Israeli defense officials' attempts to silence, envelop in fog and hide behind the walls of censorship all came to naught Wednesday evening when the government acknowledged, in part, the veracity of a foreign report that an Israeli-Australian with dual citizenship had been imprisoned in Israel under a false name and committed suicide in prison.
- The Prisoner X affair is a classic story of Israeli failure
- Israel can't just 'disappear' people
- Israel's dark deeds
- Zygier was negotiating plea bargain before he died in jail, says his Israeli lawyer
- Inside Yigal Amir and Prisoner X's prison cell, which was designed to prevent suicides
- Ben Zygier, 'Prisoner X,' told Australian friends he was a Mossad agent
- On censorship and other follies
According to the investigative report aired by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the man, Ben Zygier, was imprisoned in March 2010 in an isolation cell in Ramle's Ayalon Prison, and committed suicide there in December of that year.
The ABC report stated that Zygier, who immigrated to Israel at the end of the 1990s, took the Hebrew name Ben Alon, served in the Israel Defense Forces and actually worked for Israel's Mossad intelligence agency before his death.
According to the report, Zygier was recruited into the Mossad in 2000 and served in the intelligence agency for a decade, undertaking assignments in enemy states using his Australian passport. Zygier was also married to an Israeli woman and had two children.
The ABC investigative report stated that Zygier eventually took a wrong turn and was incarcerated in solitary confinement, under the cover of a media black out. He was kept there in isolation until he committed suicide in his cell on December 15, 2010, just four days after the birth of his youngest daughter, who he apparently never had a chance to see. His funeral was held in Melbourne one week following his death.
Findings from the ABC report were broadcast on Tuesday and picked up by all major international media and online social networks. Meanwhile, they were kept under a draconian gag order in Israel for an entire day, preventing publication in local media outlets. Only pressure applied by Knesset members and harsh public criticism forced the defense establishment and the military censor to permit the publication of story details already reported in foreign media.
The unceasing reports and new details that were revealed every few minutes in Australian media throughout the day after the initial airing of the report, alongside the massive coverage in Israeli media, led defense authorities to finally cave and request that the court revoke part of the gag order on the story.
At 8:25 P.M., the deputy president of the Petah Tikva District Court, Avraham Tal, signed the new gag order, enabling the release of many details from case file 8493-03-10, "The State of Israel v. Anonymous." The order did not confirm the man in question was in fact Ben Zygier or that the person in question held Australian citizenship. Of course, it also didn't mention the possibility that the person in question was connected to the Mossad, as has been suggested in foreign media reports.
"A prisoner who was an Israeli citizen and also had a foreign citizenship was held by the Prison Service," the State Prosecution statement to the court said. "For security reasons, the prisoner was held under a false name, but his family was immediately notified of his arrest and he was represented in all the procedures in his case by attorneys Roy Blecher, Moshe Mazor and Boaz Benzur.
"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 statement added.
The prosecution also said that after the prisoner was found dead in his cell two years ago, the president of the Rishon Letzion Magistrates Court, Daphna Blatman Kedrai, held an investigation into the cause of his death. The investigation lasted for over a year and about six weeks ago the court concluded that the prisoner had committed suicide. Despite the finding, Judge Blatman Kedrai passed the file onto the State Prosecution to investigate whether any negligence was involved in the prisoner's suicide in the state's most highly secured prison.
It is still not clear why Zygier took his own life in prison and what led an apparently promising agent of the Mossad, according to foreign reports, to such an end.
As the story continues to develop, more and more details suggest that, besides what foreign media allege to be his work for the Mossad, Australia's intelligence agency was also intimately familiar with the man dubbed "Prisoner X."
Australian media reports over the past 24 hours have raised difficult questions, foremost among them: Did a foreign intelligence agency "turn" Ben Zygier and was he a double agent?
The Australian newspaper The Age reported Wednesday that Zygier was under investigation by the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) months before he was arrested in Israel. In February 27, 2010, the journalists Jason Koutsoukis and Jonathan Pearlman published a story in The Age. According to that article, the ASIO was investigating three Israelis who also held Australian passports and were suspected of using their second passports to spy on behalf of Israel.
The expose was published two weeks after the assassination of senior Hamas militant Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai took the world by storm. Dubai authorities claimed that Mossad agents were behind the hit and had used foreign passports to enter Dubai, including Australian ones.
According to Koutsoukis and Pearlman's report, ASIO's investigation into the three Israelis was already underway in June 2009. None of the three targets of the investigation were believed to be involved in Mabhouh's assassination. However, all three suspects were immigrants who had lived in Israel more than a decade, but had returned to Australia several times to change their legal surnames and receive new passports. They changed their original surnames from Ashkenazi, Jewish-sounding names to ones that sounded more Anglo-Australian.
Previous cases of Mossad agents using Australian passports didn't help matters. The repeated name changes, along with the fact that all three suspects' passports had been used to enter countries like Iran, Syria and Lebanon, heightened suspicions at ASIO.
Another red flag for Australian intelligence was that all three individuals were tied to the same European telecommunications company, which had branches in the Middle East, but company management denied that the three worked there.
British daily The Guardian reported Wednesday that Zygier had operated a shell company in Europe for the Mossad, selling electronic equipment to Iran and Arab countries. According to the report, Zygier managed the company with two other Australian citizens who had immigrated to Israel, changed their names and replaced their passports.
Zygier was educated at Jewish schools in Melbourne and was a member of the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement. He immigrated to Israel after finishing his law studies in Australia. Over the course of his adult life, Zygier changed his surname no fewer than three times. He first changed his name to Ben Allen, then to Ben Alon and finally to Benjamin Burrows.
According to Australian media reports, after living in Israel for an extended period of time, Zygier returned to Australia with his Israeli wife and two children in order to register for M.B.A. studies at Melbourne's Monash University. ASIO discovered that while at the university, Zygier became friendly with Arabs students who were studying there.
Koutsoukis called Zygier in February 2010 slightly before his report was published and confronted him with his allegations. The article that was eventually published did not name Zygier or the other two suspects, but it is clear that the telephone conversation with Koutsoukis was connected with Zygier's arrest in Israel, which appears to have occurred several days later.
On Wednesday, Koutsoukis revealed in The Age the transcript of his dramatic conversation with Zygier, when the latter first heard that he was under investigation by ASIO. Faced with the suggestion that he was an agent for Israel and that he was under investigation, Zygier was livid.
''Who the f*** are you?" he asked Koutsoukis, then serving as the Middle East correspondent for Fairfax Media. ''What is this total bullshit you are telling me?'' Zygier expressed outrage when the reporter suggested that he had used an Australian passport to travel to Syria, Lebanon and Iran.
''I have never been to Iran, Syria or Lebanon,'' Zygier said. ''I am not involved in any kind of spying. That is ridiculous.''
"He told me he was like any other Australian who had made aliyah and was trying to make a life in Israel," Koutsoukis recounted.
What happened after that telephone conversation isn't clear. Just what happened so that, not long afterward, Zygier was arrested by the Shin Bet security service and incarcerated in an isolation cell in Ramle's Ayalon Prison? Did Zygier reveal any classified information to Australian journalists? Was Zygier blackmailed by ASIO and decided to cooperate with them to prevent the revelation of his name and those of the two other suspects in the media? Did he feel obligated to protect his family that still lived in Australia or the entire Jewish community in the country and prevent them from being depicted as traitors?
There are no clear answers to these questions. However, a speech made by Australia's then foreign affairs minister, Stephen Smith, in parliament on May 24, 2010, may provide a hint. Smith informed parliament that the Mossad's representative in Canberra had been expelled from the country. The reason given for the expulsion was a report provided by Australia's intelligence agencies, stating that the Mossad had used Australian passports when carrying out the Mabhouh assassination.
Smith announced to Australian MPs that, in early May 2010, ASIO head David Irvine had secretly visited Israel and met with senior Israeli defense establishment officials. The visit appears to have occurred after Zygier had been arrested.
Smith stated in his speech that Irvine visited Israel to discuss the Mabhouh affair and the alleged Mossad use of Australian passports. Nevertheless, the statement made by the spokesperson for current Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Bob Carr on Wednesday leaves open the possibility that Irvine's visit also dealt with the Zygier matter.
The spokesman admitted early Wednesday that a narrow circle of senior Australian foreign ministry officials had known about Zygier's arrest, one day after Carr denied that he or his office had any knowledge of Zygier's 2010 arrest. According the spokesperson, these officials had been informed by the ASIO, which had received the information from Israel. Certainly it is possible that, during his May 2010 visit, Irvine was notified by his Israeli counterparts of Zygier's arrest.
The Zygier affair is the third time in recent years that tense relations have developed between Jerusalem and Canberra regarding the alleged improper use of Australian passports. The current blow-up and the investigative report by ABC are not expected to significantly influence Israel-Australia relations. Ties between the country's governments and intelligence agencies have been straightened out since 2010.
The principal victim of the story will be the Australian Jewish community. In contrast with the previous blow-ups regarding the use of Australian passports, the Zygier affair is likely to raise public debate in Australia regarding the possible "dual loyalty" of the country's Jews. Such a debate is likely to fuel anti-Semitic feelings and possibly even lead to attacks targeting Australian Jews.