Chronology of a Week of Protest this year in Israel for Mordechai Vanunu
I’M THE ONLY Canadian among sixteen international activists who have come to Israel to protest for the immediate release from prison of Mordechai Vanunu. The others include seven from the USA (Felice Cohen-Joppa, Scott Schaeffer-Duffy, Joe and Jean Gump, Art Laffin, Hattie Nestel, and Barry Roth), six from the UK (Mordecai Vanunu’s brother Meir, Rami Heilbronn, Hope Liebersohn, David Polden, Marie Stone, and Ben Thompson), Vivienne Porzsolt from Australia, and Carla Goffi of Belgium and Italy. After two days of orientations and meetings with local activists, we begin our week-long series of vigils and public protests.
We leave in the morning for Ashkelon Prison. We ask to speak with the Warden soon after our arrival but he never emerges. He is to refuse to meet with us throughout our time in Israel.
The guards are not hostile and allow us to hang banners from the prison gate.
Leaflets are readily accepted by many of the passing cars and trucks. As occurs throughout our week’s activities, many other Israelis scream at us saying they hope Vanunu dies in prison and that he should never be released because he is a spy and a traitor who jeopardized Israeli national security.
We are kept boisterous by the media which continue to arrive throughout our vigil. The last photographers arrive just as we are putting things away… Coverage is extensive, with Channel 1 TV giving a thirty second spot on the eight o’clock news and all the newspapers reporting the vigil the following day.
Five US campaigners – Art, Hattie, Scott, Jean and Joe – begin a seven-day fast, taking only liquids (in the case of Joe, only water). All are pleased with the day’s events; however, many expressed concern that few Israelis were at the prison vigil with us.
Ten go to Ashkelon Prison in the van driven by Rami who really has a brotherly love for Mordechai. They witness an elderly prisoner in shackles and a hood escorted to a van waiting at the road. Meir meets with his brother and delivers him the gifts I carried from Canadian supporters including a watch, Timberland shoes, videos and books.
In the afternoon, I go with Daniel of the Jerusalem University physics department to the residence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu where we protest for 90 minutes. Return to Tel Aviv in the afternoon; at 6:30 pm, we are given a command performance in English of “Mister V: Searching for Mordechai Vanunu, A Play For An Isolated Actor”. We hope to gain support for a North American and European tour of this excellent play in the spring of 1998.
I see a poster promoting a U2 concert in Tel Aviv on September 30, the very day Vanunu will have spent eleven years in solitary confinement. Back at the hotel, I write Bono and U2 requesting they dedicate a song to Vanunu and permit us to set up an information table inside the concert site.
Ten go to Ashkelon Prison. Later, at 1 am, all converge in front of the Israeli Medical Association (IMA) offices at the Twin Towers in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat-Gan. Barry Roth, a Boston psychologist, met with their lawyer, Mrs. Japman. Outside, we are harassed by a security guard of the Twin Towers who calls police. We proceed to the David Gate of the Ministry of Defence in Tel Aviv where we protest for more than two hours.
After an hour, I go with a few others to join the weekly Women In Black protest nearby that is joined by supporters of Yesh Gvul, a group which advocates for conscientious objection of soldiers refusing to serve in the occupied territories. Back at the David Gate, the group is harassed by police for picketing and Meir Vanunu is given a 70 shekel fine for stepping on the road.
We then depart to set up a picket at Rabin Square where Israelis now meet to discuss politics. Here, where Rabin was assassinated, a woman is spray-painting a peace dove in gold paint on the walls. I interview Adam Keller of The Other Israel, a bi-monthly journal of the Israeli peace movement. Giyora Neumann of the Israeli Campaign to Free Vanunu takes me to his workplace where we fax my letter to U2.
I rejoin the daily vigil at Ashkelon Prison but it is very quiet on the Sabbath; nonetheless, we distribute fifty leaflets to passing vehicles.
We travel on to the Negev Desert where we organize the largest anti-nuclear demonstration in Israeli history at the Dimona (Hebrew for “imagination”) nuclear reactor and bomb factory. This is where Mordechai worked for ten years before, moved by his conscience, he fled for London with sixty photographs revealing Israel’s nuclear weapons program.
There are 67 protesters including 16 internationals and 51 Israelis at the Rotem Junction, about five kilometres from the shimmering-in-the-sun reactor. There is a strong police presence including Dobermans. Speakers included Meir Vanunu, Gideon Spiro, Vivienne Porzsolt, and Art Laffin, who delivers a powerful indictment of the Israeli nuclear weapons program and uplifts the protesters with the statement that “a new wind is blowing in Israel”. The only media coverage was in Ma’arov on September 28, accompanied by a photograph.
Meir reports that two friends with the No More Hiroshimas group were interrogated by Israeli domestic secret service agents, and that Israelis hope to come to the Monday protests and that we should ask them how we can support them.
Ten go to Ashkelon Prison. At 11 am, we all converge at the Prime Minister’s office for an hour then proceed to President Weizman’s residence.
David, Ben and I spend the rest of the afternoon and early evening at the Old City of Jerusalem. Later, we walk along Ben Yehuda Street and witness the place of the summer bombings before boarding a taxi back to Tel Aviv.
Ten go to Ashkelon Prison then return to the US Embassy for 11 am. The US Embassy is the only one to refuse receipt of a letter of protest, telling us to mail it. Earlier in the morning, I go alone to the Canadian Embassy (at 3 Nirim Street in an industrial section near a Ford Motor factory). The Israeli receptionist asks about my purpose and after I mention Vanunu, I’m told that everyone is in meetings and it could be a two-hour wait. I respond that I’ve come a long way and two hours is no problem.
Ten minutes later, I’m greeted by Manon Dumas, 3rd Secretary-Political, who admits she arrived just a week ago to this post and does not know much about Vanunu. I ask her to first read my letter. We talk for thirty-five minutes in the lobby where cameras can record our meeting. She assures me the Ambassador will respond to my queries.
I rejoin the others in front of the Embassy of France. While representatives are dispatched to the Belgian, Australian and Italian Embassies, we go to the intersection of Dizengoff and Sederot David Ben Gurion Streets to distribute leaflets. Scott is spat upon by a man who also screamed at me for a while earlier. Meanwhile, Vivian is able to meet directly with her Australian Ambassador. I call Dublin to be told that my fax has been forwarded to U2, who are now leaving Bosnia.
At 8 pm, the meeting with Israeli activists begins. We watch a tape of Meir Vanunu being interviewed on a popular public affairs TV show. He is pleased that for the first time ever, his brother’s situation is discussed in prime time with a non-aggressive interviewer who allows him to speak at length.
It is generally agreed that the next year is crucial to winning Mordechai’s freedom and return to humanity. Under Israeli law, a prisoner can receive parole after serving two-thirds of a sentence. As Vanunu was sentenced to eighteen years, 30 September 1998 represents twelve years or two-thirds of his sentence served.
We all go to Ashkelon Prison for the last day of our week-long vigil. Meir meets with his brother. We conclude with a ten minute speak-out where everyone expresses their sentiments and confirms their desire to work for Mordechai’s release. We end by singing “We Shall Overcome”. Back in Tel Aviv we do street outreach on Allenby Street near the market then have a meal together.
Meir gives a report back at the hotel on his visit today with his brother. Mordechai is in good spirits and was happy to hear about our protest at Dimona. He did not hear our protests from outside the prison walls but felt that something is crumbling down in Israel. Meir is impressed with how strong his will remains.
Mordechai would appreciate receiving books concerning politics of the world, modern history, nutrition, psychology, nuclear weapons, and about mass communications. He can receive videos, and requests classic operas. A video shop on Shienkin Street in Tel Aviv has agreed to send him a video a week. His diet is good as he no longer eats sugar, fats or chocolate. During one of Meir’s visits he called out to a guard that he wants “no more eggs”.
Mordechai thanked everyone again and stressed that the issue is nuclear weapons. He stated that “I am here because of this nuclear weapons reality and I will continue to struggle on this issue until they are dismantled”.
Today is the day of the U2 concert. At 4 pm, I phone Dublin one last time to hear if U2 has agreed to our requests. I’m told that there’s been no response. David, Marie, Meir and I join six activists at the offices of Anonymous (the animal rights group out of which the No More Hiroshimas campaign was formed) to go and leaflet the crowd at the large park where the U2 concert is to be held. We set up outside Gate 18 and receive a good response from many young people.
I go to the “Guest List” ticket window and ask if my name is on their list. “No, I don’t see it,” says an Irish guy in bi-focal glasses.
I pass him a copy of my letter to Bono, he reads it and says that just maybe he does have some tickets and passes me seven tickets worth almost $600. I return to Gate 18 and pass out the tickets to the young activists. They are in shock; one says this is like a religious experience.
We enter Gate 13 and find ourselves at the very back row of over forty to fifty thousand U2 fans. About six songs in, the lights go off except for one spotlight on Bono. The world’s largest screen shows just Bono’s face and he is speaking to the crowd for the first time. First, he says how he always wanted to come to Israel and that this is like a dream come true. The crowd goes crazy… he loves us, they seem to say. Second, Bono notes it is Israel’s New Year tomorrow and that he wishes everyone a Happy New Year. The crowd goes really nuts… he really does love us, they seem to say. Meir is standing next to me and I’m saying aloud, “Say it Bono, say it Bono”. Then, he does! Bono says, “I hope in this New Year you will remember a man named Mordechai Vanunu who has been sitting in prison for eleven years. A great country is a tolerant country, and I’ll hope you’ll remember that”.
When he said his name, he stretched it out in a sing-song way. We start chanting “Free Vanunu”. We are ecstatic. The young activists hug me in jubilation. Ten minutes later Meir says to me that his knees are still shaking and so are mine.
The impact of Bono’s dedication on Israeli society is enormous. It is the focal subject of all media coverage of the concert and dominates TV, radio and newspaper coverage last night and today. I’m given congratulations by Rami who says this is the best thing that has happened for the Campaign in ten years. Yes, I’m pleased!
The International Campaign has done a tremendous job in Israel. We inspired local activists to get moving on building their campaign, directly confronted most of the major decision makers of Israel although we were never met by one official Israeli governmental representative despite our requests, brought our message directly to the people in the streets, helped organize the largest anti-nuclear demonstration in Israeli history, and reached millions of Israelis though their mass media. Maybe peace will some day come to the Middle East. Most importantly, we have given renewed strength to Mordechai Vanunu as he confronts the barbaric ordeal of solitary confinement.
Stephen Dankowich is Director of the Oakville Community Centre for peace, ecology and human rights and consultant to the International Peace Bureau.