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Amnesty for Vanunu

By Christopher Hitchens

Jerusalem, 05/11/1998


Here are three names that ought to be much better known than they are: Dr. Hussein Shahristani, Dr. Vil Mirzayanov and Mordechai Vanunu. Dr. Shahristani was senior official of the Iraqi nuclear research program until 1979, when he was imprisoned for refusing to obey an order to begin working on the development of nuclear weapons. Dr. Mirzayanov also went to jail, in Russia, for disclosing that secret work on chemical warfare was being conducted by his country. Mordechai Vanunu, who blew the whistle on Israel's covert manufacture of a nuclear arsenal, was kidnapped by Mossad agents and sentenced to eighteen years in solitary confinement in 1986.

Of these three exemplary international citizens, only Vanunu is still behind bars. (Dr. Shahristani made his escape over the Iranian border after a decade, and Dr. Mirzayanov was released following an international campaign that drew attention to his plight.) There is a chance that Vanunu will benefit from the meditated amnesty that President Ezer Weizmann is planning for Israel's fiftieth anniversary, and here are the reasons he should.

Vanunu came to Israel in 1963 as the son of a family of Moroccan Jewish immigrants. He was raised Orthodox and conservative. After his military service he began work in the Israeli nuclear research facility at Dimona, in the Negev desert. He became aware of a division in the plant that could produce at least forty kilograms of plutonium a year, which is enough for ten nuclear bombs. Having gone through some form of political and religious crisis during General Sharon's invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Vanunu kept records and took photographs and in 1986 took his findings to the Sunday Times of London. The newspaper published a long and detailed story, which showed not just what everyone had suspected--that Israel had a nuclear capacity--but that it had become the world's sixth-largest nuclear power. With its "Jericho" missiles, which have an intercontinental range, Israel is able to strike targets well out of its immediate area, and possesses no fewer than a hundred warheads.

Some recent news-agency accounts have described Vanunu as the "nuclear spy," but this is not true in any usual sense. He was not acting as the agent of a foreign power, nor did he sell his findings to any other intelligence agency. Indeed, he was not even a mercenary. What he did was "go public," which neither spies nor mercenaries do. All of a sudden, mere members of the civilian population became aware of what the intelligence services of every state already knew.

Revenge was immediate. The Israeli authorities, who were reluctant to embarrass Mrs. Thatcher by conducting such an operation in London, managed to lure Vanunu to Rome by the traditional means of a potential girlfriend--known in the trade as a "honey trap." In the Eternal City, he was kidnapped and drugged before being flown home for a secret trial. From 1986 until March of this year he was held in rigorous solitary confinement in Ashkelon prison, in a concrete cell measuring six by nine feet. His request to serve his time among the general prison population was refused, as were all requests for visits except from his brother. This did not mean that Vanunu was denied all human contact. Last December, according to the Israeli daily Ma'ariv, he was verbally abused by the visiting Minister of Public Security, Avigdor Kahalani, who did a drop-by on the isolation cell to insult Vanunu as a traitor. He might, one feels, have been spared that.

In March, Vanunu was suddenly allowed a daily walk and conversation. This may or may not have to do with an intervention from the Prime Minister of Norway, Magne Bondevik, who raised the issue during a visit to Oslo by Benjamin Netanyahu. In town to discuss the Oslo "accords," which he so much despises, Netanyahu responded that Vanunu's case was an "internal affair" of the Israeli state. The Norwegians are more aware than most that Israel's thermonuclear capacity is anything but an internal matter. It was a treaty between Israel and Norway on the supply of heavy water that was unilaterally violated by Israel when it diverted the material from the promised "peaceful use." (It also pooled its nuclear secrets with the apartheid regime in South Africa, tested a nuclear warhead in the South Atlantic and between 1964 and 1965 stole hundreds of pounds of enriched uranium from the Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corporation [NUMEC] in Apollo, Pennsylvania. This coup was followed by the November 1968 Israeli hijacking of a Liberian-registered vessel, the Scheersberg A, which carried 200 tons of uranium ore. "Internal affair," indeed.)

According to his lawyer, Avigdor Feldman, and to Knesset member Dedi Zucker, Vanunu is gravely weakened in both body and mind by his long solitary confinement. The state, in other words, has made its point. And there is obviously no chance that Vanunu has anything more to tell. Indeed, as a mental and physical ruin he might make a better advertisement against dissent than he did as a courageous prisoner. All nuclear states claim the power of life and death over all citizens, and they mean what they say, reducing the rest of us to the making of empty "humanitarian" gestures. Still, we have no choice but to go on making them, and so I urge you to contact the U.S. Campaign to Free Mordechai Vanunu at 2206 Fox Avenue, Madison, WI 53711; (608) 257-4764.

An old Israeli joke has the military spokesman repeating the official line that "Israel will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East," and then adding under his breath, imagining the microphone to be switched off, "and we won't be the second, either." But there is no such thing as a nuclear deterrent unless others possess the same weaponry, and neither Vanunu nor Dr. Shahristani was able to stop the arms race that was inevitable once Israel began it and the United States, that renowned impartial mediator, decided to look the other way.

Copyright (c) 1997, The Nation Company, L.P. All rights reserved. Electronic redistribution for nonprofit purposes is permitted, provided this notice is attached in its entirety. Unauthorized, for-profit redistribution is prohibited. For further information regarding reprinting and syndication, please call The Nation at (212) 242-8400, ext. 226 or send e-mail to Max Block at

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