Israel, Prisoner X, and widely known secrets

Just yesterday, I was telling someone that in governmental circles a ‘secret’ is not always something unknown but often is something widely known but never officially confirmed.  There are good reasons for this: an official acknowledgment would compel an official response from any aggrieved parties, so both sides may have incentive to deny it.  This can create the bewildering circumstance in which a story is on the front page of all the newspapers but no one in government will talk about it.  As an example, I cited the Israeli assassination of the Hamas commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai in January 2010, which was captured almost in its entirety on security cameras.  If you missed that video at the time, it is astonishing to watch — an excerpt is below but you can click here to see part one of the full (gripping) video, with links to the others.

This got me thinking about how strange it was that this sensational, attention-grabbing story disappeared without a trace.  Two hours later, I saw that it was back in the news, with (possibly) a bit part to play in this crazy Prisoner X drama in Israel.  The Australian channel ABC reports that a Melbourne man, Ben Zygier, emigrated to Israel 12 years ago, changed his name to Ben Alon, and joined Mossad.  Cut to late-2010: a man known as Prisoner X held in the cell at Ayalon Prison built for Yitzhak Rabin’s killer, Yigal Amir, commits ‘suicide’ despite all manner of high-tech suicide prevention surveillance.  There’s a lot about that to suggest that Prisoner X was a tremendously high-value detainee: the particular prison cell, the anonymity, the so-called suicide, the subsequent censorship ban on reporting about him, the high-level denials of his existence — and not least, as ABC drily notes, that it is highly unusual for a Jewish prisoner to be treated this way.  ABC contends that Prisoner X was Ben Alon and today Israel, after trying to smother this story, implicitly confirmed that ABC was right by releasing some details about an unspecified dual national who committed suicide.

So, how does it connect to the Dubai killing?  This is necessarily speculative but four of the Mossad agents used identities and false passports of Australian-Israeli dual nationals, which caused some diplomatic tension at the time.  The assassination took place on 20 January 2010, the security video was made public in February, and Ben Alon was incarcerated sometime that year — there’s no trace of him, so no one knows for sure — and is thought to have died in late-November or early-December 2010.

It will be interesting to watch whether these dots are ever connected.  This story is gathering momentum right now but the Dubai assassination did too and then no one followed up on it.  Here’s the thing about Israel, though: it is very small. Hundreds, probably thousands, of people who owe Ben Alon nothing know parts of this story: the neighbor who ‘moved away’ on such-and-such a date, the family members who couldn’t hide their grief, etc. When the censorship ban is lifted, they should be getting calls.

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Update (15 Feb): More detail to the speculation: A liberal Kuwaiti paper, Al Jarida, contends that Ben Alon was held by the Dubai authorities after the Mabhouh killing and revealed details of the operation before (somehow) being kidnapped by the Israelis and brought back to Israel. Also, though the Australian government initially claimed that it had not known about Ben Alon until the family repatriated the body to Australia in late-2010 they now acknowledge they knew of his imprisonment by 25 February — that is, just days after news of the Mabhouh killing was made public.
On a related note, the images at the top of this post are taken from the passports used by the Mabhouh assassination team. What is thought to be the full set is here on the BBC but, in truth, none looks much like Ben Alon. On the other hand, if at that point he was cooperating with the Dubai authorities they might be expected to have withheld his passport photo when releasing the rest.

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As an example of a not-very-secret secret, look at this post about how Google Maps hides sensitive sites in Israel — everyone in Tel Aviv knows what is on that block (and others) but still there is that odd gray bar covering it.

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