Vanunu Interviews

by Johannes Wahlstrom

 

October 2004

Ten minutes stroll northward from the lively alleyways of the Old City and its renowned Golden Dome lays one of the Holy Land's smallest parishes; the Anglican Church, with its neo-gothic St George Cathedral. The massive towers and defence-walls give the impression of an impregnable bastion, while inside one finds a green oasis of tranquillity. In the inner yard, surrounded by grapes, almonds, olives, pomegranates, sage, narcissus, cypress, oleander, roses and all other imaginable and unimaginable biblical plants, lays a Guesthouse. Here, weary Jerusalem pilgrims rest their sore feet after a long day in the Holy City. And here for the past four months, a fellow-Anglican, the nuclear whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu has taken his refuge.

A technician at the Dimona nuclear weapons production plant, he blew the whistle, and revealed the Israeli nuclear arms program to the nation and the world; a revelation that would cost him dearly. After being kidnapped Israeli Mossad agents in Rome, Vanunu was sentenced at a secret trial to 18 years of jail, 12 years out of them he served in solitary confinement. In the solitude of the jail, he wrote:

I am your Spy. I am the clerk, the technician, the mechanic, the driver. They said: Do this, do that, don't look left or right, don't read the text. Don't look at the whole machine. You are only responsible for this one bolt. For this one rubber-stamp. This is your only concern. Don't bother with what is above you. Don't try to think for us. Go on, drive. Keep going. On, on.

"I refused to be a bolt in the deadly machinery ", Vanunu says after his release in an exclusive interview. After receiving death threats from Jewish extremists and being placed under surveillance and travel restrictions by the Israeli government, Vanunu has taken refuge at St George Cathedral in East Jerusalem. Here Vanunu attends services, rings the bells, and dreams to leave the unyielding clutches of the Jewish state - for England or elsewhere.

He is suntanned, his handshake is firm, and his stare is fixed. The only mark bearing witness to the 18 years of torment and isolation is his stern face. What makes a man follow his heart and beliefs and to pay so dearly for his convictions?

Vanunu pours a bottle of local Palestinian beer into his glass. The golden label reads Taibeh, or 'tasty' in Arabic. "Ever since I was a child I have learned to be open to other views", he says, "to criticize, to be independent, and most importantly to be faithful to the truth. This is why I have always tried to serve mankind, by contributing to peace and foremost to justice for the much-suffering Palestinians."

Vanunu has however paid the price of refusing conformity, of being independent. In the 70's he supported the Palestinian cause, and lost his job. In the 80's he entered the Anglican Church and was ostracized by his Jewish family. When he revealed the Israeli nuclear program in order to avert a nuclear holocaust, he was imprisoned. Now again he refuses to be subdued as he rejects the restrictions placed upon him by the Israeli government.

"I'm being punished for no crime," Vanunu says while cautiously squeezing the beer cap in his hand. "I'm not allowed to leave the country for a year; I have to report to the police of my whereabouts, and even if I want to overnight elsewhere I have to get their permission." Vanunu is not allowed to talk to foreign press, to pass in the vicinities of embassies, borders or airports, write e-mails or chat by internet. He is well aware that by defying the restrictions in giving this interview, he can once again be incarcerated.

The Israeli court regards Vanunu as a 'security threat'. And although he has served his sentence, emergency regulations from the time of the British Mandate have been enforced upon him. These laws have become part of Israeli legal practise and can revoke the fundamental democratic rights of a citizen if an army general regards him as a "security threat".

What kind of security threat is Vanunu? Is he biding his time to reveal more nuclear secrets? "I have no secrets that I haven't already revealed." Besides, he points out, "I live among Palestinians, the 'enemy'. So why can't I speak to foreigners?"

Vanunu speaks his mind without weighing his words; maybe this is what they are afraid of? "I repeat all the things that Israel wants to be kept silent; I remind of Israel's nuclear weapons program, I speak of the barbaric treatment in Israeli prison, and I express my political views of the conflict," he sums up.

One of the most astounding revelations that Vanunu gave concerned the size of Israel's nuclear arsenal. The photos he took and the calculations he conducted at Dimona nuclear centre showed that apart from manufacturing hydrogen bombs, Israel was producing 40 kg of plutonium yearly, and at the time had a capacity of 200-300 atomic weapons, sufficient for turning Europe into a parking lot many times over. While pondering why they needed so many bombs, Vanunu came to the conclusion that "it was like a factory production; while the first ones are expensive to make, the rest are cheap."

Despite of Israel's nuclear capacity, Vanunu believes the bombs are useless. "It's not an issue of UN resolutions; the world would intervene if Israel used its holocaust weapons." When it comes to having them as a deterrent, Vanunu explains: "the problem isn't Iran, Iraq or North Korea, its Israeli aggression. Iraq didn't have any nuclear weapons, I'm sure that neither does Iran. If Israel wasn't so aggressive with its nuclear arms, none of the other countries would even need to get them." He concludes that the international community should intervene and stop the Israeli aggression before it gets out of hand.

Vanunu's voice takes on a tense and serious tone when Israel is described as 'the only democracy in the Middle East'. "First they invade a sovereign nation while kidnapping me in Rome. Then they sentence me at a secret trial, where neither I nor my attorney is allowed take part of the evidence. They imprison and torture me for the crime of talking to a journalist. And still they deny me my freedom of speech and the freedom of movement." He explains that the phrase may have been valid in the 50's. "But what kind of democracy is it now, with all these emergency laws? I am a living proof that Israel is not a democracy." The anger on his face seems to subside; he reaches for the perspiring glass on the table.

At Vanunu's release from prison in April, he was not only welcomed by world media and a crowd of supporters, but equally by an angry mob chanting for his death. The Israeli newspaper Maariv published a census showing that a majority of Israelis disagreed with letting him free; 33 percent thought he should be executed. Now he doesn't venture into the Jewish-held parts of the city, the chance of being lynched is much too real; in a few instances he has even been assaulted by Jewish extremists outside of the church.

If the Israelis were fooled about their country's nuclear arms why do they consider Vanunu a traitor? "This is one of the reasons I refuse to speak to Israeli press," he explains. "They played a cruel game on me and spread vicious lies while I was in total isolation, saying I celebrated suicide bombings and so on".

Vanunu has now filed a multimillion shekel lawsuit against the Israeli tabloid, Yediot Aharonot for falsely accusing him in providing nuclear production skills to Hamas. According to Vanunu, the media incited the Israeli public for they perceived him as a Christian that betrayed the Jews.

He is convinced that his baptism is a greater issue than the nuclear revelations, where both the media as well as the court would have treated him differently had he not converted. "They could have lived with the revelations; I could even have been treated as a hero among the Jews," Vanunu explains. "They are not really thinking about nuclear weapons, they think I

'I'm a traitor for going to the gentiles. But I had to turn to the British press, since the Israeli media is completely infiltrated; they all work for the Mossad." Even Vanunu's parents are more concerned with his conversion, and he explains that "if there is one thing they can't accept it's the rejection of Judaism".

On Sundays, at the back row of St. George church, Vanunu participates in the local Palestinian mass. One by one the members of the parish line up to receive the Holy Communion. From Edward VII church tower, the Jerusalem courthouse reminds of its presence just down the road; here Vanunu was sentenced 18 years ago. Opposite the courthouse is the ministry of Justice; two armed men in black patrol the entrance and guard it from intruders and curious journalists. Further down the road, hundreds of Palestinian women and men have gathered at the fortified gates of the Ministry of Interior. Today, as they do every other day, they stand in line to receive their mandatory ID-cards asserting which zones they are allowed to visit.

Vanunu passes here every day as he ventures outside the protective keep of the cathedral. The constant presence of soldiers and guards checking on ID-cards at every corner reminds him that he is still not free. "Just like the Palestinians I want to have my rights and the freedom to go wherever I want, to do whatever I please. Israel has to become a secular democratic state; a state without apartheid and Jewish laws, a state that respects freedom of speech and other religions."

But Vanunu doesn't want to talk on behalf of the Palestinians. "They have their own representatives. I am just a man with my views, and I have to be able to express them, it can't be reasonable to be imprisoned for talking to journalists."

Out on the street, Palestinians passing by wave at Vanunu; sometimes they approach, press his hand respectfully and invite him for coffee or dinner. For many of them he is a symbol of hope and coexistence with the Israelis. For Vanunu it is in the Palestinian society that he feels free and appreciated.

During his years of isolation, Vanunu developed an intricate friendship with his Palestinian inmates at the Ashkelon Prison. Although they had never met they would always leave him a glass of tea with mint at the courtyard, and during Ramadan they would give him the traditional Arabic sweets, baklawa. Once the prison guards forgot to bring him in and he got the chance to meet his benefactors. "Those twenty minutes at the courtyard was the only time we met. We talked and laughed, we became friends, and then the guards came and we parted forever."

In prison, Vanunu was incarcerated at the 'Agaf seven', a secret section run by the security service. Here he was tortured and abused. And even as the prison guards did all they could to make him aggressive, he refused to play by their rules. Once he couldn't keep his temper and called them Nazis. "Then they got a reason to hit me. After that I learned not to give them any more such chances." Instead Vanunu relied upon his faith and international support.

In 1987 Vanunu was granted the "Right Livelihood Award", better known as the Alternative Peace Prize. The real Nobel Peace Prize, Vanunu reminds bitterly, was given to Shimon Peres, the man responsible for his kidnapping and the driving force behind Israeli nuclear ambitions. Since his initial incarceration Vanunu has received numerous awards, the latest of which was Yoko Ono's Lennon Peace grant. The award, given with the motivation that he had "spoken out for the benefit of the human race", will, due to the restrictions placed upon him, be sent to the care of St. George Cathedral rather than being delivered in person at the UN building in New York.

Vanunu now pleads to the international community: "'I'm waiting for the world to intervene, to deal with Israel." And he adds that "the only way to be free is to be free from Israel." In order to leave the country Vanunu is trying to cancel his Israeli citizenship, but for the authorities to approve of it, he needs a foreign one. While he has applied for Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Irish and even Palestinian citizenship, his application for British citizenship has yet to receive any clear response. Yet it was a British newspaper that published his revelations, and he was trapped by the Mossad on British soil.

Vanunu moved to Israel as a 10 year old Jewish child from Morocco, now he indeed feels as though he has long since overstayed his welcome in the country. "If I where you", he says, "I wouldn't be here, I would rather sit somewhere in peace and quiet, study history and write a book." In the holy city of Jerusalem, Vanunu wants nothing more than to get away from the constant patrolling of police and military, away from oppression, away from occupation and walls. As a convalescent after years of laying-in, he cautiously walks the streets, discovers the simple pleasures of a swim, of a friendly company, of a dinner with fork and knife.

Outside the protective keep of the cathedral the streets are full of life. In the green tranquillity of the inner yard Mordechai Vanunu wonders whether after 18 years he will finally be free.

For more info: http://www.vanunu.freeserve.co.uk/

www.vanunu.org

You can e-mail him at: vanunumvjc@hotmail.com

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