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In the Reactor’s Shadow

If Israel decides to carry out a strike against Iran, the desert town of Dimona could be a likely target for retaliation. Are its residents worried?

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Hana Nalgurka holds her supply of Lugol capsules, an antidote to radiation, which was provided to her by Israeli soldiers in Dimona, in 2004. The antidote is intended to protect residents from radioactive fallout should any missile attack on the nuclear station occur, or in case of a reactor accident. (David Silverman/Getty Images)

Tuesday night in Washington, D.C., Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was met with one standing ovation after another at AIPAC’s Policy Conference as he reiterated that he would never let Israelis “live under the shadow of annihilation.” But how do the Israelis who would be most affected by a strike against Iran’s nuclear program—the ones who literally live in the shadow of Israel’s own nuclear reactor—feel about the prospect of war with the Islamic Republic?

Ahead of the AIPAC conference, I went down to Dimona, population 35,000. If Israel attacks Iran’s nuclear facilities, this Negev city is one of the places that immediately comes to mind as a target for Iranian retaliation.

Dimona has a strongly nationalistic profile: Control of the municipal government passed from Likud to the far-right Yisrael Beitenu in 2003, the city’s residents are mainly low-income Sephardim and Russian immigrants, and there’s a strong Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox presence. Given all this, I expected virtually everyone I interviewed to favor an attack or have no opinion.

I was wrong. Of the 23 people I spoke to, 13 were in favor of a strike, seven opposed it, and three were undecided. Of the 13 in favor, seven were young army recruits.

What I found seems reflective of nationwide sentiment among Israelis. On March 1, a survey by University of Maryland Prof. Shibley Telhami and the Dahaf Institute, Israel’s leading public-opinion polling firm, found that only 19 percent of Israelis supported Israel going it alone in a strike on Iran. A plurality—42 percent—favored a joint American-Israeli attack, while 34 percent were against the military option altogether.

The public debate in Israel over what to do about Iran has been completely dominated by Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and commentators who echo their line. Yet there are Israelis—in addition to former Mossad chief Meir Dagan—who dissent from the official government position. It’s highly unlikely that Netanyahu spoke for them in his meeting earlier this week with President Obama, but I heard them in Dimona.

***

My first stop in Dimona was Nahalat Ephraim yeshiva, where I was welcomed by the headmaster, Yossi Peretz. Peretz, it turned out, was also a Dimona city councilman representing Shas, the right-wing ultra-Orthodox party. Several teenage boys, all dressed in white shirts and black pants, followed Peretz and me into a neat little room with a kitchenette, prayer books, and a photo of the Baba Sali, the late Moroccan kabbalist beloved by the country’s devout Sephardim.

“In my opinion, we should not attack,” said the 34-year-old Peretz as we sat across from each other. “Diplomacy is best, war is the worst. We have to try all possible ways of pressuring Iran, but until there is a real, close threat that they will use nuclear weapons against us, we shouldn’t attack. Nobody here wants war, nobody has the strength for it.” He didn’t think Israel was going to start one, either, because “we don’t have the support of other countries.”

What’s it like living in the shadow of the Negev Nuclear Research Center? “In one way it’s good, because you feel protected with all the defenses they’ve got around it. On the other hand, if something happens with Iran, you know this place is going to be the first target.”

Dimona was built in the early 1950s to house North African immigrants, and in the ’90s it grew substantially with the influx of Russians and Ethiopian immigrants. With the exception of its fancy northern neighborhoods, the town doesn’t look like it got past the ’70s. Framed by light-brown hills, Dimona is dominated by shabby beige stucco tenement blocks covered with graffiti and laundry hanging out of the windows, little cut-rate shops, snack bars, sand lots, palm trees, and painted sculptures, such as the one in a traffic circle—of Herzl.

Construction on the reactor, which can be seen at a long distance after you drive miles out of town, began in 1958, and it reportedly produced its first nuclear bomb within a decade. Israel is said to have chosen the site because it was commuting distance from Beersheba, where the French scientists who led its construction were housed, and because it is not right on top of large concentrations of people. (In those days, Dimona had a few thousand people, with many Bedouin settlements nearby.) While the Negev Nuclear Research Center provides many jobs to the town’s residents, it is also being sued by dozens of former employees who blame their cancer conditions on radiation inside the plant.

Mayor Meir Cohen was out of town the day I visited, but we spoke by phone. The party he is aligned with, Yisrael Beitenu, which is headed by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, is overwhelmingly Russian, yet Cohen, 56, is Moroccan-born. He moved here with his family and the other town founders 50 years ago.

Regarding Iran, Cohen told me that while sanctions should be given some more time to persuade Iran to give up its nuclear program, he didn’t expect them to work. “If we see that sanctions are not stopping Iran, we have to protect our children’s future and our country’s future.”

“We must remember what Chamberlain said after he met Hitler: ‘I have achieved peace in our time.’ A few months later, there was war,” he said. The Iranians, said Cohen, cannot be deterred because they are driven by “a crazy ideology, just like Hitler.” Rulers who turn their guns on their own countrymen protesting in the streets, he argued, will use nuclear weapons against their enemies.

Was he concerned about his town catching the blowback from a possible Israeli attack? “I think that today, all of Israel is one big target,” he said.

During the day, I talked to seven young army recruits, and all were in favor of hitting Iran. There was a clear difference in attitude, though, between the four soon-to-be-soldiers studying at a hesder (pre-army) yeshiva, and the three off-duty soldiers who were on their way to play tennis in the town’s upper-middle-class neighborhood.

On a break in the backyard of the yeshiva, the boys, 18 and 19, brought up the Torah verse that implores: “When someone comes to kill you, kill him first.” But they didn’t sound gung-ho and didn’t try to hide their uncertainty about the actual matter of war. “Whatever the leaders of the army decide, they’re the ones who know,” was their common response.

Three off-duty soldiers going to play tennis, however, sounded like young warriors. “We have to hit them, that’s what all the soldiers say, we have to take them down,” said Ariel Bismuth, 22. “We’re not afraid. Long live death, you know? Ha ha,” said Yoel Bar Natan, 21. “The Iranians won’t get to Dimona, the army won’t let them,” said Eden Rosalio, 21.

Walking past a park in the stylish neighborhood, Dov Elbaz, 23, said the presence of the reactor “makes us feel protected.” About whether Israel should bomb Iran, he said, “I don’t know. If we have to, yes, but I really don’t know.” His girlfriend, Roni, 17, added: “I don’t ever think about it.”

***

Dimona is a town where older people sit on benches and kibitz, and in City Hall square, amid a jumble of shops and cafes, I met three Sephardi pensioners, each around 70, doing just that. I asked what they thought about the possibility that Israel would attack Iran.

“It’ll be the end of the world. Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas, everybody will be against us,” said Meir Turgeman, the only one who would give his full name.

“There will be 50,000 missiles falling on us; the Iron Dome [Israel’s missile defense system] can’t stop them all,” said his friend.

“What will it get us? There will be missiles falling all day, and Dimona will get the worst of it. I’m not worried for myself, it’s the children I’m worried for,” said a third man. “They’re going to go crazy with fear.”

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marcella wachtel says:

Larry Derfner gets his kicks from criticizing Israel for everything and anything. He would like nothing better than for Israel to stop being a Jewish State–everything he writes on politics is anti-Israel. Somewhere, buried under all that hate, there is a passably competent writer, but he hasn’t a chance against the Larry who has a twisted spine from bending over backwards to present the position of the Arabs, and who blames Israel for any strike against it because he maintains that Israel should not even presume they have the right to live in our own country as we ourselves decide.

George says:

Exactly right! I was amazed at how long the Jerusalem Post put up with his idiotic and delusional rants before finally dumping him last year.

Bill Pearlman says:

I’m has right wing as they come. But I live in the United States. If Israel hits Iran they’re going to hit back. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be done but its not going to be pretty.

Thanks Larry. I would guess Marcella and George don’t live anywhere near Dimona… as Boaz Gaon wrote in Haaretz today: “…the sweet illusion of Israelis as matchsticks used to build a spectacular model of Noah’s Ark … allows people to call for the bombing of Iran while they sit in a mansion in Dallas. Or for the eradication of Israel’s democracy while lounging in a winter retreat in Miami. Or the annexation of Judea and Samaria while having a drink at the blackjack table in Las Vegas…”

marcella wachtel says:

Ira, FYI, I live in Jerusalem; I hate the thought of war, and I hate the thought of being at the mercy of those whose stated goal is to destroy us. If any other way showed a sign of working, of course it would be worth considering. But is seeems there isn’t any other way, no matter what Derfner refuses to recognize.
Marcella Wachtel

Carl says:

Larry–32% oppose a strike. 20% of the population is Arab, who we would assume would be against an attack because they are not being threatened by the Iranians. In other words 12% of the Jewish population are against an attack–hardly a majority.

Carl, I checked the survey and realize I made a mistake, which I will tell the editors about now – actually 34% of Israelis oppose a strike – the 32% I quoted was the figure for Israeli JEWS only. This sort of disproves your point, but it pointed up a mistake in my story, so we’ve both learned something.

philip mann says:

For all those people who will decide- Natanyahu, barak, Mossad- I don`t know how they sleep at nights. what a choice.

George says:

A difficult decision? I don’t think so. Allow a nation ruled by religious fanatics who have not only called for the state of Israel to disappear but are also the chief terror sponsors of Hamas and Hizbollah to acquire the nuclear means to accomplish this or to pre-empt this capabilty. And make no mistake, the Israeli military has the capability to accomplish this task. That is not the problem.

Jules says:

Well good luck with you list of vendettas to do.

Shalom Freedman says:

This is a respectable piece of reporting, and not the kind of opionizing which got Derfner fired from the ‘Jerusalem Post’. It is to be hoped that he will be a good field- reporter , and not after he assures his place as ‘regular’ on ‘Tablet’ go into the mode of ‘opionizing prophecy’ which so many of both Left and Right so facilely and wrongheadly do.

JCSM says:

American and Zionist discussion of the Munich Conference are moronic.

Should there ever have been a Czechoslovakia?

Part of the problem of historical discussions in the USA is the almost total lack of historical knowledge or understanding among Americans.

WWII came about to a large extent because of the vindictiveness of the victors in WW1.

Austria-Hungary served two purposes.

1. As a multinational empire, it created a modus vivendi for a very diverse population to live together in a supra-national state when the alternative of ethnonational states guaranteed decades of bloodshed. [It is worth noting that even after the ethnic cleansing of the Bohemian German population, Czechoslovakia still did not make sense and split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.]

2. Austria-Hungary was a block on Pan-Germanist goals. Once Austria-Hungary was dismantled, pan-Germanism was revitalized especially after the German Empire had been stripped of territories on its Eastern and Western borders that most German citizens viewed as part of core German State.

In addition, the majority of the population of Danzig, the Danzig corridor, and the Sudetenland almost certainly wanted union with Germany.

In order to have a realistic or realist discussion of foreign policy today, we Americans have to have an open and painful discussion that

1. addresses why Munich is not analyzed honestly in the USA and

2. investigates Jewish Zionist mendacity on this topic in specific.

Continued US support for Israel is completely incompatible with a realist foreign policy, and the US maintains an alliance with the racist murderous genocidal Zionist state purely as a result of domestic political considerations that would vanish rapidly if Americans had a genuine understanding of historic Jewish political economy in Europe and N. America.

Only with understanding of the historic context can one possibly have a rational discussion of Munich or of Jewish economic and political behavior.

yudit says:

Hitting Iran will cause Iran to hit us as well, badly, forcefully. And whether it is inDimona or in my hometown Tel Aviv, it’s us who will be paying the price. (in addition of course to an unknown number of Iranian civiians). War should be preventedby all means possible, it’s easy to start, all too easy.
As to Dimona, the reactor is old by western standards and reportedly uses pre-chernobyl technology. Dimoan is located close to the syro african rift, which is earthquake prone. Now that is a reason to worry… or should we all go into yehihye beseder mode?

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In the Reactor’s Shadow

If Israel decides to carry out a strike against Iran, the desert town of Dimona could be a likely target for retaliation. Are its residents worried?

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