The ‘only democracy in the Middle East’ imprisons a man secretly without trial and doesn’t announce the death for 3 years – for ‘national security reasons’
Israel’s maximum security Ayalon prison where Prisoner X was hanged
Many are the rumours about Prisoner X, who we learn died 3 years ago in Israel’s top security Ayalon prison. What we do know is that he was an Australian and almost certainly worked for Mossad (equivalent of MI6). The reports below outline what is believed to have happened but what is known is that he was imprisoned without trial in 2010 for 10 months, in a cell in which it would have been impossible to commit suicide. News of his detention was subject to Israel’s draconian censorship laws and 3 years later Israeli officials are remaining tight-lipped about any details of the matter. Israeli papers have been forbidden even now to name him.
But none of this has prevented the Prime Minister of ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’ Netanyahu from proclaiming that ‘We are an exemplary democratic state, and we protect the rights of the interrogated and individual rights no less than any other country’.
Zygier with cronies and accomplices
I sometimes wonder whether people like Netanyahu deliberately twist words into their opposite deliberately or whether lying comes naturally to such creatures. An ‘exemplary’ democratic state never detains people secretly and without trial. That is the stuff of police states and states where there is a thin veneer of democracy covering the mailed fist.
The fate of Ben Zygier is of no concern to me. He sounds as if he was a reprehensible person who was also greedy. What is of concern is that Netanyahu and the gamut of Israeli politicians justify what they do on account of being under attack whereas of course it is Israel which regularly attacks its neighbours whilst imagining it is the one under attack.
The laws under which Zygier was detained were the Emergency Defence Regulations of the British, who had used them when they ruled over Palestine. At the time the Zionists, in particular the first Justice Minister, Pinhas Rosenbluth, described them as ‘Nazi’ in character.
Australian newspapers lead their front pages in Australia on February 14, 2013, with the story of Ben Zygier as Israel confirms it jailed a foreigner in solitary confinement on security grounds who later committed suicide, with Australia admitting it knew one of its citizens had been detained (AFP Photo / William West)
Another layer has been added to Israel’s ‘Prisoner X’ spy story, as new details shed light on Ben Zygier’s dealings with Mossad. An Israeli lawyer says the man – who took his own life in a jail cell – did not seem like he was at risk of suicide.
Zygier’s associations with Mossad are still cloudy, as media agencies report different accounts of his previous work with the organization.
According to Kuwaiti newspaper Al Jarida, Zygier reportedly took part in the 2010 killing of Hamas operative Mahmoud al-Mahbouh in Dubai and offered the government information about the operation in return for the United Arab Emirates’ protection.
Australia’s Fairfax Media reports that Australian security officials suspected Zygier may have been about to disclose Israeli intelligence operations – including the use of fraudulent Australian passports – to the Australian government or the media.
The Israeli government has not confirmed or denied Zygier’s association with Mossad. However, Zygier himself reportedly confided in at least two friends that he had been recruited by Mossad.
“He told me he’d just been recruited,” a friend close to Zygier told Haaretz. “I was in shock. It’s the sort of thing people usually joke about but I had no reason to doubt him at all.”
Zygier’s suicide has shed light on Mossad’s recruitment of foreign-born Jews who could spy under cover on their native passports.
Mossad has come under criticism many times for using the passports and identities of citizens of foreign countries. And despite repeated promises to stop the practices, it seems the organization is refusing to change its ways.
Just one year ago, The Times of London published two accounts of young men who had emigrated to Israel from Britain and France. During their IDF service, both men were approached by a woman who identified herself as a Mossad official who asked the gentlemen to “lend” their passports for about 18 months while they were still in the army. Once the men reclaimed their passports, they contained stamps from countries including Russia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey, Haaretz reports.
Australian newspapers lead their front pages in Australia on February 14, 2013, with the story of Ben Zygier as Israel confirms it jailed a foreigner in solitary confinement on security grounds who later committed suicide, with Australia admitting it knew one of its citizens had been detained
(AFP Photo / William West)
Suspicions from Australia
Zygier was one of at least three Australian-Israeli citizens under investigation by the Australian Security Intelligence Organization over suspicions of espionage for Israel, according to Australian media.
Canberra complained to Tel Aviv in 2010 after Dubai said forged Australian passports were used by the Mossad team. Mahbouh’s killers also had British, Irish, French, and German passports, according to authorities in the United Arab Emirates.
In at least seven cases, it turned out that the passports belonged to Jews who had emigrated to Israel from Britain and Germany. These people were unaware that their identities were being used by Mossad officials in Dubai, Haaretz reported. The identities of at least three Australians had also been used.
More questions than answers
While media agencies report that Prisoner X was, in fact, 34-year-old Ben Zygier, the Israeli government has failed to mention Zygier by name – stating only that a man with dual citizenship was held under a false name for “security reasons.”
Attorney Avigdor Feldman, who met with Zygier a day before he committed suicide, said this very fact raised a red flag.
“I saw this as something inappropriate but I did not take legal measures, based on the assumption that he was in the good hands of the lawyers who were representing him,” he told Channel 10 Television.
Fedman said Zygier was charged with “grave crimes” and that there were ongoing negotiations for a plea bargain. He did not elaborate as to which “crimes” Zygier had allegedly committed, but said “his status was ‘detained until the completion of proceedings,'” Haaretz reported.
“His interrogators told him he could expect lengthy jail-time and be ostracized from his family and the Jewish community,” Feldman said. “There was no heart string they did not pull, and I suppose that ultimately brought about the tragic end.”
But despite Zygier’s situation, Feldman did not believe Zygier was at risk of taking his own life.
“To my mind, he sounded rational and focused and he spoke to the point. He did not display any special feeling of self-pity”, he said.
The headstone of Ben Zygier is photographed in the Chevra Kadisha Jewish Cemetery, in Melbourne on February 14, 2013 (AFP Photo / Martin Philbey)
The attorney was hired by the prisoner’s family to help negotiate a plea bargain. During their meeting, Zygier maintained his innocence to Feldman, but was anxious about the trial.
“He was facing a judiciary crossroads and he asked me to give my opinion about his decision as well…he had been informed that he could very likely expect to be sentenced to an extremely lengthy prison term and to be shunned by his family – and this affects a person’s soul,” said the attorney.
Feldman remains critical of how the authorities handled Zygier’s detention. “Those responsible for him should have taken clear steps to watch over him, especially because he was far from the public eye. The end of the affair is something that needs to be investigated.”
Yet, an Israeli court maintains that no rights were broken during the detention.
“The proceedings on the matter were followed by the most senior Justice Ministry officials and the prisoners’ individual rights were kept, subject to the provisions set by law” the Israeli court statement said.
However, Israel’s Justice Ministry says a court has ordered an inquiry into possible negligence in Zygier’s death.
The fresh details come after the Israeli government eased a gag order relating to the case. It was lifted after activists, journalists, and politicians protested the order which prevented journalists from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) from reporting about Zygier.
The top-secret case has raised more questions than answers. Australia and Israel must now try to determine what circumstances caused 34-year-old Zygier to move to Israel, supposedly be recruited by Mossad, find himself detained in 2010, jailed secretly for months, and, uiltimately, take his own life.
Despite the new information, no concrete answers have been given by the Israeli government regarding why Zygier was detained, whether he was working for Mossad, or why he resorted to suicide. And of course the question on everyone’s minds remains: Why is it all such a big secret?
Last week we told you about “Prisoner X,” the mysterious Israeli-Australian citizen who worked for Israel’s spy agency Mossad. Australian media broke the story of how the man identified as Ben Zygier languished for months in an Israeli prison until he was found dead of an apparent suicide. Now we have new details on the case.
“Suspected Mossad agent Ben Zygier was arrested by his own spymasters after they believed he told Australia’s domestic intelligence agency about every aspect of his work with the Israelis, sources say.
“The ABC’s Foreign Correspondent program understands that Zygier met with ASIO officers in Australia and gave comprehensive detail about a number of Mossad operations, including plans for a top-secret mission in Italy that had been years in the making.
“It is unknown who initiated the contact.
“Sources have told the ABC that on one of four trips back to Australia in the years before his death in 2010, Mr. Zygier — who also used the surnames Alon, Allen and Burrowes — applied for a work visa to Italy.”
Zygier is believed to have been arrested in 2010 and held in Israel’s maximum-security Ayalon prison. He apparently took his own life 10 months later.
NPR’s Larry Abramson discussed the case last week with Robert Siegel, host of All Things Considered. Here’s what he said
“He was Ben Zygier … an Australian Jew, migrated to Israel around the age of 18. He joined the army and then the Mossad. And now, we don’t really know what he was doing for the Mossad, of course, because that’s all secret. But when he was 34, in 2010, he was arrested, and we don’t know exactly why. He was held in Israel’s famous Ayalon prison and apparently faced some serious charges.
“He was held under a false name, which is not unheard of in Israel, but it’s rare. And apparently, that was with his own consent, partly to protect his own family. He was in a specially designed cell meant to protect against suicide, but he managed to hang himself somehow in 2010. A handful of people knew that this was going on in Israel, but thanks to a judicial gag order, most Israelis knew nothing about this until this past week.”
As Larry said in that conversation, Zygier was one of three Australian émigrés who traveled back and forth from Australia, changing their names and getting new passports. Zygier is said to have changed his name three times.
“These men may have been using these passports to go to places that Israelis can’t normally go to, like Syria and Iran for their Mossad work,” Larry said.
There has been a strong reaction to the case in Israel. As Larry told Robert:
“Well, you know, Israelis are used to a lot of secrecy here, but I think even they are sometimes surprised at some of the goings-on and the fact that somebody was held, you know, all these years ago, committed suicide, and nobody knew about it. There has been outrage about the idea that in a democracy like Israel you can still have secret arrests and a secret trial, but it does turn out that Zygier did have access to attorneys.”
On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made his first comment about the case. He noted that Israel is “not like other states.”
“We are an exemplary democratic state, and we protect the rights of the interrogated and individual rights no less than any other country,” he said. “But we are also more threatened and face more challenges, and thus we must maintain the proper activities of our security services. Therefore I ask of everyone: Let the security forces continue to do their work undisturbed, so that we can continue to live in security and tranquility in the State of Israel.”
Melbourne’s Jews confront the mysterious death of one of their own, Ben Zygier, in an Israeli prison
On Tuesday morning East Coast time, an Australian news program ran an explosive story claiming that Israel’s Prisoner X, the Jewish state’s most infamous prisoner, was an Australian citizen named Ben Zygier. The story has all the hallmarks of a classic spy novel: forged passports, espionage, information suppression, and accusations of treason. But the tale of Prisoner X—who died under mysterious circumstances in 2010 in solitary confinement, having allegedly hanged himself in the maximum security cell built for Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin—is not only riveting for its John Le Carré flourishes. To me, it’s also shocking because Ben Zygier is a Jew from the small, tight-knit community in Melbourne where I grew up.
The question of how Zygier, raised by a prominent Zionist family, came to be imprisoned by the Israeli government in the harshest, most isolating conditions possible is one that is now dominating conversations in every quarter of the Melbourne Jewish community. Worldwide, there’s been a tsunami of media coverage, speculating on everything from the reason for his imprisonment—the dominant narrative was that he was a Mossad agent who betrayed Israel—to the whereabouts of hisIsraeli wife and two young children. But among Melbourne’s Jews these questions have a slightly different tenor—one of distress and sympathy for the Zygier family. In quiet conversations, everyone is wondering: How did this happen to one of ours?
People often describe the Melbourne Jewish community as a shtetl or a village, and it’s not hard to see why. Affectionately known as the “Bagel Belt,” it’s a cluster of affluent, upper-middle-class suburbs about 10 kilometers south-east of the city. Malvern—where the Zygier family lives—is a lovely, leafy grid of Victorian homes and private schools. From there it’s a short drive to East Saint Kilda, known for its full-scale replica of 770 Eastern Parkway, the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s headquarters, and Elsternwick, where I grew up, which has three Jewish bakeries and one bagel shop within 100 meters of each other.
The proximity isn’t just geographic. Jewish Melbourne is a place where everyone knows everything about everyone else: What they cooked for Shabbos dinner, what their university entrance exam score was, why they’re embroiled in a broyges (dispute) with the president of their shul. It’s not dissimilar to Teaneck or Skokie, but it’s also very unique, because the community is mostly comprised of the children and grandchildren of Polish Holocaust survivors. The trauma of the war—and the threat, whether real or imagined, of the re-emergence of virulent anti-Semitism—runs deep in the bones of the community, which has trained its own private security group, the CSG, to protect its schools, synagogues, institutions, and events. That history helps explain the depth of Zionist commitment among Jews from Melbourne, and Australia generally. (The Jewish Agency estimates that 9,000 Jews have made aliyah from Australia, a high percentage for a community now numbering 97,000.)
The Zygier name is well-known in the community: Geoffrey Zygier, Ben’s father, was once the head of the JCCV, the most important Jewish organization in the state of Victoria, of which Melbourne is the capital. He’s currently the executive director of the B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation Commission, the Australian equivalent of the ADL. The JCCV and the ADC, like almost every Jewish institution in Australia, are politically conservative and ardently pro-Israel. David Langsam, a Jewish journalist in Melbourne acquainted with Zygier, described him as “an exceptionally decent man … generous and polite, even when disagreeing on Middle East policy.”
Ben attended Bialik, a secular Zionist day school with a reputation for academic excellence and privilege, and was a member of Hashomer Hatzair, or Hashy, as it’s known in Australia. After high school he went to Israel with Hashy on Shnat, a gap-year program popular with graduates of Zionist youth movements, who return home to lead meetings and camps for children in their communities. It’s not uncommon for “Shnatties” to return to Australia vowing to make aliyah and serve in the IDF, and many of them—including Ben Zygier and a number of my friends—have done so.
Though many people from my community were to connected to Ben Zygier, most people were reluctant to speak on the record about the Prisoner X story, citing personal connections to Ben’s family or a desire to remain respectfully quiet in light of the their grief. Melbourne Jews are tight-knit and extremely protective of their privacy as a community, so it isn’t surprising to see people are closing ranks in support of the Zygier family. The sympathy for their loss is profound, even urgent: Not only did they suffer the death of their child in 2010, they’re now witnessing a global interrogation of his character.
At the time of Ben’s death, I remember hearing vague reports of a young Australian man who had died in mysterious circumstances in Israel. People in the community have told me that there were rumors circulating that he had committed suicide—but even the word rumor seems too sensationalist, as his death was only discussed in the most discreet language, with utmost respect for the family’s grief and privacy. Given the family’s silence, all we know now is what the papers are reporting: Zygier was arrested and held in detention for several months in 2010, presumably for having grievously compromised Israeli state security. He was found hanged in his cell in December of that year.
On Facebook there are tornadoes of conjecture whirling around and around on repeat. “Those who know what’s going on aren’t saying anything,” said Langsam, “and those who don’t know what’s going on are discussing it nonstop on social media.” On Thursday, anonymous statements from friends started to trickle into the media, but the veil of secrecy cast over the case by the Israeli government seems to have been extended by default to Melbourne.
Anthony Frosh, an editor of a popular community blog, Galus Australis, told me that “there are two prevailing reactions right now: those who are defensive of Israel, who say it’s a media beat-up that has been sensationalized, and those who think we have a responsibility to demand justice.” How will this scandal affect the faith of Australian Jews in Israel, the country many have given their children to? And on the flip side, how will this affect the relationship between the Jewish community and the Australian government, which was strained in 2010 by the revelation that several Jewish Australians had willingly handed their passports over to the Israeli government for use in security exercises?
It seems that a rupture is unlikely to occur. There’s certainly a diversity of political opinion in the Australian Jewish community, but the majority of the people, and certainly the leadership, tends toward defending Israel at all costs.
I was up late last night trawling the Internet for fresh news on the case of Prisoner X. Mostly I read the same information again and again, recycled by different media outlets and news agencies, and I found myself seriously pondering for the first time the phrase “X marks the spot.” As a symbol it seeks to nullify and eliminate, but it also draws attention to itself; to what lies beneath the surface. It’s an apt metaphor for not just the disappearance of Ben Zygier, but for his community’s response to his disappearance: seeing but not seeing, speaking but not speaking