Prisoner X: a new twist in the Ben Zygier story

Ben Zygier’s grave. Did the Melbourne betray a top secret Israeli intelligence operation? AAp/Julian Smith

The case of Ben Zygier, the Australian who died in a high-security Israeli prison, simply refuses to go away.

On Tuesday we learned more from an ABC special on Foreign Correspondent. In a twist that would seem beyond the imaginative powers of the best thriller writer, the ABC claimed that Zygier had undermined an ongoing Israeli intelligence operation to reclaim that bodies of soldiers killed in fighting in Lebanon decades ago.

The Foreign Correspondent report effectively superseded Der Spiegel’s version of events in March which told us that Zygier had compromised at least two high-value Mossad agents in Lebanon through maverick action, resulting in their imprisonment, and the Mossad agent’s own incarceration in a top security Israeli prison.

The Spiegel piece provided a plausible account of why the hapless, vulnerable Zygier might have ended up in this predicament. The outing of valuable, carefully and extensively groomed foreign agents in a key strategic location such as Lebanon can explain why Mossad should have treated this as a disaster. It is more understandable, then, why Zygier was deprived of his name and threatened with a lengthy jail term.

The ABC programme undermined that particular rendition of the story, and raised more questions than it answered. No mention was made of two Lebanese contacts. Instead a Lebanese man, a Ziad al Homsi, was interviewed.

After he had been unwittingly exposed by Zygier, he had been sentenced to 15 years imprisonment, but released after just three.


Was it because he wasn’t quite as valuable as was originally suggested? Was it because he was, as suggested by the programme, in fact a double-agent who was working for the Israelis and the Lebanese Government? If it was the former, a punitive action against Zygier makes less sense.

And if it was the latter, why was he imprisoned at all, and why was he willing to be interviewed by the ABC? And where is Mustafa Ali Awadeh, the other significant mole who, it is alleged, with al Homsi, worked with Hezbollah?

We are also led to believe that the sole purpose of the mission Zygier unwittingly subverted was to locate the remains of three Israeli soldiers who had been captured and died during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982.

Israeli soldiers on the Lebanese border. Did Ben Zygier sabotage a Mossad effort to retrieve the bodies of Israelis killed in the 1982 Lebanon war? EPA/Hassan Bahsoun

The battle was at the township of Sultan Yacoub in the Beqaa Valley. The Israelis do all that they can to bring home the remains of soldiers who have died in actions abroad, and therefore this seems a sacrosanct mission. Except that the mother of one of the dead soldiers has subsequently stated that she was led to believe that her son had been moved to Syria, and therefore his body couldn’t have been in Lebanon.

If this is true, either Mossad did not know of the general whereabouts of the soldiers’ remains, or al Homsi was leading the Israeli secret service on with a more intricate plot, or he was there for other purposes. (And if so, why, one might ask again, is he no longer in prison?)

Another small, but notable, detail has emerged about Zygier: that he had made two suicide attempts even before he was arrested and incarcerated. Prospective agents for most, if not all, intelligence agencies go through a full and robust process of psychological screening, and their personal histories are explored as deeply as possible.

Yet we are supposed to accept at face value that all the erratic emotional and behavioural characteristics Zygier came to display were not readily visible in advance of his having been recruited by Mossad. They came on, we have to conclude, after he was tested in the field, and found wanting.

What we can safely say at this point is that instead of a blanket silence that shrouded the early part this sorry case, we now seem to have white noise intruding: too much information, with a good deal of it contradictory, or perhaps even diversionary.

Under such conditions it may be reasonably concluded that the possible goal is to prevent us from achieving any genuine clarity on Ben Zygier. And we have yet to hear either directly or indirectly from our own intelligence agencies.

Their contribution at this point might be telling.