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The Ben Zygier Death Report: What Happened in Wing 15?

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It is one of the most solemn and most respected ceremonies in the security establishment: the annual memorial for soldiers of the intelligence community at the commemoration site at Gelilot.

At the beginning of every June, families and friends, service veterans and colleagues gather with the defense minister, the chief of staff and the heads of Military Intelligence, the Mossad and the Shin Bet security service for exactly one hour, from 8:00 to 9:00 in the morning, to remember the fallen in wars and operations, terror attacks and accidents. These include about 1,000 Israelis – men and women, soldiers and civilians – and include hallowed names like Uri Ilan and Eli Cohen, Uzi Yairi and Yoni Netanyahu among the long list of fighters. It is a moment for paying homage to generations of agents and other intelligence-gathering officials who fell in the line of duty.

A month and a half from now, the photo of Ben Zygier should appear in the long series, because at his death he was a regular employee of the Mossad, Israel’s espionage agency, and his family is under the care of the welfare personnel of the Mossad like any bereaved family.

This morning, another chapter was illuminated in the tale of the unfortunate young Australian who realized his dream of being accepted into the Mossad – and fell from the summits of secret prestige to the depths of existential despair, excising his anonymity and restoring to him his identity. The publication of the report on the investigation into the cause of Zygier’s death at Ayalon Prison in December of 2010 affords him another dimension. Now, he can be understood not only as a man who stood accused – and of security offenses at that – but also as a victim. Though it was he who took his own life, with his own hands, the state that employed him and arrested him and conducted a “serious crime” case against him, enabled the suicidal act with its negligence.

When Zygier’s body was discovered, the head of the investigations and intelligence department, Police Maj. Gen. Yoav Segalovitz, tensed upon hearing that the reason for death was not obvious. Segalovitz assumed that Zygier had indeed committed suicide. But in the air there were also bad vibes, toxic vibes, from statements by top people in the Mossad about the proper treatment of a person suspected of having betrayed a sacred trust and of having endangered operations and agents.

It wasn’t Zygier who was necessarily the target of these statements. But when it comes to an organization in which the glory often rests on a combination of deadly zeal and skill at infiltrating guarded sites, then slipping out of them without leaving a trace, it would seem reasonable that leaving behind a spooky tale like Zygier's simply wouldn't fly. Indeed, the police decided that the routine work of the unit assigned to "reinvestigate" prison personnel at the International Crimes Unit would not suffice. Instead, they asked for the appointment of an investigating judge.

The report by Judge Daphna Blatman Kedrai, President of the Magistrates Court of the Central District (Zygier’s case was on the docket there before his death), provides for the first time a kind of peephole into the Israel Prison Service, in particular isolation wings 13 and 15 at Ayalon Prison.

The report suggests that the well-being of the anonymous prisoner, from the perspective of the prison staff, was less important to the state than the compartmentalization and the secrecy. The isolation forced on the prisoner also applied, in practice, to the prison wardens, who were denied important information about the characteristics of the prisoner’s identity.

From the first week he was admitted to the prison, nine months before his suicide, Zygier reported “suicidal thought and anxieties, as well as psychiatric treatment he had received in the past” – which quite bewilderingly did not disqualify him for work in the Mossad. He was defined as “a prisoner in level-B psychological distress” – a bureaucratic term that covers all the possibilities. Will he commit suicide? Well, clearly, he was in psychological distress. Will he not commit suicide? This too is expected – he is only in B-class distress, after all.

It is shocking to discover that a long series of about a dozen additional examinations, carried out more than once a month, left the mental health people so blithe. A similar modus operandi was seen in 1973 when senior Israeli political, military and intelligence leaders simply relied on Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to refrain from implementing his war threats. Somehow, the fact that he hadn't attacked yet was used as a "proof" that in the future he would threaten, but not act on his threats.

And as in the other fatal failures attributed to intelligence –which upon deeper examination showed that the problem was in the failure to respond to assessments of the situation – the story of Zygier’s death is one of not responding to the numerous warning signs. Blatman Kedrai notes the flaws in the manning of the supervision room and at the control center and in the functioning of the cameras. But most important in her opinion, and rightly so, was the basic failure of the system in all its parts and personnel.

Two weeks before the suicide, Zygier was examined by the chief medical officer of the IPS. She found no flashing red light but rather a strong and blinding glare, although even this was not enough to persuade the “security people,” whoever they may be. To warn the public against seeking help from processionals who have failed so badly, it would be appropriate to publish the full name of the psychiatrist – although thus far we are barred from doing so.

What we can say is that A.P. examined Zygier 10 days before the suicide and stated that his behavior was “not unusual and without suicidal thoughts.” So, too, the social workers who looked after Zygier. They found him upset, crying and with “a superficial cut on his arm,” but not –Heaven forbid – as the result of suicide attempts.

On the day of the suicide itself a difficult meeting between Zygier and his wife was documented, as was an out-of-the-ordinary phone call from one of his lawyers, who wanted to check on his situation. However the lawyer, attorney Moshe Mazor, contented himself with that and did not ask to speak with the prison commanders.

The judge’s report does stop at the parking spot of the last report that examined whether it would have been possible to predict an untoward incident – the Shamgar Commission report on the massacre carried out by Baruch Godstein at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron in 1994. Blatman Kedrai was not deterred from finding that it was indeed possible and necessary to have expected that Zygeir would try to commit suicide. She rejects the IPS argument that he was so determined to commit suicide, he could not have been prevented from carrying out his intentions. Her conclusion: There existed a psychological basis for the cause of death through negligence.

But who was negligent? A deputy commissioner or a master sergeant? An intelligence officer, an operations officer or a shift supervisor? Or just technology? The prison commander? The judge has left the answers to the state, which is not keen to find the people responsible and to bring them to justice.

This is an intolerable situation. When a prisoner escapes, the chief commissioner of the IPS fires a junior commissioner. But when a prisoner dies, before the system’s very eyes, life goes on, at least in the Mossad and the IPS.

It's possible that a criminal proceeding on the issue would discriminate against certain wardens rather than others, and prosecute IPS workers rather than the mental health professionals. But this case must not be shelved without any action, even if only disciplinary action. Wing 13 and Wing 15 are still open for hosting isolated detainees and prisoners. We must not accept without question the knowledge that the negligence in the supervision of them is considered force majeure – leaving no one liable for the damages – and that it all goes by with a shrug. After all, our entire system of law and order which sometimes leads to imprisonment is based on punishment, if not always on retribution.

Ben Zygier's grave in Melbourne.Credit: Handout
Mossad agent Ben Zygier: His suicide in an Israeli prison was concealed by a gag order.Credit: Handout

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