I Guarded Israel's First Nuclear Device, Former Israeli Reveals in U.S. Testimony

Elie Geisler says he was asked during the Six Day War to guard a secret base in central Israel that held the device. He described a clash with Col. Yitzhak Yaakov, who demanded control of the base and threatened to break into it by force

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The facility near Gedera where Elie Geisler says Israel's first nuclear device was kept
The facility near Gedera where Elie Geisler says Israel's first nuclear device was kept

A former Israeli is claiming that during the Six Day War, he commanded a secret base in the center of the country where a nuclear core was stored that could have been used in a nuclear weapon.

In an interview appearing on the website of the Woodrow Wilson Center, Elie Geisler, who was a trained radiation inspector, tells Prof. Avner Cohen that he had been assigned to guard the device for the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission. He also told Cohen that he feared there could be armed internal Israeli conflict over control of nuclear power.

Elie Geisler, who was a trained radiation inspector and claims he guarded Israel's first nuclear device.

Geisler, who is now a behavioral sciences professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology, has lived in the United States since 1973. He was drafted into the Israel Defense Forces in 1963, and according to his testimony, served in a secret unit whose soldiers were assigned to the Nuclear Research Center in Dimona. He was a nuclear radiation inspector, a job he continued to fill as a civilian after his military service.

>> Read more:'The de facto coup': When Moshe Dayan tried to steal Israel's first nuclear deviceSecret handwritten memos reveal how Israel's nuclear program came to be ■ The debate that gave birth to Israel's nuclear ambiguity revealed

Former defense minister Moshe Dayan during the Six-Day war, 1967. Credit: AP

At the end of May 1967, as a reserve soldier, he was given what he said was a special assignment when the head of the Atomic Energy Commission, Prof. Israel Dostrovsky, appointed him to command a small base near Gedera. He described the facility as a police compound that looked like a fortress, surrounded by a wall and protected by an iron gate. For this assignment, he was commissioned as an army officer with the rank of lieutenant, even though he’d never passed an officer’s course.

According to Geisler, he and others supervised the transfer of a small “package” in a wooden crate containing the nuclear device from Dimona to the new base. “We deposited the crate in one of the rooms inside the main building,” he said. “The room was empty of any furniture and without windows.” He said the room in which the device was stored was always locked, and he had the only key. There were 28 armed border policemen under his command, some of whom were stationed in the compound's watchtowers and were equipped with heavy weapons. “I was told that one or two other cores were in other locations,” he said. From time to time, he said, he would discuss with another person the procedures for moving the core to an assembly point, where it would be connected to the remainder of the device for possible use.

File photo: A partial view of the Dimona nuclear power plant in the southern Israeli Negev desert, September 2002.Credit: AFP PHOTO/FILES/Thomas COEX

Geisler’s primary task, he said, “was to verify the safety and security of the object – the core – and to ascertain that no radiation leakage was present.” Twice a day he would measure the radiation level emanating from the object and record his findings in a diary. There was indeed radiation emanating from it, “and hence, it was the real thing.” He describes a visit to the site by former chief of General Staff Moshe Dayan, who would soon be named defense minister instead of Levi Eshkol. “I recall that he was very excited to learn that this was a real core of a nuclear weapon,” Geisler said. “He asked me if this was the real thing, and I confirmed it was.”

During that period, said Geisler, the atmosphere at the base, like in the rest of the country, was “a mix of uncertainty and bellicosity.” He reflected on the fact that “I had under my control the first Jewish nuclear core. I had read some books and articles about the origins of the atomic bomb and recognized the enormous contributions of Jewish physicists to the making of the bomb—from Albert Einstein to Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard. I would stand in this small room and stare at the object with much awe, having seen photos and movies of the devastation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

Devastation in Hiroshima after the dropping of the atomic bomb in 1945. Credit: AP

“On every occasion that I stood alone with the core, I’d silently pray and wish that we should never employ this horrific invention of humanity,” Geisler said. “I knew perfectly well that the use of the device would be the ‘last resort’ of the country's political leadership, whose policy was, and remains to this day, to not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East, neither confirming nor denying the Israeli nuclear-weapon capability.”

Later in his interview, he described an unusual incident. On June 2, the day after Dayan was appointed defense minister, an unexpected visitor appeared at the base: Col. Yitzhak Yaakov, the head of the IDF’s research and development unit, who Cohen notes was responsible for formulating Israel’s nuclear emergency plan in the event of a crisis. Geisler related that Yaakov told him that he had come to take control of the compound.

Col. Yitzhak Yaakov, the head of the IDF’s research and development unit, 2002. Credit: Moti Kimche

“I smiled and told him that this is impossible. […] He told me he must inspect the facility and that he would apply force to get in, ” Geisler recalled.  “I replied that we would apply force to prevent him from entering.” Geisler said Yaakov “became very irritated,” but eventually left. He promised to return the following day.

Indeed, he returned the next morning, accompanied by dozens of cadets from Training Base No. 1. “I again explained that he could not enter and that if he tried to use force, we would unnecessarily spill Israeli blood,” Geisler.

Sensing an emergency situation, he contacted Dostrovsky’s office, which told him the visit had been planned and that he should allow Yaakov access to the base. In the end, a compromise was reached whereby the facility would be monitored by both of them.

In his interview with Cohen, Geisler said the incident reminded him of the book “The Caine Mutiny” by Herman Wouk. He believed that it was an illegitimate attempt by the military to take custody of Israel’s nuclear weapons as part of a political power struggle between Prime Minister Eshkol and Dayan, among others. “I just happened to be there and was an eyewitness to events, some of which I understood their powerful historical footprint, and some I did not,” he concluded.

Geisler first addressed these events in a book he published in the United States under a pseudonym in 2017. In July of that year, Haaretz ran an article by historian Adam Raz about the book, under the title “The De Facto Coup D’etat: when Moshe Dayan Tried to Steal Israel’s First Nuclear Device.”

Yaakov, later a brigadier general, gave his own account to Cohen in interviews in 1999 and 2000, whose contents were published in 2017, four years after Yaakov’s death. Yaakov testified that official Israeli figures had planned to explode a nuclear device on a mountain in Sinai to deter Arab states from attacking. “You have an enemy, and he says that he’s going to throw you into the sea. You believe him. If you have a way to scare him, you scare him,” he was quoted as saying. In his conversations with Cohen, Yaakov recalled that “there was some problem,” and the nuclear researcher believes that Geisler’s testimony reveals the “problem” Yaakov was referring to. Naturally, not all the details about the incident are clear or can be published, so questions still remain.

Yaakov’s remarks were also published on the Wilson Center site and were quoted by both the New York Times and Haaretz. In 2001, Yaakov was arrested in Israel and charged with passing on secret information without authorization and with the intention of harming state security. He was ultimately found guilty of a lesser charge and given a two-year suspended sentence.

Cohen, author of “Israel and the Bomb” and “The Worst-Kept Secret,” is a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, California, and a senior fellow at the Wilson Center. The interview with Geisler was initiated by Cohen and Joshua Pollack. His testimony appears in the newest edition of the journal Nonproliferation Review, which is published by the Middlebury Institute, and was simultaneously posted in the Wilson Center’s digital archives as part of its Avner Cohen Collection.