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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
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
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
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
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 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
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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