Hilary WainwrightOctober 4, 2002
Sixteen years ago this week, an agent of the Israeli secret police, Mossad, enticed the Israeli nuclear technician, Mordechai Vanunu, to Rome. The holiday ended abruptly when Mordechai was kidnapped and taken to Israel, where he was charged with espionage and treason and given a prison sentence of 18 years. His crime? In 1986 he had blown the whistle on Israel's nuclear weapons.
In the absence of any international inspection of Israel's nuclear capacity, Vanunu was our unofficial, DIY arms inspector. He is now held in Israel's highest security prison, having spent 12 of his last 16 years in solitary confinement. Neither the UN nor any individual member of the security council has questioned his imprisonment or demanded that Israel's nuclear capacity be opened to international inspection.
His story reads like a tragic thriller. But it's real life. As real as the fact that the Dimona nuclear weapons factory where Vanunu worked, together with the biological and chemical weapons factory in Nes Zion, is still not open to international inspection. In 1994 Jane's Intelligence Review, the world authority on the arms industry, confirmed that Israel has 200 nuclear warheads, making it the world's sixth largest nuclear power. The same politicians who now threaten military invasion of Iraq because of suspected nuclear weapons capacities, have not demanded inspection of Israel's known nuclear weapons.
The double standards that scream at you whenever you see the words "weapons of mass destruction" cannot be excused on the grounds that Israel is abiding by international regulations. Israel refuses to sign any treaty regulating the use of nuclear weapons. All correspondence concerning the nuclear non-proliferation agreement, the nuclear test ban treaty and other copiously negotiated agreements on weapons of mass destruction go into the Israeli government's rubbish bins. Yet Israel receives $3bn (£2bn) of aid, annually, from the US. This is despite legislation, the Symington Accord, to prevent US governments from granting aid to countries who develop nuclear weapons outside of international control and agreement. Sharon claims that, until there is peace in the Middle East, Israel will do what it likes with its weapons. Sharon's policies of occupation, past and present, of all surrounding territories, Palestinian, Syrian, Egyptian and Lebanese suggests that what he likes is aggression. And, unlike in 1991, he has already threatened a nuclear response to any Iraqi attack.
MPs defending Tony Blair's close relationship with President Bush claim that he has more influence "in the tent than outside". Many of them agree with anti-war campaigners that action in Iraq must be combined with action over Israel's violation of UN resolutions on Palestine. This month, the Vanunu committee in Israel will test Tony Blair 's transatlantic influence by asking Kofi Annan to apply the same UN arms inspection requirements that it is applying to Iraq, to Israel. Egypt has been making this demand for some time. It's a demand that requires support in the security council. Will our prime minister use his influence on Bush and support this reasonable request? I fear not.
But surely the British government could do something about Vanunu, and make up for the Thatcher government failure, after the kidnapping in 1986, to take any action over Mossad's flagrant breach of international law? The dossier on Iraq's nuclear weapons, on which Blair rests his case for armed intervention, relies explicitly on information from Iraqi whistleblowers. These men have been given the status of heroes. Meanwhile Vanunu has still not been granted the parole he was due three years ago. He is a prisoner of conscience. He signed a contract of secrecy at Dimona without being told the whole truth, and when he discovered the true nature of his work he spoke out. Amnesty International has been calling for his release for years. The British government has supported legislation that encourages whistleblowers to speak out in the public interest. It could now - applying Article 19 of the UN's International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights on the freedom to impart information regardless of national boundaries - give its support to a man who has spoken out in the interests of the whole of humanity. A spokesman for the foreign office made it clear that it will not be supporting Vanunu's application for parole when it comes up on October 29.
Vanunu wrote a poem that described his transition from technician to citizen: "Rise and cry out... You are the secret agent of the people. You are the eyes of the nation." It is an appeal to all of us. · Hilary Wainwright is editor of Red Pepper. [email protected] The Vanunu campaign: [email protected]