The Case of Mordechai Vannunu: Preeminent Hero of the Nuclear Age



CounterPunch January 31, 2003


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



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



Mark Gaffney is an anti-nuclear activist and the author of a pioneering

1989 book about Israel's nuclear weapons program:



Mark can be reached for

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