Ehud Sprinzak z”l and Ely Karmon
June 2007

This article was originally written in 2002 by the late Israeli scholar Ehud Sprinzak in collaboration with Ely Karmon. Prof. Sprinzak succumbed to cancer on November 8, 2002 at the age of 62.2 The book was forthcoming for a long time by RAND Publications under the title “Israeli Citrus and Palestinian Use of Chemical and Biological Weapons” in the book Motives, Means, and Mayhem. Terrorist Acquisition and Use of Unconventional Weapons, edited by John V. Parachini. For various reasons this book has not yet been published.

I decided to publish this article on ICT’s website in memory of Prof. Ehud Sprinzak, Founding Dean of the Lauder School of Government at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya and member of the Board of Directors of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) at IDC. The article includes an Afterward updating the information available on this subject until June 2007.

The Problem

The recent interest in the possible use by terrorists of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) has led students of terrorism to reexamine in depth past cases of known or alleged WMD terrorism. One of the major focuses of the new research also involves an effort to answer the question of why not? Why have large and resourceful terrorist organizations refrained from using what appears as a very effective terror weapon?3 This article looks at the Palestinian terrorist organizations and factions engaged between the 1960s and the 1990s in a fierce struggle against the State of Israel. Looking at all the available information on the small number of cases involving Palestinian use of unconventional weapons, the article tries to explain the outstanding absence of thinking on toxic terrorism in this otherwise very bellicose milieu.

The Poisoning of Israeli Oranges in Europe: January – February 1978

While the Palestinian terrorist organizations rarely appear in the literature on unconventional terrorism, there is one incident that is repeatedly associated with them and is mentioned all over the literature, the 1978 poisoning of Israeli oranges in Western Europe. Even David Rapoport, a leading critic of the WMD terrorism hype, and a careful fact-checker, repeats the story in his most recent article on the subject. Rapoport tells us that,

“In 1978 the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) began to poison Israeli oranges in European markets, injuring 12 and seriously damaging the Israeli economy. But then the activity stopped and we don’t know why.”4

The events surrounding the incidents of poisoning of Israeli oranges were indeed reported in the literature on terrorism, but as with other incidents relating to unconventional terrorism, the facts were never investigated in depth and remain unclear to this very day.

Ron Purver, who has compiled the most detailed and exhaustive abstract of the literature on chemical and biological (CBW) terrorism untill 1995, has included the affair of the poisoning of Israeli oranges among “the successful uses of chemical agents.”5 According to Purver, the contamination by Palestinian terrorists or their sympathizers of Israel’s citrus exports to Europe with liquid mercury were variously reported to have occurred in 1977, 1978, and 1979.6 Purver’s article summarizes, in fact, all that has become known from these incidents: “Europeans in at least three countries became ill from eating Israeli citrus products – oranges, lemons, and grapefruit – that had been contaminated with mercury, which presumably had been injected under the skins of the citrus products with a syringe. A group identifying itself as the Arab Revolutionary Army – Palestinian Commandos, in a letter to the Dutch government, announced that its goal was ‘to sabotage the Israeli economy.’ No one died from the incident and only slightly more than a dozen people were poisoned, but Israel’s citrus exports were profoundly affected, with the loss of badly needed foreign exchange.” [7]

But is this indeed a case of successful use by Palestinian terrorists of chemical agents against Israel, an early preview of WMD economic terrorism? Were Palestinian terror strategists really involved in this sophisticated operation? How unconventional was this unconventional terrorism? And if so effective, why was it stopped?

The sequence of events:8 On 26 January 1978 Mrs. Maria Berg-Puts bought 3.5 kilos of Jaffa oranges in Maastrich, in the southern Netherlands. The next day she and her four children ate the fruits and felt a bitter taste. Cutting one orange open, the elder son found silver liquid in the flesh of the fruit. After the family doctor sent them to hospital, the authorities moved in, and four of the six remaining oranges were found to have been injected with mercury – one with a large 10-gram dose.9 All the children involved in the Maastrich incident recovered rapidly without after-effects. On January 27, 1978, a woman found one orange injected with mercury in a shop in Frankfurt, Germany and alerted the authorities. In the same day shoppers in the Dutch city of Heemlen also found oranges injected with mercury. Although they themselves were not affected, the great scare began.

The poisoning incidents were not publicized in the European media untill January 31, 1978, when Dutch newspapers first broke the story. By that time, the Reuters news agency already knew that an organization calling itself The Arab Revolutionary Army (ARA) had sent letters to 18 European and Middle Eastern governments, including those of Yugoslavia and Romania, threatening to poison Israeli oranges. The Israeli press began reporting the case on February 1, 1978.10 The publicity given to the first incidents instantly turned the orange poisoning into an affair of grave public anxiety. The European public, the governments concerned, and the Israeli export authorities were greatly alarmed. And due to the centrality of the Jaffa trademark in Europe, Israeli interests seemed to be particularly hard hit.

The hysteria over the poisoning quickly produced a new wave of discoveries of injected oranges, including lemons and grapefruits. But oranges from countries other than Israel were now added to the contamination list. On February 1, 1978, injected oranges from Spain were discovered in Holland and Germany. The snowball effect was now in full swing.11

On January 31, 1978, an off-duty policeman in Dortmund, West Germany, became sick after eating a mercury-poisoned Israeli orange. The same day, poisoned oranges were found in Aachen and Frankfurt. On February 1, 1978, pea-sized amounts of mercury were discovered in Israeli fruit in Darmstadt. Sweden was added to the list on February 2, 1978. Mercury injected into Israeli oranges sold in Sweden was discovered to have caused skin discoloration. Spanish oranges injected with mercury were now discovered in the same Dutch area where contaminated Israeli produce appeared earlier. A 12-year-old girl was hospitalized in Bremen after eating a poisoned Israeli orange. On February 5, 1978, the first mercury injected oranges reached Belgium and Britain (London). A lemon injected with mercury was found in Heverle the next day. Some cases were now reported in Scandinavia, in the city of Malmo (Sweden) and Copenhagen (Denmark). On February 6, 1978, a woman found a mercury-poisoned Israeli orange in a bag of fruit she had bought in a London store. On February 7, 1978, the Groningen (Dutch) authorities discovered ten contaminated Spanish oranges. On February 13, 1978, Italian health officials banned the sale of grapefruit in Milan and Bergamo after an Israeli-imported grapefruit was found to be poisoned with mercury.12 Certain observers were surprised about this, because at the beginning of the poisoning hype, the Italian authorities assured their people that Italy did not import Israeli oranges, and was consequently immune to the plague.13

The first and main wave of orange poisoning lasted till the middle of February. By February 13, 1978, the number of injected oranges was the following:14

– West Germany – 11

– Belgium – 9

– Netherlands – 7

– Great Britain – 3

– Sweden – 2

– Denmark – 1

According to the London Sunday Times, the entire affair had been blown out of proportion and only 50 oranges contaminated with mercury were found in various cities in Europe. There had, furthermore, been little damage reported.15 The majority of the infected oranges did not come from Israel, but were exported from Spain, Morocco and Cyprus. Belgium’s minister of health declared on February 6, 1978, that three out of four poisoned oranges discovered in his country came from Spain, and only one from Israel.16 A February 12, 1978 report by an Israeli daily Yedyiot Aharonot listed a total of 21 oranges injected with mercury in Europe, with only six from Israel. The paper counted one orange from Morocco, one from Egypt, and 13 from Spain.17