Israel’s Netanyahu suspends minister for suggesting a nuclear weapons option in Gaza

By John Mecklin | November 5, 2023

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressing a ceremony to mark Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel's Wars on April 14, 2021. Credit: Israeli Government Press Office/Kobi GideonIsraeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Credit: Israeli Government Press Office/Kobi Gideon

A junior, far-right minister in the Israeli government was suspended indefinitely on Sunday after he suggested that it would be “an option” for Israel to use a nuclear weapon in Gaza. In a statement posted to the X social media site (formerly Twitter), Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Heritage Minister Amichai Eliyahu’s comments were “not based in reality” and that Israel’s defense forces would continue to follow international law in their Gaza operations. Although the minister later contended that his radio comments were “metaphorical,” Netanyahu quickly suspended Eliyahu from cabinet meetings “until further notice.”

In an interview with Radio Kol Berama, a religious radio station, Eliyahu reportedly said dropping a nuclear bomb would be one option for dealing with Hamas forces in Gaza. A member of the ultra-nationalist Jewish Power party, Eliyahu contended that there were “no non-combatants in Gaza,” so using a nuclear warhead there was “one of the possibilities.” Eliyahu is not part of the coalition war cabinet formed to direct the response to Hamas’s October 7 attacks on Israel, which killed some 1,400 people.

Eliyahu’s radio comments were quickly repudiated by members of Israel’s war cabinet, including Benny Gantz, a centrist ex-general, who said Eliyahu’s remarks had been damaging “and, even worse, added to the pain of the hostages’ families at home.” Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant wrote that it is “good that these aren’t the people involved in Israel’s security,” Haaretz reported.

Eliyahu’s radio interview was denounced across the Arab world, the Reuters news service reported, with the League of Arab States saying: “The racist statements of Israeli Minister Eliyahu are revealing. Not only does he admit that they possess a nuclear weapon, but he also confirms the reality of the Israelis’ abhorrent racist view towards the Palestinian people.” The Arab News reported that Saudi Arabia condemned Eliyahu’s remarks “in the strongest terms.” According to the Saudi newspaper, the kingdom’s foreign ministry said such remarks show the penetration of “extremism and brutality among members of the Israeli government” and only suspending, rather than dismissing Eliyahu “constitutes the utmost disregard for all human standards and values.”

The coming US-Saudi nuclear deal: Keep it honest

Israel maintains a policy of neither confirming nor denying it has a nuclear arsenal. In their long-running Nuclear Notebook column, Federation of American Scientists experts Hans Kristensen and Matt Korda estimated in 2022 that Israel had a nuclear stockpile of approximately 90 warheads.

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