Al-Ahram Weekly – 3 June 2004
For the first time in nearly two decades, nuclear whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu was able to speak directly to the world in an interview with the British media at the weekend. Jonathan Cook reports
Both The Sunday Times and the BBC gave a platform to Vanunu in an interview, held in secret, in which he told of his reasons in 1986 for revealing to the world the existence of some 200 Israeli nuclear warheads, of his kidnap by a Mossad agent in Rome and of severe treatment at the hands of Israeli prison authorities.
Although the former technician at the Dimona nuclear plant in the Negev had not been allowed to speak of these or any other matters since his capture by Israel, there was little that was explosive in his latest revelations. The reason was simple: as well as being banned from leaving the country, Vanunu is under a severe gagging order from Israeli authorities which forbids him from speaking to foreigners, using mobile phones or Internet chat rooms, and talking about Israel’s nuclear policy in even the vaguest terms. He has been threatened with a rapid return to prison should he violate the restrictions.
Far more sensational than Vanunu’s latest statements, however, were events surrounding the interview. On Wednesday last week the Shin Bet security services stormed the Jerusalem hotel of a senior British freelance journalist, Peter Hounam, who published Vanunu’s original revelations in 1986. He was arrested and held without access to a lawyer amid a storm of protest from the media, both Israeli and foreign, and much embarrassment on the part of law officials.
It was soon alleged by the Shin Bet that Hounam had helped Vanunu to violate the terms of his release by interviewing him and that the interview contained information damaging to state security. Hounam, who was released the next day from a jail more usually housing Palestinian detainees, said he had been held “in a dungeon with excrement on the walls” and deprived of sleep for all but two hours. He was required to leave the country on Friday or face deportation.
Fast on the heels of Hounam’s arrest came a swoop by the Shin Bet on the Anglican bishop of Jerusalem, the Right Rev Riah Abu Al- Assal, as he returned from a trip to Jordan. The bishop, who is providing sanctuary to Vanunu, a convert to Christianity, at St George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem, was reported to have a copy of the taped interview in his safe. Al- Assal was interrogated and forced to undergo a body search.
At the same time the Shin Bet began a damage limitation operation, trying to prevent the tape being smuggled out of Israel. A TV producer working for the BBC, Chris Mitchell, was detained at Ben Gurion Airport with several copies. Another BBC employee was also forced to hand over a tape.
Nonetheless, the interview aired on Sunday night on the BBC. The broadcast could be the best insurance policy against re-arrest Vanunu has.
During the last years of Vanunu’s detention, the Israeli security authorities worked tirelessly to persuade their prisoner to renounce his “treasonable activities” and promise to keep silent. To the intense annoyance of Yehiel Horev, the security chief of the Ministry of Defence and the man in charge of keeping a veil over Israel’s nuclear arsenal, Vanunu refused.
As Vanunu’s release date of 21 April approached, Horev then proposed extending his detention beyond the full 18-year term through an administrative detention order. Although Horev’s view was widely shared in the government, the attorney general warned that such an action would be illegal.
The other choice — the one adopted by authorities — was to impose a raft of draconian limitations on Vanunu’s freedom that would either force him into absolute silence or ensure he would sooner or later end up back behind bars.
It is with this background in mind that the latest episodes in the Vanunu saga should be understood. In fact, Hounam arranged for the interview with Vanunu to be conducted by an Israeli peace activist, Yael Lotan, as a way to circumvent the restrictions. Despite the Shin Bet allegations against Hounam, there was no justification — even under the punitive Israeli measures imposed on Vanunu — for his arrest.
The BBC was also harshly scolded by the Foreign Ministry in hyperbole rare even by Israeli government standards. According to officials quoted in the Haaretz daily newspaper, the broadcaster’s “goal is to undermine the legitimacy of the state of Israel. It promotes hostile coverage of Israel … and the Vanunu affair proves that the BBC is a communications entity which shows complete disregard for journalistic standards and ethics.”
The Foreign Ministry said it would reconsider its relations with the BBC, which only thawed in November 2003, accusing it of not submitting the interview to the country’s military censor. In fact, foreign media are not expected to comply with the censorship system before publication.
The point of the overreaction appeared to be threefold. First, the Israeli security establishment is desperate to perpetuate an image — generated and unchallenged during Vanunu’s captivity — of him as a half-crazed traitor and anti-Semite. The interview threatens to expose such fabrications. As Lotan observed of the interview, “Mordechai Vanunu is not paranoid. He is very calm and lucid and dignified.”
Second, foreign journalists and media organisations were being given a very clear warning to stay away from Vanunu or face trouble.
And third — but far from least — a path was being laid for the future detention, and silencing, of Vanunu.
The chairman of the Knesset committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence commented at the time of Hounam’s arrest: “The very fact that Vanunu gave an interview to an Israeli journalist working for a foreign one is a sophisticated way of breaking the law. In any other country, Vanunu would have been placed straight back under detention.”
A Defence Ministry official, possibly Horev, quoted in The Jerusalem Post contributed to the retributive atmosphere. The official was reported as being convinced that Vanunu still had secrets to divulge, claiming that diagrams of the nuclear reactor had been found in his cell. The official added that it was only time before Vanunu incriminated himself.
At the time of going to press, Vanunu was still free. But Shin Bet officials repeatedly stated to the Hebrew media that they believed Vanunu had violated the terms of his gagging order. “We can’t just arrest Vanunu. There has to be a case against him first and we are collecting information for this,” a security official told the Post on Sunday.
What evidence they believe they have found is harder to fathom. In the interview, Vanunu and Lotan avoid issues that touch directly on security. Instead Vanunu tells of his purpose in originally revealing Israel’s nuclear secrets. It “was not about betraying Israel. It was about saving Israel from a new Holocaust because if they used nuclear weapons then their enemies would retaliate,” he said.
He added: “What I did was to inform the world what is going on in secret. I didn’t come and say, ‘We should destroy Israel, we should destroy Dimona.’ I said, ‘Look what they have and make your judgement.'”
And regarding his future he says: “I want to leave Israel. I’m not interested in living in Israel. I want to start my new life in the United States, or somewhere in Europe, and to start living as a human being.”
For the moment, that option for Vanunu is not being considered by Israeli authorities.
Al-Ahram Weekly – 3 June 2004