Israel’s nuclear whistleblower

Soldiers know it as the thousand-yard stare—that intense, unconscious focus on the horizon. Mordechai Vanunu has suffered for peace, not war. But he has the haunted, bleak look nonetheless, the product of 18 years in an Israeli jail; 11 of those in solitary confinement.

Vanunu, the former nuclear technician–released in April 2004–was reviled by Israeli extremists as a traitor for revealing that country’s nuclear weapons program. There have been death threats. Presumably they were symbolic, for it is simple to meet the man.

His home since release has been St George’s Anglican Cathedral in East Jerusalem, an island of English architecture on occupied Palestinian land. We walk through the main gate, across the courtyard to the pilgrims’ hostel and ask at reception.

‘Vanunu? He’s in room three. Just knock.’ We don’t even need to do that. He comes out to see us as we approach.

If he hesitates to answer our questions, it is only for a moment. As part of his conditions of release, Vanunu is barred from speaking to foreign journalists. He refuses, however, to be silenced, maintaining that he is only saying what he has already told the world. He has no new secrets to spill.

‘I’m not allowed to leave the country for one year. I’m here under instruction not to meet foreigners, not to travel freely, but I’m speaking to foreigners, giving interviews.

‘For that reason they charge me now in court for not respecting the restrictions. If they let me go I will leave; if not, they can give me another year to stay. I will stay here as long as should be. It’s much better to stay here in St George. I’m in Jerusalem, I’m on Palestinian land.’

Shortly after our visit, Vanunu is told he has to remain in Israel for another year. Now he cannot speak about nuclear weapons at all, even about information that has already been published. What’s more, he is barred from the West Bank.

Vanunu, a Jew of Moroccan background, first told his story to The Sunday Times in London in 1986. He was subsequently lured to Rome by Israeli secret service operatives and kidnapped to Israel.

Israel is the world’s sixth most powerful nuclear state (after the US, Britain, China, France and Russia), with a stockpile of 100–200 nuclear weapons. While the US demands that first Iraq, and now Iran and North Korea, abandon real or imagined nuclear weapons programs, it is silent on Israel’s.

This makes Vanunu all the more certain his actions were justified, despite the personal cost. ‘The world has been changed. Nuclear weapons have been destroyed in many states. I paid a lot not because my act was not good; I paid because this government was not prepared to respect such an act. I hope they will give up and let me go and live my life.

‘All that the Arabs are demanding is that Israel follows international law to give rights to the Palestinians; their land, to solve the refugee problem, to end occupation in Palestine, Syria. There is no [Arab] state that wants to use the atomic bomb. Only Israel has the atomic bomb.’

He is adamantly opposed to the wall that Israel is building through the West Bank. ‘It is destroying any hope for peace. The wall divides cities, families, taking land from Palestinians. Some cities are surrounded by the wall and it’s like they are in prison. People cannot work their farm, their land, so the wall takes more land from the Palestinians.

‘The new generation [of Israelis] are much more right wing; they don’t want peace and they don’t believe in peace. So the Palestinians continue to suffer and live under occupation and in refugee camps.’

A day or so later we see him walk past our café, opposite the Damascus Gate. His eyes are fixed on the horizon, a horizon the Israelis seem determined not to let him reach.

David Glanz is a writer and Judy McVey is a member of the Moreland Peace Group.

 

 

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