Details concerning a deceased Israeli detainee simply known as "Prisoner X" are coming to the public’s attention. The more we learn about the situation, the more questions we are compelled to ask.
The story appears to concern Australia and Israel, activities in the espionage business, a mysterious death, and scattered information from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Who was this individual and what did he allegedly have to do with Israel?
What is known?
Prisoner X’s death was first reported by the Ynetnews website in 2010 as a suicide after he hanged himself in an Israeli prison cell. But the details of his death were largely kept off the grid, and Israeli government officials repeatedly declined to comment on the prisoner’s death. The repeated persistence by the media to gain information resulted in a government gag order to curtail local journalists in Israel from telling the man’s story. Due to the media's inability to gain information about the man, he was relegated to the title of “Prisoner X,” which led to further questions about Israeli government censorship as well as questions concerning the country’s prison system.
But this week, a report from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) has given details that were kept from the public since 2010. Prisoner X was known by at least four separate names: Ben Zygier, Ben Alon, Ben Allen, and Benjamin Burrows. Zygier is the name prominently mentioned in the ABC report. It explains how he was raised by a Jewish family in Melbourne, Australia, emigrated to Israel circa 2000, changed his name to Ben Alon, and then began work for Israel’s intelligence service, Mossad (Prisoner X’s lawyer confirmed he was working for Mossad and met with him in jail days before his death). According to ABC, he was under investigation by the Australian intelligence, suspected of spying for Israel and using his passport to travel to several countries in the Middle East, including Iran, Lebanon, and Syria. In 2010, Zygier was placed in solitary confinement in Israeli’s Ayalon Prison.
Shortly after the ABC report identified Zygier as "Prisoner X," Israeli government officials finally acknowledged the situation and lifted the two-year long media gag order concerning the death.
What is unknown?
We do not know exactly why Zygier was detained nor what crimes he committed. The ABC report details that Zygier may have been close to exposing the use of fraudulent Australian passports for Israeli intelligence operations. But as of yet, there is not any information about how this might have been discovered or resulted in his solitary confinement. The ABC report suggests that Zygier used his Australian passport to conduct covert operations for Mossad, but the connection between his alleged actions for Mossad and his potential whistle blowing has not been revealed.
In 2009, Israel’s Channel 10 reported that Australian intelligence officers interrogated Zygier about his trips to Iran, Lebanon, and Syria, and that the situation was leaked to an Australian reporter who proceeded to phone Zygier and ask him about his ties to Mossad. Still, we do not know what happened with the interrogations, because Zygier was arrested shortly after he allegedly spoke with the Australian reporter.
We do not know why his detainment was kept a secret and why he was placed in severe isolation. The gag order concerning Zygier was enacted so swiftly that no real reporting could occur before any substantive details could emerge. We do not know how he was able to commit suicide while under 24-hour surveillance in a high-security prison. Zygier’s lawyer stated after their meeting that "when I saw him, there was nothing to indicate he was gong to commit suicide." The Israeli government has reportedly offered to compensate Zygier’s family for this death, further raising suspicions of negligence concerning his confinement.
What are the international implications?
The developing situation has the potential to damage ties between Israel and Australia. As one could expect, Australian authorities are taken aback that one of their own news sources has worked to collect and release the details of the report — while the situation occurred in Israel and all details were kept in the dark. This probably will not substantively damage relations between the two countries, although Australia did abstain from the November 2012 United Nations vote on Palestinian statehood, a vote that Israel opposed.
The censorship by the Israeli government is particularly interesting because gag orders are rarely used in Israel. But when they are employed, especially concerning cases of national security, they are imposed with ferocious fortitude to stop journalists from getting information to write stories. Yet, the gag order did not contain any barriers to stop Israelis from getting news about the story from international or foreign news sources. Journalists in Israel could get all the information they wished from the ABC report. When a story has an international swing, one country’s gag order is definitely not enough to curtail circulation, even if it takes two years.