Vanunu and the Israeli Bomb

Against the Current, No. 11, November-December 1987

Stanley Heller

HE SITS ALONE IN his cell twenty-four hours a day. He has been in solitary for twelve months. He is charged with crimes that could carry the death sentence. He has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

His name is Mordechai Vanunu.

Vanunu worked for nine years at Machon 2, an underground factory in Dimona, Israel. Its very existence had been denied by Israeli authorities. But in September 1986, Vanunu gave reporters from the British Sunday Times photographs, notes and testimony about Machon 2 proving that beneath the Negev Desert Israel built the parts for at least 100 and perhaps as many as 200 nuclear bombs.(1)

Since 1975 it has been known that Israel had nuclear bombs. But these were believed to be what the “experts” consider small devices-crude Hiroshima models as opposed to the modem instant Armageddon line.

Based on what they learned from Vanunu, the Times Insight team concluded that during the last ten years the Israelis have produced enough plutonium to make ten times the number of bombs that CIA and UN sources had estimated.

The news team also decided that sometime between 1981 and 1982, units were constructed at Machon 2 to make components of thermonuclear bombs.(2) Thermonuclear bombs range in size from a souped-up atomic bomb all the way to the Rolls Royce of death, the hydrogen bomb. In the homicidal slang of the bomb makers, these are the “city-busters.”

By October 5, the date the Times article appeared, Mordechai Vanunu was missing. For over a month there was no word of him. An Australian clergyman, the Rev. John McKnight, came to Israel to search for him. At a press conference he said he was convinced that Vanunu was in Israel.

Finally on November 9, the Israeli government admitted it had Vanunu in custody. At the end of the month he was formally charged with treason and espionage, charges that could carry a penalty of death or imprisonment for life.(3) The government refused to say how it got Vanunu to return to Isrel.

Vanunu Mania

Following the publication of the article about Dimona in the Sunday Times, there were several months of what Vanunu’s girlfriend, Judy Zimmet, has called “Vanunu mania.” Israeli newspapers spread the word that Vanunu had been trying to peddle Israel’s secrets for a large amount of money. A flood of articles appeared in the Israeli press denouncing him as a traitor.

Readers of one paper were treated to a spicy account of Vanunu’s experiences as a nude mode — complete with sketch. There was a “steady stream of breathtaking news about Vanunu’s sexual impotence, failure to find a girlfriend, failure to complete courses at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba, and the like.”(4)

The Hand of Defiance

The Israeli security cops had been greatly embarrassed by Vanunu’s exposure of their deepest secrets. Once they had him they tried to make sure he would receive no hearing and no sympathy. He was subjected to solitary confinement and slated for a secret trial. He was informed that neither he nor his lawyer could reveal any of the details of the case to anyone. His lawyer was even forbidden to tell how Vanunu was brought to Israel.(5)

Because the case got worldwide publicity the authorities had to open his cage a crack. They granted him visiting time with members of his family-once every two weeks for half an hour. They also let him pick a lawyer from a list of lawyers that had security clearances. They allowed him to write letters subject to their censorship.

By December Vanunu’s captors must have felt that they had everything under control. Vanunu had been smeared as being psychologically unbalanced and a traitor for money. No one was protesting his abduction. He and his lawyer were unable to speak out. The authorities may even have obtained a written confession with Vanunu’s signature on it.

Finally, on November 9, the Israeli government admitted it had Vanunu in custody. At the end of the month he was formally charged with treason and espionage, charges that could carry a penalty of death or imprisonment for life.3 The government refused to say how it got Vanunu to return to Israel.

But Vanunu took the next step. As he was being brought to court one day in a van, he opened his palm against the window glass revealing a message he had written there in marker, “Vanunu was hijacked in Rome, Italy, 30.9.86.” The reporters photographed him. As he was leaving the courtroom Vanunu shouted “Rome … ” before a soldier gagged him with his hand. That was photographed too.

Israeli censorship tried to squash the pictures, but the photos were taken out of the country and were soon published around the world.

The Real Vanunu

On January 4, 1987, Mordechai Vanunu went on a hunger strike. He declared his imprisonment illegal and demanded to be returned to Italy. For thirty-three days he subsisted on tea and water. His strike again brought his case to world attention. He called it off only when he became convinced that the authorities were going to force feed him.(6)

The paper had tarred Vanunu as a weakling and a failure, but after four months in solitary Vanunu was displaying unmistakable signs of courage and strength. The propaganda was beginning to unwind.

Who is Mordechai Vanunu, anyway?

He was born thirty-two years ago in Marrakech, Morocco. When he was a boy his family immigrated to Israel. There he was educated in Orthodox Jewish schools and served three years in the military. In 1976 he was hired by the Negev Nuclear Research Center. He went through nine months of training and exams and was given a job on the night shift as a controller, that is, a technician in the control room.

He worked at Machon 2 for nine years.

He went to college part time and eventually was appointed an assistant professor in philosophy at Ben-Gurion University. Career wise he was hardly a failure.(7)

Vanunu’s fairly conventional life began to change once he was in college. On campus he became an activist. He spoke up for the rights of Palestinians and for their entitlement to a separate state. He refused to do his reserve service in the occupied territories. In 1982 he opposed the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and campaigned for the release of a soldier jailed for refusing to fight in Lebanon.(8)

In 1985 Mordechai Vanunu began taking pictures inside Machon 2. He copied documents. He wrote down notes about all the things he had seen at the atomic war factory; and he had seen plenty. His particular job allowed him to go all through the facility. He began to think about going to the United States and selling what he knew to the press.

In November 1985 he was laid off. Judy Zimmet, whom he had met earlier that year, says Vanunu volunteered to be let go.(9) He wanted to get out of Israel.

The Émigré

Vanunu traveled. He left Israel in January 1986, journeying throughout the Far East and Australia. Vanunu had been interested in Christianity for some time. In Sydney he decided to convert. In July he was baptized by the Rev. McKnight of King’s Cross Anglican Church.

This baptism is held against him in Israel nearly as much as his spilling his guts about Dimona. Christianity is understandably associated with persecution of Jews. But it goes way beyond that. There is an enormous amount of prejudice against any non-Jew in Israel, bigotry that is fanned both by religious fundamentalists and non-religious nationalists.

In Sydney, Vanunu met a Colombian named Oscar Guerrero. After talking with him Vanunu made his momentous decision. He would take all the forbidden information and give it immediately to the British press.

At this point things begin to get muddy. Guerrero started making contact with Newsweek and the Sunday Times, and later the London Sunday Mirror.

According to Newsweek and the Mirror, Vanunu and/or Guerrero were expecting a large amount of money for the story. The Mirror ran a story claiming that Guerrero had once been arrested for deception and theft and generally made the whole matter sound like a hoax.(10)

What are we to make of this talk of money? Does it change Vanunu from a peace activist to someone just trying to line his pockets? First of all, we don’t know if any of the claims are true. It has to be said over and over again. Neither Vanunu nor his lawyer is allowed to talk about the details of this case.

Second, Vanunu was facing a bleak economic future. He knew he could never go back to Israel. He probably felt that he would have to go into hiding for a long time to escape the Mossad. Would it be so wrong to have some money in his pocket?

Third, if Vanunu was just out for money he would have sold his story to the Syrians or the Soviets. He could have made his money, and no one would ever have found out what he had done.

Unless it is proven otherwise, Vanunu should be regarded as a courageous anti­nuclear activist, a man trying to prevent nuclear wars in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Not Just the Middle East

Israel’s nuclear stockpile is not just of concern to the peoples of the Middle East. Given Israel’s record for selling weapons to some of the most vicious regimes on earth,11 it is proper to ask whether Israel is selling nuclear weapons or the technology to make them.

There is some evidence that this technology is going to South Africa. Most telling was the report by Israeli journalists that in 1979 Israel and South Africa tested a nuclear bomb in the Indian Ocean.(12) Mordechai Vanunu had evidence too. He told Robin Morgan, who headed the Sunday Times investigative team, that “it was common knowledge at the plant that South African metallurgists, technicians and scientists were there on an exchange program.”(13)

There may not be incontestable proof that Israel sells nuclear weapons technology to the beasts of apartheid, but there is enough to justify a demand that the Israeli government tell the world what nuclear weapons it has and to what extent it is selling them. Since there is not the remotest chance that it would comply, individuals like Vanunu are justified in revealing the information on their own.

Peace and War

On June 1 of this year, five Australian senators and four members of Parliament nominated Mordechai Vanunu for the Nobel Peace Prize. They say his report on Dimona was an “effective contribution to nuclear disarmament and peace, in particular to nuclear disarmament in the Middle East” and that the actions were “taken by him in complete selflessness, out of a sense of duty to humanity.” Among his contributions they cite his revelations about South Africa.(14)

A month after this nomination the British-based Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation and thirty-six members of the British Parliament also nominated him for the Peace Prize.

So far the nominations have not influenced his jailers to ease the cruel conditions of his confinement. “The authorities behave as if they want to break him down with psychological warfare and make him the unstable character they have painted him to be,” remarked Mordechai Vanunu’s brother, Meir.(15)

If anything, the comment is too mild. During his first month of captivity Mordechai spoke to no one except interrogators. For all he knew no one in the world thought he was still alive. The torment may have been more than psychological. In a letter to Judy Zimmet he wrote, “They tortured me in the first month.”(16)

He is held in solitary confinement. He has never talked to another prisoner. He is not allowed to speak to a priest. Vanunu’s cell is lit twenty-four hours a day. A camera watches his every movement.

During his January hunger strike Judy Zimrnet went to Ashkelon Prison where Vanunu is being held. The authorities said they would allow her to see Vanunu through a glass partition, but she would not be allowed to speak with him. Vanunu refused the terms and there was no meeting.

Vanunu was allowed two hours a day out of his cell for exercise. The compound where he exercised was partially covered with sacking so no other prisoner could see him. However, in April his guards started demanding strip searches both before and after this exercise period. In protest he has refused to leave his cell to exercise.(17)

On two occasions Vanunu has gotten sick of the peeping camera and has put shaving cream over the lens. His punishment has been denial of family visits.

None of this has broken Vanunu.

Another Brave Vanunu

In March of this year Vanunu’s brothers, Meir and Asher, left Israel for Europe. Before they could leave, Meir had to meet with security police and sign a document. The paper he signed said the brothers “couldn’t meet with authorities in other countries, or talk about Motti’s (Mordechai) motives, his workplace or how he was brought back to Israel or else they would be brought up on charges and imprisoned.”(18)

Meir Vanunu, however, defied the warning. On August 9 the Sunday Times published on its front page Meir’s account of how Vanunu was lured to Rome, attacked, doped up and smuggled out of Italy on a ship. ”They brought me here like Kunta Kinte, chained up like a slave,” he told his brother. An Israeli warrant is now out for Meir Vanunu’s arrest.(19)

The Protest

The Sunday Times has stuck by Vanunu. Their Insight team continues to dig up new facts and gives them prominent play. Great work has been done by antinuclear groups in Australia and New Zealand. The Nobel Prize nominations are the fruit of their efforts.

In Israel only News from Within reported in a positive way on what was happening to Vanunu. Its sponsoring body, the Alternative Information Centre (AIC), organized the first demonstration for Vanunu’s rights on February 11.

A week later police raided the AIC office, closed it down, and arrested its director on the charge of providing services to a Palestine Liberation Organization group. The Centre’s exposure of brutality toward Palestinians has long been an irritant to authorities, but its support for an open trial for Vanunu may have been the last straw for the forces of the Iron Fist.

None of the Israeli political parties has raised the issue of Vanunu or Israel’s atomic stockpile. One member of the Knesset did ask for permission to investigate Vanunu’s prison conditions. He was turned down.

The Trial

Vanunu’s “trial” is being held in Jerusalem. Three judges will decide his fate. Neither the public nor the press may view the trial. The Israeli press is forbidden to publish leaks or rumors about the trial.

Vanunu is brought to trial in a van and when he exits from it, he must go through a specially built tunnel of concrete and burlap connecting the road to the courthouse. He is brought in handcuffed, wearing dark glasses and a motorcycle helmet. On August 31, the second day of the trial, he knocked off his helmet and tried to speak. Sirens were immediately turned on to drown out what he was saying. He was beaten bloody by his guards and then hit again in the courthouse.(20)

The official justification for the walls of isolation and silence put around Vanunu this past year is that he might reveal more secrets. In a letter to a member of the Knesset, Vanunu ripped apart the rationale: “All the secrets have already been published in the Sunday Times newspaper. So I don’t have any more secrets. That’s just a pretext of theirs for my harsh confinement … “(21)

Even though the trial is being held in secret, Vanunu is being restricted in what he can say to the court. For example, he may testify that he was kidnapped but he may not say who took him or from which country he was snatched.(22)

Not many days after the trial started, it was recessed until December 1. One of the judges had a heart attack and was hospitalized. Vanunu was returned to his solitary cell.

In the United States a Committee to Defend Mordechai Vanunu has been created. Its initiating sponsors were Francis Boyle, professor of law at the University of Illinois, and Michael Weissman, associate professor of physics at the same university. Judy Zimmet has been chosen to be secretary of the committee. Noam Chomsky, David Dellinger, George Wald, Linus Pauling, Gordon Fellman, Abdeen Jabara and Rabbi Michael Robinson are some of its prominent cosponsors.

The committee’s goal is to see that Vanunu gets a fair and open trial. It intends to raise money for the legal defense, publicize the case, organize letter-writing campaigns and increase the list of its sponsors. Send endorsements, inquiries and contributions to: Judy Zimmet, P.O. Box 45005, Sommerville, MA 02145.


  1. Sunday Times (London), Oct. 5, 1986, p. 1.
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  2. Ibid, p. 4.
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  3. News From Within, Dec. 12, 1986, p. 16.
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  4. Ibid, Nov. 7, 1986, p. 6; Nov. 23, p. 2; Dec. 12, p. 16.
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  5. Interview with Judy Zimmet, secretary of the Committee to Defend Mordechai Vanunu, July 19, 1987.
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  6. Ibid.
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  7. Meir Vanunu, “Curriculum Vitae of Mordechai Vanunu,” May 30, 1987.
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  8. Israeli Foreign Affairs, September 1987, p. 5.
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  9. Newsweek, Nov. 10, 1986, p. 39.
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  10. Sunday Mirror, Sept. 28, 1986, p. 24; Newsweek, Nov. 10, 1986, p. 39.
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  11. Guatemala, Samoza’s Nicaragua, El Salvador, the Argentina of the Generals and more.
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  12. James Adams, The Unnatural Alliance, p. 195. {James Adams is the defense correspondent for the London Times.)
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  13. Israeli Foreign Affairs, November 1986; p. 1.
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  14. Copy of nominating letter dated June 1, p. 1.
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  15. Sunday Times, July 19, 1987.
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  16. Letter #16, April 30, 1987.
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  17. Interview with Judy Zimmet, July 19, 1987.
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  18. Ibid.
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  19. Sunday Times, Aug, 9, 1987, p. 3.
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  20. Letter from Mordechai Vanunu as reported by Judy Zimmet, Sept. 27, 1987.
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  21. News From Within, Sept. 10, 1987, p. 5.
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  22. Israeli Foreign Affairs, September 1987, p.5.
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November-December 1987, ATC 11

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