If you've never wondered why so much of the world thinks our justifications for invading, bombing, sanctioning and destabilizing various parts of the Middle East are a pile of crap, today might be a good day to start. Because today is the fourteenth anniversary of the Bijlmermeer air disaster, whose sordid aftermath opened up a whole can of worms relating to secret weapons trafficking and unaccountable government, which really gives the lie to all the worthy motivations we claim for our policies. If you want to know just how little our government and our allies' governments really care for all those good causes we say we are bequesting the Middle East - rule of law, non-proliferation, democratic and accountable government, etc. – you only have to look at the Bijlmermeer tragedy.
At 6:21pm on 4 October 1992, a Boeing 747 airliner of the Israeli airline El Al took off from Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport for Tel Aviv, following a stopover en route from New York. The plane suffered catastrophic mechanical failure soon after takeoff, losing one right-side engine, which sheared off taking the second with it. The pilot attempted to loop back to make an emergency landing at Schiphol, but lost control short of the airfield. Flight 1862 crashed about 10 minutes after take-off into the Groeneveen and Kruitberg apartment buildings in Bijlmermeer, a working class suburb in south-eastern Amsterdam. Photo left (Associated Press).
The crash of El Al cargo flight LY1862 became the worst air disaster in Dutch history, killing at least 47 people directly, and destroying in subsequent months the health of hundreds of local residents. (Although stonewalling and outright lying by the Dutch and Israeli authorities meant that it was only in 1999 – after a comprehensive expose by investigative journalists at a Dutch newspaper – that a parliamentary enquiry officially acknowledged that the high rate of chronic illness among local residents was a direct result of toxic substances released as a result of the crash).
Local residents had suspected very early on that LY1862 was not a routine flight. Eyewitnesses reported seeing men in hazmat suits removing unidentified debris from the site immediately after the crash. And in the months that followed hundreds of local people and rescue workers complained of a range of chronic health problems, including depression, fatigue and listlessness, breathing difficulties and stomach pains. Tests commissioned by a Dutch citizens' group revealed traces of uranium at the crash site and abnormally high levels of uranium in the bodies of survivors. An independent Dutch nuclear research group revealed that – despite government claims to the contrary – only about half of the depleted uranium that the plane had been carrying as ballast had ever been recovered. As for the 114 tons of cargo on flight 1862: El Al, Israeli and Dutch officials rushed to assure the public that the doomed flight carried nothing but "perfume and gift articles." El Al insisted that the plane carried "a regular commercial load." As late as April 22, 1998, Israeli Transport Minister Shaul Yahalom maintained that there were "no dangerous material on that plane. Israel has nothing to hide."
Almost six years after the event, on 30 September 1998, editors Harm van den Berg and Karel Knip of the Dutch paper NRC Handelsblad published the results of an extensive investigation they had carried out into the crash. They had obtained the freight documentation for the flight, and made public for the first time its real cargo. The manifest confirmed the plane was carrying 400 kilograms of depleted uranium as ballast, but also showed that it carried among its cargo about 10 tons of assorted chemicals. The chemicals included ten 18.9-litre plastic drums of dimethyl methylphosphonate (DMMP), and smaller amounts of isopropanol and hydrogen fluoride: three of the four chemical precursors for the production of Sarin nerve gas.
A spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's office immediately denied that Flight 1862 had been carrying Sarin precursors. When this was contradicted hours later by an El Al spokesman, the Prime Minister's office acknowledged that the chemicals were onboard but stated that "the material was non-toxic and was to have been used to test filters that protect against chemical weapons". An explanation that Earth Island Journal found "puzzling", since "it only takes a few grams to conduct such tests. Once combined, the chemicals aboard Flight 1862 could have produced 270 kilos of sarin - sufficient to kill the entire population of a major world city".
The Shipper's Declaration of Dangerous Goods published by NRC Handelsblad showed that the DMMP consignment was en route to the Israel Institute for Biological Research (IIBR). The IIBR is located in Nes Ziona, about 20kms south of Tel Aviv, on what used to be the extensive estate of the Al-Taji Al-Farouki family of Ramleh, who were dispossessed in 1948. The family mansion (pictured, left) that was the home of Shukri Al-Taji remains today as the entrance to the IIBR, which was built on the family citrus groves.
The IIBR's web site describes the institute as "a governmental, applied research institute specializing in the fields of biology, medicinal chemistry and environmental sciences", though it is actually believed to be the front organisation for the Israeli government's development, testing and production of chemical and biological weapons. A biologist formerly associated with the IIBR told the London Times on 4 October 1998: "There is hardly a single known or unknown form of chemical or biological weapon...which is not manufactured at the institute."
The freight documentation showed that the DMMP was supplied by Solkatronic Chemicals Inc. of Morrisville, Pennsylvania, which marketed itself as "a leading and innovative manufacturer of ultrahigh-purity gases, chemicals and gas handling equipment". (Solkatronic was bought out in November 1997 by Air Products and Chemicals, Inc. whose web site describes the company as a "manufacturer of… specialty chemicals", which is one way of referring to nerve agents, I suppose). As a chemical weapons precursor, DMMP is subject to tight export controls by the U.S. government, but Solkatronic confirmed that it had requested and received from the U.S. Department of Commerce the export licences necessary to ship to the IIBR the chemicals that went down with Flight 1862.
Following the revelations published in Handelsblad, the Dutch government finally established a parliamentary enquiry into the Bijlmer air disaster. The enquiry, under the chairmanship of Christian Democrat deputy Theo Meijer, heard testimony from about 80 witnesses over four months (Jan-Apr 1999), summarising its conclusions in a 2,000 page report. The main findings of the Meijer Report were:
1. that toxic substances had been released by the crash of Flight 1862 and ensuing fire, and that the chronic illnesses suffered by rescuers and local residents were indeed directly linked to the disaster.
2. that El Al had inexplicably failed to co-operate with crash investigators, despite high-levels requests from the Netherlands to Israel that it should do so. (In fact it was not until February 1999 that the Israelis finally provided the Dutch government with a full listing of the military cargo on the flight, having maintained until then that that information no longer existed).
3. that Dutch government ministers had repeatedly given unclear, incomplete, late or incorrect information about the crash to Parliament, and thence to the Dutch people, in the aftermath of the disaster.
But more enlightening than the commission's formal conclusions were the peripheral details that the enquiry uncovered, which provided some interesting context for the whole affair. For instance, the commission discovered the previously-undisclosed tapes of conversations between El Al employees and Schiphol Air Traffic Control on the evening of the disaster, showing that within minutes of the crash traffic controllers knew that the downed plane contained "poison", "ammunition" and "flammable liquid", and that it would be best to "keep these things under the lid". And the Dutch Attorney General testified before the commission that the El Al security unit at Schiphol wasn't actually an El Al security unit at all, but a front operation for the Mossad. And airport employees testified that since 1973, the Netherlands' authorities had allowed El Al planes to transfer cargo at Schiphol Airport without being inspected by customs or by the Dutch Flight Safety Board; and that every Sunday evening an El Al cargo flight arrived from Schiphol en route from New York to Tel Aviv, whose arrival was never displayed on airport monitors, whose cargo was not checked and whose documentation was processed separately from regular freight traffic...
It's all a bit sordid isn't it? And we'd never have known about any of it, were it not for metal fatigue in a pin attaching engine three to the right wing of flight 1862.
Remember this story when you next hear some cable news pundit pontificating about why we have to bomb those nasty people in the Middle East.
When you hear that we must bomb Syria because it allows Iranian weapons to transit its territory, remember how our own Dutch allies have been deliberately turning a blind eye for years as one of its major international airports is used as a transit point for our shipment of illicit, non-conventional weapons into the Middle East.
Remember too that at the exact same time that the U.S. Administration was demanding that Iraq be sanctioned and its children starved because Saddam Hussein was developing Chemical and Biological Weapons, our Department of Commerce was (and presumably still is) issuing export licences to facilitate the production of exactly the same weapons in Israel.
And next time you hear George Bush talk about the gift of democracy that we are bringing to the Middle East, reflect on the transparency and accountability of our own democracy, and particularly that of our Dutch ally, which preferred for years to leave its own citizens chronically ill and without a diagnosis of their condition, rather than reveal the kinds of operations it was allowing Israel to carry out at Schiphol Airport.
And remember when you hear that we have to bomb Iran for its alleged and unproven contravention of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, that the U.S. – a member of the Chemical Weapons Convention – really is faciliating proliferation of Chemical Weapons to a non-member state (Israel).
Just remember the aftermath of the Bijlmermeer air disaster, and you'll never have to ask yourself again why so much of the world listens to our rhetoric, and thinks we're just full of it.
Israel says El Al crash chemical 'non-toxic'; BBC News, 2 Oct 1998.
Israeli jets equipped for chemical warfare by Uzi Mahnaimi; The Sunday Times (London), 4 Oct 1998.
Flight 1862 and Israel's chemical secrets by Mouin Rabbani; orig. Middle East International, 16 Oct 1998.
El Al crash linked to illnesses; BBC News, 22 Apr 1999.
Uranium Skies: What Was Aboard Flight 1862? by Gar Smith; Earth Island Journal, Vol. 14 No. 4 (Winter '99/2000).
Israeli WMD by Neil Sammonds; ZNet, October 11, 2002.
Traces of poison by Salman Abu-Sitta; Al-Ahram Weekly, 27 Feb-5 Mar 2003.
Bijlmerramp by Martin Wisse; Wis[s]e Words, 4 Oct 2005.
Profile: Solkatronic Chemicals Inc; Cooperative Research.