Mordechai Vanunu is a 35-year-old man who may be put to death. His poor Moroccan Jewish family immigrated to Israel when Mordechai was eleven. He became a nuclear technician, working for nine years at a secret underground weapon factory at Disnona. After taking up part-time university studies at Beersheba, he became interested in philosophy. and left-wing student politics, and his conscience troubled him.
In 1985, there was a mass layoff of workers at Dimona and Vanunu quit his job voluntarily. He traveled to Australia, converted to Christianity, and decided to tell his story to the press. The Sunday Times of London interviewed him for four weeks before printing his story on October 5, 1986. The week before, rightly fearing for his safety, Vanunu had disappeared from London, flying to Italy.
Shortly after arriving in Rome he was kidnapped and taken to Israel. The Sunday Times revealed his abduction on October 1. Some weeks later, newspapers around the world showed a photo of Vanunu's palm, pressed to the window of the police van that carried him away. On it he had written: 'Vanunu M. was hijacked in Rome Itl. 30.9.86 Came to Rome by BA Fly 504." The Italian government demanded an explanation; the Israeli ambassador replied that "Israel hopes that Italy will not attribute undue importance" to the kidnapping.
Vanunu's revelations and 60 photographs confirmed the most extreme suspicions about Israel's nuclear capability. According to the calculations of leading nuclear scientists, the material proves that Dimona produces 40 kg of plutonium a year -- enough to make ten bombs. Israel may have as many as 200 nuclear bombs, and if so, holds the sixth place among the world's nuclear nations, right after China.
The story goes way back, according to Martha Wenger's account in Middle East Report November, December 1986). In 1957, the Israeli cabinet decided to build a secret nuclear reactor capable of producing plutonium sufficient for two bombs per year. The airspace above the new reactor became off-limits to aircraft -- a regulation so strictly enforced that one of Israel's own aircraft was shot down when, out of control, it flew over Dimona in 1973, a Libyan civilian airliner flew over the forbidden zone by mistake; it was shot down, with a loss of 108 lives.
Vanunu reveals that the reactor and even the eight-storey underground bomb plant were built with the assistance of France in the late 1950s. The United States government became suspicious when its aerial photographs showed a telltale dome structure typical of reactors. Confronted in 1960, Prime Minister Ben Gurion admitted that the reactor existed, but denied that it had any weapons implications. He was lying. The French also lied, claiming that they had stopped short of giving the Israelis the technology for producing plutonium. In fact, the French and Israeli researchers worked for two years together in the late fifties, trying to develop an atomic bomb. (This fact was confirmed by Professor Francis Perrin, after Vanunu had come forward with his own expose. Perrin had headed the French nuclear energy program between 1951 and 1970.) The French stopped collaborating in 1959, but the work on the plutonium plant continued.
Probably by 1961, Israel's weapons program was well under way. It became a definite commitment after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. To build a bomb, Israel needed to extract enriched plutonium from its spent fuel rods, since enriched uranium or plutonium is needed to set off a nuclear reaction. At first, it is possible that the French took some of the spent fuel from the Dimona reactor to France, extracted the plutonium, and returned it to Israel. However, by late 1977, the International Atomic Energy Agency concluded that Israel was capable of doing that job for itself. but that the IAEA was allowed in to inspect the facility: Even when Israel has promised to allow inspection, it has not always kept its pledge. Thus in 1959, Norway sold 21 tons of "heavy water to Israel for "peaceful use," stipulating that Norway retained control of the water and might inspect and supervise its use at any time. Israel, nevertheless, has not permitted any such verification.)
In 1980, according to Jane Hunter, writing in Israeli Foreign Affairs November 1986), the Israelis began work on another underground plant to produce tritium, which would give the capability of producing a thermonuclear bomb -- yielding a larger explosion with small amounts of plutonium.
Nuclear weapons can hardly be tested in the Middle East without being detected. In searching for a way around that limitation, Israel developed yet another disturbing partnership -- with South Africa. The two countries planned to test a bomb in 1977 in the South African Kalahari Desert; however, pressure from the U.S., the USSR, France, and Britain convinced them to cancel that plan. Nevertheless, two years later, they detonated an extremely low-yield nuclear device over the South Atlantic, which may have been a dud, or perhaps a neutron bomb. (While the South Africans themselves did not have the capability of building their own nuclear bombs until 1980, their government has never lacked for targets -especially for neutron bombs: The African National Congress has acquired South African military maps showing areas of black population concentrations where neutron bombs might be used against the country's indigenous people.)
In addition to bombs, to be a world-class nuclear power, Israel would need an appropriate delivery system. It has one. The Jericho II missile is an Israeli weapon that was tested in South Africa; it can carry a new miniaturized warhead that Israel has developed. It has greater accuracy and range, according to the BBC, than the Jericho I, which (according to Time Magazine) Israel was on the verge of using with nuclear war-heads during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.
Neither journalists nor peace activists in the West have made much of Vanunu's story. Nabeel Abrahaim, writing in the Mideast Monitor (April 1987) reports on his survey of the major American newspapers -- the New York Times, the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor, and the three major news weeklies. All published minimal reports of Vanunu's big revelations, without quoting the subsequent statement of Dr. Francis Perrin, who confirmed Vanunu's allegations. When the U.N. General Assembly voted 92-2 (Israel and U.S. opposed, with 42 abstentions) for an investigation of Israel's nuclear activities, the Los Angeles Times gave it a two-inch news item beneath the obituaries.
Evidently the U.S. government has known most of the facts about Israel's nuclear capability all along. Its vote in the U.N. reveals where its commitment lies.
Mordechai Vanunu is in solitary confinement in Israel and will he brought to a secret trial on about September 15. He could face death for treason; whether this occurs, it is virtually certain that the world's press will never have a chance to interview him again. His prospects are bleak; in Israel, most of the publicity has portrayed him as an abnormal personality; his lawyer and his family members are not free to speak about his motives. His girlfriend, however, is emphatic in her praise of his character. She is Judy Zimmet, a 31-year-old American who lived with Vanunu for a few months just before he went to Australia. In an interview with Nahum Barnea, she described Vanunu, whom she calls "Motti," as "very serious, quiet. A wonderful listener. Very social and at the same time, he loves his privacy... I didn't know about everything he was thinking about. He was all the time sarcastic. It seems that all people here [in Israel) are sarcastic and angry. Motti said that when his father came from Morocco, he was crying because of the conditions they got in Israel. Motti felt that because of these conditions he did not achieve everything he could have achieved.... "I regard this decision [publishing the secrets) as civil disobedience, something that is very unusual in Israel."
Judy Zimmet is now in the United States, working to defend Vanunu. Readers wishing to support this courageous man can help in several ways: publicize the case; write letters to Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, Prime Minister's Office, Hakirya, Jerusalem, Israel. Write to Mordechai Vanunu: Ashkelon Prison, P.O. Box 17, Ashkelon, Israel. Contact the Committee for an Open Trial for Mordechai Vanunu, P.O. Box 1371, Tel Aviv 61013, Israel. Nominate Vanunu for the 1988 Nobel Peace Prize: The Norwegian Nobel Committee, Drammensveien 19, N-0255, Oslo 2, Norway. Contributions to: Mordechai Vanunu Legal Defence Fund, at P.O. Box 45005, Somerville, Mass. 02145.