“I will do such things – What they are yet I know not – but they shall be the terrors of the earth.”
Shakespeare, King Lear
Israel holds nuclear weapons for only one purpose: To prevent catastrophic destruction of the Jewish state by enemy state aggression. It is altogether inconceivable that Israel would ever resort to such weapons as an initial move of war. Certain Arab states and/or Iran, however, might at some point seriously consider nuclear attacks upon Israel with manifestly annihilatory intent. If these countries were ever allowed to acquire nuclear weapons, Israel could discover that its very existence had become dependent upon the pleasure and more or less measured judgments of openly genocidal enemies. With this in mind, Project Daniel’s Final Report makes very specific and far-reaching recommendations to ensure that such dependence never comes to pass, and that these enemies remain non-nuclear.
What, exactly, does Israel have to fear? More than 25 years ago, I published the first of several books dealing scientifically with the expected consequences of a nuclear war. These palpably nightmarish effects are even more pertinent today, not only to India and Pakistan in Southwest Asia, and to the potential targets of a rapidly nuclearizing North Korea, but also to the tiny State of Israel – a country so small that it could fit more than two times into Lake Michigan.
The first genuinely large-scale, authoritative study of nuclear war consequences was a 1975 report titled: Long Term Worldwide Effects of Multiple Nuclear Weapons Detonations. Although the scale of this National Academy of Science report’s assumptions were vastly greater than what concerns us here, the likely kinds of physical and biological effects are still very appropriate to present-day Israel. Some of these effects involve temperature changes; contamination of food and water by radionuclides; disease epidemics in crops, domesticated animals, and in humans due to ionizing radiation; shortening of growing seasons; irreversible injuries to aquatic species; widespread and long-term carcinogenesis due to inhalation of plutonium particles; radiation-induced developmental anomalies in persons in-utero at the time of detonations; a vast increase in incidence of skin cancers; and an increasing incidence of genetic disease.
Overwhelming health problems would afflict the survivors of a nuclear attack upon Israel. These problems would extend far beyond the uncontrollable consequences of prompt burn injuries. Retinal burns would occur in the eyes of persons as far as several hundred miles from the explosions. Israelis would be crushed by collapsing buildings and torn to shreds by flying glass. Others would fall victim to raging firestorms. Fallout injuries would include whole-body radiation injury, produced by penetrating, hard gamma radiations; superficial radiation burns produced by soft radiations; and injuries produced by deposits of radioactive substances within the body.
After an Arab and/or Iranian nuclear attack, even a “small” one, those few medical facilities that might still exist in Israel would be taxed well beyond capacity. Water supplies would become altogether unusable. Housing and shelter could be unavailable for hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of survivors. Transportation would break down to rudimentary levels. Food shortages would be critical and long-term.
Israel’s complex network of interlocking and interdependent exchange systems would be shattered. Virtually everyone would be deprived of the most basic means of livelihood. Emergency police and fire services would be decimated. All systems dependent upon electrical power could stop functioning. Severe trauma would occasion widespread disorientation and psychiatric disorders for which there would be absolutely no therapeutic services.
Normal human society would cease. The pestilence of unrestrained murder and banditry would augment the pestilence of plague and epidemics. With the passage of time, many of the survivors would expect an increased incidence of serious degenerative diseases and various forms of cancer. They would also expect premature death; impairment of vision; and sterility. Among the survivors of Hiroshima, an increased incidence of leukemia and cancers of the lung, stomach, breast, ovary and uterine cervix has been widely documented.
Many of the most delicately balanced relationships in nature would be upset by the extensive fallout. Israelis who would survive the nuclear attack would have to deal with enlarged and voracious insect populations. Like the locusts of Biblical times, mushrooming insect populations would spread unimpeded from the radiation-damaged areas in which they arose.
Insects are generally more resistant to radiation than humans. This fact, coupled with the prevalence of unburied corpses, uncontrolled waste and untreated sewage, would generate tens of trillions of flies and mosquitoes. Breeding in the dead bodies, these insects would make it impossible to control typhus, malaria, dengue fever and encephalitis. Throughout Israel, the largest health threat would be posed by tens or even hundreds of thousands of rotting human corpses. In many areas of the country, radiation levels would be so high that corpses could remain untouched for weeks or months. Even if it were operationally possible, in order to bury the dead, areas much larger than Israel’s now uninhabitable cities would be needed for the cemetery.
This is only the tip of the iceberg; indeed, it is a deliberate understatement of what could be expected. Various interactions between individual effects of nuclear weapons – “synergies” to the experts – would make matters far worse. It follows from what has been described that Israel must do whatever is necessary to protect itself from enemy nuclear aggression, including timely preemptive attacks against relevant enemy hard targets and recognizable preparations for massive counter-city nuclear reprisals. International law is not a suicide pact. Under authoritative international rules, such expressions of anticipatory self- defense and nuclear deterrence could be entirely permissible.
Israel cannot afford to make the same security mistakes on this existential issue that it made earlier in the Oslo Accords and is now continuing with the so-called “Road Map.” Here, in the apocalyptic realm of nuclear weapons and nuclear war, mistakes would be final and unforgiving. Given the opportunity, Iran and possibly certain Arab states could even become suicide bombers in macrocosm, willing to strike first even at the risk of absorbing devastating Israeli reprisals. Tactically and politically, Israeli preemptions would best be conducted in tandem with the United States, but if there should be no alternative to acting alone, solitary defensive strikes against relevant military targets would be preferable to waiting helplessly for another Holocaust.
My next column will reveal some of Project Daniel’s precise recommendations for remaining intact and for preventing enemy nuclear aggressions. In that column, I will also relate these recommendations to the ancient classic of military strategy, Sun-Tzu’s The Art Of War.
© Copyright, 2004. The Jewish Press. All rights reserved.
LOUIS RENE BERES was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is Professor of International Law at Purdue. He is Chair of Project Daniel and Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press.