News from Israel Brings Attention to Nuclear Secrecy

Throughout the spring of 2001, several news stories out of Israel focused public attention on the country's "secret" nuclear arsenal. None of the stories carried Mordechai Vanunu's message of disarmament. But these tales taken together reveal a state no less determined to conceal its nuclear secrets than it was in 1986, when Mordechai Vanunu was kidnapped for his act of conscience.

In March, Avner Cohen, author of Israel and the Bomb, travelled to Israel for the first time since his historical study was published in 1998 in the United States. Cohen does not advocate nuclear disarmament, but rather believes Israel would benefit from a more transparent nuclear policy.

But his book on the taboo subject raised eyebrows. On two past occasions, he had cancelled trips to Israel at the last minute because of rumors that he might be arrested. And sure enough, on March 12, the day he arrived in Israel, an Israeli newspaper carried the headline, "Nuclear Historian Dr. Avner Cohen will arrive today, and is expected to be arrested."

In fact, Cohen was not arrested upon arrival at Ben Gurion Airport. But he did agree to appear for questioning the following morning at the Ministry of Defense. Cohen participated in eight sessions totalling almost 50 hours of thorough and detailled questioning. The Israeli press reported that the investigation was concerned with whether, and to what extent, sources within the defense establishment itself might have provided Cohen with "secret information."

Extensive media attention, including long interviews on Israeli television, kept Israel's "nuclear ambiguity" in the public eye throughout Cohen's weeks in the country.

About two weeks after Cohen arrived in Israel, a retired Israeli brigadier general, believed to have been involved in the country's nuclear program, was arrested there. Yitzhak Yaacov was taken into custody March 28 by a security branch of the Ministry of Defense, reportedly because his relationship with a Russian woman raised suspicions. He was charged with passing confidential military information to unauthorized parties with the intention of harming state security, which he denies.

News of his arrest was muzzled by Israel until the London Sunday Times broke the story on April 22, nearly a month later. The imposed gag order was then partially lifted.

Friends of the dual Israeli-American citizen, who is 75 years old and confined due to heart problems in a prison hospital, say they believe Yaacov's only offense was speaking to an Israeli reporter during a series of interviews in New York not long before.

His lawyers, as well as several legal commentators in Israel, have publicly questioned why Israeli officials chose to file charges of aggravated espionage against him when they have publicly acknowledged that he did not share secrets with an enemy of Israel.

As a result of Yaacov's arrest, there was some discussion in Israel of changing the law to distinguish between spying (i.e. passing information to an enemy) and other unauthorized disclosure of secret information (i.e. passing information to a journalist). A development in this regard could be significant because of its possible bearing on Vanunu's case.

There have been few additional developments or details available about Yaacov's case.

Then, on May 8, 30 people, mainly Dimona workers, held the first demonstration of its kind within sight of the silver dome of Israel's nuclear installation in the Negev Desert. They were there to ask their government to recognize as work-related the cancers and other illnesses suffered by dozens of employees who have handled radioactive materials at Dimona over the years.

Among the group were widows and children of workers who have already died of cancer. The son of one man who died of bone cancer mentioned the degree of loyalty of the workers, who refuse to talk about what type of work they did or divulge any other information about the top secret facility.

Because the plant's management denies the relationship between job conditions and the workers' cancer, the workers and their widows are not able to receive any compensation from the government.

After these events, there were rumors of a Defense Ministry Security Department crackdown on any revelations about Israel's nuclear capabilities, including the consideration that Mordechai Vanunu would be prevented from leaving Israel when he completes his 18 year sentence in April, 2004, and would remain under constant surveillance. Attempts by the American and British Free Vanunu campaigns to clarify these rumors have so far gone unanswered by Israeli authorities. Vanunu's lawyer, Avigdor Feldman, who is currently working on a new parole request, is prepared to challenge any potential restrictions regarding Vanunu's release.