Israel’s prime minister yesterday defended the actions of his country’s security forces following a public uproar over the mysterious death of a man who apparently hanged himself while being held secretly in a maximum-security prison.
Israel has said little about the case, but Australian media have said the man, identified as Ben Zygier, was an Australian immigrant to Israel who served in the Mossad spy agency at the time of his death in December 2010. Zygier was reportedly imprisoned for unspecified security offences.
In his first comments on the affair, Benjamin Netanyahu said he “completely trusts” Israel’s security forces and legal system.
He said that freedom of expression was important, but Israel faced extraordinary threats and therefore must keep silent on some details of national security affairs like this one.
“We are not like all other countries,” Mr Netanyahu told his cabinet. “We are more threatened, more challenged, and therefore we have to ensure the proper activity of our security forces.
“Allow the security forces to work quietly so we can continue to live securely and safely,” he added.
The affair, suppressed by Israeli authorities until Australia’s national broadcaster broke the story last week, has shone a rare spotlight on the murky dealings of Mossad and brought scrutiny on Israel’s system of military censorship and gag orders.
Critics have accused the Israeli government of trying to cover up the affair and are demanding a full investigation, fuelling a debate about balancing national security and freedom of information in a country that prides itself as a vibrant democracy.
Israeli officials have said that while the matter was kept from the public, the prisoner was given legal representation and maintained contact with his family.
The matter has also strained relations with Australia, a close ally.
Its foreign minister, Bob Carr, yesterday demanded that Israel provide information on the prisoner for an Australian investigation into his death.
“We have asked the Israeli government for a contribution to that report,” Mr Carr told reporters in Canberra.
“We want to give them an opportunity to submit to us an explanation of how this tragic death came about.”
Mr Carr initially said last week that his department had been unaware that the prisoner, who also used the names Ben Allen and Ben Alon, had been in Israeli custody until his family asked for his body to be repatriated.
But Mr Carr corrected the record and ordered the investigation on Wednesday after discovering that Australian intelligence officers had alerted some department officials 10 months earlier that the Australia-born Israel resident had been arrested on serious national security charges.
Australian media have speculated that Zygier used his Australian passport, under various names, to spy for Israel.
Moshe Cohen, a spokesman for Israel’s justice ministry, said the ministry would consider this week whether to publish the coroner’s report that ruled the prisoner had committed suicide. It will also consider publishing details of a separate probe into possible neglect in the guarding of the prisoner, he said.
“After this case exploded, there was public interest,” Mr Cohen said. “Whatever isn’t secret we need to publish.”
In Israel, criticism is mounting about officials’ handling of the affair. Politician Tzachi Hanegbi, head of parliament’s foreign affairs and defence committee during the time of the prisoner’s detention in 2010, told Israel Radio yesterday his committee was frequently briefed by Israel’s intelligence bodies on matters of national security, but he was never told about the prisoner.