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 can often be found drinking a Taybeh beer talking with friends and others who will listen. After spending 11 1/2 years of his 18 years in solitary confinement no one can blame him for wanting to be social. He is also now romantically involved.
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 to take 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 nuclear proliferation.
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 claims.
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 Peres. By this point, Vanunu was under Israeli surveillance in London.
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 ordeal.
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 of 1986.
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 reads a newspaper in the grounds of the Anglican cathedral of St George’s, East Jerusalem. (Meir Vanunu)
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.
Am Johal is a freelance writer currently working in international advocacy with the Mossawa Center, the Advocacy Center for Arab Citizens of Israel. He is currently working on building international pressure against the Citizenship Law which denies Israeli citizenship to residents of the West Bank and Gaza who marry Israeli citizens.