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Vanunu - An Israeli Hero

By David Paul

Boston Committee on the Middle East


"I did not rise up to save humanity and don't see myself as a world hero. I just saw an important issue which must be made clear to everyone and which affects world peace. I carried out my duty, which is the duty of every citizen, not to obey orders blindly. Those who found this state think only about the Holocaust of the Jewish people in Europe. But you can't cause another people to suffer a holocaust. There is no doubt that if the Israeli government uses its nuclear bomb, it will cause a holocaust for another people."
-- Mordechai Vanunu


The October 5, 1986 headline of The Sunday Times of London read, "REVEALED: THE SECRETS OF ISRAEL'S NUCLEAR ARSENAL." This sensational story was based on interviews with a former employee in Israel's nuclear plant at Dimona and the photographs he took inside.

Mordechai Vanunu had worked since August 1977 at various jobs inside the reprocessing plant known as Machon 2 ("facility" or "institute" in Hebrew) and informally as the "Tunnel". Because the reprocessing plant handled the highly radioactive materials it was the most sensitive. Only 150 of Dimona's 2700 employees worked there. Once at work there Vanunu found that the stringent security reputed to exist at the plant existed in theory only.

At the time of the revelation he was 31. Together with his family he had emigrated to Israel in 1963. He was always in trouble over his outspoken revulsion at the Israeli suppression of the Palestinians. His lay-off in mid-1985 was, of course, due to a government-wide cutback. Appealing through his powerful union he won his job back. It was at this point that Vanunu smuggled the camera into the plant with which he would take 57 color photographs of its workings.

Several weeks later he was fired for having called for the creation of a Palestinian state during a pro-Palestinian rally. Once again the union backed him and he won severance pay and a letter acknowledging his good record. Eventually, fed up with his life in Israel and the conditions under which the Palestinians endured he emigrated to Australia where he converted to Christianity.

Originally skeptical of Vanunu's account of operations at Dimona the editors had him questioned by experts in the field who were also shown his photographs. They were convinced of Vanunu's veracity and the authenticity of his photographs. This convinced the editors that they had a dynamite story. Along with the story they hoped to present Vanunu to corroborate the story and answer questions. But he had disappeared by the time the article finally appeared.

While he talked to The Sunday Times he was under surveillance by Israeli agents-- agents with well developed ties to the London newspaper world. Several of Vanunu's photographs had been made available to an Israeli intelligence agent masquerading as an American newspaper reporter. These photos were sent by courier to Prime minister Shimon Peres who ordered Mossad to get Vanunu out of London and into Israeli custody. Diplomatic reasons foreclosed a kidnapping in London.

Vanunu was enticed by an Israeli agent using the pseudonym Cindy Hanin Bentor to leave for Rome on 30 September, before publication of the story. Recently (6 April 1997) The Sunday Times reported finding the mysterious Israeli agent "Cindy." She is living as Cheryl Ben Tov in Orlando, Florida with her two daughters and her husband Ofer, a former major in the Israeli intelligence service. She is an American citizen selling timeshare accommodations. They actually live close to Disney World and the JF Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral. Her acquaintances in Israel believe she is on assignment in the US for Mossad.

In Rome he was taken by taxi to an apartment, drugged, kidnapped, placed aboard an electronic-surveillance intelligence vessel, manacled to a bed in a small windowless cabin and returned to Israel for trial. All this, even though he was no longer a citizen of Israel. The June 14, 1990 resolution of the European Parliament stated that his removal from Italy was illegal and that his forced repatriation was a gross violation of Italian sovereignty and international law.

The Trial

Vanunu's trial took place in total secrecy. Even observers from the two human rights organizations Amnesty International and the International Association of Democratic Lawyers, were refused admission. Prime minister Yitzhak Shamir's goal was to try Vanunu in secret, sentence him in secret and hold him in secret. He reasoned that eventually the press would tire and drop the matter. To insure its goal the state had clamped a tight censorship on the press over this issue.

Naturally Israel denied all, despite the photographs and their authentication. At a news conference when asked why Israel made nuclear weapons. President Chaim Herzog replied, "Who said we made them?" Pressed as to whether Israel had nuclear weapons he responded, "The answer is no-- an unequivocal no." Peres, then foreign minister in the recently rotated government of national unity, called Vanunu a liar.

Israel would have it both ways. But if Israel does not have nuclear weapons how could Vanunu give away secrets of one that would damage Israeli security?

Israel must deny for two reasons: 1) it reduces the incentive for Arab governments to seek a nuclear option and 2) the more important reason, the Symington-Glenn Amendment of 1977 forbids US aid to countries producing nuclear weapons. Israel denies and the US government says nothing, therefore, the issue does not exist. That this works can be seen by comparing the two cases of Israel and Pakistan within the context of the non-proliferation issue. Note also that Israeli Prime Ministers consistently visit the US but are never questioned about Israel's nuclear weapon capacity by the US media.

Early on the U S Ambassador to Israel, Thomas Pickering, assured Shamir that Washington would not take a position on either the question of Israel's nuclear arsenal nor its alleged involvement in the Vanunu case.

Israeli criminal law requires that there must be proof of a contact with a foreign agent in cases of treason and severe espionage. Nonetheless in March 1988 he was sentenced to 18 years in a maximum-security prison. In May 1990 the Israeli supreme court rejected Vanunu's last appeal confirming his 18 year sentence for "collection and delivery of secret information with the intent to impair the security of the state, and acts calculated to assist an enemy in war against Israel."

By Way of Comparison

There are some comparisons that need to be made to understand the evil intent of Vanunu's incarceration.

1. Shemaya Angel, Israel's most famous murderer, ground his victims into the sausages and hot dogs he made in his kosher factory. While serving his double life sentence he goes on regular and frequent leaves.

2. Colonel Shimon Levinson, a former Israeli military attaché in Singapore, spied for the KGB for money. He also gets regular leaves.

3. Shabtay Kalmanovitz, a former minor politician involved in helping South African Bantustans, also sold out to the KGB. He has returned to his luxurious life in Russia a long time before he served his full prison term.

Had Mordechai killed an Arab he would almost certainly have been out in less than six months. But he wasn't a killer or a spy grubbing for money. As can be seen from his statement above he committed the gravest crime of all. He had defied authority. No government can tolerate such a challenge, so a cruel example must be made. Other governments understand this well and respond accordingly.

The Revelations

Vanunu's interview and photographs provided American intelligence with their first real evidence that Israel was capable of manufacturing thermonuclear weapons. One intelligence officer described Vanunu's revelations as stunning: "The scope of this is much more extensive than we thought. this is an enormous operation." Piecing Vanunu's evidence with that revealed by Pierre Pean in 1982 about the early French involvement in the development of nuclear weapons, one of the intelligence agents noted that it "presented the evidence that filled in all questions marks. What we and Z Division (special intelligence unit at Livermore) didn't know, they (the photos) provided."

Working from Vanunu's photos of full-scale models of Israeli weapons, the weapons designers at Los Alamos and Livermore laboratories reasoned that Israel was capable of manufacturing one of the most sophisticated of nuclear weapons-- the low-yield neutron bomb. Utilizing enhanced radiation with a minimal blast they are designed to kill any living thing within a limited range while doing little damage to property.

The Media

Although the intelligence community was overjoyed with the information provided by Vanunu's photographs the story was ignored by the news media. What appeared was tucked away deep within the inside pages. For most, the story was the disappearance of Vanunu with hints of the involvement of the Mossad. Needless to say that even this story was dropped when the truth became obvious. Yet the news media played an even greater role in Vanunu's nightmare.

In June while still living in Australia, Vanunu became friendly with Oscar E. Guerrero, a journalist from Colombia. He convinced Vanunu to go public with his story and photos, saying they were worth a million. Guerrero's first approach was to Newsweek which passed. He then turned to The Times who sent Peter Hounam to interview Vanunu in Australia. Fearful that he'd get cut out of an agreement with The Sunday Times Guerrero approached the Sunday Mirror. It was this contact that put Ari Ben-Menashe and the Israeli intelligence community into the picture.

Vanunu was fingered to the Israelis by Nicholas Davies, the foreign editor of the Daily Mirror, sister newspaper to the Sunday Mirror. His contact was his former partner in an international arms sales firm, Ari Ben-Menashe. Their firm, Ora Limited, had operated out of Davies' London home since 1983. It had been set up with the approval of the Israeli government and was created to get arms flowing into Iran. Ben-Menashe's assignment was to find ways of getting around the arms embargo on Iran.

Davies was the perfect recruit-- a Catholic from northern England, well dressed, a charmer with a taste for the good life. Also, he'd written critically of the massacres at Sabra and Shatila during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. His second wife had left him because of his double life-- editor and gun merchant in league with Ben-Menashe.

According to Ben-Menashe Israeli intelligence was split between those who would kill Vanunu and those who would ignore him. Peres ruled out assassination saying, "Let's make him an example." Peres had taken control of the crisis because there was fear that Vanunu knew that Israel had deployed nuclear land mines along the Golan Heights and would talk about it. Though the land mines had been placed there in the early 1980s when Vanunu worked at Dimona, he knew nothing of it.

This created the immediate need to discredit Vanunu and his photographs. The campaign was spearheaded by the Sunday Mirror. Robert Maxwell, publisher of the Mirror Group of newspapers, Britain's largest group of popular tabloids. He was known for his close association with Israel's top leaders. [Maxwell later bought the Israeli daily Maariv.]

At the Sunday Mirror the paper's editor Michael Malloy took charge of the attack. Although his reporters wanted the story to be the photographs, Malloy focused on the antics of the schemes of Guerrero. On the Thursday before publication Malloy, on orders from Maxwell, sent his reporters Tony Frost and Mark Souster to take Vanunu's photos to the Israeli embassy. Malloy's senior deputy and his colleagues were very concerned about what this action might mean for Vanunu. They pointed out that it could lead to his arrest or even his murder. "It's an editor's prerogative," Malloy replied.

The problem for the Israelis was that they had no 'in' at the top at The Times. As Ben Menash put it: "These guys are not us. they wanted the real story." so Nick Davies fingered Vanunu for the Israelis who set the trap.

In Prison

For the first 2 1/2 years Vanunu was kept in total isolation-- the first month under the care of the Shin Bet. His cell was without daylight. During that period the prison wards would turn on the light every half hour in order not to let him sleep. He was then moved to the top-security prison at Ashkelon and registered under the name of "David Anoush."

Denied a razor he was thus forced to grow a beard. Whenever he was moved from his cell he had to wear a hat and sunglasses. No one was to know he was being held there. He spent 22 hours per day in his cell, allowing 2 hours for exercise. A TV camera in his small cell monitored his movements. His only contact was his lawyer.

Later he was allowed three visitors for up to two hours once a week. His brother Meir returned to Israel after a nine year absence. Meir was allowed to visit his brother just seven times before the meetings were stopped. The prison director claimed to have had them stopped because Meir talked with Mordichai about issues that should not be discussed.

For years Mordichai had a TV set but he no longer watches it-- obviously a result of the condition of his isolation Meir feels. He also notes that Mordichai evidences signs of paranoia. However Meir says, "His memory is clear and spiritually he has not broken. His morale is very high and he refuses to surrender and compromise."

The Knesset member Dedi Zucker, chairman of the Knesset law committee has visited Vanunu twice and reported that he already suffers from severe mental damage as a result of his isolation.

Support Network

U.S. Campaign to Free Mordechai Vanunu
2206 Fox avenue
Madison, WI 53711
Phone/Fax 608-257-4764


Barnaby, Frank
The Invisible Bomb
London: I.B. Tauris, 1989

Cohen, Yoel
Nuclear Ambiguity: The Vanunu Affair
London: Sinclair-Stevenson, c1992

Gilling, Tom
Trial and Error: Mordechai Vanunu and Israel's Nuclear Bomb
Eastbourne: Monarch, 1991
Revised edition-- London: HarperCollins, 1995

Hersh, Seymour M.
The Samson Option
New York: Random House, 1991
2nd edition-- London: Faber, 1993

Israel's Bomb: The First Victim: The Case of Mordechai Vanunu
Nottingham: Spokesman for the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation, 1988

Toscano, Louis
Triple Cross
London: Robert Hale, 1991

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