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Preeminent Hero of the Nuclear Age

Mordechai Vanunu and Israel’s Nukes

by MARK GAFFNEY

Each day we move closer to a Mideast war that could involve the use of horrible weapons, even nukes. In this darkest hour since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the shining example of one man’s courage has never been more relevant to the cause of peace. That man is Mordechai Vanunu, former Israeli nuclear technician, and may well be the longest serving prisoner of conscience anywhere in the world. Daniel Ellsberg recently referred to him as “the preeminent hero of the nuclear age.”

In September 1986, Mordechai Vanunu was illegally abducted by agents of the Mossad for revealing to the world press information that confirmed the existence of Israel’s often-denied plutonium separation plant. The plant is buried eighty feet below ground in the Negev desert, and had long escaped detection. Since the 1960s it has been used to recover plutonium from spent fuel rods from the Dimona nuclear reactor, located nearby. The plant continues to be an integral part of Israel’s ongoing nuclear weapons program. Israel is believed to possess at least 200 nukes.

Then Prime Minister Shimon Peres ordered Vanunu’ s abduction to silence the whistleblower, and to bring him to trial for allegedly jeopardizing the securi ty of the state of Israel. But Vanunu’s real “crime” was speaking the truth. And for that he was made to suffer a fate worse than death: eleven years and five months in solitary confinement. Isolation in a tiny cell is a well known form of torture, and one that can cause deep emotional scars and mental impairment. During this period Vanunu was subjected to constant harassments and humiliations: an obvious attempt by the Mossad to “break” his will, or drive him over the edge. Amnesty International described the conditions of his ordeal as “cruel, inhuman, and degrading.”

Yet, the prisoner held firm as a rock. Nor has Vanunu since wavered from the position of principle he articulated in the very beginning: that the only sane path is full disclosure and abolition of nuclear weapons. From his prison cell Mordechai wrote: “It is a dangerous illusion to believe they [nuclear weapons] can be defensive….Only peace between states can promise security.”

The world gained another glimpse of Vanunu’s character in 1998, shortly after his removal from solitary and his placement in the general prison population. At that time he was queried by Israeli officials about whether he would agree to remain silent on the nuclear issue, implying an offer of conditional release. But Vanunu refused. He insisted on his right to speak freely. And he made it plain that being muzzled on the nuclear issue was non-negotiable: not an option for his release. Vanunu is currently starting the seventeenth year of his eighteen year sentence. One of the causes for which Vanunu risked his life, full disclosure of Israel’s nuclear policies, was briefly realized in February 1999, when a debate of the nuclear issue occurred on the floor of the Israeli Knesset. The event was short-lived. After shouting and recriminations, several Arab members of the Knesset who had sparked the debate were expelled from the chamber. The stormy circumstances showed the extent of denial that remains to be overcome. But it was a victory, nonetheless, for those who favor nuclear abolition.

Over the years the case of Mordechai Vanunu has come to symbolize the intractable problem of state secrecy that continues to stymie all efforts toward world nuclear disarmament. This is why Vanunu has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize every year since1987. Though his name is a household word in Europe, Australia, and throughout much of the rest of the world, here in America Vanunu remains almost unknown. The US press ignores his case because it is an embarrassment to Israel and to the US government.

Yet, spotlighting Vanunu for his courage and his witness would have salutary effects. It would increase public awareness of the folly of President Bush’s current Mideast policies. The problem is Bush’s double standard: one standard for the US and Israel, another for everyone else. This explains why almost nobody (outside the US) trusts the president when he says he wants to roll back weapons of mass destruction from the Mideast. They correctly understand that Bush is not serious. If he were he would also be pressuring Israel to open its nuclear sites to IAEA inspectors. Israel remains the only state in the region with nuclear weapons.

MARK GAFFNEY is an anti-nuclear activist and the author of a pioneering 1989 book about Israel’s nuclear weapons program: DIMONA, THE THIRD TEMPLE. THE STORY BEHIND THE VANUNU REVELATION. Mark can be reached for comment at mhgaffney@aol.com