By Rannie Amiri
“I said to the Shabak, the Mossad, ‘you didn’t succeed to break me, you didn’t succeed to make me crazy.’” — – Mordechai Vanunu, former Israeli nuclear technician, upon being released from Ashkelon’s Shikma prison on April 21st, 2004, where he served 18 years.
They were words of courage and defiance, uttered by a man who embodied both. Mordechai Vanunu spent 18 years in jail, more than 11 of them in solitary confinement, for revealing Israel’s yet undeclared nuclear capability to the world. He had emerged from Shikma with arms outstretched, repeatedly flashing the victory sign – or was it peace? – and refused to answer questions posed to him in Hebrew from the awaiting media. “I am proud and happy to do what I did,” he unabashedly stated.
And what he has done since will now land him back behind bars.
An Israeli court has just sentenced Vanunu to six months in jail for violating restrictions slapped on him at the time of his 2004 release which prelude him from having any contact with foreigners or visiting the West Bank. As in all matters, he was fearless in doing both.
It thus behooves us to retell this man’s remarkable story, lest we forget what a person of conscience can achieve.
Mordechai Vanunu was the first to expose Israel’s dirty little secret: it was a major atomic power. He worked as a technician at the Dimona nuclear plant in the Negev desert from 1976 – 1985. Then, in a 1986 interview with London’s Sunday Times, he disclosed pictures that not only proved Israel had the capacity to produce nuclear weapons, but was actually in possession of them.
Just prior to the publication of his interview on October 5, events unfolded as if they came straight off the pages of a Robert Ludlum thriller. On September 30, Vanunu was lured by a female Mossad agent from London to Rome, where he was captured and scurried off to Israel. Behind closed doors he stood trial for treason, was quickly convicted and sentenced to an 18-year term. If the Israeli government had hoped he would quietly and contritely fade away, they were sadly mistaken.
Vanunu vociferously renewed his call for Israel to come clean regarding its nuclear arsenal (reportedly the world’s fifth largest) and open the Dimona reactor to international inspection. Israel still remains the only country in the Middle East to be a non-signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and has likewise barred entry to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) personnel.
Israeli politicians, from left, right and center, roundly heaped scorn on Vanunu after his release, whom they dubbed a “traitor.” The conditions of his release included prohibition of traveling abroad for one year or possessing a passport, limitation of his movement within the country, speaking with non-Israeli citizens, and discussing anything related to his former work at Dimona. These illegal restrictions (instituted after completion of his full sentence) were condemned by Amnesty International. They demanded their rescindment, citing Article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which permit a citizen to move freely about or leave the country of their citizenship.
Although the term “whistleblower” is often used to describe Vanunu, it is a rather weak and understated characterization. He was a siren, alerting the world that nuclear weapons had found their way into the Middle East, shattering Israel’s official policy of nuclear ambiguity.
Born in Morocco, Vanunu converted to Christianity before being imprisoned. He felt both his religious and political views (a staunch advocate of Palestinian rights) led to the harsh treatment he received while incarcerated, which he described as “cruel and barbaric.”
Despite interrogation by the world’s most ruthless intelligence agencies and imprisonment in what could have only been unforgiving conditions, Vanunu endured, saying:
“I am a symbol of the will of freedom, that you cannot break the human spirit.”
A Nobel Peace Prize recipient in waiting and a true hero of our time no less.
– Rannie Amiri is an independent commentator on issues dealing with the Arab and Islamic worlds.