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The Guardian Profile: Israel's Nuclear Whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu
Published on Friday April 16, 2004 by the Guardian/UK
The Guardian Profile: Mordechai Vanunu
An imprisoned hero, a Nobel prize nominee, a victim, or a traitor: Israel's nuclear whistleblower represents many things to many people. How will he and his country react when the day of his release from jail dawns next week?
by Duncan Campbell
 

An imprisoned hero, a Nobel prize nominee, a victim, or a traitor: Israel's nuclear whistleblower represents many things to many people. How will he and his country react when the day of his release from jail dawns next week?

Nearly 18 years ago, a young Israeli nuclear technician went to London to reveal the secrets of his country's atomic weapons program to the world. Then, lured to Italy by an Israeli secret service agent, he was drugged, gagged, bound and returned to Israel, where he was convicted of treason and espionage and sentenced to 18 years' imprisonment.

Next week, after serving most of that sentence in solitary confinement, he will finally be released.

Mordechai Vanunu is 49 and has become a symbol for the international peace movement. He has been nominated for a Nobel peace prize, and a long-running campaign has sought his release.

When he finally walks out of the gates of Shekma prison next Wednesday, to be met by scores of his supporters from a dozen different countries around the world, he will not be allowed to leave the country for at least six months, or communicate with any foreigner.

Born in 1954 in Marrakesh, Morocco, into a large and deeply religious Jewish family which emigrated to Israel in 1963, Vanunu served for three years in the sappers' unit of the Israeli Defense Force after he left school. He held the rank of sergeant and was given an honorable discharge. He then became a technician at the nuclear reactor center in Dimona. He worked there from 1976 to 1985, when he was made redundant.

At the same time, he was studying philosophy at Ben Gurion university and already beginning to feel uncomfortable about a number of his government's policies.

He was also beginning to come to the attention of the authorities, not least because, along with four other Jewish students and five Arab students, he had formed a radical group, called Campus. He was also an admirer of his professor, Evron Pollakov, a radical who had refused to serve with the Israeli army in Lebanon and had been jailed as a result.

The security services noted Vanunu's increasing radicalism, his professed sympathy for the Palestinians, and the fact that he had links with an organization called the Movement for the Advancement of Peace.

By now he was starting to suffer what he later described as a crisis of conscience while working at the Dimona plant, which was clandestinely producing nuclear weapons.

He started to take photos of the plant, without having made a decision to do anything with them. As he later explained: "It crossed my mind, of course, but I just wanted to think over my future and make plans to see more of the world."

Made redundant in 1985, he used his $7,500 payoff to travel round the world, visiting Nepal, Burma and Thailand before arriving in Australia, where he booked into a hostel in the Kings Cross district and found himself odd jobs as a hotel dishwasher and later a taxi driver. "The people are friendly," he wrote to a former girlfriend. "They drink a lot of beer."

At around this time, he introduced himself to the local church, St John's, where he was made welcome by the Rev John McKnight, who was well known in the area for his work with homeless people and drug addicts. He gradually decided to convert to Christianity, being baptized as an Anglican in 1986 - a move that was to alienate him from his parents and most of his 11 brothers and sisters.

At the church, during a discussion on peace and nuclear proliferation, Vanunu divulged some of the knowledge that he had gained at Dimona. By chance, a freelance Colombian journalist called Oscar Guerrero was working at the church. He heard about Vanunu and encouraged him to tell all.

Guerrero contacted the Australian press, but without success. He headed for Europe and approached the Sunday Times, which assigned the investigative journalist Peter Hounam and the Insight team to the story. In the summer of 1986, Hounam flew to Sydney to assess the strength of the allegation that Israel, despite its denials, was secretly developing a nuclear arsenal.

"I liked him straight away," said Hounam this week as he prepared to set off to Israel for Vanunu's release. "We spent 12 days together and he answered all my questions in a very straightforward way. He spoke about his disillusionment about what was going on in Israel."

It was agreed that Vanunu should come to London, where he could talk to nuclear scientists in the peace movement and be debriefed. Hounam continued to interview him, and the paper prepared to publish the revelations.

However, before the story had even appeared in the Sunday Times, Vanunu disappeared. He had grown frustrated with a delay in publication, and was upset by a piece in the Sunday Mirror which wrongly accused him of being a hoaxer. Crucially, he had also met a woman, "Cindy", who he believed was an American tourist. She seemed to be attracted to him, and was critical of the Israeli government.

Hounam told him: "Morde, this woman might be lying, she might be a Mossad plant," but Vanunu thought she was genuine.

"Cindy" paid for air tickets to Rome, said that her sister had a flat on the outskirts of the city, and suggested that they could have a holiday there. Vanunu believed her until the moment he entered the flat and was overpowered by two men. He was injected with a drug, smuggled on to a ship and taken back to Israel. At Mossad's headquarters, he was shown a copy of the Sunday Times story which had appeared on October 5 and told: "See the damage you have done."

Convicted of treason and espionage at a closed trial, Vanunu was jailed for 18 years. The first eleven and a half were spent in solitary confinement. There was fear for his mental health as he grew increasingly despairing. For the first part of his sentence, the light in his cell was kept on all the time.

Since being allowed to mix with other prisoners, his health has apparently improved considerably. He has read voraciously, for many years studying Kant, Sartre, Camus and Nietzsche, but more recently reading historical works, and in particular the history of the US. He listens to opera on a cassette player and hopes to travel eventually, possibly settling in Minnesota with Nick and Mary Eoloff, a couple from the peace movement who have gone through an adoption process to name him as their son.

His natural parents are still alive, but it has mainly been his two brothers, Meir, a photographer in Israel, and Asher, the deputy head of a high school there, who have supported him during his long incarceration.

"It's a terrible tragedy," said Hounam. "I've been waiting since 1986 for this moment. I want him to be able to resume his life, maybe get married and have kids. It's been a scandal what has happened to him."

Although denounced as a traitor by his government and the subject of frequent allegations about his motives in some of the Israeli press, his actions have won him international support.

Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon papers in an attempt to end the war in Vietnam in the 70s, has described Vanunu as "heroic" and often refers to him as such in his public speeches.

Sabby Sagall, one of the founding members of the London-based Campaign to Free Vanunu and for a Nuclear Free Middle East, said: "He is one of the bravest and most inspirational people of our time. If Bush and Blair want to find weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East, Vanunu has told them where to go."

Professor Joseph Rotblat, a Nobel peace prize winner, has also been outspoken in his support.

Among those flying to Israel this weekend are Bruce Kent, vice-president of CND, and the actor Susannah York.

Ernest Rodker, the secretary of the campaign, said: "He is in some physical danger if he remains in Israel. A talkshow host called for him to be wiped out recently."

Rodker said that Vanunu had a wide range of correspondents who had kept in touch with him over the years. He hoped that, if Vanunu wanted to come to Britain, he would be allowed to do so - Britain had a responsibility towards him because he was in effect lured away while on British soil. It was believed at the time that Vanunu was not seized in Britain because the Israeli government did not want to embarrass Mrs Thatcher.

Over the years, pleas for his release or for a less harsh jail regime met with little response. The Israeli government position was made clear in 1997 when President Ezer Weizman said at a press conference in London: "He was a spy who gave away secrets, and the fact that he did so for conviction rather than for money makes no difference. He was a traitor to his country."

In one of the hundreds of letters that Vanunu wrote in prison, he said he saw himself as a free man.

"I'll stay free, to prove that I was right to reveal the madness of the Israeli nuclear secrets. I am not a spy, but a man who helped all the world to end the madness of the nuclear race."

 

Life in short

Born: October 13 1954, Morocco

Life

1963: family emigrates to Israel 1971-74: military service in army 1976-1985: technician at Dimona nuclear reactor center

Travels in far east before arriving in London to talk to Sunday Times

September 1986: disappears.

October 1986: Sunday Times publishes his story.

November 1986: Israel admits it has him in custody.

March 1988: convicted of treason and sentenced to 18 years' imprisonment.

Vanunu on impending release

"I'll be free, I won. The gates and the locks will be opened. They didn't succeed in breaking me or driving me crazy."

Vanunu on future

"I have no interest in fighting the state. I want to live a normal life, a simple life, as a free man outside of Israel"

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004

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