Mordechai Vanunu Arrested Again
It was a few minutes before noon in East Jerusalem, and Mordechai Vanunu, the courageous man who blew the whistle on Israel’s nuclear arsenal nearly two decades ago and became a hero to peace activists around the world, had just climbed a hundred steps to the top of the tower at St. George’s Anglican Cathedral, where he was about to ring the bell.
Vanunu--branded a traitor in Israel for exposing its nuclear secrets and converting to Christianity--took refuge at the compound immediately after his release from prison April 21.
His room in the guesthouse is a far cry from the 6-by-9-foot cell in which he was kept during 11 years of solitary confinement at the Shikma Prison in Ashkelon, where he served an 18-year sentence for treason and espionage.
Though he is no longer in prison, Vanunu, now 50, is hardly a free man. The Israeli government has imposed a harsh set of restrictions that prohibit him from leaving the country or talking to foreigners. According to the Jerusalem Post, Vanunu must notify police of any change in address or intention to spend a night outside his fixed address, and obtain permission to come within 500 meters of air- and seaports, land crossings, or borders, including the Green Line. He may not enter a foreign embassy or consulate without prior permission and cannot maintain relations or exchange ideas with foreigners or participate in Internet chats.
At the time of our series of telephone interviews, Vanunu had been defying the rules and granting interviews to foreign journalists, including an interview with the BBC’s David Frost. He said he realized our phone conversations were under surveillance but didn’t see any danger in it.
“It is only an excuse to silence me and to frighten the foreign media into not speaking with me about their nuclear secrets. I think you and others should continue to write about this issue and by letting me talk to US people, Israel will realize that the time has come to let me go.”
Vanunu wishes CNN and 60 Minutes would call, so more people can hear his plea to get out of Israel, but knows the realities of the US media and that important international stories are often overlooked.
“Israel’s powerful lobby in the United States and Europe succeeded in silencing my case,” said Vanunu. “They succeeded in killing the story.”
The revelations Vanunu disclosed to London’s Sunday Times about the Dimona nuclear reactor in Israel’s Negev desert on October 5, 1986 alarmed nuclear experts everywhere. He revealed that Israel was a major nuclear power and offered photographs he secretly snapped inside Dimona, where he worked as a technician for eight years.
Vanunu’s testimony and pictures, which have been scrutinized by nuclear experts on both sides of the Atlantic, show that Israel has developed the sophisticated and highly classified techniques needed to build up a formidable nuclear arsenal.
They confirmed that Israel was now a nuclear power, after America, the Soviet Union, Britain, France, and China, with an arsenal far greater than other members of the nuclear weapons club such as India, Pakistan, and (at the time) South Africa.
Even though the story uncovered much more than nuclear experts had publicly suspected about Israel’s nuclear program, newspapers around the world seemed to ignore it, just as they do now. The New York Times and Washington Post published articles but they were not featured prominently.
“Everybody in the arms control business was amazed there was nothing. Here is a fascinating and scary story, and no one is interested,” former White House aide Jerry Oplinger told Seymour Hersh for his 1991 book, The Samson Option.
It was later revealed that several publications, including Newsweek, had rejected Vanunu’s claims.
In Israel, the story sparked widespread outrage. It was rumored that Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin wanted Vanunu dead. The Sunday Times quoted Israeli Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir as reaffirming Israel’s official position that it would not be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons in the Middle East.
What readers didn’t know the day the article was published was that Israel’s notorious secret service, Mossad, had already closed in on Vanunu.
The Sunday Times flew Vanunu from Sydney to London weeks before for a series of extensive interviews and to meet with a renowned nuclear weapons expert who would check and crosscheck his claims, according to Peter Hounam, the reporter assigned to the story.
During his London visit, just a week before publication, Vanunu told Hounam he would be going away for three days. Hounam was unable to persuade him otherwise.
As Hounam feared, Vanunu never returned. Hounam later squared part of the blame on the Sunday Times for its “lax babysitting” of Vanunu and for allowing him to quietly depart “without anyone at the newspaper knowing where he was bound.”
Newsweek was the first to report that Mossad agents had taken Vanunu in an elaborate le Carré-like kidnapping plot, which it called “A Mossad Caper.”
As Israeli sources tell it, when Mossad got wind of Vanunu’s whereabouts, they arranged for a woman friend to lure him on a trip through Europe. On the Mediterranean, he was persuaded to board a yacht and--once in international waters--was arrested by the crew of Mossad agents and returned to Israel.
Vanunu claims the plot had the cooperation of a few countries, including France and Britain. Hounam reported that agents decided to kidnap Vanunu in Italy so Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres’ good friend, Margaret Thatcher, could avoid any political embarrassment.
It was later learned that Nicholas Davies, the foreign editor of the tabloid London Daily Mirror, which had tried to beat the Sunday Times by publishing an article discrediting Vanunu’s claims, had told Mossad agents where Vanunu was hiding.
Sy Hersh also revealed that the Mirror’s owner, publishing tycoon Robert Maxwell, later killed in a boating accident, was a Mossad informant.
After initially denying there was any kidnapping plot, Israel finally admitted on November 9, 1986 that Vanunu was in Israeli custody and would be charged with treason and espionage.
In March 1988, after a secret trial, Vanunu was sentenced to 18 years in prison. Amnesty International called his treatment in solitary confinement “cruel, inhuman, and degrading.” Vanunu said he was treated like a Palestinian prisoner and denied the rights of a Jewish prisoner, which meant he wasn’t allowed to receive “anything from the outside except mail and newspapers.”
Vanunu denies reports that Mossad agents tried to recruit him for information about Palestinian prisoners but said, “It was clear they wanted someone to work with them, but I refused to play their games.”
To this day, even though Vanunu has served his time and has not had access to classified information in more than 18 years, Israel contends he is still a risk.
Weeks after our telephone interview, on the morning of Yassir Arafat’s death, Israel-- hoping to avoid the glare of the international media--sent 30 soldiers armed with machine guns and wearing bulletproof vests to re-arrest Vanunu at the church compound in an attempt to silence him.
The soldiers terrorized tourists and pilgrims, according to the bishop, the Rt. Rev. Riah Abu El-Assal, who demanded to know why the soldiers had entered a sacred place in such a violent fashion to arrest a peaceful man.
They agreed to leave their weapons outside but proceeded to ransack Vanunu’s room, seizing papers, his laptop, and cell phone, and shuttled him to a nearby prison where he spent ten hours being interrogated by Israeli authorities.
“This is a disgrace to Israeli democracy!” Vanunu shouted to journalists as he was being escorted to court to appear before a magistrate. “They want to punish me again. They cannot punish me twice!”
Vanunu was placed under house arrest for “passing classified information to unauthorized parties” and is not allowed to leave the Anglican compound in East Jerusalem. So far, no charges have been filed but his fate remains uncertain.
In the US, Britain, and elsewhere, activists and friends of Vanunu have intensified their campaign to pressure Israel into allowing him leave.
“He is such an innocent person, and he has suffered so much,” said his adoptive mother, Mary Eoloff, of St. Paul, Minn. “To come for a non-violent man with 30 men is just appalling. I think they’re trying to frighten him and I don’t know what the repercussions are going to be.”
For the time being, he’s agreed to stop talking to foreign journalists, according to Felice Cohen-Joppa of the US Campaign to Free Mordechai Vanunu. “We’re asking people in the United States and around the world to flood the embassies in their countries with letters of protest expressing their outrage,” Cohen-Joppa says. “We really need to keep the pressure up and let the Israeli authorities know that we’re not going to forget about Mordechai Vanunu.”
“It’s an outrage that this man keeps being punished for the same act of whistle-blowing. He spent 18 years in prison. He served his full sentence and Israel needs to lift these draconian restrictions and allow him to leave and rebuild his life.”
There seems little hope, however, that Vanunu will get out of Israel anytime soon. After his initial release, Israel’s justice minister, Yosef Lapid, said the restrictions placed on Vanunu were justified: “This is the treatment he deserved even if the radical left turns him into a hero. He betrayed Israel.”
In July, the Israeli Supreme Court refused to loosen the restrictions because Vanunu “still retains in his memory secret information which, if published, could damage incontestable security interests of the state of Israel.”
In our interview, Vanunu denied he has any more secrets to spill. “I have made it very clear that I don’t have any more secrets. All the secrets I had already revealed eighteen years ago. Even if there are any secrets, they are very old. After eighteen years have passed those secrets are of no value anymore. Another thing we have to remember is that Israeli scientists didn’t invent or create the atomic bomb. They don’t have new Einsteins. All those nuclear secrets came from France, United States, from foreign states.”
Vanunu’s lifelong mission is to promote disarmament and non- proliferation to end the age of nuclear weapons. He wants Israel to join the Non-Proliferation Treaty and called on UN inspectors to examine the Dimona site, which he warns could turn into the “Chernobyl” of the Middle East.
The International Atomic Energy Agency recently announced it would send experts to Jordan to measure levels of radioactive pollution.
“Jordan, because it’s very close to the Dimona reactor, only five miles, has the right to know what is going on there and what is the danger,” said Vanunu. “The Dimona reactor is very old and should be closed.”
Vanunu said Iran should demand from the US that Israel become a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Israel considers Iran its biggest threat and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has recently tossed about hints widely circulated in the media that a pre-emptive attack against Iran’s nuclear sites is imminent. “We are taking steps to defend ourselves,” Sharon is quoted as saying.
“Iran itself doesn’t have any nuclear weapons,” said Vanunu. “I think the problem is not Iran’s nuclear weapons. The problem is Iranian democracy is not real democracy. We have a religious dictatorship in Iran, that is the problem.”
Vanunu said the US should also question Israel about its nuclear weapons, but that is unlikely. The US has for many years turned a blind eye toward Israel’s nuclear program.
As for life outside of Israel, if he ever is ever allowed to leave, Vanunu said he has a long to-do list. He plans to write a book about his case--telling the “true facts”--and another analyzing the history of spies in the United States.
“I spent 17 very hard years in prison, in isolation. During those years, I learned a lot about the media, the spies behind the media, how the government controls the media, and also I read history and found very interesting points about the spies behind the events of the last 200 years.”
Vanunu was recently given a $50,000 peace grant by Yoko Ono and was widely rumored as a candidate for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. His hope is to get asylum in another country, but first Israel must agree to release him.
“I have no other options here. In Israel I’m still under threat of arrest and punishment. I cannot walk free on the streets of Israel.”
He’s appealed to the governments of Ireland, Norway, England, Canada, Denmark, his native Morocco, and the US. Although his best hope is to come to the US, he will gladly head for any country that will grant him asylum.
“I look forward to getting out and enjoying freedom and I want the world to support me in this.”
Bryan Goebel is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.
© Earth Island Journal, Spring 2005