By YOSSI MELMAN in Tel Aviv
[This article, written first for The Forward and Forward.com, has been slightly edited for IsraelSpy.com. It was subject to Israeli military censorship.]
Frankly, it was a surprise to Israelis – many of whom could fairly be described as news junkies – to wake up to the news that there is a second Prisoner X: an unnamed inmate, reportedly a man who worked for an Israeli security agency, being held in a prison without any announcement about his case.
The last one they heard about, just a few months ago, turned out to be an Australia-born intelligence officer for the Mossad. And he hanged himself in a high-security cell in Ayalon Prison.
The newly revealed inmate has been dubbed by the Israeli media as “X2.”
Now government prosecutors, various security agencies, and the military censor’s office are trading accusations as to who leaked the existence of a second prisoner held anonymously.
The sheer existence of X2 was considered to be one of the most closely held secrets in Israel, protected by gag orders issued by a court.
All of the details of the new affair are still surrounded by clouds of secrecy. But one fact is clear. The leak was a result of negligence by one or more government agencies that failed to protect one of their top secrets.
This happened just a few months after the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) broke the sensational news that the previous Prisoner X (now known as X1) was Ben Zygier, a Jew originally from Melbourne who had moved to Israel. He worked for five years for the Mossad in operations directed against Iran. In March 2010 he was arrested on suspicion of espionage and treason. While in his highly guarded cell at the Ayalon prison in Ramle, half way between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, waiting for his trial, he committed suicide in December 2010.
The roots of the new leak can be traced to a period just after the suicide of Ben Zygier. The Israeli police opened a secret investigation, which determined that he indeed put an end to his own life and was not murdered. The investigation also dealt with the question of whether his jailers were negligent in their duty to monitor him around the clock. The conclusion was that some jailers showed incompetence and did not fulfill their duty.
One paragraph in the secret report by the police stated that the Israel Prison Service did not follow its own procedures regarding the protection and monitoring of special prisoners who are charged with security offenses. The use of the plural, “prisoners,” would have been fascinating enough.
And then the police report said that procedures were effectively followed in the case of another prisoner who was held under similar circumstances in the same prison. This was a reference to the inmate now called X2. His name and other details were not mentioned in the police report.
The report was sealed and handed over to a judge, who had been appointed to reach her own independent findings in the Ben Zygier case.
The judge, Daphna Blatman-Kedrai, presiding over the Central Magistrates Court, invited all involved parties to her closed-door hearings — including lawyers who represented Ben Zygier when he was still alive and later represented his wife and parents. The lawyers demanded in writing that personnel in the security services and the prison guards should be punished for negligence. They based their demand on the police findings and cited the paragraph in the police report which mentioned the second nameless prisoner held clandestinely.
Until February 2013 all the police and judicial investigations were held beyond closed doors. The public did not know about what was happening, and reporters who found out were prevented from broadcasting or publishing anything by the gag orders and the censorship.
Then, in mid-February, came the Australian television program which opened Pandora’s box. The silenced Israeli media started digging into the Ben Zygier case, and the newspaper Haaretz appealed to the courts to release all relevant documents. The state prosecutor and security agencies objected to the request, but Judge Blatman-Kedrai overruled them and ordered the state to disclose most of the materials — except those which would be an invasion of the late inmate’s privacy.
It is standard procedure in Israel that transcripts of judicial deliberations and court decisions dealing with security cases are censored before being released to the press. The responsibility is that of relevant units charged with information protection in the Israeli intelligence and security agencies.
But in the new affair, which ended up revealing Prisoner X2, the customary censorship did not happen. Someone failed to do it. Israel’s daily newspapers noticed the particular super-sensitive paragraph in the police report and in the lawyers’ summary – mentioning another inmate held in similar conditions to Zygier’s – and rushed to publish it.
The Israeli security establishment thus has been thrust into a state of shock. One of its most guarded secrets leaked out.
And not only that. Avigdor Feldman, one of Israel’s top lawyers who is a champion of human rights and an outspoken critic of the government’s culture of secrecy, was interviewed by a local radio station. Feldman was asked what he could say about the new revelation of a second anonymous inmate.
Feldman replied that he would say very little, but he did declare that the case of Prisoner X2 is more shocking and severe than the case of Ben Zygier.
The security establishment went bananas. Some security officials suggested that Feldman must be punished, but eventually reason prevailed and he was only politely warned to shut his mouth.
The renewed quiet lasted less than 24 hours. On Wednesday (July 10) another Avigdor opened his mouth. This was Avigdor Lieberman, the former Foreign Minister who is now chairman of the prestigious Foreign Affairs and Security Committee of the Knesset. “It is indeed a particularly serious case,” Lieberman said, though he added that the handling of the person facing charges is overseen by appropriate legal and parliamentary authorities.
Prosecutors and security chiefs can do very little when it comes to prominent public figures such as the two Avigdors. It is easier for them to go after journalists.
For various reasons, then, we do very little to expose the full truth about Prisoner X2, and even if we know something we are forbidden by the court and the military censorship – which also censored this blog post — to publish anything new about him. So we can’t say who is Prisoner X2, whom he worked for, and what his crimes are alleged to be.
What we know and what we can write is that in Israel, in some rare cases, its own citizens are held in prison cells in solitary confinement without the public being informed – although the individuals are accorded their full legal rights and are visited by their families.