In addition to all of their problems – Hamas and Gaza, settlements and the lack of a peace process – fragile Israeli-Palestinian relations face yet another obstacle. The Palestinian Authority signed a draft agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in February, which was confirmed by the IAEA’s board of governors. Yet because the document is classified as “Restricted,” it has not yet been published.
It is revealed here publicly for the first time. Article 2 of the draft agreement states: “The Agency shall have the right and the obligation to ensure that safeguards will be applied, in accordance with the terms of this Agreement, on all source or special fissionable material in all peaceful nuclear activities within the territory of Palestine, under its jurisdiction or carried out under its control anywhere, for the exclusive purpose of verifying that such material is not diverted to nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.”
This means that IAEA inspectors have the right to visit every part of the “Palestinian state” and check the safety of radioactive materials, including uranium, which are currently being used for peaceful purposes.
This is the duty and mandate of the IAEA, which was established in 1957 as an organ of the UN to supervise and prevent the use of nuclear materials and equipment for military purposes, while supporting their use for civilian aims, such as medicine, agriculture, industry and more.
The arrangements between the IAEA and its state members are known as “Safeguard Agreements.” These agreements derive from states’ membership in the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Any state that participates in the NPT is committed not to develop, produce, stockpile or proliferate nuclear weapons or materials and equipment related to nuclear weapons. Such a state must sign a Safeguard Agreement with the IAEA, which is the “arbitrator” and thus has the obligation and the right to verify that any radioactive and other nuclear materials are indeed being used only for peaceful purposes.
However, IAEA inspectors have no access to military sites, which, according to the Safeguards Agreements, are off limits to them. For that reason, IAEA inspectors could not visit some of Iran’s nuclear sites or the site where Syria had built its nuclear reactor, which was destroyed in 2007 by the Israel Air Force.
Only the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – the US, Russia, China, the UK and France – are permitted to have nuclear weapons. All the rest of the nations joined the NPT, except five: Israel, India and Pakistan never joined the NPT, while North Korea withdrew from it in 2003, and South Sudan, which gained its independence in 2011, is still considering the matter.
India, Pakistan and North Korea also acknowledge that they have nuclear weapons and that they conducted nuclear tests. Israel, with its policy known as “ambiguity,” neither confirms nor denies that it has nuclear weapons, although the entire world thinks it has one of the most advanced and sophisticated arsenals. A Swedish think tank (SIPRI) estimated a few years ago that Israel had 80 nuclear bombs, including hydrogen ones.
IAEA inspectors are prohibited from visiting the nuclear military sites of India, Pakistan and North Korea, while Israel doesn’t let them into its Dimona nuclear reactor.
The Palestinian Authority doesn’t have nuclear reactors nor does it intend to build or purchase them. Surely it doesn’t possess nuclear bombs, not to mention that Israel, as the occupying force, monitors the situation closely and prevents the entry of any suspicious nuclear materials to the West Bank, even for potential dual use.
Yet in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, there are hospitals, chemistry and physics departments at universities, as well as agriculture and industries which use components of nuclear materials and equipment.
Palestine is not recognized internationally as a state, except by a few nations. Nevertheless, the PA joined the NPT in 2015 and this year signed, as mentioned above, the Safeguards Agreement with IAEA.
Regardless of the professional issues, the PA steps with regard to the IAEA make a political statement. These are part of the PA’s efforts to join as many international organs and forums, preferably associated with the UN, as possible, aiming to legitimize itself and gain recognition as a state.
The PA move challenges Israel, the IAEA and the US. A “state” by definition is responsible for all the materials and equipment within its territory. Therefore, it will be interesting to watch how the IAEA will deal with this issue and define the areas of the “Palestinian state.” It is not clear from the response from the IAEA press office, which appears below.
Furthermore, according to the Safeguards Agreement, a “member state” must form its own regulatory body. Will the PA create a nuclear atomic energy commission? And if it does, what will the Israeli reaction be? Surely Israel will not like this. Its dilemma, however, is not that simple. Will Israel try to prevent IAEA inspectors from entering Palestinian Authority areas, if and when they try to perform their duties to detect radioactive materials? And what about the US? How will the US President Donald Trump's administration react at times when it punishes any UN agency (the Human Rights Council, UNRWA and UNESCO) perceived to be implementing an anti-Israel policy?
PA spokespersons did not respond to these questions. The Prime Minister’s Office, which is in charge of the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC), declined to comment.
The IAEA press office said in its response: “Following its accession to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in February 2015, Palestine informed the IAEA Secretariat that it wished to conclude a safeguards agreement with the Agency to fulfill its NPT obligations. In light of that request, a draft safeguards agreement (with a “small quantities” protocol) was prepared for Palestine and submitted to the IAEA Board of Governors."
“In March 2018, the Board of Governors authorized the Director General of the IAEA to conclude and subsequently implement the safeguards agreement," the office response continued. "However, the safeguards agreement has not entered into force yet. The submissions of the draft agreement to the Board of Governors or its implementation do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever concerning the legal status of any country or territory or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers.”
Here is another piece of interesting information with regard to the IAEA, PA and nuclear weapons. In 2004, Israeli intelligence was taken by surprised when the US and the UK announced they had reached a deal with Libya. Led by Muammar Gaddafi, Libya acknowledged that for a few years it sought to acquire nuclear weapons with the help of Abdul Qadeer Khan, who is considered “the father of Pakistan’s atomic bomb.” Libya stated that it would dismantle its nuclear program and agreed to supply the CIA, MI6 and eventually the IAEA with its nuclear records.
The Libyan trail lead the CIA, MI6 and the IAEA to realize that Khan’s smuggling network also played a major role in the advancement of Iran’s secret military nuclear program. IAEA investigations also revealed the involvement of a small Palestinian company from the city of Ramallah in the Libyan program. The Palestinian company was a subcontractor providing components for a Libyan firm producing cables for its country’s nuclear program.
The Palestinian involvement was so marginal that the IAEA never bothered to mention it in its public reports. Yet, Israeli intelligence emerged from the entire affair as being blind, not only to what was occurring far away in Libya, but also right under its nose, just 10 kilometers from its capital, Jerusalem.
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