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Israeli News Documentary Finds Israeli Intelligence Agencies Negligent in Zygier Suicide

Ilana Dayan proves once again why Uvdah is Israel’s premier news magazine program, airing (Hebrew) a moving, deeply troubling portrait of the last days in the life of Ben Zygier before he killed himself in Ayalon prison. She interviews senior prison officials, including someone who spent an hour with him the week before his death. This man, haunted to this day by what should have been done to help Zygier but wasn’t, officially demanded that the State address the deep depression from which he clearly suffered. This prison officer warned the State prosecutor, Shai Nitzan, that there was a clear danger that the prisoner might commit suicide.

Dayan also interviewed Mossad and Shabak officials who, instead of focusing on the gravity of the fact that they were party to a man’s death, argue about who failed in not detecting his unsuitability for being a Mossad agent.

The most disturbing portion of the show is the interview with Nitzan in which he refuses to accept any responsibility for Zygier’s death. He continually tries to turn the tables by telling Dayan that Zygier had excellent legal representation which should’ve been dealing with their client (as if this means the State , which has imprisoned him in the first place, may wash its hands of any responsibility in the matter). He also resorts to claiming that Avigdor Feldman, who saw Zygier a day before his death, didn’t find any evidence of suicidal impulses or depression. He neglects to add that Feldman was not his regular attorney, only met him a single time, and was not a mental health professional able to make such judgments about Zygier’s condition. He even raises the puerile claim that any prisoner who wants to kill himself enough will find a way to do so. What’s especially troubling morally about such a statement is that it has nothing to do with Ben Zygier, who wasn’t a statistic. But rather a man who needed help which Nitzan did nothing to offer.

Clearly, Nitzan doesn’t see it as part of his job responsibility to be concerned for the fate or well-being of security prisoners. He’s part of a judicial system which sees Zygier as a product that has to be moved from warehouse to market. What happens to the product along the way is of little interest as long as it gets where it needs to go: which is a conviction and incarceration.

What is most moving about the documentary is the testimony of the prison official who says that he still sees Zygier’s piercing blue eyes staring at him as if demanding to know why more wasn’t done to help him. He recounts the last words Zygier said to him as he was about to leave his cell: “You’ll return to visit me again?” The prisoner was a man desperate for human contact, who was wasting away both physically, mentally and psychologically. The prison authority officer notes that Zygier had lost a great deal of weight, that he’d been prescribed anti-depressant medication, that he had the clear look of a man on the brink. He says that what was necessary was for someone from the Mossad to come to Zygier in his cell and tell him: “You screwed up. But don’t worry, everything will be OK.” Clearly, this message never came because the agency wasn’t the sort that would offer such comfort.

The report of a prison social worker, which Dayan offers, says that Zygier was afflicted with guilt about what he’d done and obsessed with the fear that he could never show his face again once he returned to society. He couldn’t imagine himself able to find work again once what he’d done became known.

The most newsworthy part of the program was Dayan’s commentary on the reasons Zygier was imprisoned. She says he was not a traitor. He did not willfully betray state secrets. His crime, if there was one, was unintentional. He slipped up and accidentally compromised an intelligence operation. She doesn’t say more than this. So we don’t know whether she knows the full story. It appears she does, or at least enough of it to speak with confidence as far as she’s willing to go in exposing his error.

All this begs the question: if a man makes an error and compromises an intelligence operation, even a critical one–why do you disappear him, treat him as if he’s a leper, and drive him to suicide? What can he possibly have done to deserve such treatment? As Amir Oren wrote movingly in a Haaretz column: “We failed you, Ben.” Yes, Israel did fail Ben.

The biggest tragedy aside from the one that happened to Ben Zygier and his surviving family is the tragedy that this marks for the State of Israel. All of us who observe Israeli society know that its values have coarsened. We know this for sure, because of the numbing moral impact of Occupation. But Israelis could always say that at least Israel knows how to treat its own citizens, especially those who are Jewish, in a more civilized manner. But the Zygier case shows that even an Ashkenazi Jew from a privileged western Jewish community can be tossed away as a liability. Life isn’t just cheap if you’re Palestinian. Now, it’s cheap even for the former elite.

Zygier’s decline was helped along by the fact that he had no one to advocate on his behalf. While apologists for the State’s negligence claim he had legal representation and family visits, it’s clear that Zygier had poor legal help (which lawyer allows his client to die in prison?), and was harmed by the fact that his parents lived thousands of miles away in Australia. Were Ben Zygier the child of the one of the eighteen families that own much of the capital in the State of Israel, he wouldn’t have been left to rot in prison. Were he an Arison and Ofer, he’d have been treated far differently.

The lesson from this is that in Israel, unless you’re one of the 1%, you’re expendable. And you’re expendable whether you’re Palestinian or Jew, Ashkenazi or Mizrahi, native Israeli or native to a wealthy Diaspora community. This is not your grandfather’s Zionism. This is a new form of it. One that harbors no old-fashioned sentimentality for the old values. It can no longer afford such sentiments. If you don’t measure up, you’re liable to end up on the trash heap, discarded like an old tire. That’s what happened to Ben Zygier.

Who will pay for this? Well, likely it will be that prison officer who was so troubled by Ben’s death. They’ll claim he was negligent in preventing the suicide. Meir Dagan? The Mossad chief who first recruited Ben to work for him; and who didn’t come to the cell and tell Ben that whatever happened it would come right in the end? He’ll come off smelling like a rose. Yuval Diskin? Whose interrogators helped bring Ben to the brink by believing his life outside prison would be worthless? No one will touch him.

The cult of secrecy protects those who are guilty. It prevents anyone, whether a negligent agency or an entire nation, from learning any lessons from mistakes. It leads them to repeat the same mistakes over and over. That’s what will happen in this case too.

{ 19 comments… add one }
  • ed March 5, 2013, 3:17 AM

    Seems more like murder if you don’t measure up. It looks more and more like what happens in the mafia and what was happening 80 years ago in our currently most successful European country.

    • marc b. March 5, 2013, 6:07 AM

      i’m with you ed. i can’t understand why richard repeatedly qualifies this death as suicide, resulting from negligence no less. i don’t have the impression that this was an accident, but instead the intended result.

      • Richard Silverstein March 5, 2013, 12:34 PM

        I’m open to the idea it might not have been suicide. But I can’t say that explicitly since I haven’t seen any real evidence to confirm it. But even if it was suicide there’s more than enough blame to go around for the authorities responsible for putting Zygier there.

        • marc b. March 6, 2013, 5:50 AM

          richard, i think it’s highly probable that zygier took his life with his own hands. my point is that his probable suicide was not a consequence of ‘negligence’ but the natural and anticipated result of his treatment and the timely turning of backs. not a small or merely semantic quibble.

          anyway, keep up the good work. i don’t miss a day reading your site.

  • Eden March 5, 2013, 6:24 AM

    [comment deleted for comment rule violation–off-topic]

  • eden March 5, 2013, 7:07 AM

    Ok, I admit it. Israelis are bad and Palestinians are good. Please don’t censure me….

  • yankel March 5, 2013, 7:52 AM

    One can only hope this story might cause young Aussie Jews to think twice before going a waltzing with those who threw this poor swaggie in the billabong.

  • Fred Plester March 5, 2013, 8:14 AM

    If his crime was a “mistake” that sort of explodes the possibility that there might have been even a hidden legality behind his imprisonment.

    It also suggests something far more catastrophic in its consequences than anything we’ve been allowed to hear about, so far. Unless, of course, the ill effects of his mistake were felt by the “1%” rather than the state of Israel as a whole.

    What else did they do to cover up, whatever it was?

    And how many others are being held on the same sort of basis?

    • lally March 5, 2013, 3:16 PM

      “far more catastrophic in it’s consequences”…..

      There was a storyline advanced by a former East German criminal investigator that Rafik Hariri’s highly sophisticated electronic security system was an Israeli product. If true, it would be a slam dunk that they, not Syria>Hezbollah were involved in killing him and would disembowel the “case” made by so-called Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL). Indeed, given the Lebanese historical proclivity for intrigue and intra confessional warfare, it wouldn’t be a shock if they had Lebanese partners in crime:

      “Israeli intelligence is standing behind this crime”, claimed German criminologist Juergen Cain Kuelbel. In his book “Hariri’s Assassination: Hiding Evidence in Lebanon” he wrote: “Syria is innocent and has nothing to do with that crime or the other assassinations.” Kuelbel discovered that the jamming system used to disable the Hariri convoy’s electronic shield was manufactured by Netline Technologies Ltd of Tel Aviv, an Israeli company co-developed with the Israel Defense Forces and Israeli law enforcement agencies, and sold through European outlets. The UNIIIC dismissed Kuelbel’s findings as “ridiculous” and irrelevant.”
      link to globalresearch.ca

      (This article predates the finger of guilt pivoting to Hezbollah as the guilty party)

      • Fred Plester March 6, 2013, 3:36 AM

        Does Netline Technologies link to the Israeli-based company “News Data Services” or NDS in any way?

        I would have thought that if any complex electronic warfare had taken place in Beirut, even fleetingly, NSA and GCHQ signals intelligence operations on Cyprus would have analysed and recorded it all automatically. GCHQ records an awful lot of things for later analysis. Anything to do with remote-controlled bombs is a concern of GCHQ, and they are most unlikely to have missed it.

        I think any strategy of using Lebanon to divide the Arabs may ultimately backfire, because while Syria is divided from the other Arab states, they are unusually united in wanting Lebanon sorted out, which is their only real interest in Syria.

        It looks as if the Free Syria Army have allies in Iraq now, who were able to attack a Syrian army unit which had fled into Iraq and was being escorted back to the border.

        Even if this is the result of Israeli machination, it’s a recipe for Israel losing control of what subsequently happens.

  • Bina March 5, 2013, 12:54 PM

    If it is true that Ben Zygier dead – it’s just a terrible injustice done to him.
    And because it sounds as theater of the absurd – I can not believe he passed all what they say.
    More sense to hide the Ben, for Australia and other countries involved do not look for him and did not know more details.

    I made a video called: Israeli Mossad & Ben
    Can be seen on YouTube.

  • Dana March 5, 2013, 1:51 PM

    Believing that Zygier died of “suicide” is like accepting that Arafat Jaradat – the fearsome Palestinian stone thrower (who somehow morphed into “moltov cocktail thrower”) died of a “heart attack” while in israeli custody. Technically, both may be true. Left unsaid are the many options a cruel jailer has of “helping’ a convenient demise materialize in practice. All it takes is a “slight’ over-reach, no? a little of that special ‘extra” in the ‘anti-depresant’ plus a convenient time when the cameras are “not looking”. an all-out resucitation for Jaradat, a specially helpful “tranquilizer” for Zygier – what’s a few extras between friends?

    The israelis of course will have to find a culprit to blame among the guards – not for those of us who watch, not so credulously, from the outside – but for the israeli populous that’s seen it’s hero “The Mossad”, with reputation tarnished, laid low as just another bungling agency. Recruiting the wrong guy – that’s the meme running around in israel. So, some minor head at the Mossad will need to roll (not the ex-Don – Dagan, surely) and a potentially troublesome prison guard, handed to the wolves. Why not – if it helps keep the illusion alive that they don’t all live in a mafioso state – it’s but a small price to pay.

    For those who prefer logic, I will point out the obvious – the long-depressed prisoner (per Ilana’s little “whitewash”) chose to do away with himself just a day after the visit from Feldman- the much feared attorney, who requested the file on Zygier’s case officially. Two days later, when he called his prison contact, one “Yossi”, to ask why he hadn’t received the file yet, he was told it was “no longer necessary” as the client, Ben, was “no longer alive”. Now, how convenient is that?

    Of course, people who want to believe do so no matter what the facts or evidence are. They’ll dismiss any strange coincidence, as just that – strange. They will ignore what facts are known and what their own logic tells them, because, well, there is a need to believe.

    An aside: most real mafioso – like the ones in Sicily, wlll also argue – to death if need be – that they are the “good guys” and are getting a bum deal. I hear the new mafia is hard at work, hiring PR firms to burnish their image. What they obviously need is to get a few lessons on how to produce a documentary that manages to take the Dons and consiglieri off the hook, leaving a few smaller fish to dangle.

  • Eden March 5, 2013, 3:57 PM

    [comment deleted for comment rule violation–next one is your last]

  • Blabbaer March 5, 2013, 8:25 PM

    So, if the secret prisoner was an Iranian general and Zygier is the smokescreen, the general is now safely tucked away as everyone focuses on what went wrong with Zygier’s incarceration. I have read nothing to justify the extraordinary secrecy which accompanied Prisoner X, especially it it was Zygier, but it does make sense if it was someone else and Zygier is a convenient cover. yes, he may have committed suicide and he may have been in prison for something. But was he Prisoner X? The only “proof” that he is is because the Israeli Government said Zygier was Prisoner X and of course they wouldn’t lie, would they?

    • Richard Silverstein March 5, 2013, 8:49 PM

      This is false. The Israeli government never said Ben Zygier was Prisoner X. Australian journalists did. To this day Israel officially concede nothing about this case.

      • Fred Plester March 6, 2013, 3:07 AM

        Has the Israeli government ever said that there was only ever one Prisoner X?

  • mary March 6, 2013, 12:35 AM

    How many articles have been written about Zygier, even by you, Richard? And, in contrast, how many have been written about Ziad Jilani, Mustafa Tammimi, Bassem Abu Rahmeh, and other Palestinians?

    This is not a “new form of Zionism,” unless you mean in the old days they stuck to killing Palestinians and now it’s somehow worse because they’ve killed another Zionist.

    Is it possible that even here, the death of an Israeli is more newsworthy than the murder of any Palestinian?

    Just wondering.

    • Richard Silverstein March 6, 2013, 1:17 AM

      All I can say is that I’ve written about every one of the victims you’ve listed. My sense of injustice isn’t limited to one side or the other. And if I focus so much attention on an Australian Jew it’s because I think his death may have a greater impact on the average Israeli than the others. That’s a horrible thing to have to admit but you & I both know it’s true. And we also know that there’s little we can do to change that insensitivity.

      In what I do I’m looking for every lever I can use to change attitudes. If Ben Zygier’s suffering will change minds among Israelis in ways that Ziad Jilani’s may not–then I’ve got to use the moral lessons that his death offers. It doesn’t mean the suffering of Palestinians is less or less worthy in my eyes.

      Not to mention that if the PA or Hamas had a spy service and arrested one of those spies and disappeared him and later found him dead in his cell, I’d guess that would be a pretty big story in Palestinian media as well.

  • Curious & Curioser March 6, 2013, 3:14 AM

    Some interesting dates arising from the Australian DFAT report out today:

    “The DFAT report shows ASIO spies found out about the arrest on February 16, 2010”

    says elsewhere “Zygier’s arrest on January 31, 2010.”

    It is possible Israel contacted ASIO about Zygier being under mere house arrest at that time but I highly doubt it. Seems far more likely that ASIO would only be told once things were really hitting the fan.

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