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A small-framed, bald-headed man with beady, restless eyes sits uneasily in the flower-filled courtyard of the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem. The hotel was once a haven for foreign correspondents. It is still a regular haunt for Mordechai Vanunu who, ironically, has been banned from speaking to the media since his recent release from prison.
Israel considers Vanunu a traitor for revealing its nuclear secrets to a British newspaper in 1986. Others see him as a peace activist who expressed his opposition to weapons of mass destruction.
Vanunu worked as a technician at the nuclear plant in Dimona from 1976-1985. During that period, his photos of the facilities revealed overwhelming evidence of Israel’s nuclear programme in the Negev desert. He gave the photos to the Sunday Times, leading international nuclear experts to conclude that Israel had produced at least 100 nuclear warheads.
Israel has always maintained a policy of ‘nuclear ambiguity’, neither confirming nor denying possession of nuclear weapons.
Israel was determined to prosecute Vanunu but not on British soil for fear of straining diplomatic relations with the Thatcher government. Instead, a female Mossad agent lured him to Italy, where he was captured, drugged and taken back to Israel. He spent 18 years in prison, 11 of them in solitary confinement.
Although he was released from prison in 2004, he continues to be subject to a stringent set of restrictions. For example, he cannot leave the country, cannot speak to a foreigner unless granted approval by Shin Bet (General Security Services), cannot come within 500 metres of a border crossing or airport, cannot come within 90 metres of a foreign embassy, his phone and internet are monitored and he has to notify the authorities of a change of residence.
In addition, he has been imprisoned several times for short periods for allegedly violating the terms of his release. Most recently, in 2017, he was convicted of meeting with two US citizens in East Jerusalem in 2013 without permission from Israeli authorities.
Now aged 62 and disenchanted with his country, he has converted to Christianity, married a professor from Norway and claims he has no more secrets to reveal. Even so, the Israeli authorities refuse to let him leave the country. His latest appeal to the Supreme Court was rejected in November 2017.
Critics of Vanunu’s treatment claim that he is being held indefinitely so that Israel can avoid political embarrassment and financial complications with the United States (US). If Israel admits to having weapons of mass destruction, it would not be eligible for a $2 billion aid package from the US.
In November 2017, Vanunu wrote on his website, ‘After 32 years I am not yet free to leave this country, to go to join my wife in Oslo. They love to see me suffering here. But they must end this case, sooner or later. The ISRAEL ATOMIC SECRETS have gone for ever. This is irreversible, for ever. NO MATTER WHAT THEY ARE DOING TO ME, freedom must come!’
In a January 2018 tweet, he declared 2018 ‘the year of freedom’, and expressed his hope that it would be the year in which the Israeli authorities gave him permission to leave the country. Although Norway has officially invited him to live in Norway, more than halfway through the year, his wish has yet to materialize.