenal of chemical weapons. In fact, it was widely rumored that a chemical factory was operating under the guise of a university research center around Haifa," Toscano said. "What makes it all the more dangerous is that they, unlike Saddam or any of the other Middle East bogeymen, have developed weapons systems capable of delivering such weapons.

"Of course, the close proximity [to Israel] of potential targets would very likely make them think long and hard about using such weapons."

By Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the coauthor, with Khidhir Hamza, of "Saddam's Bombmaker: The Daring Escape of the Man Who Built Iraq's Secret Weapon." He writes frequently for Salon on national security issues from Washington.

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