Israel fails to calm Dutch anger over 'nerve gas' crash

IT WAS around Songs of Praise time on a Sunday evening. The residents of the Bijlmermeer flats would probably have been pottering around at home, getting dinner, thinking about the week ahead, watching TV. There was a good football match on; top Dutch clubs Eindhoven and Feyenoord were playing.

Norma Habibi had popped out to the night shop for something, leaving her two toddlers with the woman next door. Turning the corner of the estate on her way back she heard a low drone and looked up to see "a terrible black shadow" fall over the block of flats. The drone turned to a roar like thunder. Then there was a ball of fire and before her eyes an El Al Boeing 747 cargo plane on its way from New York to Tel Aviv ploughed into the building.

The worst air crash in the history of the Netherlands, six years ago today, turned the Amsterdam apartment complex into a hell-like inferno in seconds, killing Norma Habibi's two children and 41 of her neighbours. Six years on, the surviving residents of the suburb are suffering physical ailments which their doctors have long suspected, and which new revelations last week appear to confirm, were caused by exposure to something more sinister than burning perfume, paints or electronic equipment.

El Al, the Israeli state airline, admitted last week it was also carrying three of the four chemical ingredients needed to make the odourless, highly toxic nerve agent sarin, the gas Saddam Hussein used against the Kurds in Iraq and which killed a dozen people in the Tokyo metro in 1995.

People in Amsterdam were appalled but not surprised. Rumours have been circulating for years that the men in coveralls and gas masks who appeared mysteriously at the site after the crash were from Mossad, the Israeli secret service.

Prompted by Dutch newspaper reports and a statement from El Al, the Israeli government admitted on Thursday there was a quantity of dimethyl methylphosphonate or DMMT on board, but denied the plane carried any "dangerous goods". The material was destined for "testing filters", a statement from the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said.

Freight papers for the El Al flight indicate that 190 litres of DMMT were on board the plane - enough, when combined with two other chemicals in the cargo, to generate more than a quarter of a tonne of sarin.

The materials, purchased from a US plant, were bound for the Institute for Biological Research in the Israeli town of Ness Ziona south of Tel Aviv. Israel has never admitted producing chemical or biological weapons and has signed, but not ratified, the International Convention on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

Jan Medema, who heads a team of chemical weapons inspectors and directs the toxic substances division at the Dutch defence research institute in The Hague, is concerned about the quantity of DMMT, the presence of two other substances (isopropanol and hydrogen fluoride) and the destination of the cargo.

Dr Medema believes that the volume of DMMT in itself was too big for routine experiments at a research lab. "We have been trying to think what possible research purposes you would need this compound in such large quantities for. The likelihood has to be that it was for sarin. Either they had some special plan for an experiment or they needed a quantity of sarin for some special purpose. This raises many questions."

Responding to the outcry, the Dutch government has ordered a full public inquiry. Beyond the chemicals which were identified last week and some ordinary industrial goods, mystery still surrounds one third of the cargo.

When and if the answers come they will be of interest not just to the sick people of Bijlmermeer and Ness Ziona (who have also been demanding to know what goes on there) but to anyone alarmed at the build-up of chemical and biological weapons in a region as volatile as the Middle East.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?