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18 years on, Israel's most famous prisoner emerges, arms aloft

Donald Macintyre in Ashkelon
22 April 2004

Unrepentant and unbowed after serving an 18-year jail sentence for revealing that Israel had nuclear weapons, Mordechai Vanunu left prison yesterday to an ecstatic welcome from supporters and taunts from a vociferous group of counter-demonstrators.

The former technician at the Dimona nuclear plant, who became one of the world's most famous prisoners, proclaimed as he left the Shikma high-security jail that he was "proud and happy" to have leaked Israel's atom secrets to a British newspaper in 1986, and pledged to continue to speak out against nuclear weapons in Israel and the rest of the world.

Denouncing the Israeli security services, Mr Vanunu, who spent nearly 12 years of his sentence separated from other prisoners, said: "You [the security services] didn't succeed to break me, to make me crazy. The target of 18 years in isolation is to make me crazy."

Looking fit in a checked shirt and tie as he emerged, both hands raised in peace signs, from the jail's inner precincts at just after 11.10am, the 49-year-old clambered onto the prison gates to greet his supporters before telling reporters that Israel should open the Dimona nuclear reactor to international weapons inspectors.

Carmel Martin, one of dozens of American and British supporters outside the jail including the CND vice-president, Bruce Kent, and the actress Susannah York said Mr Vanunu was "the most important prisoner since Nelson Mandela". After his defiant and impromptu press conference, Mr Vanunu was driven through the gates by his brother Meir to tumultuous cheers and chants in Hebrew of "Vanunu is a hero" from dozens of Israeli peace campaigners but shouts, also in Hebrew, of "traitor" and "garbage" from anti-Vanunu protesters. Some banged on the windows and roof of the white saloon as it turned out of the jail while others passed fingers across their throats as he waved from the back seat. Some of the counter-demonstrators had earlier shouted "death to traitors".

Mr Vanunu, who converted to Christianity in Australia after being dismissed from the Dimona plant in 1985, was then driven to St George's Anglican cathedral in Jerusalem where he took communion. In an emotional reunion, he was hugged by a tearful Peter Hounam, the Sunday Times reporter who last saw Mr Vanunu in 1986 before his story based on the Dimona revelations was published and just before Mr Vanunu was ensnared, drugged and shipped back to Israel by Mossad agents.

Mr Vanunu was escorted into the church by the Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem, Riah Abu el-Assal, who told journalists: "He is an Anglican Christian and expressed his desire to offer thanks to God for his release from prison as his first act as a free man."

Earlier Mr Vanunu, whose parents were poor Moroccan Jewish immigrants to Israel, had claimed that his conversion had played a part in his incarceration. "I want to tell you something important," he told reporters. "I suffered here 18 years because I was baptised to Christianity. If I was Jewish I wouldn't have all this suffering."

Mr Vanunu, who cannot travel abroad for at least a year and is forbidden from approaching foreigners, embassies or border crossings for six months under the terms of his release, declared to reporters: "I don't have any secrets. All this bullshit about secrets is dead. Since the article was published there are no more secrets. All the secrets are published in the hands of the world. I am now ready to start my life."
He added: "I don't have any secrets. I don't want to harm Israel. I want a new life. I want to go to United States, to marry a wife and to start my life."
The Israeli government is already bracing itself for the prospect that Mr Vanunu's release and the restrictions imposed on him threaten to revive an international debate on the country's refusal to admit officially to what is internationally accepted to be one of the world's most sophisticated nuclear arsenals.

Thomas Graham, the former diplomat who advised President Bill Clinton on arms proliferation, told the BBC World Service that Israel had about 200 warheads and that it should declare them. Israel argues that its policy of "nuclear ambiguity" has long protected it against hostile Arab neigbours such as Iran, Syria and, historically, Iraq which oppose its existence.

Despite Mr Vanunu's insistence that he has nothing further to reveal, Tommy Lapid, the Israeli Justice Minister, said yesterday that he was "hell-bent to do as much harm as he can". He added: "We will keep an eye on him, we will watch him ... We want to know where he is and we want to know to whom he may or may not divulge state secrets."

The Defence Ministry said the security services had confiscated several tapes and notebooks containing Mr Vanunu's writings on Dimona. Rachel Niedak-Ashkenazi, the ministry's spokeswoman, insisted: "It was a lot more than a personal diary. To us this showed an intention and ability to make future use of it."

Although his supporters fear for his safety out of jail because of the undoubted fury that Mr Vanunu invokes among many Israelis, Mr Lapid said no precautions or special security measures were planned. "He's surrounded by at least 100 radicals who are worshipping him so I'm sure they'll take care of his safety," he said.

Gideon Spiro, the former paratrooper who acts as chief spokesman for the Israeli Campaign for Mordechai Vanunu, said yesterday that the security issue was "very serious". He said: "One paper has already posed the question of whether there will be a Jack Ruby [who shot Lee Harvey Oswald after he had been arrested for John Kennedy's assassination]."

Nick Elov, a 74-year-old American who has legally adopted Mr Vanunu in the hope that he can secure US citizenship, accused the Israeli authorities of endangering Mr Vanunu by leaking his plan to live temporarily in the holiday apartments attached to the upmarket Andromeda Hills complex in Jaffa. "This is irresponsible," he said. "I don't know what they thought they were going to achieve by that."

Several residents of the complex made it clear that Mr Vanunu would not be a welcome neighbour. One resident, Danny Hakim, who emigrated to Israel from Australia, said he resented the fact that Mr Vanunu, whose family had been saved from probable death in Morocco by Israel, should now have turned against his country. "If he comes here I will leave."

Another, Lior Perry, said he would object both on the grounds of the community's security and because Mr Vanunu had reportedly told his interrogators that he was against the concept of the Jewish state. "I get on with Christians and Muslims here in Jaffa. But the world needs to know this is a Jewish country." He said he opposed the use of the atom bomb at Hiroshima and French nuclear tests in Tahiti but added: "Israel is a small country which has to protect itself in a hostile region."

It looked last night as if Mr Vanunu might cancel his plans to stay at Andromeda Hills. Instead family members said he would "drink champagne and hug his supporters".

Susannah York said: "[The Israelis] must know that the restrictions only contribute to them being seen in a very bad light. They cannot go on punishing him after he served a full sentence." Jeremy Corbyn, a Labour MP who was outside the prison with his parliamentary colleague Colin Breed, said he had been cheered that Mr Vanunu looked "peaceful and happy" and added: "It's great that there were so many young Israeli supporters of Mordechai Vanunu here. That's the hope."

Mr Vanunu, who refused to answer questions in Hebrew at his impromptu news conference in the prison courtyard in protest at the restrictions, was asked if he saw himself as a hero. He declared: "All those who are standing behind me, supporting me ... all are heroes. I am a symbol of the will of freedom. You cannot break the human spirit."


Israel is believed to have a nuclear arsenal of an estimated 100 to 200 weapons which, along with the nuclear reactor at Dimona (right), are neither subject to controls of the Non-Proliferation Treaty - which Israel has not signed - or inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
It is also understood to have an active chemical weapons programme, although is not thought to have deployed chemical warheads on ballistic missiles, which is prohibited under the Chemical Weapons Convention signed by Israel in 1993. It is also believed to have extensive bio-weapon production and research capabilities, and it is not a signatory of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention. As far as conventional ballistic missiles and systems are concerned, Israel is armed to the teeth with some of the world's most up-to-date weapons.

Source: Monterey Institute of International Studies

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