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When Pakistan Feared Israel, India Will Launch An Attack On Its Nuclear Weapons Sites

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  • The administration of then-President Nawaz Sharif was under strong public pressure in the run-up to the tests to'respond' to India's nuclear testing at Pokhran on May 11 and 13, that year.

Pakistan has commemorated May 28 as Youm-e-Takbeer every year since 1998. (the day of greatness). The event commemorates the 20th anniversary of Pakistan’s first nuclear weapons tests, which took place in the Chagai hills of Balochistan on May 28, 1998.

The administration of then-President Nawaz Sharif was under strong public pressure in the run-up to the tests to’respond’ to India’s nuclear testing at Pokhran on May 11 and 13, that year. Benazir Bhutto, the primary opposition leader, even hurled bangles at Sharif during a public rally to mock him for allegedly taking too long to reply to India’s nuclear tests. The US and EU, on the other side, were pressuring Sharif to refrain from testing a nuclear bomb.

One aspect of the Chagai nuclear tests that is often overlooked is Pakistani leaders’ fears of an Israeli strike on their nuclear facilities in order to prevent the development of a ‘Islamic nuclear bomb.’ This included reports that Israeli F-16 fighter jets had been observed in its skies prior to the nuclear testing. Pakistan’s envoy to the United Nations, Ahmad Kamal, spoke with then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and the country also communicated its concerns about an Israeli assault to the Clinton administration in the United States.

“Both Israel’s envoy to the United Nations, Mr Dore Gold, and its ambassador to Washington, Mr Eliahu Ben-Elissar, got in touch with their Pakistani colleagues to deliver messages of comfort,” the Irish Times wrote in June 1998.

The Israeli government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, stated that Pakistan’s allegations of a strike on its nuclear facilities were without merit.

Early concerns

Israel’s concern about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons capacity, on the other hand, predates 1998.

Menachem Begin, the Israeli prime minister, wrote to Margaret Thatcher, the British prime minister, on May 17, 1979, to convey his alarm about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons development. Begin emphasised the tight relations that existed between General Zia-ul-Pakistan Haq’s and Libya’s leadership, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

“What could happen in the Middle East, and particularly to the men, women, and children in Israel,” Begin warned Thatcher, “should the lethal weapons of mass killing and destruction fall into the hands of an absolute tyrant like Colonel Qaddafi at any point.”

Former Pakistan Army brigadier Feroz Hassan Khan recounted Pakistan’s pursuit for nuclear weapons in his 2012 book Eating Grass: The Making of the Pakistani Bomb. “If India builds the bomb, we will eat grass or leaves, even go hungry, but we will get one of our own…”,” Pakistani politician Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto once remarked.

Pakistan’s pursuit of nuclear weapons capabilities began long before the 1971 war and India’s first nuclear test in 1974, as Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto revealed in a 1965 interview with Patrick Keatley of The Guardian.

Pakistan’s dread of an Israeli attack on its nuclear facilities, according to Feroz Hassan Khan’s book, was fueled by a shocking experience in 1981. In June 1981, Israeli F-16 aircraft bombed Osirak, a nuclear reactor under development in Baghdad. Saddam Hussein’s nuclear ambitions were irreversibly thwarted by the attack.

Attack plans

Khan alluded to alleged Indian and Israeli plots to attack Pakistan’s nuclear facilities, particularly the Kahuta uranium enrichment and research complex in the early 1980s.

“… Pakistani intelligence revealed that the Indian Air Force had begun planning an assault on Pakistan’s nuclear facilities after picking up leads of Israeli and Indian intelligence collaboration. At its Combat College, India undertook a feasibility study on an Osirak-style attack against Pakistan, and the Indian Air Force performed a series of drills in support of the study, some of which included top-of-the-line Jaguar aircraft. Meanwhile, Israel has proposed a fresh plan to achieve New Delhi’s objectives.

Israeli planes would take off from an Indian Air Force facility in Jamnagar, refuel at a satellite airstrip somewhere in northern India, and then track the Himalayas to escape early radar detection before entering Pakistani territory, according to Khan’s book.

Khan claimed that the operation had been approved by then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, but the US government, led by President Ronald Reagan, ordered India and Israel to back off. Indira Gandhi, Khan wrote, scrapped plans to strike Kahuta in 1982 and 1984.

Eminent strategic analyst Bharat Karnad appeared to back up Khan’s statements in a post on his website in November 2016. Karnad drafted the strategy for the 1982 attack on Kahuta, which included Israeli F-16 aeroplanes carrying bombs and F-15 air superiority fighters providing air defence to the attacking planes. According to Karnad, the Israeli planes will take off from Udhampur.

“Indira Gandhi had first approved of an Israeli strike on the Pakistani nuclear enrichment centrifuge plant in Kahuta in 1982 with Indian cooperation but called off the raid just before it got underway,” Karnad said, citing intelligence from retired Israeli major-general Aharon Yaariv.

Fears of Israeli assaults prompted Pakistan to beef up security at Kahuta and the Karachi nuclear power station, with the Pakistan Air Force launching combat air patrols over the locations, according to Khan. In 1988, Rajiv Gandhi of India and Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan established an agreement barring attacks on each other’s nuclear facilities.

As part of their adherence to the Agreement on the Prohibition of Attacks on Nuclear Installations and Facilities, the two countries have exchanged lists of their nuclear installations every year on January 1.

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