Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Everything you need to know about Israel’s ‘Prisoner X’ spy scandal

You might have heard something about the “Prisoner X” story, a complicated scandal, stretching from Israel to Australia, that involves espionage, a mysterious death and press censorship. Here, to help you follow the story and grasp why it matters, is a basic recap and primer.

First, a disclaimer: Much of the world’s understanding of this story comes from a single source: a just-out report by the Australian Broadcasting Corp., which has itself become part of the story. I’ve tried to indicate where the ABC report is the only source.

A simple timeline of what happened

Sometime around 2000, according to ABC, an Australian man named Ben Zygier emigrated to Israel and changed his name to Ben Alon. ABC also says that Zygier/Alon worked for Israel’s spy service, Mossad.

In 2010, Israeli officials arrested Zygier/Alon and placed him in solitary confinement in Ayalon Prison. The ABC report says that he was housed in a special, single-cell “prison-within-a-prison” that was built to accommodate Yigal Amir, the man who assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. That December, Zygier/Alon hanged himself in his cell.

An Israeli news outlet, Ynet News, reported the man’s death at the time, but was not able to identify him. The man thus became known as “Prisoner X.” The Israeli government issued a gag order forcing Ynet to remove the story. The gag also prohibited Israeli media from covering the death, the conditions in the prison or even the gag order itself.

On Tuesday, ABC released its report, which identifies Prisoner X as Ben Zygier/Alon and says he was a Mossad agent. Australia’s foreign minister ordered a formal investigation into the incident the next day. Also Wednesday, Israel lifted its ban on the ABC report.

Why it matters: (1) Debate over Israeli censorship

Debate has exploded within Israel over both the state’s handling of Prisoner X and its strict censorship. On Tuesday, members of the Israeli parliament, known as the Knesset, peppered Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman with questions, some of them clearly reflecting exasperation. “I cannot answer these questions because the matter does not fall under the authority of the justice minister,” Neeman responded. “But there is no doubt that if true, the matter must be looked into.”

Why it matters: (2) Possible damage to Israel-Australia ties

The Prisoner X controversy could be considered a microcosmic example of the Netanyahu government’s emphasis on security over diplomacy. The story, which has apparently taken the Australian government itself by surprise, risks damaging Israel’s relationship with Australia. That’s not exactly an existential threat to Israel except that the country’s international support, particularly among Western nations, has been gradually eroding. Australia abstained from a November 2012 United Nations vote, on upgrading Palestine’s member status, that Israel opposed. More

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