Israel confirms existence, suicide of ‘Prisoner X’

First official statement on mysterious affair makes no mention of Australian Ben Zygier or reports that he was a Mossad agent

Aaron Kalman is a former writer and breaking news editor for the Times of Israel

Ben Zygier's Australian passport (Screenshot Channel 10)
Ben Zygier's Australian passport (Screenshot Channel 10)

Israel has admitted to a basic set of facts in the shadowy “Prisoner X” episode, confirming that a top-security inmate had indeed been held under an assumed name and committed suicide in 2010.

According to an Australian television report on Tuesday, Melbourne native Ben Zygier, dubbed “Prisoner X,” was a Mossad agent whose body was found hanging by a noose by guards in Ayalon Prison in Ramle on December 15, 2010. Zygier reportedly immigrated to Israel in 2000, and was 34 years old when he took his own life. He was married to an Israeli woman with whom he had two children.

The confirmation, which was released Wednesday by the Justice Ministry, partially lifts a comprehensive gag order on the case. It made no mention of the prisoner’s name, but noted that he and his family had been provided proper legal counsel and that he had gone through the official judicial system before being imprisoned.

The statement confirmed that “Prisoner X” was an Israeli citizen who was also in possession of a foreign passport, and said that he was held under a false name for security reasons.

“The prisoner was found dead in his cell two years ago, and the president of the Rishon LeZiyon Magistrates’ Court, Judge Dafna Baltman Kadrai, who was appointed to investigate the circumstances of his death, determined that it was indeed suicide, and ordered the prosecution to look into possible negligence,” the statement said.

The “Prisoner X” episode took center stage at the inaugural deliberation of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Wednesday, with MK Tzachi Hanegbi (Likud-Beytenu) saying that the case shouldn’t be discussed in public so as not to compromise Israel’s security interests.

After the publication of the initial Australian report on Tuesday, several MKs requested clarifications regarding the gag order preventing the release of details from the case, sparking a torrent of reports in Israeli and international media.

Despite the widespread publicity, nothing detrimental to Israel’s security had been aired, said Hanegbi, who headed the influential parliamentary committee for a number of years. He noted, however, that if the case remained in the open, details could surface that would compromise national interests.

Tzachi Hanegbi (photo credit: Flash90)
Tzachi Hanegbi (photo credit: Flash90)

“As far as the details I know, nothing about this topic is worthy of public debate, and I hope my friends in the Knesset will be satisfied with the fact that the subject made headlines,” Hanegbi said.

Ofer Shelah of the centrist Yesh Atid party countered that the censorship measures were excessive.

The freshman parliamentarian, a former military and political commentator, raised concerns that the case was blanketed too quickly , saying, “There are aspects here worthy of public debate.”

Of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee’s nine members, five also serve, in addition to the committee chairman, on the sub-committee that is exposed to the country’s most confidential intelligence information.

During Wednesday’s session, former foreign minister Avigdor Liberman was confirmed as the interim chairman of the committee. He will be joined in the more exclusive subcommitee by Binyamin Ben Eliezer (Labor), Aryeh Deri (Shas), Naftali Bennett (Jewish Home), Zeev Elkin (Likud-Beytenu) and Yaakov Perry (Yesh Atid).

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