National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  April 30, 2004 [corrected 05/07/2004]
Israel's nuclear whistleblower leaves prison

Free, but restrictions continue on speech and movement


The man who revealed Israel’s nuclear weapons program to the world has been released after serving an 18-year prison term, 11 of those years in solitary confinement.

In October 1986, Mordechai Vanunu disclosed to The Times of London that Israel had a secret nuclear weapons program in Dimona, where Vanunu had worked as a technician. Shortly afterwards, Vanunu was kidnapped in Rome by Mossad agents, brought to Israel strapped to a shipping crate, and tried for treason and espionage under conditions of extraordinary security. In 1987 he was convicted and sentenced to 18 years in prison.

On April 21 Vanunu walked out of the prison in Ahshkelon at 11 a.m. Witnesses said a roar erupted from the crowd outside the locked main gate to the prison when Vanunu appeared. Supporters, who included not only Israelis but members of the international peace movement, were jostled by detractors, some shouting “Kill Vanunu!”

Vanunu made a statement to the waiting press. He called his treatment in prison “cruel and barbaric,” said he had no regrets about having disclosed Israel’s nuclear weapons facility to the world, and challenged world leaders to speak about Israel’s nuclear secrets.

“The time has come to end this silence and secret cooperation by the West, the United States, Canada and all Europe helping Israel and cooperating with Israel’s secrets. … Israel doesn’t need nuclear arms, especially now that all the Middle East is free from nuclear arms,” Vanunu said.

After making a statement to the press and flashing a V for victory sign to the crowd gathered outside the prison, Vanunu left the prison with his two brothers and immediately drove to St. George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem. A convert to Christianity, Vanunu had said before his release that one of the first actions he would take as a free man would be to offer a prayer of thanksgiving in St. George’s. At the cathedral, the Anglican bishop, Riah Abu El-Assal offered Vanunu sanctuary, which he accepted.

Despite Vanunu’s release from prison, it was far from certain that his ordeal was over. Israel placed many restrictions on his release, including the requirement that he not leave Israel or even the city of Jaffa, that he not speak to the press, and that he not have any contact with foreigners for six months.

“It’s extended imprisonment. It’s just tragic,” said Mary Eoloff, an American who with her husband, [Nick], adopted Vanunu in 1997 and had come to Israel to greet Vanunu and celebrate his freedom.

Eoloff said among the restrictions placed on Vanunu’s freedom was the provision that he not go within 100 meters of any foreign embassy.

Human Rights Watch said Israel’s sweeping restrictions on Vanunu breached basic principles of due process. In Israel, the Association for Civil Rights plans to appeal the restrictions.

Despite the uncertainty surrounding how much freedom Vanunu would really have, there was jubilation among Vanunu’s supporters who celebrated his release from prison at a reception hosted by El-Assal.

Reached by phone at the reception, Scott Schaeffer-Duffy, a member of a Catholic Worker delegation that had come to Israel to honor Vanunu and to protest the Israeli wall, described the mood as “ebullient.”

Among those attending the reception were the Eoloffs; the reporter for the Sunday London Times who broke the story of Israel’s nuclear secrets 18 years earlier; Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mairead McGuire; Bruce Kent, the founder of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in Britain; British actress Susannah York; and representatives of 11 countries, including two from Hiroshima, Japan.

Schaeffer-Duffy said that Vanunu seemed remarkably strong for a man who had spent almost two decades in very harsh conditions, many of those years in solitary confinement, in a 6-by-9 foot cell with 24-hour fluorescent lighting.

“Here’s a man who’s been in solitary for years, and he comes out thanking those of us in the peace movement, complimenting those of us in the peace movement. My judgment is [he is] somebody with very little ego and a great sense of graciousness and humility,” Schaeffer-Duffy said.

While hailed as a hero by many in the anti-nuclear and peace movement, Vanunu is reviled by much of the Israeli public. Polls taken by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz show only 17 percent of the public supported Vanunu’s being released without restrictions.

“He’s one of the most hated figures in Israel,” said Jack Cohen-Joppa of the U.S. Campaign to Free Mordechai Vanunu.

“In recent weeks the Israeli establishment has outdone itself in seeking both to prevent Vanunu from becoming a free man, and to incite virulent hatred for him, perhaps in the hope that someone will rid them of this troublesome hero,” remarked Yael Lotan, cofounder of the Israeli Committee to Free Vanunu.

Lotan said the most outlandish stories had been published with the intent to show Vanunu as a continuing threat to Israeli security. Some of those stories told of Vanunu smuggling instructions on bomb-making to Arab prisoners and rejoicing every time there was a suicide bombing. Other reports in the press depicted Vanunu as a corrupt and greedy man who revealed Israel’s nuclear secrets for money.

Neve Gordon, a professor of political science at Ben Gurion University and an NCR columnist, said the effort to demonize Vanunu along the same lines he’d been demonized 18 years before has proved a grave mistake, which the security services are now realizing.

“Now they’ve given him such a big stage. His mere presence brings Israel’s nuclear weapons under discussion, under the limelight of the international community. International resistance to nuclear weapons is much stronger today. It connects with the whole idea with the weapons of mass destruction that was Bush’s mantra for the Iraq war.”

Gordon said he saw Vanunu as a patriot and thought Vanunu saw himself that way.

“What Vanunu said was Israel has to learn how to be a country among countries in the Middle East and not live on its sword. He wanted Israel to find a way to enter into dialogue with countries around it, to reach some kind of peaceful solution, and [he knew] that the act of bringing nuclear weapons into the Middle East would not allow that. He said the only chance of Israel surviving in the Middle East is through peace and not through nuclear weapons.”

Gordon’s opinion that Vanunu is a patriot is shared by a very small minority in his country. Most of the liberal left in Israel accept nuclear weapons as a necessary deterrent, Gordon said.

“It’s the only country in the world where the doves are also for the nukes,” Gordon said.

It was significant that when Vanunu exited prison he spoke to the press in English, saying that if Israel would not allow him to speak to foreigners he would speak only in English. Vanunu told the press he did not wish to remain in Israel.

“I am not harming Israel. I am not interested in Israel. I want to tell you something very important. I suffered here 18 years because I am a Christian, because I was baptized into Christianity,” Vanunu said. His expressions of sympathy for Palestinian suffering have also angered Israelis.

Mairead McGuire, who nominated Vanunu for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2001, said the world should campaign to allow Vanunu to leave Israel if that is his wish. McGuire also said the Catholic bishops, especially in America, should take a lesson from Vanunu and work more vigorously for nuclear disarmament.

“It’s a good day for Mordechai Vanunu and a challenge for the rest of us to carry on the work he took on -- that is, seriously confront the nuclear powers of the earth,” said Cohen-Joppa.

Margot Patterson is an NCR writer. Her e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, April 30, 2004   [corrected 05/07/2004]

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