Why was Mordechai Vanunu returned to jail?

Since Mordechai Vanunu’s release from jail in April 2004 after 18 years imprisonment in Israel for his role in confirming the scope of his country’s nuclear program — over 11 of those years in solidarity confinement — he has not been allowed to leave the country, and has lived under various continuing restrictions which have been renewed annually.

The basis for the restrictions are the certainty of the Israeli intelligence community that Vanunu still intends “to do harm” to Israel, by jeopardizing state security, and might still have some revelations to be revealed.  However, almost nobody else is convinced of that.  After so many years in jail, it is believed that any information he had is now completely out-of-date.

On Sunday, the 56-year-old “nuclear whistleblower” was returned to jail to serve a new three-month sentence, after being found guilty of engaging in apparently-forbidden contact with “foreigners”.   He said he was unable to fulfill an alternate sentence of “community service”.

Vanunu was detained and questioned for various previous incidents — and was even sentenced to six months in jail in 2008, but avoided serving time on appeal.  This is the first time he has been returned to jail.

This latest development seems to have been precipitated by a relationship he maintained with a Norwegian academic who is reportedly completing her PhD in theology — both of them were arrested in the Ambassador Hotel in East Jerusalem in late December. It is not clear why this particular relationship was viewed by the Israeli authorities as so disturbing.

Amnesty International has said that it intends to declare Vanunu a “Prisoner of Conscience” because he is being sent to jail merely for speaking to people.  [Amnesty did not support Vanunu when he spent 18 years in jail because he had violated an agreement he had signed not to speak about what he saw at his workplace.  The organization now says it intends to mount a campaign for his release.

At one point, interviewed by an Arabic-language newspaper, the Moroccan-born Vanunu, who had emigrated to Israel with his large family as a young boy, explained that he owed his ability to survive his constrained circumstances to “alcohol and women” — and most, if not all, of those women have been “foreigners” visiting Israel on tourist visas.

He was arrested while trying to go to Bethlehem on Christmas eve in 2005 or 2006 — accused of attempting to “leave the country”. He was also interrogated after trying to visit ar-Ram, between Jerusalem and Ramallah.

Vanunu converted to Christianity in an effort to re-write his identity while in Australia after leaving Israel in the mid-1980’s, before he was put in touch with the British newspaper that published the revealing photos he managed to take clandestinely while working as a technician at Israel’s Dimona nuclear research reactor. He has explained that he was motivated by concern about the dangers of nuclear proliferation.

Just before the publication of his photos by the Sunday Times (London) in 1986, while he was in London as his British editors were “fact-checking” his story, Vanunu was apparently entrapped by “Cindy”, a Mossad agent.

“Cindy” persuaded Vanunu to get away from all the pressure by travelling with her to Italy, where he was drugged and smuggled clandestinely by sea back to Israel, where he was eventually tried, secretly, and convicted on charges of espionage.

Vanunu still seems to have some anxious concern and residual affection for this “Cindy”; he seems to believe — despite all evidence — that she, too, was a victim in this case.

Vanunu has been highly visible in East Jerusalem, usually walking morosely up and down Salah Ed-Dine Street — and he has seemed increasingly lost and depressed, in a fragile psychological state.

He has not thrived since his release, and has not been able to find a way to make a living. He has made various appeals to supporters for financial donations.

After his arrest with his Norwegian girlfriend at the end of last year, he was ordered to serve a three-month jail sentence if he failed to agree to do an equivalent amount of community service.

But, for unclear reasons, Vanunu’s offer to do the community service in mainly Palestinian East Jerusalem did not, or could not, satisfy the court.

One of his lawyers, Michael Sfard, noted drily that “Oddly, there are no community service possibilities in East Jerusalem…”

The municipal neglect of Palestinian areas of Jerusalem apparently extends even to programs for community services, though they could fill a big void.

Vanunu had argued that if he carried out the sentence of community service in mainly Jewish West Jerusalem, he would be subject to harassment and attack from angry Israelis who consider him a traitor.

Indeed, many Israelis have called for his death.  The news about Vanunu was the second most popular story on the Haaretz website today, and hundreds of comments were placed on the site calling for him to be locked up for life.   Only a minority of comments took an opposite view.

But, his return to jail clearly caused him great stress.  Vanunu’s furious words at the Jerusalem District Court on Sunday as he was ordered back to jail indicate more desperation than defiance.

According to a report in Haaretz, Vanunu shouted: “I survived 18 years – I could survive another six …Are you trying to discipline me? You cannot take my freedom of expression away. Freedom is freedom. You won’t get from me in three months what you didn’t get in 18 years … Shame on you, Israel … Shame on you democracy, the Knesset, synagogues and the world media. Shame on you all the Arabs that are allowing me to be put back in prison. Shame on you Senate, congress, and the chairman of the International Atomic Energy Agency for not protecting my freedom. Shame on you all the world’s religions, the stupid spies, the Jews, Christians and Muslims”.

Haaretz also reported that Vanunu said “the Shin Bet security service ‘controls the prisons’ and … will try to torture him psychologically, the same way they did the last time he was incarcerated”. This Haaretz account can be read in full here.

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