Israeli President Isaac Herzog said in an interview that Hamas militants had plans to use cyanide agents against Israeli civilians when they launched an unprecedented attack on Oct 7, killing more than 1,400 people and taking around 200 hostages.
During the interview with Sky News, Herzog supported his claims by showing material recovered from a USB drive on the body of a Hamas terrorist. The document was copied from al-Qaeda and had “detailed instructions on creating chemical weapons”. It also included “precise instructions for preparing a device for dispersing cyanide agents”.
“This is material that was found on the body of one of those sadistic villains. It’s al-Qaeda material, official al-Qaeda material. When dealing with ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Hamas, this is what we’re dealing with. And in this material, there were instructions, on how to produce chemical weapons,” he said.
Tensions continue to escalate, and several claims and counterclaims are being made. But there’s no data that would substantiate what Hamas planned, or whether or not the militants were carrying the elements to make a bomb.
There’s no confirmation of the use of chemical weapons in the Israel-Hamas war which started after the Oct 7 attack. But let’s decode what exactly chemical weapons are.
What are chemical weapons?
A Chemical Weapon (CW) is a chemical used to cause intentional death or harm through its toxic properties. Chemical weapons also include munitions, gadgets, and other equipment specifically designed to weaponize toxic substances.
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) says that any chemical which through its chemical action on life processes can cause death, temporary incapacitation or permanent harm through its toxic properties is termed a chemical weapon. Chlorine, which is a non-controlled chemical, could also become a chemical weapon if used in a conflict.
Chemical weapons are condemned by human rights groups, but white phosphorous is not banned by the CWC. Neither are cluster munitions, which fall under a separate international treaty.
Chemical weapons can be used in warfare and are known by the military acronym NBC (for nuclear, biological, and chemical warfare). They are different from nuclear weapons, biological weapons, and radiological weapons, but are classified as weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
Chemical weapons are cheap and simple to make, allowing even small terrorist groups to cause mass casualties in small quantities.
How chemical weapons are used?
Chemical weapons are extremely toxic synthetic chemicals and can be extensively disseminated in gas, liquid, and solid forms. They can readily injure anyone other than the intended targets. Chemical weapons in the modern era include nerve gas, tear gas, and pepper spray.
These CW agents can be deadly or incapacitate humans. They vary from explosive compounds, in that their damaging effects are localized and triggered by shear stress.
There are thousands of toxic substances known, but only a few of them are considered CW agents based on their characteristics, such as high toxicity, imperceptibility to senses, rapidity of action after dissemination, and persistency.
Are chemical weapons banned?
The 1925 Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare, commonly known as the 1925 Geneva Protocol, bans the use of chemical and bacteriological (biological) weapons in war.
Chemical weapons production, use and stockpiling are banned under the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). Some nations, such as Egypt, North Korea and South Sudan, have not signed or ratified the international arms control treaty.
Under the treaty, the use of the most dangerous “scheduled” toxins and their precursors is banned. This includes nerve agents sarin, VX, and the Soviet-era developed Novichok, as well as the poison ricin and blistering agent sulphur mustard.
Also read: A 16-year-old British teen Noiya Sharabi confirmed dead in tragic Hamas attack
Are there long-term effects of chemical weapons?
Lancet conducted a study, published in 2002, after analyzing volunteers who suffered such attacks.
The study mentioned that those who have claimed that they were exposed to chemical warfare agents have often presented with “unusual clinical syndromes or symptom complexes that have caused controversy”.
Nerve agents such as sarin, tabun, and soman, are believed to have the most severe long-term consequences.
In some cases, altered neuromuscular function, abnormal electroencephalograms, and impaired psychomotor performance have been reported.
This could affect behavior, intelligence, and memory, especially if the initial exposure induced cerebral abnormalities detectable via MRI or electroencephalogram.
There can be other effects as well, but it needs more data and analysis to find out other long-term effects, which also vary from case to case.
When were such weapons used?
There have been various instances when chemical weapons were deployed. After the development of industrial chemistry in the 19th century, mass manufacturing and deployment of CW agents in warfare became a possibility.
History books have mentioned the German gas attack with chlorine on April 22, 1915, at Ypres, Belgium.
During World War I, the use of these toxic chemicals, including phosgene, sulfur mustard and lewisites, caused 100,000 deaths.
During World War II, Nazis used Zyklon B gas (hydrogen cyanide gas) which killed millions of civilians.
The United States used Agent Orange, a defoliant, during the Vietnam War.
Another instance was in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war. An Iraqi nerve agent strike was reportedly launched on the Kurdish civilian population of Halabja, killing hundreds of people.
How al-Qaeda has used chemical weapons in attacks?
From late 2006 to mid-2007, al-Qaeda in Iraq detonated a series of crude chlorine bombs in Iraq. The New America Foundation discovered a total of 16 chlorine gas bombs in Iraq, the most recent of which occurred in June 2007.
On Oct 21, 2006, al-Qaeda in Iraq initiated its chlorine bomb campaign in Ramadi by detonating a car filled with mortars and chlorine tanks, injuring three Iraqi police officers and a civilian.
Most publications on al-Qaeda’s chemical weapons operations simply claim that there is evidence that it is interested in creating or acquiring chemical weapons.
The 11th volume of al-Qaeda’s Encyclopedia of Jihad talks about how to construct chemical and biological weapons. Osama bin Laden claimed: “‘We have chemical and nuclear weapons as a deterrent and if America used them against us we reserve the right to use them.” His remarks came during an interview with a Pakistani journalist in 2001.
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