Skip To Content
JEWISH. INDEPENDENT. NONPROFIT.

Support the Forward

Funded by readers like you DonateSubscribe
Breaking News

Israel Pulls Back Curtain on Prisoner X Spy Mystery

Israel broke its official silence on Wednesday over the reported suicide in jail of an Australian immigrant recruited to its spy service Mossad, giving limited details on a closely guarded case.

After appeals by local media chafing at Israeli censorship of a story broken by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), a district court near Tel Aviv allowed publication of six paragraphs of sanctioned text – a de-facto preliminary account by the state.

The text said that an Israeli with an unspecified dual nationality had been secretly imprisoned “out of security considerations”, only to be found dead in his cell two years ago in what was eventually ruled a suicide.

The district court did not confirm or deny ABC’s unsourced findings that the dead man was 34-year-old Ben Zygier, an Australian who moved to Israel and may have been jailed in isolation over suspected misconduct while spying for Mossad.

Social media records showed that Zygier, who died in late 2010 and was buried in Melbourne, had been married with children. His relatives have declined all comment on the case.

The Israeli district court said the unnamed detainee had been held under the supervision “of the most senior officials of the Justice Ministry” and that his family had been informed of his arrest immediately after it took place.

After citing other legal monitoring mechanisms in the case, the district court said: “Beyond this no details can be published about the affair, for reasons of national security.”

“PRISONER X”

Israeli media had earlier quoted the ABC and other foreign reports about Zygier, dubbed “Prisoner X”, some of which suggested he had been under investigation by Australia’s security services on suspicion of using his native passport for Mossad missions in countries hostile to the Jewish state.

The possibility that a Mossad officer had been treated so harshly drew comparisons to known previous cases when Israel jailed turncoat spies under blanket secrecy, sometimes lasting years.

Israeli intelligence veterans said such measures reduced the risk of enemy countries where the detainees had served learning of their true identities and then tracing their activities in order to expose other spies still under cover.

Mossad is widely reputed to have stepped up its shadow war in recent years against Iran’s nuclear programme, Lebanon’s Hezbollah guerrillas, suspected nuclear procurement by Syria and arms smuggling to Palestinians through Dubai, Sudan and Egypt.

Yet the official secrecy over the Zygier report, reinforced by military censors, caused an outcry in Israel, where reporters noted that their compatriots were but a mouse-click away from learning about the case from foreign media on the internet.

In a highly unusual move within hours of the ABC broadcast, Israeli editors were summoned to an emergency meeting in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office on Tuesday and asked not to publish a story “that is very embarrassing to a certain government agency”, Israel’s liberal Haaretz newspaper reported.

Haaretz ridiculed the gag order as outmoded and counter-productive, but one of the editors who attended the meeting, Yinon Magal of the Walla news-site, was more circumspect.

The explanation he had received for the secrecy, Magal told Israel’s Channel 10 television, “persuaded me, overall, that there is a certain logic, albeit small, that there are considerations of national security and of human life here”.

Engage

  • SHARE YOUR FEEDBACK

  • UPCOMING EVENT

    SKY & SCULPTURE

    Hybrid: Online and at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan

    Oct 2, 2022

    6:30 pm ET · 

    A Sukkah, IMKHA, created by artist Tobi Kahn, for the Marlene Meyerson JCC of Manhattan is an installation consisting of 13 interrelated sculpted painted wooden panels, constituting a single work of art. Join for a panel discussion with Rabbi Joanna Samuels, Chief Executive Director of the Marlene Meyerson JCC of Manhattan, Talya Zax, Innovation Editor of the Forward, and Tobi Kahn, Artist. Moderated by Mattie Kahn.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.