"I have sacrificed my freedom and risked my life in order to expose the danger of nuclear weapons which threatens this whole region." --- Mordechai Vanunu
Mordechai Vanunu worked at Dimona Nuclear Power Plant in Israel from 1976 to 1985 as a technician. During his service, it is said that he learned about Israel's secret production of plutonium for nuclear weapons. He later became known as a whistleblower, when in 1985 Vanunu believed it was his responsibility to inform the citizens of Israel as well as the rest of the world that Israel had, in fact, nuclear weapons.
As one of eleven children born to Moroccan Jewish parents, Vanunu immigrated to Israel in 1963, when he was nine years old. Following his compulsory service in the Israel Defense Forces, he worked as a technician at Dimona's nuclear "research center" for 10 years before he became disillusioned by Israel's nuclear policy. He left the country, backpacked through Asia and moved to Sydney, Australia. An African newspaper reports that he converted to Christianity in 1986, after joining an "Anglican church social justice community." Before he left Israel, however, he took two rolls of photographs with him of the plant where he once worked. The pictures provided incontrovertible evidence that Israel was producing nuclear weapons.
For three decades Israel declared "We will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East." During this time it was secretly developing an extensive nuclear program, hiding its existence from the Israeli people and parliament, and from the international community. Vanunu approached the London Sunday Times with detailed pictures of the nuclear bomb factory several levels below ground, where plutonium was being reprocessed. The facility itself was classified, and kept out of public view since 1957. On October 5, 1986, the London Sunday Times newspaper headlines boldly announced, "Revealed: The Secrets of Israel's Nuclear Arsenal." Although it had long been speculated that Israel had a nuclear arsenal, Vanunu revealed details of Israel's nuclear program never before made public. He provided the Sunday Times with a cross-section drawing of the entire Dimona underground nuclear complex and photographs Vanunu said he had secretly taken of the control room. Vanunu said bombs were assembled in an underground complex called Machon that extended six stories beneath the ground under a two-story building. Based on interviews with Vanunu and the 60 photographs he provided showing Israeli plutonium spheres used for triggers in nuclear warheads, it revealed that Israel was fast developing nuclear weapons.
In detail, Vanunu's data showed that Israel possessed over 200 bombs with boosted devices, neutron bombs, F-16 deliverable warheads, and Jericho warheads. The boosted weapons shown in the Vanunu photographs revealed a sophistication that inferred the requirement for testing. Vanunu revealed for the first time the underground plutonium separation facility where Israel was producing 40 kilograms annually, several times more than previous estimates. Photographs showed sophisticated designs which scientific experts say enabled the Israelis to build bombs with as little as 4 kilograms of plutonium. Vanunu's details were so convincing that nuclear experts pronounced themselves satisfied as to his accuracy. Frank Barnaby, former director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and physicist at Britain's Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, said Vanunu's evidence convinced him that Israel had both fission and fusion weapons.
Vanunu never saw the newspaper because before it even went to press, a plan was put into place to capture him. Five days prior to the release of the story, he fell into what is known in espionage as the "honey trap." After the newspaper informed him there would be a delay in publishing, he decided to leave England and lay low for fear of the Mossad. He was lured to Rome by a blond American Mossad agent named "Cindy" (whose real name appears to be Cheryl Ben Tov; an American Mossad agent who lives in Orlando, Florida with her husband, Ofer, who was a former major in the Israeli intelligence service) and kidnapped there by Israeli secret agents. One article reports that he was drugged and kidnapped back to Israel aboard a ship in the fall of 1986. On Nov. 9, 1986, Israel admitted Vanunu was a prisoner in Israel, but it has refused ever since to say how he had been brought there.
At his trial on 22 Dec 1986 Mordechai managed to sneak a message to the press by writing something on the palm of his hand. Arriving at the courthouse one day in a police van, Vanunu pressed a hand against a window as photographers approached.
When the pictures were developed, they showed a message written on Vanunu's palm, "I was hijacked in Rome 30/9/86..." giving details of the flight from London to Rome and the date of his abduction. It was a move that made the authorities even more determined to keep Vanunu isolated. Vanunu later said in an interview that he did it so that perhaps the Italian government would demand his return. Subesequently, Italy opened an investigation into the kidnapping, since it's illegal to smuggle people out of a country, but little pressure came out of it on Israel. The European Parliament has repeatedly condemned "the behavior of the Israeli authorities" and called for his release.
Then Prime Minister Shimon Peres ordered Vanunu's abduction to silence the whistleblower, and to bring him to trial for allegedly jeopardizing the security of the state of Israel. The Mossad considered assasinating Vanunu, according to a Reuters report published in Haaretz (Feb. 5, 2004). Former Mossad director Shabtai Shavit admitted that it was proposed, “But Jews do not do that to other Jews. [Emphasis mine] He was a traitor, so in accordance with Jewish morality and Jewish law he paid for it with imprisonment.” He was tried in total secrecy, in a seven month trial closed to the public, charged with "treason" and "espionage" and sentenced to 18 years' imprisonment. Since then he was kept in complete isolation.
"There was a lot of pressure, a lot of attempts at brainwashing," he says. "They would talk to me about the Holocaust and say that the Palestinians are terrorists or the Arabs want to destroy the Jewish state so they need an atomic bomb. I didn't accept this: the Holocaust is not the real issue, it does not justify having the atomic bomb or taking the Palestinian land. Also I was very angry about the trial; if I had received a fair trial, an open trial, that would have been different."
A later book, Triple Cross: Israel, the Atomic Bomb and the Man Who Spilled the Secrets by Louis Toscano, claimed Likud leader Yitzhak Shamir proposed assassinating Vanunu but was turned down by Prime Minister Shimon Peres. Instead, Peres saw disclosure of the nuclear information as delivering a forceful deterrent to the Arabs without Israel having to publicly admit possession of such weapons.
Although Vanunu broke the story to the general public, the CIA had known about it as early as 1968. A declassified briefing shows that then-US president Lyndon Johnson told the CIA not to let the State Department and Department of Defense know about it.
News about Vanunu resurfaced in 1998, shortly after his removal from solitary confinement and his placement in the general prison population and prison yards, but is under strict orders not to talk to other prisoners. It was sparked when his family became concerned for Vanunu's mental health and demanded that doctors from abroad be allowed to examine him. At that time he was asked by Israeli officials about whether he would agree to remain silent on the nuclear issue, implying an offer of conditional release. But Vanunu refused any offer. One of the causes for which Vanunu risked his life, full disclosure of Israel's nuclear policies, was briefly realized in February 1999, when a debate of the nuclear issue occurred on the floor of the Israeli Knesset. The event was short-lived. After shouting and recriminations, several Arab members of the Knesset who had sparked the debate were expelled from the chamber. In 2000, Israeli newspapers published photos of Israel's nuclear reactors, and the secret is out now, thanks to the internet that can't be censored.
According to Al-Jazeera, Vanunu's cell measures just 2m by 3m. For the first two and a half years of his imprisonment, a light bulb burned continuously so that he could not tell night from day. When he was briefly allowed out of the cell he was followed everywhere by guards videotaping him. His basic rights, such as access to newspapers and TV were also denied, as were prison visits, apart from close relatives. Amnesty International described Vanunu's ordeal as "cruel, inhuman and degrading". In recent years, he has been allowed reading materials - although he claims in recent days they have been again withdrawn.
He seems quite proud of what he did: "Everyone knows that I am in jail not because I raped, robbed or murdered. I sit here because of my ideals. Given my background and the things I knew, it was inevitable that I did what I did." Vanunu has been honored by several international organizations and has been given the prominent Right Livelihood Award, regarded as the alternative Nobel Peace Prize. People worldwide have expressed support for him, as he rejected the idea that Israel should be completely pragmatic.
Peace Magazine published an article on him:
Yesheyahu Leibowitz, a great Judaic scholar, professor of natural science, and winner of Israel's highest cultural award, commented a decade ago: "When the nation, "Volk" in Nazi language, and its state power become supreme values there are no restrictions on the acts of man. We have such a mentality here."
Vanunu's "crime" was that he rejected these supreme values. Vanunu put loyalty to a common humanity above loyalty to his Volk; he put conscience above blind obedience to his state. It is for these transgressions that he is being so cruelly punished.
He was nominated for the 2003 Nobel peace prize and an American couple adopted him in the mistaken belief that this would entitle him to U.S. citizenship and hasten his release, after hearing of the US campaign to free him.
His release from prison is expected in April 2004. Some Israeli officials are concerned as to what he will do when he gets out of prison. A Channel Two TV report said officials, concerned about what else Vanunu has to say, are considering options that include barring him from traveling overseas or speaking in public after he is released. While the Shin Bet security service and Israel's Justice Ministry had no comment, Israeli security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the report was true but would not elaborate. Vanunu's lawyer did not return calls seeking comment.
Justice Ministry spokesman Yaacov Galanti acknowledged that the authorities were indeed pondering Vanunu's future. "Various issues are being weighed in advance of Mordechai Vanunu's scheduled release," Mr Galanti said. "Beyond that, we cannot go into details."
According to published reports, one possibility being considered is to place Vanunu, immediately upon his release, in administrative detention which would permit his being held without further trial for an indefinite period. Other possibilities include freeing him but barring him from leaving the country or from revealing what he knows about Dimona to anyone on pain of renewed incarceration.
Former Mossad chief Shavit, who retired from the agency in 1996, told Haaretz that he fears Vanunu will spill more state “secrets” upon his release from prison. 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?”
The Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot reported in February 2004 that Vanunu will be freed in April, but placed under tight surveillance. Israel's security services would bar Vanunu from giving press interviews, publishing a book, travelling overseas or within Israel, and planned to monitor his correspondence, the paper added. Vanunu would also be required to regularly check in with the police.
The security services claim the tough measures are necessary as Vanunu has declared his intention in numerous letters to reveal new secrets about Israel's nuclear weapons programme upon his release. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is due to hold talks with justice ministry officials before giving the official approval to the "restrictive measures" to be placed on Vanunu, Yediot Ahronot said.
In early 2004, there were several reports in the Israeli media of Vanunu being disciplined after other inmates approeached him. One is even reported to have offered him a slice of cake. In another incident in March 2004, Vanunu was punished after he was attacked by several inmates, including Noam Federman, a supporter of the extreme right Kach party who is accused of particpating in Jewish terror attacks on Palestinians in Hebron.
Vanunu's brother, Meir, is one of the few people allowed to visit him in Shikma prison near Ashkelon. He believes Federman and others are being encouraged by the prison authorities to make Vanunu violate the terms of his detention and so provide a pretext for his continuing imprisonment. "They are looking for an excuse not to release my brother. I warned him to be careful and keep his mouth shut," he said. According to Meir, Vanunu has lost privileges he enjoyed in the past, and is now being confined to his cell earlier. Meir also says that when he tried to tell his brother about the recent discussions of his case by the Israeli parliament, prison guards intervened and threatened to end the visit.
Mordechai Vanunu was released on April 21, 2004. Some of his restrictions proposed were withdrawn, due to the fact that they probably couldn't hold up in court. So far, he is restricted from leaving Israel for at least a full year, and can not enter any embassies. Defense sources said the main reason for preventing Vanunu from leaving the country and not issuing him a passport was that he still knows state secrets that may jeopardize state security.
Al-Jazeera is reporting that Vanunu has formally asked Yasser Arafat for Palestinian citizenship. Since his release in April 2004, he has taken refuge in St George's Anglican cathedral in occupied east Jerusalem. He has frequently stated that he wants to leave Israel where he is widely reviled for not only for exposing Israel's nuclear arsenal and clandestine weapons program, but also for converting to Christianity. Shrugging off the Israeli public's negative image of him, he said: "Six billion people respect what I did, so if six million Jews don't respect it, it doesn't matter. I don't feel like a traitor." He also said in English on Israel's Channel 2, "I want to have a wife ... and to build a family and live like a normal human being."
Vanunu continues to provoke strong reactions. In many countries, particularly in Europe, he is viewed as a whistle-blower who was prepared to risk his life to draw attention to the dangers of nuclear warfare. He has recently received the Lennon Ono peace prize in New York and the CND building in London was just named after him. Daniel Ellsberg, on a recent visit to London, hailed him as a hero. Supporters threw a 50th birthday bash for him last month, complete with personalised cake. Performers, including Susannah York, Arthur Smith and Mark Steel, appeared in November 2004 in a benefit concert for him in London. In Israel, however, he is still regarded by many as a traitor and when he emerged from jail, extremists tried to attack him, rushing his car and making throat-slitting gestures as he left the prison gates. He said, "The people in east Jerusalem are very sympathetic and very happy to see me; they shake my hand and invite me to coffee. Three or four times, Israeli youths have shouted at me but I ignore them. I have received some hint of threats that they could kill me. If they want to do something, it's not a big problem for them but I am not in fear, I am just living my life. Fear will not help me."
Vanunu has no income and lives modestly. His room is free, courtesy of the Anglican bishop in Jerusalem, where he has claimed sanctuary. Friends and supporters - and he has a number of dedicated Israeli peace campaigners who have been battling for him since the early days - have given him clothes and a laptop. His days have been spent talking to visitors, walking the nearby streets, even swimming at a local hotel. At the moment he is under house arrest at the Cathedral, pending a court case.
A photo of the control room that was published can be seen at http://www.peaceheroes.com/images/Dimonacntrlslg.jpg