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  Mordechai Vanunu:    Still a thorn in Israel's Side

By Linda S Heard

 Israel’s nuclear whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu was last April released from an 18-year incarceration in an Israeli prison, much of it in solitary confinement. His ‘crime’ was treason after telling the world about Israel’s secret nuclear programme underway at the country’s Dimona reactor, tucked deep in the Negev desert away from prying international eyes. If Vanunu’s detractors expected to see a silenced and broken man emerge from behind bars, they were sorely disappointed.

For some, Vanunu, a nuclear technician, who worked at the Dimona facility, is a traitor, who deserves the death penalty. Others view him as a hero, who put the well being of the planet and all of humanity, before narrow nationalistic concerns. During his imprisonment he became an icon to the international peace movement and was a Nobel Peace Prize nominee.

Vanunu may have served his sentence and is now physically out of gaol, yet he remains in a virtual open prison. The Israeli government claims he still has secrets to reveal and refuses to allow him to re-start his life in another country – his long cherished dream.

He is forbidden from travelling; moving to another city; sleeping outside his registered East Jerusalem home – shared with Palestinian friends - without prior permission; going anywhere near a foreign embassy or consulate; giving press conferences and talking to non-Israelis.

Shunned by his religious Moroccan Jewish parents for converting to Christianity and betraying the Jewish state, Vanunu was adopted by Nick and Mary Eoloff a sympathetic American couple, who hoped he would be eligible for an American passport.

Said Sabby Sagall, a member of the former ‘Campaign to Free Vanunu and for a Nuclear Free Middle East’ described him as “one of the bravest and most inspirational people of our time. If Bush and Blair want to find weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East, Vanunu has told them where to go.”

Campaign secretary Ernest Rodker said: “He is in some physical danger if he remains in Israel. A talk show host called for him to be wiped out recently.”

The investigative journalist who initially exposed the whistleblower’s revelations Peter Hounam said on Vanunu’s long-awaited release: “It’s a terrible tragedy. I’ve been waiting since 1986 for this moment. I want him to be able to resume his life, maybe get married and have kids”. Vanunu himself would like nothing more as long as his new life is far from Israel.

Says Vanunu, who is in serious danger of being assassinated by Jewish extremists: “I can enjoy my freedom but I am not totally free to have the freedoms every other human being has, to walk in the streets meeting and talking to anyone.”

He maintains he spilled the beans on everything he knew during the 1986 interview with Britain’s Sunday Times and has nothing left to reveal. Many experts accept this statement as true, based on so many technological advances in the nuclear field over the past 18 years of which Vanunu could have little knowledge. If Vanunu has no more secrets to impart why won’t the Israeli government let him go?

There are those who believe the Israeli government is simply out for revenge, while others view Vanunu as a walking anti-Israel propaganda weapon.

Whatever the truth of the matter, Vanunu refuses to take the government’s restrictions lying down. On the day of his release he defiantly gave a mini press conference to the waiting crowds while still in the prison grounds as the annoyed guards helplessly looked on, describing his incarceration as “cruel and barbaric”.

It wasn’t long after that he gave an interview conducted by Israeli broadcasters, which aired on the BBC. Peter Hounam apparently acted as an intermediary to arrange the interview on the British broadcaster’s behalf and was subsequently arrested and deported. As a result, the Israeli authorities are investigating whether Vanunu has broken its injunction not to give interviews to the foreign press, when, if found guilty, he could find himself back in his cell.

Some 130 British Members of Parliament are outraged at Vanunu’s having to exist in limbo land after paying his legal dues to the State of Israel and have signed a motion calling for him to be allowed to leave the country. Britain’s Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has been asked to intervene.

Frustrated at his unconstitutional virtual imprisonment, Vanunu petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court to no avail. Instead, three senior judges upheld all the government’s restrictions arguing that he was still a security risk.

“We always say Israel is not a real democracy and today we are seeing it inside the Supreme Court,” Vanunu told reporters following the decision. “My country is not Israel,” he said. “For 18 years, Israel condemned me as a traitor and a spy”.

Vanunu remains scathing about Israel’s nuclear ambitions and has no hesitation about denouncing Dimona as a Chernobyl waiting to happen warning that millions of people in neighbouring countries could be threatened following a possible accident. He went as far as advising Jordan to test residents around its border with Israel to ensure they haven’t already been exposed to nuclear radiation.

Perhaps cognisant of the warnings of Vanunu and others, Israel last month declared its intention to distribute anti-radiation pills to those people living within a 30 km radius of its reactors, upsetting many residents who had previously been constantly assured they were in no danger.

Vanunu further controversially announced: “according to near-certain indications” the late U.S. President John Kennedy was assassinated because of “pressure he exerted on Israel’s then head of government David Ben-Gurion to shed light on Dimona’s nuclear reactor”.


Vanunu Story

  Born in Marrakesh, the 49-year-old immigrated to Israel along with his parents and 11 siblings in 1963. After serving a mandatory three years with the Israeli Defence Forces, he worked as a technician at Dimona from 1976 until 1985 while simultaneously taking a university course in philosophy. It was during this period that he began to feel unhappy about various policies of the Israeli government, especially its treatment of Palestinians. It wasn’t long before he attracted unwelcome government attention because of his views as well as his membership of a radical group called Campus, made up of both Jews and Arabs.

By the time he was made redundant in 1985 Vanunu had already experienced a “crisis of conscience” over Israel’s clandestine nuclear programme and had begun covertly photographing the Dimona facility without, at that time, having a clear picture of what he would do with the pictorial evidence.

After a spell travelling around the world financed by his redundancy payment and supplemented with odd jobs doing dishes and chauffeuring taxis, he flew to Australia. It was there he was baptised into the Anglican Church and decided to share Israel’s nuclear secrets with the rest of the world.

A Columbian journalist friend alerted the Sunday Times to the potential story and the paper sent Peter Hounam to Australia to check-out Vanunu’s credibility. Hounam liked him right away and flew him to England.

Even before the story hit the British newsstands, Vananu had disappeared. Feeling vulnerable and lonely he was taken in by an “American tourist” called Cindy, who voiced her criticism of the Israeli government. Pretending to be attracted to Vanunu, she suggested they go on vacation together to Italy where she said her sister lived. As soon as the couple opened the door to the Rome apartment, Vanunu came face to face with Mossad agents who injected him with drugs before shipping him back to Israel where a trial was held behind closed doors.

Policy of  ‘Nuclear Ambiguity’

  Israel’s nuclear road began with a lie in which France was heavily implicated. Indeed, French engineers constructed the Dimona reactor and plutonium-separation plants in the 1950s. Later on, France supplied Israel with uranium from its then African colonies. In official Israeli parlance the complex was “a manganese plant”.

When aerial photos showed otherwise the then Israeli Prime Minister announced in December 1960 that a 24-megawatt reactor had been built for peaceful purposes. The U.S accepted this statement at face value and persuaded Israel to agree to inspections, which took place at various intervals until 1969. Inspectors only got to see the upper floors as lifts going down to the hidden underground plutonium plant were sealed and camouflaged.

When France was no longer able or willing to supply Israel with uranium yellowcake subsequent to 1967, South Africa stepped into the breach. A Centre for Non-Proliferation Studies’ report sets out four “clandestine nuclear deals” between Israel and South Africa related to yellow-cake and tritium.

At some point the Americans chose to turn a blind eye to Israeli WMD, even though it received a wealth of information that Israel and South Africa were jointly carrying out nuclear tests in the ocean.

To this day Israel has not admitted having a nuclear weapons programme and has never signed up to the Non-proliferation Treaty. Its refusal to do so has prompted 13 votes in the UN General Assembly since 1987 demanding its compliance. The U.S. has consistently blocked any attempts to put the issue before the UN Security Council.

Vanunu recently criticised an official visit to Israel by Mohammed ElBaradei Head of the UN nuclear watchdog the IAEA. “I am very disappointed in Mr. ElBaradei,” he said, “because I expected him to go and inspect the Dimona reactor…the job of Mr. ElBaradei is to go and see if what I said…if it’s true”.

Few experts have ever disbelieved Vanunu’s revelations, backed up with photographs, and yet Israel has never admitted that it has a nuclear weapons programme, let alone a stockpile of up to 200 nuclear warheads – the world’s fifth largest cache.

A 1997 Jane’s Intelligence Review report suggests Israel has over 400 thermonuclear and nuclear weapons. As for delivery systems, Israel is said to have Jericho missiles with ranges up to 1,500 km, while the Shavit satellite launch vehicle is capable of conversion into an intercontinental ballistic missile with a 7,800 km range.

Thanks to people of conscience like Mordechai Vanunu and following the spotlight on Iraq’s non-existent nuclear weapons, the world’s WMD focus is fixed firmly on Israel for the first time. This international scrutiny has prompted Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission to publish photographs of the country’s Dimona and Nahal Sorek reactors for the first time.

U.S. Turns A Blind Eye

So why have a succession of American governments been seemingly unconcerned about Israeli nukes? Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East and shares our values, say a chorus of U.S. leaders, who believe Israel can be trusted not to use them. But can it?

According to numerous reports Israel came close to unleashing nuclear weapons during the 1973 war. Time magazine reported the then Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Dayan as saying: “This is the end of the “third temple” with “temple” being the code word for nuclear weapons. A story put out by the Israelis – no doubt as a deterrent – describes nuclear missiles having been pointed at Damascus and Cairo at the time. We should also recall that Israel remained on nuclear alert during the 1991 Gulf War.

One thing is for sure. The more the U.S. and its allies sabre rattle about Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs the more Israel will squirm.

Israel is the regional threat and as long as it remains so, other nations will seek a nuclear parity with the full moral right to do so, when the world will become an even more dangerous place.

Vanunu has lost 18 prime years of his life but there is no doubt that if he had the chance he would do it all over again. “There is no regret,” he said, “only satisfaction that I succeeded in doing it. From the beginning it was clear for me that I did the right thing, that I followed my conscience. I did it for peace. I have the full right to inform the world that the Israeli government was cheating and lying [concerning the existence of its nuclear weapons program].”

Did Mordechai Vanunu do the right thing? Is he a hero or is he a traitor to his country? It’s your call. 




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