As details of the case of Prisoner X are revealed in the Australian media, the nature of state secrecy in Israel and the role of those in the upper echelons of power are being brought to the fore of public inquiry.

The existence of Prisoner X became public knowledge in June 2010 when news website Y-Net published a story alleging the existence of an unknown prisoner held secretly for months on unknown charges. The story was removed within hours of being posted, apparently under pressure from Israel’s military censor who can prevent the publication of reports judged sensitive to national security. Later that year, on December 27, the same website reported a prisoner’s suicide, two weeks previously, while in solitary confinement. That story was also removed within hours.

On Tuesday, the ABC’s Foreign Correspondent program alleged that Prisoner X was in fact an Australian-born man, Ben Zygier, who emigrated to Israel in 2000 and began working with Israel’s international intelligence organisation the Mossad.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel has campaigned for transparency in the Prisoner X case since it was first publicised and then hushed up in 2010. On Wednesday, the organisation’s chief legal counsel Dan Yakir sent a letter to the Attorney-General’s office requesting the disclosure of further information regarding Prisoner X due to its “considerable public interest”.

Speaking to Crikey, Yakir acknowledges a place for state secrecy in relation to security but says the ability to issue gag orders on such matters should be removed from the court system and given only to the military censor, whose office possesses the ability to assess security threats for their level of urgency. “Unlike the courts, the military censor views both the defence establishment and the media as clients whose interests need to be taken into account,” he said.

The ABC program resulted in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calling an emergency meeting of the Editors Committee, a collection of editors from Israel’s major news outlets, to try to prevent further reporting on the story.

The media has been able to circumvent a court-issued gag order, when three members of the Israeli legislature, the Knesset, used their parliamentary privileges to raise questions regarding the case to the Justice Minister.

In her question, Member of the Knesset Zahava Gal-On asked: “Is it proper that the Prime Minister’s Office invited the Editors’ Committee to prevent news from being publicised? Today, we hear that in a country that claims to be a civilised democracy, journalists cooperate with the government, and that anonymous prisoners, who no one knew existed, commit suicide.”

Subsequently, an amended gag order was issued allowing Israel’s media to report only those revelations made in the international media. In lieu of publishable investigations or interviews into the circumstances surround Zygier’s death, a debate surrounding the role of state secrecy and the muzzling of the media — through court issued gag orders, the military censor and the Editors’ Committee — has ensued.

In an interview with Army Radio, former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, leader of Yisrael Beytenu, a coalition partner to Netanyahu’s Likud, but unable to assume a seat in the Knesset due to an ongoing trial on corruption charges, described the questions of the three MKs as an “attempt to harm the state’s security”. His remarks were supported by Likud MK Miri Regev, herself a former military censor, who went further by saying the trio should be prosecuted.

The current chief military censor, Brigadier-General Sima Vaknin, said there was no intention to strike the remarks and questions of the three MKs from the minutes, describing the notion as “inconceivable” in an interview with Army Radio.  This followed a report in the country’s largest selling newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, which quoted Mossad director Tamir Pardo as saying it was”unthinkable that someone will dare to try to and restrict the right of Knesset members to act or infringe on their immunity.”

But sections of the media are indignant at what they describe as “totalitarian methods” to limit discourse on matters of public concern. Haaretz’s Thursday editorial acknowledged the need for state secrecy but deplored sacrificing civil rights in the name of purported security considerations. “One such example is making people disappear by incarcerating them for long prison terms, far from the public eye and under strict media censorship,” the editorial read.

Also in Haaretz, prominent commentator Gideon Levy wrote of those politicians, public servants and members of the media working to conceal information from the public: “They should be feeling profound shame for having betrayed their responsibilities, thereby committing a far greater act of betrayal than the implied act of treachery ascribed to citizen Ben Zygier.”

It has emerged that Zygier’s use of Australian passports in suspected Mossad operations brought him to the attention of ASIO prior to his arrest and subsequent incarceration. On Thursday, Kuwait’s Al-Jarida newspaper quoted sources saying Zygier was involved in the assassination of senior Hamas operative Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai, in January 2010.

The implication is that Zygier’s imprisonment was a means of preventing revelations on the use of Australian passports in Mossad operations to ASIO. Such information would have been an embarrassment for Mossad and caused strain in the close relationship between Australia and Israel.

The Association for Civil Rights’ Dan Yakir says restrictions on information could be used politically. “Because of the security threats that Israel faces, it has developed a high sensitivity to security issues including, sometimes, the need for secrecy. It is therefore possible that consciously or unconsciously, this sensitivity is exploited, in some cases to cover up failures or other events embarrassing to the government and security apparatus,” he told Crikey.

Toward the end of Dror Moreh’s Oscar-nominated documentary The Gatekeepers, in which former heads of Israel’s domestic intelligence organisation the Shin Bet reflect on their role in the organisation’s political assassinations and the entrenchment of Israel’s 45-year military occupation of the Palestinian Territories, Yuval Diskin (chief of Shin Bet from 2005-2011) reflects on changes in the national character of Israel’s citizenry and the nature of the state.

Diskin is read a passage written by Israeli historian Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who in the aftermath of Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six-Day War, in which Israel defeated a coalition of neighbouring Arab countries threatening its existence, warned that assuming the role of occupier would turn Israel into a “Shin Bet state”, with all of the secrecy, suppression of thought, and state-sanctioned violence that subjugation of a militarily defeated people would necessitate.

“I agree with every word he wrote,” Diskin says, eyes opening wide on the screen.

For now the Prisoner X revelations are creating more questions than those being answered, particularly with relation to the exercise of state power, as Dan Yakir asks in his letter: “Was this indeed a suicide? Was there negligence in the supervision of the detainee? Has any official body taken responsibility? What steps have been taken to prevent the recurrence of similar events in the future?”

Another question he might ask is: how many more prisoners are being held in such a way, left to suffer a similar fate, their existence passing without being reported?

Peter Fray

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