Back in 2010, I reported that Israel had arrested an unidentified individual, and imprisoned him in total secrecy in an Israeli jail. The cell he occupied had once housed Yigal Amir. Even his jailers didn’t know who he was. His jailers apparently did a lousy job of monitoring Prisoner X, as he was called and he hung himself from a bar in his cell. In December 2010, Australian Jewish media reported that Ben Zygier had died in Israel and was to be buried in Melbourne’s Jewish cemetery. There was little spoken about the cause of death.
Now Australia’s ABC network blows open the story (transcript here). Prisoner X was not an Iranian general, as my Israeli source reported to me at that time. He was a Mossad agent named Ben Zygier, age 34 with two small children and an Israeli wife. Yossi Melman, reporting in Walla (the report is displayed here, but has been censored and removed by the military censor) says no one knows why he was imprisoned, but that it must have involved a crime that endangered the existence of the State of Israel. That’s a pretty hefty sentence even for security-obsessed Israel. This has to mean he was involved in an act considered treason. It might possibly involve selling secrets to an enemy power. Jonathan Pollard comes to mind in the U.S. context.
The ABC report makes clear that Zygier was essentially disappeared by security forces. This is common for Palestinians charged with security offenses, but extraordinary for an Israeli Jew. One of the few previous incidents that is comparable is the disappearance and secret imprisonment of KGB spy, Marcus Klingberg, by Israel for over ten years. Clearly, Zygier did something akin to the “crimes” of which Klingberg was accused.
I will update here if/when I can get my Israeli source to find out more about what Zygier’s alleged crime was.
The ABC report says that Zygier also used his Australian passport in the process of his espionage efforts. This report says that he also had an Australian passport in the name of “Ben Allen.” As Australian foreign minister Bob Carr noted, this would violate numerous Australian laws. It also brings to mind the Mahmoud al-Mabouh case in which Australian passports of Australian-Israeli citizens were used by the Mossad to create false passports for Israeli agents who assassinated the Hamas weapons merchant. This incident caused an enormous amount of embarrassment for Israel among all the western governments whose citizens were exploited.
Ben Zygier was the son of Geoffrey Zygier, the executive director of the Victoria Jewish Community Council and one of the leaders of the Melbourne Jewish Community. The family and the deceased’s friends all refused to cooperate with the ABC broadcast as did Israeli reporters who were approached. Since it specifically mentions Yediot as denying assistance, I’m guessing this means that Ronen Bergman was the culprit.
Since Yossi Melman published his Walla piece just before airtime I’m guessing that Melman participated in reporting of the story in some way and was rewarded with a scoop. Unfortunately, his report ran afoul of the censor and Israeli’s can no longer read it there. But they can here.
The case raises extraordinary questions for the Australian government. What did it know about this when it happened? Given that Zygier was likely an undercover spy, it would appear Australia was limited in what it could do. But how often do you have a country’s citizen imprisoned in secret in another country only to commit suicide there? This just begs 1,000 questions in terms of what the Kevin Rudd government knew and when it knew it.
The case will also drive further wedges between Australia and Israel in that it will show that the Mossad continues to abuse the passports of its allies. Israel also, according to Australian authorities neglected to notify it that an Australian citizen was jailed and had died in Israeli custody. This is a minimal standard that all nations adhere to in such circumstances.
Indeed, Haaretz’s main headline today is:
Prime Minister’s Office convenes urgent meeting of media editors
Purpose: To request common action in preventing the publication of the embarrssing story
Government source: the invitation arose from exposure of the details this morning abroad
A word now about the error in my own reporting. My source was told by an Israeli intelligence official that the dead man was Ali Reza Asgari. In hindsight, it appears this was a ruse designed to throw the media off the scent of the real story. A similar thing happened recently with the Fordo story, which also turned out to be a diversion to cover up Israel’s planned attack against Syria. The Asgari red herring was a particularly dumb diversion since it elicited a furious response from Iran, which threatened to bring the matter before the United Nations. In fact, Yossi Melman was furious with me for my role saying I’d endangered the security of Israel by drumming up needless hostility with Iran. What he didn’t know was that it was an Israeli intelligence source who’d done this and was to blame.
Thanks to all those who contributed in various way to reporting this story, but especially to Sol Salbe, who started things off. This is a critical story, a critical enterprise we’re engaged in here. We must make Israel aware of this story. Please don’t forget to support this effort with a contribution. You may use the Paypal or WePay (for tax-deductible gifts) buttons.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.