Israel renews restrictions on nuclear whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu

12:00 Jun 1 2014 Jerusalem

Israel renews restrictions on nuclear whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu
Nuclear whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu, Jerusalem 2009 (Eileen Fleming CC BY-3.0)

By Noam Sheizaf for

Despite serving 18 years in prison, including 11 in solitary confinement, Vanunu is forbidden from traveling and speaking to the media. Recently, he was denied a permit to speak before the British Parliament, following an invitation by 54 MPs.

The Israeli interior minister and the IDF Central Command have decided to extend restrictions on nuclear whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu’s freedom of movement and speech. Vanunu’s attorney, Avigdor Feldman, has been notified on the decision and told +972 Magazine he will once again petition the High Court of Justice on Vanunu’s case.

Since his release from prison in 2004, Vanunu hasn’t been allowed to leave Israel, enter a foreign consulate or embassy, come within 500 meters of an international border, port or airport or enter the West Bank. He is forbidden from speaking to journalists, and the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) monitors all foreign nationals with whom he meets. The Shin Bet must also approve Vanunu’s meetings with a foreign national who the Israeli media says is his partner.

Last month, Vanunu’s request to travel to London for a three-day visit was denied. He had been invited to speak before the British Parliament (his invitation was signed by 54 MPs) as well as to attend an Amnesty International event. Feldman also petitioned the Israeli High Court of Justice against that decision.

Vanunu was a radiation technician in the Negev Nuclear Research Center, which according to foreign sources, is a facility used to develop and manufacture nuclear weapons. Vanunu was fired in 1985 due to his political activism for left-wing causes. In 1986 he gave extensive details regarding the Negev facility to British Sunday Times reporter Peter Hounam, along with pictures he took without authorization. The Mossad later lured Vanunu to Rome where Israeli agents kidnapped and renditioned him back to Israel. He was convicted of treason and espionage, and sentenced to 18 years in prison.

Vanunu sepnt his first 11 years in solitary confinement; he went on to serve his sentence in full – up to the very last day. The restrictions regarding his freedoms of travel and speech shouldn’t be confused with terms of parole (as CNN does here); they came in addition to his sentence. In 2010 Vanunu served two and a half months in prison for violating the restrictions placed on him.

Feldman describes those restrictions as new form of punishment placed on Vanunu after he fully paid his debt to society, without having a single day deducted from his sentence. “I don’t know of another example or precedent like this,” says Feldman. “All Vanunu is asking for is to be able to leave the country and spend what’s left of his life in another place. Many countries have offered to take him.”

Feldman rejects the state’s claim that Vanunu, who last set foot in Israel’s nuclear facility some 30 years ago, is still in possession of any information that was not long ago obtained by the press. Until now, all attempts to appeal his case in the Supreme Court have failed.

Here is a link to Israeli officials’ letters informing Feldman of their intention to prolong the restrictions on Vanunu; here is Feldman’s petition to the High Court regarding the request to travel to London. Both documents are in Hebrew.

There is little doubt that Vanunu is the most important whistleblower in Israel’s history and one of the more important whistleblowers worldwide in recent decades. The information he provided to the Sunday Times allowed experts to estimate Israel’s nuclear capabilities (according to foreign sources, Israel has between 80 and 400 nuclear warheads), and established Israel’s position as a leading military and nuclear power.

The jury is still out on whether this publicity harmed or helped Israel. I have seen conspiracy theories claiming that Israel crafted Vanunu’s leak in order to create deterrence without forcing Jerusalem to reverse its policy of nuclear opacity. It’s an absurd notion, but there is some truth to the claim that Israel profited from the Vanunu leak. Anyway, when it comes to Vanunu the person, that debate is irrelevant. Vanunu was a pacifist who broke the law and his non-disclosure commitments, and paid the heaviest price for it — losing his freedom. His current treatment seems more about revenge than national security or the rule of law. A simple Internet search can lead to just about everything Vanunu knew, and way more.

One thing that troubles me about the case is the relative indifference to his case by the Israeli Left and liberals in the country (compare the silence to the way the Left rallied behind Anat Kamm or the conscientious objector movement). Born in Morocco to a religious Jewish family and raised in one of the poorest neighborhoods of the southern city Be’er Sheva, Vanunu was never close to the lefty elites or the media. Unlike in other cases, journalists immediately adopted the state’s narrative in the case, beginning with their childish celebration of his kidnapping.

There is, of course, a wider context at play. Save for a few rare exceptions, liberals in Israel are all too happy to adhere to the ban on discussing on the nuclear issue. The harm it leads to was never seriously discussed: the lack of adequate public or parliamentary — let alone international — oversight over the nuclear program; the inability to properly review its environmental consequences; the lack of any local analysis of its political and geo-political impact; and finally, the excessive measures taken against those who violate those restrictions, intentionally or not. In short, for a country involved in a nuclear arms race, a domestic nuclear debate is completely missing.

Yet even those who completely subscribe to Israeli nuclear policies and their draconian enforcement should understand how disproportionate Vanunu’s treatment is, not to mention how absurd the current “charges” against him are. If there is one person in this world who is fully aware of Israel’s long arm and the vindictive nature of its security establishment, it’s Vanunu. He is the last person who would think that asylum in Norway or the UK would grant him impunity.

Vanunu will be 60 this year. It’s time Israel let him go.

This article was originally published in Hebrew on Local Call.
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