ISRAELI prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended the actions of his country’s security forces yesterday in face of continued 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 comment on the affair, which potentially has personal implications for the premier because of his oversight of both the Mossad and Shin Bet intelligence agencies, Mr Netanyahu said he “completely trusts” Israel’s security forces and legal system.
He said that freedom of expression is important, but Israel faces 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.
Australia’s 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 the Australian capital, 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 of foreign affairs and trade 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.
Opposition politicians have raised concerns that the case may not be an isolated one and say that it raises troubling questions about how democratic the country is and how independent its judiciary actually is when it comes to security matters.
“Prisoner X is already deceased. I’m concerned about prisoners Y and Z,” said Michael Sfard, a human rights lawyer, using the name given to Zygier in reports in the Israeli media that surfaced in 2010.
“It seems the only reason he was held in such harsh conditions is not that he endangered state security but so that the whole affair would be silenced. Someone wants to be sure the public did not know about this.”
Uri Misgav, an investigative journalist for Haaretz who was the first to call for a commission of inquiry, said an independent probe’s findings could reach Mr Netanyahu.
“He is in charge, he’s the chief commander. There is no other address in ministerial terms.”
He said the most disturbing aspect of the episode was the involvement of multiple judges in the proceedings and the gag order. “There was no one in the courts or in the state attorney’s office who said ‘stop the madness,’ Mr Misgav said.