WaPSR Delegation Diary 3: Our Dinner with Mordechai Vanunu

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Mordechai Vanunu. (Bob Haynes)


East Jerusalem, March 7, 2005 — Tonight, the Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility met with Mr. Mordechai Vanunu at St. George’s Hostel in East Jerusalem. Mr. Vanunu is famous around the world for exposing Israel’s secret nuclear weapon’s program at the Dimona nuclear facility in the Negev Desert in Southern Israel.

Mr. Vanunu explained his life’s story to our group. He was born to a Jewish family in Morocco. When he was 10, his family immigrated to Israel. After high school, he completed his compulsory military service in the Israeli army. He then finished a year studying physics at Tel Aviv University. When he was 22 years old, he was hired on at Israel’s Dimona Nuclear facility, in a top secret lab 23 meters underground. His job was to help in producing plutonium.

He described himself as being ‘apolitical’ at this stage of his life, and simply in need of a job. He worked at Dimona for 9 years, starting in 1979. In the 1980’s, he also witnessed the production of materials to produce a hydrogen bomb. He left Dimona in 1985, and returned to university, studying geography and philosophy.

By this time, he had become a political activist, and was active in “Peace Now” against Israel’s elective war and occupation in Lebanon. He also had developed very serious concerns regarding Israel’s ambitious nuclear weapons program.

While at Dimona, he was personally involved in producing 40kg per year of weapons grade plutonium, enough to make 10 nuclear bombs. By 1985, he had decided that this secret must be revealed to the world. Israeli intelligence agents had already questioned him about his political activities at university.

The Dimona Reactor, as seen from space. (Photo: Space Imaging/NTA Space Turk)


Two months before resigning, he discreetly took 60 photos of the secret nuclear weapons lab at Dimona. He didn’t speak to anyone and did not even develop the film until after he had left the country. By this time, he had concluded that Israel was not a real democracy; especially in it’s persecution of native Palestinians.

He decided that exposing Israel’s nuclear secrets would be his opportunity to contribute to world peace, and add pressure toward demolishing these weapons. In Sidney, Australia, he explained all this to a reporter from The Sunday Times of London. He was invited to London to elaborate his information for the newspaper. Initially, The Sunday Times delayed publishing Vanunu’s information until it investigated suspicions that he might be an Israeli Mossad agent with an alternative agenda.

Meanwhile, Vanunu traveled to Rome with an American woman named “Cindy” who turned out to be a real Mossad agent. He was kidnapped, and brought back to Israel to face prosecution for treason. The Sunday Times subsequently published his reports, with photos, and nuclear arms experts have estimated, based on this information that Israel had already produced 500kg of plutonium by 1985, enough for over 200 nuclear weapons, as well as enough material to produce 200 hydrogen bombs.

On his way to a Jerusalem Court, after being abducted in Rome, Vanunu used his hand to send a message to journalists: “Vanunu M was hijacked in Rome. ITL. 30.9.86, 21:00. Came to Rome by fly BA504.” (Photo: AP)


Vanunu was convicted to 18 years in prison and spent 11 of these years in total isolation. He describes psychological torture intended to break his will and says Israeli authorities tried to brand him as a criminal. He decided to stand firm, resorting to exercise and meditation, as well as spirituality. By this time, he had converted to Anglican Christianity, and read in a loud voice the New Testament for one hour per day. He would also sing loudly to express his anger. He did have access to foreign news. After 11 years of solitary confinement, he completed the additional 6 years in Ashkelon Prison as a security risk. He was finally released last year, with instructions not to talk with foreigners, and unable to leave the country for an additional year.

Vanunu having dinner with the delegation. (Bill Dienst)

Mordechai Vanunu was briefly re-arrested on November 11, 2004, during world attention caused by the death of Yasser Arafat. Vanunu had been practicing Civil Disobedience by continuing to talk with foreign reporters, such as Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman in August, 2004. He was detained for only 12 hours by Israeli Authorities, who quickly yielded to intense world pressures. He continues to speak out in spite of his gag order.

Mr. Vanunu describes himself as an optimist, and denies the inevitability of Armageddon that some people feel. “After all,” he said, “this could have happened during the Cold War between the US and the Russians but rationality prevailed.”

He supports current efforts to limit nuclear proliferation to countries such as Iran and North Korea, but also insists on ending the current silence and hypocrisy on Israel’s nuclear capabilities. He favors a nuclear-free Middle East, as well as comprehensive disarmament of nuclear weapons worldwide.

Bill Dienst and Mordechai Vanunu.


Next: Washington PSR visits the Kiryat Arba’a settlement in Hebron and downtown Hebron and the Tomb of Abraham under an Israeli military curfew.

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Dr. Bill Dienst is a rural family and emergency room physician from Omak, Washington, USA. In March 2005, he traveled to Palestine and Israel as part of a delegation sponsored by Washington State Physicians for Social Responsibility (WaPSR). The delegation met with prominent Palestinians as well as members of the Israeli peace movement. They also traveled inside the Kiryat Arba’a settlement to hear a prominent member of the settler movement. In this series of articles, Dr. Dienst describes these meetings. Dr. Dienst has been to Israel-Palestine twice before. In November 2003, he spent 10 days in Gaza sponsored by Gaza Community Health Programme, and in 1985, he spent 4 1/2 months in Egypt the West Bank and Gaza sponsored by the Palestine Red Crescent Society.