Trevor Borman produced a second installment of his TV documentary on Prisoner X aka Ben Zygier. Borman was the first journalist to expose the real identity of Prisoner X three months ago. Now, he has produced yet another astonishing segment in this scandalous story. The Australian journalist also builds on the narrative developed by Ronen Bergman and three other Der Spiegel reporters who told us most of what we knew about Zygier and his alleged crimes that landed him in prison.
Bergman had reported that the failed Mossad agent had exposed the identity of two top-secret Lebanese informants. This in itself was perhaps the greatest internal failure the Israeli intelligence agency had ever suffered. But Borman goes even farther and explains that one of the Lebanese agents, Ziad al Homsi, was part of a complex Mossad operation whose goal was to retrieve the remains of three IDF tank crew members who’d been captured during the worst defeat that Israel suffered during the 1982 Lebanon War: the Battle of Sultan Jaqoub. There a tank unit was ambushed by the Syrian army with the loss of 20 Israeli dead, 30 injured, two captured and three disappeared. The fate of the latter was the subject of this operation.
Israel believed that the three had been taken prisoner and later killed. At first, it believed they might’ve died in Syria. But later, information they learned pointed to their death in Lebanon and burial in the Bekaa Valley, a current Hezbollah stronghold. Despite the danger of Israeli operations in the region, its intelligence operatives managed to learn the precise location of the graves.
To bring these bodies back to Israel, the Mossad devised an intricate plan that had many facets. One of them involved the recruitment of Ziad al Homsi, the major of the village near the location of the bodies. Through an elaborate ruse that involved a Chinese man claiming to be an official of the city of Beijing, al Homsi was brought to China, where he met a Syrian, who began the process of debriefing him about the 1982 battle in which the soldiers were captured.
Eventually, the Israelis explained their mission, told him they knew where the bodies were buried, and tasked him with excavating the remains and safeguarding them until a second group of Lebanese would retrieve them and return them to Israel’s hands. Israel knew that the Lebanese would want to know the location of the corpses as well since in the past Israel has bargained for such repatriations in exchange for the return of live prisoners and the bodies of Arab fighters killed in battle. The Mossad sought to avoid allowing the Lebanese to discover its secret, lest Israel have to give up Lebanese or Palestinian prisoners in return for the three bodies.
Into this complex covert operation steps Ben Zygier, who is facing personal and professional demons of his own. After the failure of his three-year effort to infiltrate Iran’s European arms and nuclear materials trade, he returned to a desk job at headquarters and the prospect that he’d be drummed out of the service. He desperately searched for a path that might lead him to redemption in the eyes of his bosses.
Through social media and internet forums frequented by Islamists, he contacted someone who turned out to be a Hezbollah agent. Zygier believed if he could turn the man and have him become an Israeli agent, his superiors would recognize his value and retain him. Unfortunately for the Australian-Israeli, the Lebanese turned out to be considerably more skilled than Zygier. When a proof of his bona fides was demanded, Zygier gave up the identity of al-Homsi. Whatever the Lebanese gave up to Zygier turned out to be worthless.
In the TV documentary, Borman interviews al-Homsi, who conveniently claims he was a Lebanese double agent all along and that he was reporting Mossad’s every move to his handlers. Personally, I think there’s something terribly self-serving in all of this. As a former Lebanese war hero, al-Homsi desperately needs to redeem his reputation. Claiming he was always working for his country would do so.
But there is one major problem with this explanation: a Lebanese agent would not have received a 15 year prison sentence for betraying his country as al-Homsi did. He would’ve been paraded through the streets of his village or Beirut as proof of yet another intelligence coup for his country and evidence of yet another Israeli intelligence failure.
I believe that al-Homsi was a real Mossad asset and cooperated in the plan to retrieve the IDF MIAs. Zygier’s betrayal of al-Homsi led to his exposure by Lebanese intelligence. In the TV documentary, al-Homsi says that the Mossad knew where they were buried. Presumably, the Israelis would’ve told him this information too.
This is where there may be some truth in al-Homsi’s claim to be a double agent. If the Lebanese arrested him and then turned him, he could’ve told them where the bodies were buried. Such intelligence would be worth its weight in gold in the Middle Eastern netherworld of hostages, detainees, and corpses of the war dead on each side. That would be something al-Homsi could use as a bargaining chip to reduce his sentence.
This may explain why his 15 year sentence was reduced to three years. It would also mean that Lebanon now knows where the Israelis are buried and has possession of the remains. If this is so, then we may, in future find yet another exchange of Israeli remains for Arab prisoners detained in Israeli jails. It is highly unlikely this will happen anytime soon since Israel’s relations with Hezbollah, Syria and Iran are at their lowest ebb in many years. The Netanyahu government will have no interest in undertaking such a negotiation in the current climate. It will take a much higher degree of calm for such an agreement to be negotiated.
Keep in mind that when the Netanyahu government negotiated for the release of Gilad Shalit, they exchanged 1,000 Palestinians prisoners for him. In return for the three IDF soldiers, Israel would be expected to offer a similarly rich rate of exchange. Whenever Israel negotiates such exchanges they are very controversial in nationalist circles because Israel invariably releases prisoners viewed as terrorists and murderers. That would be another reason this intelligence failure would be so sensitive. In effect, Ben Zygier placed Israel’s nationalist government in a huge bind.
I want to reserve a final word for one participant in Borman’s production. He is former Mossad officer, Rami Igra. Igra presumably would’ve been intimately involved with the Lebanon operation as he was in charge of intelligence efforts to find and retrieve MIAs. Igra’s interviews are shameful. At one point, he, an Israeli citizen, has the chutzpah to tell Borman that it is his patriotic duty as an Australian to drop the story. At another point, he calls Zygier a “psychiatric” case who was destined the screw up. In a subsequent interview for Israel’s Channel 2, Igra calls the ABC TV segment a “science fiction fantasy.”
Though Igra is the CEO of a chain of Israeli retirement homes, we all know how this game is played. The exceedingly secretive Mossad, doesn’t publicly engage with the media, even when they face scandal of immense proportions. Instead, they send former operatives to do their dirty work for them. That’s Igra’s role. He’s trying to clean up the mess made by those in the Mossad responsible not just for hiring Zygier in the first place (a bad enough failure), but by those who decided to spirit Zygier into a bunker where he could be presumed to either rot into oblivion or put an end to himself.
After ten months in a windowless hell hole, cut off from virtually all human contact (except for a few select figures who mostly knew nothing about him), with little prospect of anything except more of the same (he faced a 22-year prison sentence or a ten-year sentence if he accepted a plea bargain), Zygier killed himself.
To all of this negligence and incompetence, add the fact that Yossi Melman and Igra both boast that in its entire history the Mossad has had only “a few” cases like Zygier’s. That is supposed to make us feel reassured. That the Israeli intelligence agency has everything under control. That no one need worry about a thing. It’s precisely this sort of anaesthesia that it relies on in its relationship with the Israeli public. Thankfully, it didn’t work with Trevor Borman or ABC-TV.
Finally, any journalist who uses Rami Igra as a source after listening to the garbage he peddled here should either have his head examined or else use his words to hoist him on his own petard. I believe Borman has done precisely that.