Vanunu's freedom

Print edition : May 21, 2004

A view of the Dimona nuclear plant in the southern Negev desert of Israel. A file picture. - THOMAS COEX/AFP

Mordechai Vanunu, the whistle-blower who made public Israel's clandestine nuclear programme, is freed after 18 years in prison.

THE release of Israel's nuclear whistle-blower Mordechai Vanunu on April 21 from a top-security prison after 18 years of incarceration was an important event for peace activists the world over. Most of his years in the Shikma prison in the coastal town of Ashkalon were spent in solitary confinement. His supporters and members of the international peace movement camped outside the jail to welcome him as he walked out of the prison. Also present was a small crowd of Zionists hurling insults and death threats at him. As Vanunu walked out of the prison, 18 white doves, symbols of peace, took flight, one each for the years he spent in prison.

Mordechai Vanunu outside the Shikma prison on April 21.-TAL COHEN/AFP

One in three Israelis considers Vanunu, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, a traitor and wants him behind bars for the rest of his life. Jewish extremists have vowed openly to kill him. Israeli Justice Minister Tommy Lapid said that the government would not provide security for Vanunu. Before he was released, stories in the media alleged that he was a broken man who wanted to be left alone.

But as soon as he emerged out of jail, Vanunu reiterated his position on issues relating to nuclear weapons and the state of Israel in front of the international media. Vanunu is out on bail for a year and could be rearrested if he breaks the severe restrictions attached to his release.

At the time of his release he was banned from talking to the media, mixing with foreigners and leaving the country for at least one year. Later the government relented and allowed him to speak to foreigners and the media, but not about his work at the Dimona nuclear plant. Israel claims he still holds some of its nuclear secrets. Vanunu, however, said that he had "no more secrets" to reveal.

One of Vanunu's supporters, who met him after his release, said that he projected a "dignified, defiant, unbelievably strong, warm and elegant" personality. This was evident from the way he faced the media. He said that he was imprisoned under "cruel and barbaric" conditions but that did not "break him" or make him regret what he did. Vanunu said that there was no rationale for Israel to possess nuclear arms. He said: "Israel does not need nuclear arms, especially now that all the Middle East [West Asia] is free from nuclear weapons." Vanunu called on the government to open the main nuclear reactor at Dimona to inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). He said he wanted IAEA chief Mohammed El-Baradei to visit the top-secret Israeli nuclear facility.

VANUNU, a technician at the Dimona facility until the mid-1980s, revealed Israel's nuclear secrets to the world in 1986. In one of the major scoops in newspaper history, The Times, London, published pictures taken inside Dimona's top-secret nuclear reactor and of the nuclear facilities used to produce bombs.

The Dimona nuclear facility was built with French help in the 1950s and 1960s. The French also provided the first shipment of uranium. When asked about the activities going on in Dimona, Shimon Peres as Prime Minister and the major patron of the Israeli bomb had claimed that it was a textile factory. Peres described Vanunu as a traitor "who violated the norms and betrayed the country". Vanunu and his supporters claim that Peres, through his numerous interviews to the Western media since the 1990s, has made public more about Israel's nuclear secrets than what was revealed in the 1980s.

Based on the information provided by Vanunu, nuclear experts estimated that Israel had about 200 warheads by the mid-1980s, making it a bigger nuclear power than the United Kingdom. Vanunu was arrested even before the story was published. According to Vanunu's statement after his release, he was lured to Rome by a woman agent and then kidnapped by French, British and Israeli agents and carted off to Israel in a speed boat.

Vanunu said after his release that the woman was not a Mossad agent, but a Central Investigation Agency (CIA) operative. There is a school of thought in Israel which believes that Vanunu was initially working for the CIA until he had a change of heart. How else, they argue, could a technician take pictures inside Dimona and then smuggle it out of the country. They point out that Vanunu was also under close watch by the Israeli security services for his Left-leaning politics and pro-Palestinian activism. John Bolton, the U.S. Under Secretary of State in charge of Arms Control, was in Israel around the time Vanunu was released, lending credence to the theory of American complicity in the whole episode.

Vanunu's release once again focussed international attention on Israel's policy of "strategic ambiguity" regarding its nuclear weapons. The country has neither acknowledged nor denied having nuclear weapons.

"More than any other person, Mordechai Vanunu managed to pierce the cloud of `ambiguity' covering Israel's nuclear programme," wrote an Israeli commentator. Vanunu's revelations, in fact, have given Israel's nuclear programme the stamp of legitimacy it wanted from the West.

Recently, U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw justified Israel's nuclear programme, depicting it as an insurance policy taken by a small country against hostile neighbours plotting to destroy it.

Forty-eight hours after Vanunu was released, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said that the U.S. recognised his country's need for a nuclear deterrent against "existential threats" from Iran and other "hostile" countries. However, many in the West are demanding that Israel make public its nuclear secrets and follow the road taken by Libya and Iran.

Sabby Sagail, a founding member of the London-based Campaign to Free Vanunu and for a Nuclear Free Middle East, described Vanunu as one of the bravest and most inspirational people of our time. He said: "If Bush and Blair want to find weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East, Vanunu has told them where to go."

A message sent by the author-activist Arundhati Roy just before Vanunu's release said: "The world owes Mordechai Vanunu. We must welcome him back, honour him, cherish him, love him and above all, protect him as best as we can. Of all of us who have campaigned and protested against nuclear weapons, he is the bravest and the best. To him a big zindabad."

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