Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, April 2004, pages 10-11

Special Report

After 18 Years in Prison, Mordechai Vanunu’s Day of Freedom Nears

By Delinda C. Hanley

Mordechai Vanunu awaiting a July 3, 2003 parole hearing at the district courthouse in the southern Israeli city of Beersheva (AFP photo/Haim Horenstein).

AFTER SERVING nearly 18 years in an Israeli prison—11-1/2 of them in solitary confinement—Mordechai Vanunu should be a free man on April 21. Now 49 years old, he has spent the prime of his life locked in a 6-foot by 9-foot cell in Ashkelon prison for blowing the whistle on Israel’s secret nuclear arsenal.

Vanunu’s friends and enemies alike worry about what will happen next.

As his release date nears, Vanunu is said to be in good spirits. He knows he did the right thing by telling Israelis and the rest of the world what his country was up to, and he looks forward to a new beginning—perhaps moving to the United States, where his adoptive parents live, and becoming a history teacher.

One of 11 children born to Moroccan Jewish parents, Vanunu emigrated to Israel in 1963, when he was 9 years old. Following his obligatory service in the Israel Defense Forces, he worked for 10 years as a technician at Israel’s Dimona nuclear “research center” in the Negev Desert.

Throughout the 1970s and ”˜80s, inside what it claimed was a textile factory in Dimona, Israel built an underground plutonium separation plant and a bomb assembly factory. The underground complex extended six stories beneath the two-story building.

For years Israel has maintained a policy of nuclear “ambiguity”—neither denying nor confirming that it possesses nuclear weapons. Because it objects to international inspections, Israel has refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty—unlike Iran, Iraq or North Korea. Israel’s weapons of mass destruction thus remain uncounted and unregulated.

Troubled by his work with Israel’s nuclear bomb program, Vanunu decided to leave the country. Before he left, however, he took photographs inside the factory to document Israel’s undisclosed nuclear weapons program. He then backpacked through Asia and ended up in Sydney, Australia, where he became active in an Anglican church social justice community. In 1986, he converted to Christianity.

His story about his experiences in Dimona came to the attention of Britain’s Sunday Times, which flew him to London. The newspaper prepared to publish Vanunu’s startling revelations: Tiny Israel had become a major nuclear power, rivaling Britain, China and France. For two decades the Jewish state had been producing weapons clandestinely at Dimona and possessed “at least 100 and as many as 200 nuclear weapons.” The Oct. 5, 1986 article, written by Peter Hounam, included a drawing of the entire Dimona underground complex and the photographs Vanunu had secretly taken of the control room.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that Vanunu very nearly was assassinated. In a Reuters report published in the Feb. 5, 2004 Haaretz, former Mossad director Shabtai Shavit admitted that, after first learning about the Sunday Times interview, his spy agency considered assassinating Vanunu. “But,” Shavit said, “Jews do not do that to other Jews. He was a traitor, so in accordance with Jewish morality and Jewish law he paid for it with imprisonment.”

Thus, even before the Sunday Times went to press—in a scheme masterminded by Shavit—the then 31-year-old Vanunu was lured from London to Rome by “Cindy”—in real life Cheryl Ben Tov, a blonde American Mossad agent who now lives in Orlando, Florida with her husband, Ofer, a former major in the Israeli intelligence service. On Sept. 30, 1986, he was kidnapped, drugged, hustled onto a ship, and spirited from Rome back to Israel. After a seven-month secret trial, Vanunu was found guilty of espionage and treason and sentenced to 18 years in prison.

The Israeli government has kept Vanunu in conditions Amnesty International called “cruel, inhuman and degrading.” For years Vanunu’s human contact was restricted to his prison guards, and infrequent visits with his siblings, a lawyer, or a priest. Released into the general prison population after more than a decade in solitary confinement, Vanunu still was restricted from contact with Palestinian prisoners and denied access to phones or the press. His mail was censored and delayed, and he was allowed only infrequent visits with Nicholas and Mary Eoloff, the St. Paul, Minnesota couple who adopted him in 1997.

With Mordechai’s long ordeal drawing to an end, the Washington Report contacted the Eoloffs to ask what they thought might be in store for their son. They explained how they first heard Mordechai’s incredible story from Sam Day, who, until his death in January 2001, was campaign coordinator of the U.S. Campaign to Free Mordecai Vanunu. The campaign now is coordinated by Felice Cohen-Joppa.

After exchanging letters for years, the couple’s affection for the isolated prisoner grew, along with their frustration and a sense of powerlessness. If they could adopt Mordechai, thought these earnest Americans, they would be allowed to visit him in prison—and, they believed, they could petition then-President Bill Clinton, who might help strike a deal in which Mordechai could finish his sentence in the U.S. Clinton, however, refused to help the Eoloffs.

Over the years, Mordechai repeatedly was denied parole or early release because, the courts charged, he could divulge secrets. Those secrets, however, Nick pointed out, have disappeared or now are nearly 18 years old.

The latest allegation appearing in Israeli papers, Eoloff added, is that if Mordechai is allowed to speak he may slander the State of Israel.

Vanunu’s adoptive father went on to describe his and his wife’s last visit with Mordechai in November, when Mordechai was counting the days until he could walk out the gates of Ashkelon a free man. The Eoloffs will be there to greet him, along with Mordechai’s friends and supporters from around the world, Nick told the Washington Report. In addition to Mordechai’s American friends and family, Nick said, will be a good number of his U.K. supporters, who have been holding a “Countdown to Freedom Campaign” marking the number of days to Mordechai’s freedom in banners, newspaper ads, and Web sites.

The Eoloffs are determined to help their son obtain a new Israeli passport and leave Israel if he wants to. According to Nick, there have been reports from anonymous Israeli security officials that Israel could place Mordechai under administrative detention, under a gag order, and prevent him from leaving the country. “Mordechai told us Shin Beit, Israel’s secret police, had already paid him a visit to ask about his future plans,” Nick said. “They wanted to take his papers and books to examine them before his release.”

When asked if Mordechai would move to Minnesota, Nick laughed. “He’s not too enthusiastic about our winters,” he explained. “He may try the East or West Coast.”

Mary Eoloff is worried about her son’s safety as long as he stays in Israel. “I’m not going to talk about ”˜What ifs?’” she said. “But I’m not going to rest easy until he is safe.” Reminding the writer that, just before his troubles began, Vanunu had converted to Christianity, Mary said that Anglican Bishop Riah Abu El-Assal in Jerusalem has agreed to provide sanctuary if needed.

Mary also said her son needs letters from the outside world, both to cheer him and to remind Israel that Mordechai is not a “non-person.” With every letter sent to her son, to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, to ambassadors, public officials and newspapers—both in Israel and around the world—Mordechai’s chance for freedom improves.

If the ruckus over the recent release of a BBC documentary is any indication of what lies ahead after Vanunu is freed, however, we’d better fasten our seat belts. “Israel’s Secret Weapon” told Vanunu’s shocking story to an English audience in March 2003 and was rerun June 28 around the world, including in Israel—but not the U.S. The film so infuriated the Jewish state that it boycotted the BBC, denied interviews to its reporters and invitations to government briefings, and generally made it difficult for the BBC to obtain press cards and work visas in Israel.

The hard-hitting documentary examined Israel’s nuclear weapons policies and went on to warn against the danger posed by Israel’s unregulated and aging nuclear and biological installations.

Thousands of people work at two aging nuclear plants in Dimona, the BBC report revealed, as well as at other nuclear plants in Nahal Suryak, south of Tel Aviv, Raishon Liston, and Haifa. Because of Israel’s failure to monitor environmental safety, the documentary charges, employees at the nuclear reactors, as well as at Israel’s biological institute at Nes Tziona, are at risk.Nes Tziona has been the site of fires, spills, and explosions of toxic gas. Former workers who are ill—including more than a hundred with cancer—are denied compensation because Israeli authorities pooh-poohed their claims that they worked with nuclear material. Victims are warned that, if they complain, they will end up like Vanunu.

Deeply disturbing footage also shows a Palestinian youth writhing in convulsions after exposure to an unknown new gas used by the Israelis in Gaza in February 2001. Israel claimed it was tear gas, but doctors had no idea how to treat 180 convulsing patients exposed to the mysterious gas.

Because it has refused to sign treaties or even admit to its chemical or biological capabilities, Israel doesn’t release information on or monitor its lethal weapons. In the film, Israeli nuclear scientist Uzi Even describes the country’s biological and chemical weapons and nuclear submarines as a “final insurance policy.”

The Israeli Embassy in London lobbied the BBC to postpone the broadcast of ”Israel’s Secret Weapon.” The BBC buckled, delaying its originally scheduled spot and instead showing it late the following night. After the documentary aired, the BBC received record amounts of mail.

When the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, asked the BBC how to purchase the documentary, we were told the BBC has no plans to sell a video of the documentary, and reminded that it is illegal to copy, sell or distribute the copyrighted documentary.

”Israel’s Secret Weapon” has not been shown on U.S. network television. Americans wishing to see the film may contact their local stations to request a U.S. showing—or move abroad.

It is rumored that Canada soon will release another documentary on Vanunu.

The Israeli press already is discussing the whistleblower’s “crime” and speculating about damage control measures after his release.

Former Mossad chief Shavit, who retired from the intelligence agency in 1996 and now chairs the International Policy Institute for Counterterrorism at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center, told Haaretz that he fears Vanunu will spill more state “secrets” upon his release from prison. In his letters from prison, according to Haaretz, Vanunu has vowed to keep campaigning to expose Israel’s non-conventional weapons capabilities.

Shavit has called for Vanunu to be legally silenced after his release. “I propose gagging this man,” he said. “The main consideration should be his intent to go on causing damage to Israel. And who will guarantee that he will only speak the truth? What is to stop him imagining things?”

According to unnamed security sources, the Justice Ministry may refuse to issue Vanunu an Israeli passport in order to prevent him from leaving the country, and may subject to military censorship any press interviews he gives. If Vanunu attempts to discuss state “secrets” he could face arrest and a new trial, the Haaretz report warns.

In 1986 the international community allowed Israel to kidnap Vanunu on foreign soil, try him in secret and incarcerate for 18 years a man guilty only of whistleblowing. The world is watching now to see if Israel will allow Vanunu, who has paid a heavy price for his convictions, to enjoy life and freedom.

For too long the world has turned a blind eye to Israel’s nuclear arsenal. In recent months, however, the climate has changed. Libya, Iran, North Korea, India and Pakistan now discuss their weapons programs, and Israel’s neighbors are calling for a nuclear- free Middle East. It may be in Israel’s interest to take this opportunity to join the nearly 150 nations which have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and to come clean about its nuclear and biological weapons programs.

For more information on Mordachai Vanunu, or to send financial support to help him after his release, contact: The U.S. Campaign to Free Mordechai Vanunu, P.O. Box 43384, Tucson, AZ 85733, phone/fax (520) 323-8697, e-mail <[email protected]> or visit the Web site <www.nonviolence.org/vanunu>.

For information on the UK Campaign to Free Vanunu e-mail <[email protected]> or visit the Web site <www.vanunu.freeserve.co.uk>. 

Delinda C. Hanley is news editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, on Middle East Affairs.