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by Am Johal Tuesday, Sep. 14, 2004 at 12:16 PM

Vanunu Not Yet Free

If East Jerusalem had an unofficial mayor, it would be

nuclear whistle blower Mordechai Vanunu.

When the church bell rings at noon at the Anglican

cathedral of St. George's in East Jerusalem not far

from Damascus Gate in the Old City, chances are it's

Mordechai Vanunu ringing the bell. From that vantage

point, he looks down on the Jerusalem court house

where he was originally sentenced to eighteen years in

prison for divulging Israel's nuclear secrets.

The card he handed me a few weeks ago says 'Kidnapped

in Rome 30-9-86' beside the famous picture of his

hand taken from the back of the police van where he

had written that he had been kidnapped with the flight

number of the plane he had taken from London to Rome.

The bishop has given him sanctuary here since he has

been free and waiting for the restrictions on him to

be removed. He can often be found wandering down

Nablus Road with groceries in his hand.

"I want to be a free person, and have a free life. I

want to get out of Israel and live near a university.

I want to experience the new reality of freedom -

eating in restaurants, meeting people, having human

contact and being among human beings," he says. "I

was treated like this because I am a Christian."

Here at the American Colony Hotel across from the

bookshop and sometimes at the Jerusalem Hotel, nuclear

whistleblower and international cause celebre, Vanunu

can often

be found drinking a Taybeh beer talking with friends

and others who will listen. After spending 11 ?years

of his 18 years in solitary confinement no one can

blame him for wanting to be social. He is also now

romantically involved.

His life story reads like an opera. Mordechai Vanunu

was born in Marrakesh, Morocco into a large Jewish

family which immigrated to Israel when he was nine

years old. He served in the Israeli military and

became a sergeant before being given an honourable

discharge. After a year of university, he became a

nuclear technician at the Dimona reactor in Israel’s

Negev desert in 1976.

Vanunu began studying philosophy and geography at Ben

Gurion University in Beer Sheva while continuing his

work at the reactor. He began to get more politically

involved and together with Jewish and Arab students

formed a group called Campus. The authorities began

to take notice of him for his ties to various

organizations including the Movement for the

Advancement of Peace. Even while he was working at

the Dimona plant he was taken to Tel Aviv and

interrogated by the Shin Bet about his political

activities and his sympathy for the Palestinian cause.

He was publicly supportive of an independent

Palestinian state and for equal rights between Jews

and Palestinians. At this point he was also declared

redundant at the nuclear facility.

The union was able to temporarily get his job back but

he began to have a crisis of conscience working at the

nuclear plant when he realized that Israel was

possibly in the process of building a nuclear weapon

?specifically an atomic bomb. He had also seen the

model for an atomic bomb inside the plant. He began

to take

photographs of the plant without having made a

decision about what to do with them. He took close to

60 photographs before permanently losing his job at

the plant. Travelling between Haifa and Athens on a

cruise ship, he met a Canadian writer who encouraged

him to go public with his story. At the same time he

was having a crisis of

faith and after his travels through Asia, Canada and

the US he left Judaism and converted to Christianity

in Australia with St. John's Anglican Church where he

was welcomed by Reverend John McKnight. This

conversion estranged Vanunu from much of his family

and he became a cab driver and became involved in

church activities including discussions on peace and

nuclear proliferation.

While in Australia, he met with a Colombian freelance

journalist working at the Church named Oscar Guerrero

with whom he shared his story about his thoughts and

evidence on Israel's nuclear plans. Guerrero had told

Vanunu that he had covered several international

stories and met with international figures like Shimon

Peres, Lech Walesa and high ranking members of the

IRA. He encouraged Vanunu to go public in Europe.

After unsuccessfully courting the Australian press,

Guerero flew to Europe hoping to earn money for the

story. At some stage, he was hoping to sell the story

for several hundred thousand dollars. The Sunday

Times in England appointed investigative journalist

Peter Hounam to the story. Hounam flew to Sydney and

met with Vanunu to assess the seriousness of the


At some point, Vanunu had a falling out with Guerrero

and met in London with Hounam and other nuclear

scientists in the peace movement. Hounam incidentally

was was thrown into an Israeli jail for 24 hours and

deported a few months ago after arranging a story

between Vanunu and the BBC.

The Sunday Times delayed in publishing the story and

the the infamous Robert Maxwell's Daily Mirror wrote a

negative story calling Vanunu a hoaxer. Unbeknownst

to Vanunu, an editor also passed on the pictures to

the Israeli embassy in London to get an official

confirmation. After Maxwell died at sea off the

Canary Islands in 1991, he was given a state funeral

in Israel and lauded as a national friend by Shimon


By this point, Vanunu was under Israeli surveillance

in London.

In September 1986, Vanunu met "Cindy", a Mossad agent

who he thought was an American tourist, who lured him

to Rome by paying for the airline tickets and with a

story that her sister owned a flat there. He now

believes that the woman who claims to be "Cindy" now

is not the one who originally led him to Italy. At

the Rome airport they were met by a man who she called

a friend and taken to an apartment where he was

attacked and drugged by two men. Though there were

points of consciousness, he says that he didn't have

capacity of his full cognitive ability during the


Shocked and traumatized, he regained consciousness

briefly in the car where he tried to attack the driver

and cause an accident but he was again overtaken by

his kidnappers. He was taken to a beach where he was

delivered by commando motorboat to a yacht on an

abandoned beach and taken to Israel. He was

handcuffed to his bed and sick for much of the two

week trip - he still thinks that the British, French

and American secret service were involved in his

kidnapping. While at sea, the article about the

Dimona nuclear plant was published in the Sunday Times

on October 10th, 1986. Nobody knew where Vanunu was.

He arrived in Israel along the coast line and to this

day still doesn't know where he sailed in to. He was

taken to Mossad headquarters and interrogated and put

into prison. He was unable to make phone calls or

talk to the press. A few weeks later he was allowed

to have a lawyer and phone family members. Israel

finally admitted to having him in custody in November

of 1986.

When Vanunu talks about his treatment by the Israeli

press at the time, he gets noticeably livid. He feels

he was unfairly vilified in Israel during his trial in

1987. He was convicted to 18 years for treason and

espionage at a closed trial.

For the first two years of his sentence, his light was

kept on all the time and he was later put under video

surveillance. He was belittled by guards and regards

his early years there as nothing short of

psychological torture. He had several episodes of

depression during his first five years in prison.

After 11 1/2 years of solitary confinement, he was

allowed to mix with other prisoners but was treated

similar to a Palestinian prisoner without the same

rights or privilages as other Jewish prisoners. He

was segregated from other prisoners for the last six

years of his sentence.

"They keep your light on, have a camera in the cell -

they control when you get your food, when you can see

your visitors, when you get water and when you can see

your mail," says Vanunu.

Mordechai Vanunu, after 18 years in prision is still

not a free man. The current conditions of his release

forbid him to approach foreign embassies, speak with

foreigners, give public talks or have a passport. His

phone calls and movements are being monitored by the

Shin Bet Security Service. He has to give Israeli

authorities 24 hours notice before leaving East

Jerusalem in order to get security for himself (he has

been the subject of numerous death threats since his


He now says, "They didn't succeed in breaking me."

Vanunu still has strong opinions on the

Israeli/Palestinian conflict and still supports equal

rights between Jews and Palestinians. He says that

the Muslim fundamentalists are playing into the hands

of the Israeli right and that the situation is getting

worse. He wants to move to either the United States

where his adoptive parents live, another English

speaking country or his birthplace of Morocco.

With the US and Britain having recently waged a war in

Iraq built on a case against nuclear proliferation,

Vanunu's release highlights the nuclear debate in the

Middle East - the US will actively support its allies

in obtaining nuclear weapons, but will go to war in

nations which don't fall under the American sphere of

influence. As US and Iranian interests clash in the

coming years over nuclear weapons, this divide will

continue to be highlighted.

The 49 year old Vanunu, after 18 years of prison has

lost little of his combativeness and his commitment to

nuclear non-proliferation. His battles with the state

are far from over given the present conditions of his

release, but he is committed to achieving his freedom.

The Mordechai Vanunu 'international spy caper

opera'is far from over.

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