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Vanunu Re-Ignites Stormy Debate over Exposure of Israeli Nuclear Secrets - 2004-04-21

The man who revealed many of Israel's nuclear secrets 18 years ago, Mordechai Vanunu, walked out of jail Wednesday and re-ignited a storm of debate over his actions. The former technician at Israel's secret nuclear site spent 18 years in jail for treason. Many in the international community welcomed his expose', but to most of his fellow Israelis he remains a traitor.

Crowds of supporters and detractors gathered Wednesday to see Vanunu walk free from Israel's Ashkelon prison, south of Tel Aviv. And he was defiant.

?You did not succeed to break me. You did not succeed to make me crazy. I am proud and happy to do what I did,? Mr. Vanunu said.

The international attention given to the event was in marked contrast to Vanunu's humble beginnings. He is the second eldest of 11 children of Moroccan Jewish parents, who immigrated to Israel in 1963.

Within a few years, his father had become a respected Rabbi in Beersheba in southern Israel.

Vanunu chose a different path, studying physics at university before he found work as a technician at Israel's Dimona nuclear plant in the Negev desert.

When he began his employment, Vanunu signed a pledge of secrecy.

But when he quit his job, he smuggled out two rolls of film he had taken during his nine years inside the facility. He took the film with him when he moved to Australia.

The British newspaper the Sunday Times found out about Vanunu and his film, and flew him to London.

His photographs of Dimona and information he provided to the newspaper formed the basis of an article published in 1986 that led experts to conclude Israel possessed a stockpile of up to 200 atomic bombs.

Vanunu's decision to talk to the newspaper triggered an operation by Israel's intelligence agency Mossad to lure him to Rome, where he was kidnapped and taken back to Israel.

In his home country, he was convicted of treason and sent to jail for 18 years.

During his incarceration, Vanunu won many foreign supporters, who applauded him for exposing Israel's secret nuclear weapons program.

They include British actress Susannah York, who was among the celebrities outside the prison Wednesday to greet him upon his release.

?I feel tremendous relief and gladness that Mordechai's imprisonment is finally at an end. I feel anxious about his future [but] I feel good in the sense that Mordechai himself is looking forward, not backward. He is looking forward to beginning his new life,? She said.

But while he may be lauded by some foreigners as a hero, in his home country Vanunu is seen mainly as a villain who continues to pose a threat to Israel's security.

The Israeli government said this week that Vanunu still has more to tell and intends to do so. As a result, the government set restrictions on his movements after his release. They include banning Vanunu from traveling abroad for one year, and from talking to foreigners without permission.

An adviser to the Israeli parliament's foreign affairs and defense committee, Uzi Arad, says without limitations Vanunu would continue to expose Israel's secrets.

?You have to restrain him from doing that. Well, we found the balance which protect most of his [civil] liberties and still curtail that potential for causing further damage.? he said.

Vanunu intends to appeal against his restrictions. He says he wants leave Israel and start a new life in the United States.

Vanunu appears to care little for the opinions of his fellow countrymen. At his news conference, he spoke in English and refused to answer questions in Hebrew.

He claims that he has become an even greater outcast because of his conversion to Christianity.

Wearing a gold crucifix, he traveled to a church in Jerusalem, where he prayed and gave thanks for having been given the strength to endure during his long years in jail.

Before entering the sanctuary, he was greeted by Peter Hounam, the British journalist who wrote the article for the Sunday Times.

Mr. Hounam began crying as the two men hugged one another among the bustling throngs of reporters and well-wishers.