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Neutron Landmines Near Golan

Matthew Campbell, Washington and Uzi Mahnaimi, Geneva
The Sunday Times, March 26 2000

THE Israeli government is considering planting small nuclear landmines near the Golan Heights which could be detonated to halt a Syrian invasion, according to military sources. Under a secret military plan called "David's Sling", the neutron bombs would be deployed in the manner of landmines to thwart any tank advance after the mountain region is handed back to Syria as a result of peace talks between Damascus and Tel Aviv.

The military sources say that although the Israeli government will not acknowledge it - Israel does not admit it is a nuclear power - portable, low-yield neutron bombs have been perfected over the past two decades at a factory in the west of the country. A neutron artillery shell has also been tested and laser-guided rockets with neutron warheads are ready for use.

The plan, said to have satisfied Israeli military hawks who are loath to contemplate the return of the Golan without concrete security guarantees, is nevertheless certain to raise concern as President Bill Clinton and Syria's Hafez Al-Assad meet today in Geneva. They are discussing ways of reviving stalled Israeli-Syrian negotiations.

Israel, fearing a repeat of Syria's invasion in 1973, has demanded that any deal include the withdrawal of all of Assad's tank units north to the Damascus basin, but military strategists concede that even if that were implemented, a Syrian rapid invasion force could be at the new Israeli border within 12 hours.

Under David's Sling, any Syrian invasion of Israel would be met with neutron weapons that emit an intense burst of radiation, penetrating tanks and killing the soldiers inside. Neutron bombs differ from conventional nuclear weapons in the greater amount of radiation they emit and lesser damage they cause to buildings and other enemy infrastructure.

Experts question the wisdom of a country using nuclear weapons, no matter how small, so close to its own borders, given the risk of contamination. At least one Israeli strategist voiced concern: "I hope we'll never have to reach that point," said a senior defence adviser to Benjamin Netanyahu, the former Prime Minister. "It would be horrible."

The suddenness of the 1973 invasion, which was launched on the Israeli holiday of Yom Kippur, has engendered what some see as paranoia in Israeli military planning, in which Syria is viewed as a constant menace.

Israeli sources traced the genesis of David's Sling back to the 1980s, when a site near Kibbutz Ein Zivan, just a few miles from the Syrian border, was chosen as suitable for planting a "nuclear landmine". A special army unit code-named "Maitar" - Hebrew for "strings" - was put on alert should the need arise to transfer a bomb to the region.

More recently the plans have been upgraded to include neutron bombs. The existence of neutron bombs in Israel's nuclear arsenal has long been rumored: a mysterious flash detected in the Indian Ocean off South Africa's coast in 1979 has often been attributed by nuclear experts to a possible Israeli test of neutron devices.

Since then, say the sources who outlined details of David's Sling to The Sunday Times last week, Israeli scientists have perfected a tactical neutron bomb that weighs less than 100kg and can be carried by two soldiers. It apparently has a yield of 250 tons and could subject anyone within a radius of several hundred yards to a potentially lethal dose of radiation while leaving military vehicles beyond the point of impact largely intact. Tritium, needed to make the neutron bombs, is provided by the nuclear reactor at Dimona, in the Negev desert, in defiance of American attempts to persuade Israel to join the so-called fissile material cut-off treaty, which would ban the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons. For years, Israeli defence experts have considered the Golan plateau essential to the defence of Israel.

At the same time, whatever inducements Clinton offers Assad in Geneva, Syria will not return to the negotiating table until Israel agrees in principle to withdraw from the area. For Ehud Barak, the Israeli Prime Minister, an agreement to withdraw could cost him political support among conservative Israelis, for whom the Golan is a national rampart that should never be relinquished - even in exchange for peace.

According to one of the sources, Barak, who is said to be seeking a written pledge from Clinton not to put pressure on Israel in the nuclear field, is resigned to giving back the Golan. The nuclear deterrent of David's Sling -the name is taken from the Bible and is also the title of a book by Shimon Peres, the former defence minister and founder of the Israeli nuclear programme - gives him confidence to proceed.

Israel seized the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967, but Syria struck back six years later as its ally, Egypt, launched a parallel offensive on Israel from the Sinai desert. Israeli counterattacks are generally credited as having driven the Syrians out of the Golan, although there is evidence that Israel may also have threatened to use nuclear weapons.

During the Gulf War, the sources said, Israel proposed using neutron weapons against Iraqi Scud missile sites. The operation was blocked by the United States. As Professor Uzi Even, one of Israel's leading nuclear experts, said: "Introducing tactical nuclear weapons greatly increases the temptation to use them - doing so would lead to an escalation endangering the region's inhabitants."


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