Currently we are reading a lot, but not everything about Ben Zygier, or Ben Alon, or Ben Allen. We are pretty sure that he was an Australian Jew who migrated to Israel, served in the IDF, was recruited to Mossad, and died in Ayalon prison in 2010. We hear that he served the Mossad in Iran, Syria, and Lebanon, presumably helped by his Australian passport. Also, that he was proud of his service to Israel, liked to talk, and met with students from Iran and Arab countries while a student--after his Mossad service--in Australia. Further into the realm of speculation are explanations for why he was accused and jailed in secret.
Reports are that he hanged himself in his cell. Due to the fact that he was in one of Israel's most closely guarded sites, there is speculation about the sloppiness of supervision, and even the possibility that his death was not due to suicide.
Journalists from several countries are all over this story, but so far have not confirmed what seem to be its most important elements, i.e., what he did to provoke Israeli authorities, and what kind of evidence of his crimes was available to Israeli authorities.
Israel deals with highly sensitive issues by means of gag orders to block dissemination to the public of what journalists might know. A committee of media editors meets with government officials in extraordinary cases in order to obtain compliance.
Such mechanisms have limited effectiveness in an age of the Internet and smart phones. Israeli journalists have been known to tip off overseas colleagues of a juicy story--like Zygier's--and then evade a gag order about reporting what they have learned in Israel by quoting what is reported in the overseas media.
Zygier's case hit the media fan during a session of the Knesset being broadcast live, when three leftist Knesset Members asked questions of the Justice Minister about the suicide of a prisoner hitherto unknown to the public, who was a foreign national and imprisoned under a false name.
There is a subordinate flap about the immunity of Knesset Members against prosecution for revealing a story when there is a a gag order about a matter of national defense.
Security officials interviewed about Zygier have not provided any detailed information, but have asserted that secret incarcerations are approved only at the highest levels, and with the participation of a judge.
Such reports beg the question of which judge. Another of Israel's media events this week came when the head of the Supreme Court said that a number of the country's judges have served beyond the point where they are effective, and are staying on only to assure themselves a pension.
Even though security and judicial bureaucracies may not longer be able to keep things as quiet as they wish, they remain successful--to date--in keeping mum the reasons for Zygier's imprisonment.
That has not stopped some tricks to convey what a lot of Israelis are already concluding. Yedioth Aharonoth put a large headline in the form of a question on its front page, "?סוכן המוסד בגד" --Mossad Agent Turned Traitor?.
Members of Zygier's family in Israel and Australia have refused to speak to journalists, beyond stating that they have already suffered enough. Friends of Zygier have told journalists that he was strange, boasted of his service in the IDF, and was a blabbermouth.
The case of Zygier has some similarities to that of Jonathan Pollard. Like Zygier's service in the Mossad, Pollard served the United States in a sensitive position, with access to secret material. Pollard broke the rules by sharing his information with foreign nationals. And like the stories about Zygier, there are stories about Pollard that he was talkative and boastful, in his case about contributions to Israeli security.
Both cases raise questions about justice. It is not easy to applaud secret trials and incarcerations like Zygier's, or plea bargains that are overturned by the judge, as in the case of Pollard. In Pollard's case, there are also the issues of his sharing information with an ally of the United States, the assertion that he has already served long enough for his action, that he is being used as a warning to other American Jews not to identify too closely with Israel, and that the principal actor in causing a life sentence was Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, who may have been too sensitive about his own family's Jewish background.
Justice is not something that lends itself to easy decisions, despite the reams of sophisticated writing from ancient times onward.
War has always been unfair in the selection of victims, and both Zygier and Pollard appear to be victims of a war no less messy and no less difficult to wage than those of history. Thanks to World Wars I and II, the Holocaust and other extreme violations of decency, there is a sizable collection of rules and laws for what is acceptable. However, they have limited utility beyond the combat between governments that ascribe to them. They do not clarify how governments should combat organizations and individuals operating outside the framework of states that target civilians under the imperfect heading of "terror."
Both Israel and the United States have suffered from terror, and both have exposed themselves to criticism as to how they fight terrorists and those who support them. Among the charges against the United States are incarcerations in Guantanamo and various "black prisons" managed by countries of Eastern Europe and and the Middle East that do not abide by the rules that apply within the United States. President Barack Obama campaigned in 2008 with a promise to close Guantanamo, but experience and advice seem to have overcome that bit of his naivete.
Both Israel and the United States have been charged with injustice due to targeted killings by drones and other means, and especially due to cases of missed targets or the casualties of those who happened to be near the persons targeted.
Most recent is an accusation by Human Rights Watch that the IDF violated the laws of war in its recent Gaza operation.
"Israeli forces too often conducted airstrikes that killed Palestinian civilians and destroyed homes in Gaza without apparent legal justification."
According to HRW, hundreds of rockets fired from Gaza indiscriminately into Israeli populations centers do not exonerate the IDF from compliance with international law.
Against the quality of justice meted out to Pollard, Zygier, the people sitting in Guantanamo and elsewhere, or the collateral damage due to targeted killings and other actions by the American or Israeli security personnel, we can put in Justice's other scale the 3,000 Americans who died on 9-11, and 1,100 Israelis who died while riding buses or eating in restaurants during the second intifada.
Demands for Pollard's release continue. The woman he married while in prison has asked Barack Obama to free him and bring him to Israel during his visit next month. Journalists here and elsewhere will continue to peck at officials, family members and friends to obtain more details about Ben Zygier.
Among the lessons that bureaucracies dealing in sensitive matters might learn from Zygier and Pollard are to make greater efforts to screen prospective employees and train them. It's not a trade for those who like to boast.
Individuals attracted to the exciting stuff of working undercover might also learn from those cases. Individuals anxious for adventure, who like to boast of their exploits, should select opportunities with less ominous costs.
The world we live in is far from ideal, and war is one of its messiest corners.
Posted by Ira Sharkansky at February 14, 2013 04:28 AM
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem