MPs allege cover-up in death of Australian-born spy in Israeli jail


Opposition lawmakers in Israel have accused the government of using the cloak of security to cover up the embarrassing death in detention of an Australian immigrant who had worked for the Mossad spy agency.

Australia’s ABC television revealed details of the story on Tuesday after the Israeli authorities had imposed an unprecedented media blackout, which included an emergency meeting between prime minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu and senior editors during which he urged them not to publicise the case.

According to ABC, Ben Zygier, a Jewish lawyer from Melbourne, moved to Israel in 2001 and changed his name to Ben Alon. He married an Israeli woman and the couple had two children. At some stage he was recruited into the Mossad spy agency.

In 2010 the Israeli Ynet news website ran a short item about a mystery inmate, dubbed prisoner X, being held at the top-secret Ayalon jail, whose name and crime were kept secret from the prison staff.

ABC identified prisoner X as Ben Alon.

He was found hanging in his cell a few months after the Ynet report, even though state-of-the-art technology was in place to prevent prisoners taking their own lives. His cell had been specially designed for Yigal Amir, the assassin of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.

Media blackout

On Tuesday three left-wing Knesset members used their parliamentary immunity to bypass the media blackout. They asked embarrassing questions about the affair and the government censorship to justice minister Yaakov Neeman during a parliamentary question time that was televised live on the Knesset television channel.

Former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman attacked the three parliamentarians.

“Once again, certain MPs don’t hesitate to identify with the enemy and take advantage of their parliamentary immunity to violate censorship.”

But Knesset member Zahava Galon, the head of the left-wing Meretz, one of the three Knesset members who posed questions, said they were fulfilling their duty to further the public interest. “The gag order has nothing to do with a security risk but is aimed at not embarrassing the authorities,” she claimed.

Some key questions remain unanswered. Why was a former Mossad operative jailed in such secretive circumstances? How did he manage to take his own life while under close supervision in his isolation cell? To what extent did Israel inform Canberra of developments? The affair also raised questions about Israel’s attempt at strict censorship when the story was accessible on foreign news websites and social media.

Australian foreign affairs minister Bob Carr ordered an internal investigation into his ministry’s handling of the case.

According to Australian media, Zygier was questioned by Australian authorities on suspicion that he was a Mossad spy.