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Is waste from Israel's nuclear programme poisoning Palestinians? Open in fullscreen

Anas Abu Arqoub

Is waste from Israel's nuclear programme poisoning Palestinians?

Dimona is one of Israel's two main nuclear facilities [Getty]

Date of publication: 30 June, 2015

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Feature: Israel's nuclear programme has operated in the shadows with little international oversight. Now it appears accidents and the unsafe disposal of nuclear material could be poisoning the West Bank.

Israel's Dimona nuclear reactor may be responsible for the increase in illnesses and still-births in nearby Palestinian populations, it has emerged.

It is the one of the few nuclear facilities in the world not subject to international safety inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The reactor has already been implicated in illnesses and environmental damage among the area's Israeli population.

Ibrahim, from a small village 11km south of Hebron, told the story of his still-born child.

"When the midwife told me my child had died at birth, I was overcome with sadness," he said. "However, the sadness became easier to bear when I learned that my child was born with one eye and birth defects that would have stayed with him for life."

Dr Mahmoud Saadah, the head of the Palestine branch of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), holds the Dimona nuclear reactor directly responsible for the increase in deformities in the area and surrounding villages.

Ignoring Palestinian victims

The only places found to have higher concentrations of Caesium-137 than the West Bank were Chernobyl and Fukushima.


The Dimona nuclear reactor is located 10km southeast of the city of Dimona, the third-largest city in the Negev.

Construction on the nuclear reactor began in 1958 with French assistance, and Israel has another nuclear reactor for research and medical use at the Soreq Nuclear Research Centre.

An Israeli documentary film named The Dark Secret of the Dimona Reactor investigated the facility. The film revealed information about Israelis affected by the reactor and the environmental damage it has caused to the surrounding area.

However, the documentary film ignored Palestinian victims, so al-Araby al-Jadeed set out to discover the harm done to Palestinians from the reactor, in addition to the reason the Israeli military allowed the disclosure of information previously classified.

Al-Araby
met Dr Khalil Thabayneh, a nuclear physics researcher at Hebron University. Thabayneh is the only Palestinian specialist who has conducted studies over a number of years to measure radiation levels in the West Bank, using advanced equipment to detenct levels of radioactive material in water, rocks, soil and plants.

Thabayneh's studies reveal levels exceeding international permitted averages in the Hebron governorate. The most commonly radioactive element in the southern West Bank, according to Thabayneh, is Caesium-137. Any amount of Caesium-137 in the environment is considered dangerous.

"This isotope does not exist in nature and only occurs due to nuclear activity. When found in high concentrations, the source is either nuclear experiments, radioactive leaks or the detonation of nuclear weapons," said Thabayneh.

"The only places found to have higher concentrations than in the West Bank were after the explosion of the Chernobyl reactor in the Ukraine in 1986 and in Fukushima in 2012. These two cases had the highest recorded levels of Cesium-137 in the world, which means the southern West Bank has the highest levels of Cesium-137 in the world if we exclude areas that have witnessed nuclear disasters," added Thabayneh.

The dangers

Thabayneh revealed the greatest danger to humans from Caesium-137 is cancer. Other elements such as uranium and polonium aso pose great dangers to children, and can cause cancer and affect the reproductive system, causing infertility in both men and women and cause birth defects and repeated miscarriages.

Dr Saadah, of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, has been practicing medicine in the area for decades.

He confirmed Thabayneh's findings through his personal observations. Saadah confirmed there had been an increase in birth defects among newborns in the southern Hebron region.

"The reason is not a genetic defect, because that would cause one or two cases and would be limited to a family instead of a number of families, as was discovered in the area south of Hebron," Saadah said.

Birth defects are above average here, and in many cases children were born with only one eye, or with only one hand.

"The families usually don't announce the issue, especially if the deformed newborn dies, fearing that other families will not marry their other daughters," said Saadah.

Saadah and a group of volunteers conducted tests in 2005 without the knowledge of the Israeli authorities to discover the levels of radiation in the southern West Bank.

The results showed that radiation levels were four times higher than areas that had not been contaminated. Saadah attributed the high levels to either a radiation leak from the Dimona reactor or to the burial of nuclear waste.

Rare cancers

The reason is not a genetic defect, because that would cause one or two cases and would be limited to a family instead of a number of families


The town of Yatta has the highest reading of Caesium-137 in Hebron region.

This led researchers to focus on Yatta, and, in 2007, an International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War committee documented 280 cases of cancer in the town with a population of approximately 50,000.

The same committee documented 200 cases of cancer in the town al-Dahiriya, 17km away from the reactor, which had a population of 35,000 at the time of the study.

The committee also documented a case of heart cancer in the town, which occurs in five out of each 100,000 people and usually in patients over 50.

However, in that town, it was diagnosed in a young boy. This comes in addition to other rare forms of cancer that were discovered.

Burying nuclear waste

According to the accounts of villagers in the governorate, Israel buries its nuclear waste close to Palestinian towns or in areas along the green line, which Israel plans to withdraw from in return for other areas if a resolution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were to take place in the future.

Villagers from Beit al-Roush told Saadah that, in 1989, they saw trucks going into the mountains followed by a cement mixing truck. The trucks would be buried whole, they said. After this time, residents noticed an increase in cancers.

Al-Araby
spoke to a number of residents in the Bani Naim area in the governorate of Hebron, who said that, about ten years ago, the Israeli army buried barrels in a cave in the Bani Naim desert - after which the cave was sealed with reinforced concrete.

Access to the area is still restricted by the Israeli army. The residents believe the area contains dangerous nuclear waste, buried in their land.

The head of the Palestinian Environment Quality Authority, Adala al-Atirah, told al-Araby that Israel prevents Palestinian environmental inspectors from visiting areas which residents complain are being used as nuclear dumping grounds by Israel.

Furthermore, Israel does not allow for the import of equipment that could be used to measure radiation - and it prevents international and UN experts in the field from entering the Palestinian territories.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.

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