Gila Svirsky


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Hiroshima and Depleted Uranium

6 August 2004

Today is Hiroshima Day. A day to reaffirm our commitment to end the use of nuclear weapons in the world.

On this day, I would like to bring to your attention the use of weapons that are tipped with Depleted Uranium – in use by the U.S., Japan, Germany, Russia, Israel, and other countries. Depleted Uranium can have dire consequences to the shooters, those shot, and the generations that follow.

Below are brief excerpts from historic documents – among the first public writings about the use of Depleted Uranium (DU) by the Israeli army (IDF).

Don’t feel you have to be an expert to start talking about Depleted Uranium in public. The point is the use of uranium to make weapons more efficient, and the long-lasting effects of exposure to radiation.

Thank you to Rela Mazali, Israeli feminist peace activist, who was the first to bring this topic to public awareness in Israel.

Gila Svirsky

Dedicated to Mordechai Vanunu, noble whistle blower.

From: Rela Mazali
To: Professor Baruch Kimmerling, Sociology, Hebrew University, Jerusalem
Date: 1999

…I'm referring to the use of Depleted Uranium ammunition in conventional weapons. This doesn't tend to be counted among nuclear weapons because it spreads radioactivity as a byproduct of conventional warfare, and does so gradually, over extended periods of time, rather than disintegrating enormous amounts of life all at once in spectacular mushrooms. It is only "incidentally" radioactive. Yet in terms of the human pathologies it seems to cause and the dangerous, long-term environmental degradation, I believe it qualifies as clearly "nuclear".

One of the reasons I think this is important, beyond simply alerting people to its dangers, is my hope that public debate concerning such weapons as DU and their effects, might be generated more easily than debate about 'the bomb'. I believe this might be so precisely because these weapons seem conventional, because their image isn't one which automatically evokes such a sense of powerlessness and a consequent need for denial. Also because, by the same token, talking about them may not be perceived as breaking a security taboo (at least not as harsh a one). And, on the other hand, because DU, unlike conventional weapons and analogously to nuclear warheads, causes cumulative, insidious physical damage to "us" which is uncontrollable and just as lethal as its damage to the "enemy".

I think such a debate about "incidentally" nuclear weaponry could possibly lead, in the long run, to heightened public attention to nuclear policy in general. It might gradually introduce a perception of the entire question at issue.

Depleted Uranium ammunition makes use of, and disseminates, radioactive waste material. You may recall that Calman Altman published an excellent article on it last year (first on the "aleph" list and then) in Ha'aretz. I believe the first reports on DU began circulating following the US-led war in the Persian Gulf in 1991. It was reportedly used by the US on an unprecedented scale in Bosnia and now seems to be widespread in Kosovo. Reports have it that Israel is one of the countries allowed to purchase DU ammunition from the US. For all we know it may be used routinely in Lebanon or in target practice on IDF firing ranges.

I have been following the subject for several years. Last year I reported on it to MK's Naomi Chazan and Tamar Gozansky, after which each of them submitted a query to the Minister of Defense. His answers were inconclusive. Naomi Chazan told me, in a phone conversation, that she understood his answer to mean that the IDF is indeed in possession of DU ammunition (what the minister rejected were her claims of radioactivity and potential damage)…

From: Dennis Flaherty, Secy, Amnesty International Military Profession's group, UK
Date: late 1999

I am working on behalf of Gulf War Veterans who believe that Prototype Depleted Uranium penetrators were first battlefield tested by IDF tank forces during the Yom Kippur war [in the early 1970s]...The IDF members who originally used DU Munitions may have been exposed to health hazards without being informed of the consequences…

From: Prof. Colman Altman, Professor of Physics, Technion University, Haifa, Israel
Date: January 27, 2000

It could well be that Prototype DU penetrators were first used by IDF tanks in the Yom Kippur war, as suggested by Dennis Flaherty. What is certain is that the IDF was already using Depleted Uranium before the Gulf War. I quote from "The Samson Option" by Seymour Hersh (Random House, 1991). Referring to the Dimona reprocessing facility, he writes (p.291):

"There is also a laser-isotope-reprocessing facility for the enrichment of uranium in Machon 9. Depleted uranium - that is, uranium with very little or no uranium 235 left - is chemically isolated in Machon 10 for eventual shipment to the Israeli Defense Force or sale to arms manufacturers in Europe and elsewhere for use in bullets, armor plating, and artillery and bomb shells. The shells, buttressed by the heavy uranium, which is much denser than lead, can easily penetrate thick armor plating AND ARE A STAPLE IN MODERN ARSENALS."

In an e-mail to the alef list in 1998, I expressed my conviction that the anti-tank missile "Gill" (see Ha'aretz, 17 June 1998, p.3a), "produced by RAPHAEL [Israeli weapons industry], and recently deployed in the infantry regiments in the army, is capable of penetrating any armored vehicle now operational in the Middle East" - was another depleted uranium missile in the IDF arsenal. I also expressed my conviction that tanks and troop carriers were reinforced with depleted uranium armor (protection against mines and missiles). Soldiers sitting daily in DU reinforced tanks would be exposed to low level gamma radiation from the uranium, and after many months would no doubt receive a quantity of radiation far above the permitted doses.

A statistical follow-up of cancer incidence among tank crews could be interesting. A similar follow-up of cancer incidence among Lebanese or Palestinians who were exposed to, and survived bombardment by Israeli tanks, would also be interesting.

From: Rela Mazali
Date: August 04, 2004

Just to update you: The Defense Minister Mordechai [in 1999] answered the Knesset queries with what seemed like a denial but was in fact simply evasive …However, it was later publicized by ex-officers from the Israeli navy that DU ammunition had in fact been in use in the navy. This was soon after the conflict in Kosovo and the bombing of Zagreb, when DU residue in Europe 'blew up' (briefly I must say) in the international news. At the time military authorities claimed that the use of this ammunition by the navy had been discontinued. Nothing was said about its use in any other part of the army, but I think it's not unreasonable to conclude that it was (and possibly still is) used elsewhere too, for instance by the [Israeli] tank corps and the airforce. As usual, after one or maybe two press articles, the subject dropped out of sight in Israel and there was no public debate that I'm aware of…

Gila then includes a new article on the background and dangers of depleted uranium:
"Depleted Uranium: The Trojan Horse of Nuclear War", by Leuren Moretin World Affairs – The Journal of International Issues, July 2004
Read the full article at: