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Knesset to probe allegations of biological weapons research

JERUSALEM, Feb. 18 (JTA) — A Knesset committee has decided to investigate work practices at a scientific research center that reportedly is researching and developing biological weapons. Labor Knesset member Rafi Elul, who is chairman of a parliamentary committee on scientific and technological research, initiated a discussion this week about the activities of the Ness Ziona Biological Research Institute in central Israel. Elul, who lives near the institute, claimed to represent many area residents in expressing his concern that an accident at the institute or a missile attack during wartime could have a catastrophic impact on the local community. He said that now was the time to consider moving the institute away from densely populated areas. “I don’t want to wait until a disaster and for a commission of inquiry to be established afterwards,” Elul said. “I want to know if the activities there endanger local residents and if all steps are being taken to prevent accidents.” The institute, which was established in 1952 to conduct basic and applied biological and chemical research, has had no accidents during its 45-year history. In recent years, the institute became involved in the research and development of defense systems against chemical and biological warfare, according to foreign news reports, which also have speculated that work is being done there to develop biological weapons. Adding to the center’s mystique are the formidable walls surrounding the heavily-guarded facility, which operates under the auspices of the Prime Minister’s Office. The center was once situated in orchards on the outskirts of Ness Ziona, but suburban sprawl has brought residential neighborhoods right up to its gates. Among the participants at Tuesday’s Knesset committee deliberations was the director of the institute, Avigdor Shefferman, who stressed that all work at the center was being conducted in accordance with international regulations and standards. “There is a public committee which oversees this,” he said. The Knesset members at the hearing later decided to establish a committee that would tour the site, review work practices and make recommendations. One of the institute’s former senior scientists, Marcus Klingberg, was convicted in the early 1980s of spying for the former Soviet Union. In a separate development Tuesday, a special parole board rejected an appeal brought by Klingberg, 79, who asked that he be cleared of the remaining six years of his 20-year sentence on the grounds of his poor health. The parole board rejected the request, saying that there had been no change in the security risk he posed. It also ruled out letting Klingberg serve the rest of his term under house arrest, citing the expense of providing security for him. A group of Knesset members from the right and left protested the board’s decision, saying that Klingberg’s ill health warranted his release.