+972 Magazine's Stories of the Week

Directly In Your Inbox

Analysis News
Visit our Hebrew site, "Local Call" , in partnership with Just Vision.

'Prisoner X' and the security elite's unchecked power

Recent actions taken by the heads of the army, Mossad and the internal security service (Shin Bet) reveal the Israeli security establishment’s unsupervised power, and the way it directs that power at the country’s own citizens and elected officials.

Entrance to Ayalon prison facility, near the city of Ramla, where Ben Zygier was held (photo: Activestills)

These are the main details which have been made public in the affair of Ben Zygier, also known as ‘Prisoner X’: Zygier was probably recruited by the Mossad in the years following his immigration to Israel; the Australian secret service grew suspicious of Zygier after he changed his name and took out new passports four different times; according to the latest reports, Zygier gave the Australians details regarding the identity of Mossad agents and of at least one operation in which he was involved.

Zygier was arrested in Israel upon his return from Australia in 2010. His identity and the details of his arrest and trial were kept secret, but his family was informed. Reports on his arrest in the Israeli press were censored and Knesset members who asked for details about his case were made to believe that he was well taken care of.

After more than nine months in which he was detained in complete isolation, Zygier’s lawyers presented him with a plea bargain carrying a very long prison sentence. At that point, he asked to meet famous human rights attorney Avigdor Feldman, whom he probed about alternative options. The following day, he was found dead in his cell. His death wasn’t reported by the Prison Service through the usual channels, and media stories were censored yet again.

A complete media blackout was maintained until details of the case were published by Australia’s ABC news network last week. I wrote about the censorship effort here. It is worth noting that as more and more details emerge, it is becoming less and less likely that the publication of the Zygier affair will put the lives of Israeli agents in danger today. The whole affair seems more like an attempt to cover up the Mossad’s and – more troubling – legal system’s failures, starting from using friendly countries’ passports for covert operations and all the way to the secret trial, isolation and mysterious events surrounding the prisoner’s death. The last bit is important: “legal sources” spoke to the Israeli media last week, promising that this was a “unique case,” with unique circumstances, which led judges to permit the state to keep him isolated and his identity secret. Yet this one-in-a-million prisoner was not guarded with extra care. Rather, he allowed to die so easily.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg — the common-sense part of the issue. The heart of the matter lies with the security establishment’s special status in Israel, and with the liberties the heads of the security agencies take.

Anat Kamm in court October 2011. Kamm’s house arrest was kept under gag order for three months (Activestills)

Here are a few other famous cases that occurred around that time period (2010).

In December 2009, shortly before Ben Zygier was arrested, former soldier Anat Kamm was arrested and later secretly put under house arrest. Kamm was found to be the source that leaked 2,000 documents from IDF Central Command (the eastern command, not the chief of staff) to Haaretz reporter Uri Blau. Blau used two of those documents in an investigative report suggesting that senior IDF officers, including former Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, initiated unlawful assassinations of Palestinian militants.

The gag order covering Kamm’s arrest included, as usual, a clause banning publication of the gag order itself. Only after details of the arrest were made public outside the country was the gag order lifted. Kamm was put on trial, and she is now serving a 4.5 year-prison sentence.

Reporter Uri Blau moved to London to avoid imprisonment. He later returned and despite an agreement reached between Haaretz and the Internal Security Service (Shin Bet), was put on trial for obtaining secret documents. Blau is now serving a four-month community service sentence.

The Kamm investigation was carried out by the Internal Security Service, which was led at the time by Yuval Diskin. There is also reason to believe that Diskin, a friend of then-Mossad chief Meir Dagan, was involved in the arrest and secret imprisonment of Zygier, since it took place on Israeli soil. The two of them were also close political allies of IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi.

Writing about the Diskin-Dagan-Ashkenazi connection, Makor Rishon journalists Amnon Lord and Haaretz‘s Amir Oren bring up another affair from 2010: the Shabak decided to revoke National Security Advisor Uzi Arad’s security clearance, which led to his resignation from the Prime Minister’s Office. Arad was accused of leaking information but was later cleared; he never regained his position. At the time, Arad was among the most vocal supporters of an attack on Iran, and a known rival of the Dagan-Diskin-Ashkenazi trio.

It doesn’t end there. In August 2010, Israel’s Channel 2 revealed a document supposedly written in the office of Defense Minister Ehud Barak – Chief of Staff Ashkenazi’s main political rival – discussing ways to promote the image of a general Barak backed, and to destroy the credibility of his rivals. But the document was forged and the subsequent investigation into the leak led directly to many of Ashkenazi’s proxies in the army’s high command. Tamir Pardo, the current Mossad chief, was also consulted by the team of generals who executed the plot against Barak. In the background of this story was a mixture of personal rivalries in the security elite and a dispute over national security policy, mainly regarding the Iranian issue.

The Israeli press has hinted at the existence of more stories from this period in which the Ashkenazi-Dagan-Diskin trio exercised power in ways that extended beyond the mandates of their organizations, to say the least. Naturally, discussing some of their actions is problematic due to the work of the military censor, which might not directly cover their tracks for them, but tends to be more active when the secret services are involved.

Yet even those details that were made public are troubling, to say the least. It could be summed up like this: around the same time period, the Shin Bet and Mossad kept two citizens in secret detention (the claim that both Kamm and Zygier agreed to the terms of their arrest, which was brought up by security officials, wouldn’t stand the scrutiny of a first-year law student. Almost any prisoner can be intimidated into giving up his rights, especially when he is so young – Kamm was 23, Zigyier was 34 – and when his arrest is hidden from the public). One of those prisoners died in his cell. This fact was also kept secret; even the Knesset Committee for Secret Services, whose hearings are closed to the media, wasn’t informed.

Around the same time, the Shin Bet got the national security advisor to resign while the army chief of staff, along with other officers, was linked to a plot that was meant to discredit the defense minister. And this is only what we know.

Former Mossad head Meir Dagan (R) with former IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi (L) (Photo: Israel Defense Forces, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

I happen to support the positions of Dagan and Diskin on Iran and I have opposed almost everything Netanyahu and Barak did in the last four years. But the bigger story here has to do with the unchecked power of the security establishment in Israel.

The courts failed miserably in all the above cases, allowing the security services to hide people from the public eye, approving a secret trial and covering up the suicide (?) of a prisoner. All the evidence suggests that Gabi Ashkenazi plotted against his elected political superior, Defense Minister Barak, not to mention the orders he gave regarding the targeted assassinations that were at the heart of Uri Blau’s piece. The prosecution failed to investigate or clarify those issues.

The media failed too. In some cases, it was prevented from properly covering those affairs. Mostly, it was simply played. By the time the true details emerged (all the information in this post is from public sources), the public had long forgotten about the affairs at hand.

More importantly, the media and the public simply didn’t want to know. The aura around the security establishment is so far-reaching that it’s almost impossible to criticize those institutions. You can write almost anything you want about politicians in Israel but only a failed war is considered reason enough to judge the chief of staff, and the security services are almost always right. The effect of the security establishment on policy is immeasurable, to the point that it sometimes operates as a shadow government (add 2010 to the list that includes the Six-Day War and the first weeks of the second Intifada, among other things). Some members of Knesset have called for a formal independent inquiry into the Prisoner X affair. I doubt they will get it.

One final note. Former Mossad head Meir Dagan became an international hero due to his opposition against war with Iran (including an admiring profile in The New Yorker); former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin is the star of the film The Gatekeepers, where he assumes the role of the philosopher-in-chief, criticizing Israeli strategy on the Palestinian issue. Ashkenazi, they say, is about to join the Labor Party, and perhaps try and lead the peace camp.

Yet it is not only that these are no men of peace — they seem to lack the most basic respect for democracy, civil rights and freedom of the press that is required in their positions. Their actions make them the problem Israeli society is suffering from, rather than the solution.

Before you go...

A lot of work goes into creating articles like the one you just read. And while we don’t do this for the money, even our model of non-profit, independent journalism has bills to pay.

+972 Magazine is owned by our bloggers and journalists, who are driven by passion and dedication to the causes we cover. But we still need to pay for editing, photography, translation, web design and servers, legal services, and more.

As an independent journalism outlet we aren’t beholden to any outside interests. In order to safeguard that independence voice, we are proud to count you, our readers, as our most important supporters. If each of our readers becomes a supporter of our work, +972 Magazine will remain a strong, independent, and sustainable force helping drive the discourse on Israel/Palestine in the right direction.

Support independent journalism in Israel/Palestine Donate to +972 Magazine today
View article: AAA
Share article
Print article

    * Required


    1. Philos

      Thank you Noam for a thoughtful essay. Over two hundred years ago it was remarked that “Prussia was not a state with an army, but an army with a state.” In Israel this quote is often referred to fondly in reference to the IDF. The IDF and the security services are the Gods of the modern Hebrews.

      Reply to Comment
    2. It seems clear that the security apparatus (which I usually label just as the IDF) has become part of the informal Israeli constitution, with its own sphere of immunity. Judicial review is actively denied by the IDF, leading to what I am beginning to think is a devolution of such review, generally. The attempt at defamation you relate is what rivals in a war council do to one another. I think of the Israeli constitution as such a council, with the security apparatus increasingly dominant. Defamation through forged documents is an illegal act, or should be; so too should be the unprovoked killing of a Palestinian in the Bank. Both now have an evolved immunity. This immunity negates the rule of law.

      Israel needs a constituion. It needs a judiciary which uses the only constitutional document available: the Declaration of Independence; and for that it needs an independent, couragous judiciary which will not be told what to think in the name of hidden security.

      Frankly, what you relate sounds as if it could come from the Russia of today.

      Reply to Comment
    3. charles-jerusalem

      This all story does not make sense.
      The story of Anat Kam is not relevant in this story. Anat Kam is a stupid little girl who was manipulated by journalists to leak restricted military documentation.
      She is in prison and her life is finished.
      Let’s take Wanunu’s story, which is more relevant to this case, he stayed years and years in prison for having leaked nuclear secrets. He was not jailed as X and died in prison, and what he did was quiet engaged.
      So to be jailed secretly for having leaked Mossad operations details does not make sense.
      Australia is perhaps manipulating the media in order to get some kind of hot potato from us.
      The most important is to know that working as a spy is like selling one’s soul to the devil. The interest of the state will always prevails upon the life of an individual.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Joel


      Was Zygier denied due process? I don’t believe he was.

      Reply to Comment
    5. A secret trial – not to be confused with a trial behind closed doors, or one in which some of the evidence is secret – cannot be a due process.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Joel

      What secret trial?

      Zygier was about to accept a plea agreement and avoid a trial.

      Reply to Comment
      • The threat of a secret trial attaches to any plea bargin to avoid such trial; the bargin is made under duress of threat to deny due process.

        Reply to Comment
    7. Joel

      BTW. According to Ahronovich, Zygier agreed to be held under a false name for national security reasons and in order to protect his family. He also agreed to the gag order, which was upheld by then-Supreme Court president.

      Reply to Comment
      • 1) Exactly why would his family need protection? In any case, if one’s son is indicted for murder one can not ask for his name to be changed to protect his family. Once such a process evolves, one would never know exactly why said family needed protection–perhaps even because of a State threat.

        2) You don’t agree to a gag order–you are gagged. He was undoubtedly told things would go even harder for him if he did not “agree.” That is hardly true agreement.

        Reply to Comment
        • The Trespasser

          1 – Apparently, he wasn’t indicted for murder of anything as trivial. Probably some serious screw-up as a field agent, which caused significant problems. Might have even switched sides.

          2 – As a matter of fact – you do agree to remain silent.

          Reply to Comment
      • In a proper legal system prisoners cannot “agree” to give up some of their rights, because it opens the door for abuse – Just as the court can impose legal defense on a prisoner.

        Reply to Comment
        • The Trespasser

          People who agree to work for any security establishment of any country can not enjoy the same rights as, for example, soldiers or even civilians.

          Reply to Comment
    8. ToivoS

      The big lesson from the Zygier affair should be for Jews in the diaspora: Think long and hard before sending your children on the Aliyah. Once within the clutches of the IDF they are just more cannon fodder.

      Reply to Comment
      • Joel

        @ Toivo.

        Jews fared well before the IDF. Ovens,pogroms, Inquisitions, forced conversions.
        You remember the good ol’ days.

        Reply to Comment