The mysterious jail suicide of an Australian immigrant to Israel has been capturing headlines in Israel and Australia, a story cloaked in intrigue and allegations of international espionage. According to former intelligence officials, the widespread publication of details in the case – if true – may also damage Israel’s clandestine efforts to scuttle terrorist weapons acquisitions and Iran’s nuclear program.
According to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the country’s public broadcaster, in 2010 an unnamed prisoner it called “Prisoner X” committed suicide while in solitary confinement in the high-security Ayalon Prison in Israel. Though the identity of this prisoner was allegedly kept secret even from some of the prison guards, the Australian TV report named him as Melbourne-native Ben Zygier, who the show claimed was a Mossad agent who had changed his name at least twice.
Adding to the intrigue, the program reported he was being held in the highest-level security cell with constant camera surveillance originally designed for Yigal Amir, the assassin of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Due to an Israeli court-issued gag order, Israeli media were never allowed to report on the case. Tipped off that the Australians were going with the story, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier this week called in the chief editors of Israel’s major news organizations to convey to them the sensitivity of the case in the hopes some details would remain confidential, according to Haaretz.
The Australian report never said why Zygier was arrested and incarcerated, but now new details may be emerging.
On Thursday, a Kuwaiti paper reported that the Mossad kidnapped Zygier from Dubai after he’d allegedly betrayed the Israeli spy service. The newspaper Al-Jarida also claims that Zygier was part of the hit squad that killed senior Hamas operative Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh in January 2010. That operation received international attention after Dubai authorities published security camera footage and still photos of about two dozen individuals it claimed were part of the operation.
The Times of Israel provides more information on the Arabic report:
Basing itself on what it said were “well-informed Western sources,” the daily said Zygier subsequently contacted the authorities in Dubai and, in return for their protection, provided them with details of the assassination, including the names of those involved and their photos. More than 20 alleged Mossad operatives were said by Dubai to have been involved in the hit.
Zygier was then given shelter in Dubai, but Israel succeeded in reaching his hiding place, kidnapping him, and placing him in solitary confinement in a maximum-security jail where even his wardens were unaware of his identity, referring to him only as “Prisoner X,” the report said.
Quoting a “former Mossad commander,” the daily reported that Zygier had carried out a number of secret missions, of which the Mabhouh assassination was the last, before “switching to the other side.”
No other media outlet has verified that report, but Israeli defense attorney Avigdor Feldman told Army Radio on Thursday morning that he met with Zygier in his cell in December 2010, a mere two days before he allegedly hanged himself. He said Zygier was facing “serious” charges. He said Zygier “had been told that he faced very lengthy imprisonment, and would be ostracized by his family, and that impacts on the soul of a man.”
The Sydney Morning Herald reported Thursday that the Australian intelligence service ASIO was also investigating Zygier more than a year before he killed himself on suspicions he was using his passport to spy for Israel. The Australian television program reported Zygier had changed his name at least twice and had applied for passports under the new names, raising authorities’ suspicions. Australia’s Fairfax Media also reported that ASIO had questioned him about the passport use.
This as the Guardian reports Zygier may have been running a front company in Europe for the Mossad selling electronic equipment to Iran and elsewhere. TheBlaze cannot verify this or any of the other theories circulating, though Israel’s Channel 2 News on Thursday suggested maintaining a level of skepticism about the new theories.
Israeli and Australian media contacted his parents and sister in Australia, none of whom were interested in commenting, while Zygier is no longer able to defend himself against the rumors appearing in anonymously-sourced articles.
The publication of the story, while compelling with its cloak-and-dagger espionage allegations, could also have serious ramifications for Israel’s security. Israel’s Channel 10 examined some of the potential damage to Mossad operations, if the allegations are true. The Times of Israel conveyed part of the debate:
In countries such as Iran and Syria, the authorities would now be checking through their records, working out when Zygier entered, who accompanied him, and who he met with, the TV report said.
The ABC Australia reporter who broke the story, Trevor Bormann, said in interviews on Wednesday that he was first told about the case in Israel by an Israeli source who said he had “a terrific story” to tell but couldn’t publish it in Israel because of “a gag order” surrounding the case. Bormann said he worked on the story for 10 months, putting the pieces together.
Israel’s Channel 2 News provided another unusual piece of information in the case, that Zygier, educated as a lawyer, had trained in the private law firm headed by Yaakov Neeman, who is presently Israel’s Justice Minister.