February 19, 2013
Los Angeles had its own Israeli Ex-“Prisoner X”
Ben Zygier, the Australian immigrant to Israel and purported Mossad agent who committed suicide in Ayalon Prison two years ago, is now known in the public furor in Israel about his secret imprisonment, as Prisoner X. Until another natural death in 1993, Los Angeles also had its own Israeli ex-Prisoner X who was also imprisoned in the same facility.
In 1982 when I was researching the Israeli community in Los Angeles, I went to a get-together at a private house of an Israeli who lived in Beverly Hills and the host sat me down next to a person who he introduced as Avri Elad, the “Third Person.” I had only the vaguest memory of an Israeli political scandal that was described as the "Lavon Affair" or the “The Third Person Affair.” Avri Elad first related to me that he had recently spent 12 years in Ramla prison in Israel, now called Ayalon prison and where Adolf Eichman was kept and hanged. Ayalon (Ramla) Prison is also currently in the news because of what is now a two-hundred day hunger strike of an Arab administrative detainee and others also refusing to eat and languishing without charges being brought against them which threaten to spark a Third Intifada according to Palestinian spokespeople.
Avri Elad reported that he was kept in Ramla prison an extra two years more than his ten year sentence because the government didn’t want to release him for reasons that he surmised were embarassment and fear of the Israeli security establishment. I thought that very curious. He related to me that he had been an Israeli spy in Egypt and that he had come to Israel in 1940 as a 13 year-old child Holocaust refugee from Vienna. Later, because of his fluency in German, he was tasked by IDF Intelligence to oversee sleeper cells in Egypt. In preparation for his cover as Paul Frank, a former SS officer with Nazi underground connections. Elad related to me that he underwent an operation to reverse his circumcision. I asked him if this hurt and he just grimaced and nodded.
When I asked Elad how he could be held two years past his court sentence, he said he was held under the Administrative Detention Law which Israel inherited from the British Mandate which allows the Israeli authorities to arrest and detain in prison people without charging them or setting a provisional date for trial. Currently is is alleged that over one hundred Palestinians are administratively detained, but it has been used to detain some Jewish Israeli citizens over the years, especially after Yitzchak Rabin's assasination and purported Jewish Underground members and Jewish settlers. It is likely that as charges were never brought against him, Ben Zygier was administratively detained at the maximum security prison in the cell that was built for Yigal Amir, the assassin of Yitzhak Rabin, and that Zygier was, as Avri Elad was in his time, being held in such secrecy that even his guards did not know his identity.
Avri Elad related to me some of his experiences in Ramla (Ayalon) prison where during the 1967 Six Day War. Elad said he was actually given weapons for protection against an Arab prison insurrection because the prison officials were afraid of a rebellion from the Arab prisoner population which was outnumbered the Jewish prisoners and jailers. In the weeks leading up to the Six Day War, the very existence of Israel was feared to be in jeopardy and the Prison Service gave weapons to some Jewish inmates in Ramla Prison, which were quickly retrieved after Israel's stunning victory. Elad had to wait an additional two years after his ten year prison sentence, and seemed bitter about it, saying something to the effect of "They just kept me in there because they were afraid of me." It was within the authority of the Ministry of Defence to administratively detain Avri Elad after his sentence ran out. This may have been a factor in Avri Elad's emigration from Israel.
Elad died in July, 1993 in agreed to or self-imposed exile in Los Angeles, Elad publicly revealed himself from Los Angeles to be the ''Third Man'' of Israel's Lavon Affair in 1976, six years before I chanced to meet him.
The facts as they are known of the case are:
The spy ring was not run by the Israeli Mossad intelligence service, but rather by unit of AMAN (IDF intelligence). The rationale behind creation of this group was that they would be local sleeper agents, trained in various techniques, who would remain in place and be activated only in case of war. At some point, someone decided, for unknown reasons, to activate the ring without waiting for war. In 1954, Egyptian authorities arrested 11 Egyptian Jews who had been involved in, what was believed to be a plot to bomb American and British diplomatic targets in order to subvert any developing alliance between Egypt and the western powers. But their operator - an Israeli the censor would only permit the press to describe as the ''Third Man'' or "X" - managed to escape and return to Israel. Two of the accused Egyptian Jews were hung and six others were sentenced to prison. The remaining three were released.
The Third Man - so called because he was third in command in the operation, after the chief of military intelligence and his deputy - was arrested on charges of espionage on his return. Prosecutors said Avri was seduced by Egyptian money and promises of freedom. Much of Avri's defense centered around the claim he was framed by his superiors because they wanted a scapegoat to blame for the fiasco. Despite his conviction, the claim had repercussions: the defense minister at the time, Pinhas Lavon, was forced to resign because of the scandal.
Lavon's resignation set the stage for the comeback from retirement of David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first Prime Minister, who took Lavon's place. The subsequent rift between Ben-Gurion and Lavon haunted Israeli politics well into the 1960s and led to a temporary split in the founding Labor Party.
Elad, who was born Adolf Seindenwerg in Vienna, arrived in British mandate Palestine when he was 13. He served with the British army in World War II and fought in Israel's Independence War as an intelligence officer. He maintained his innocence until his death, although, according to the AP in 1988, ''October,'' an Egyptian magazine, cited Egyptian sources saying Elad was a double agent for both Egypt and Israel.
Like many other immigrants to Israel Elad hebraicized his name - but only after his imprisonment,H as Elad related to me, to hide his identity from other Ramla prison inmates. Avri Elad was a defiant choice: in Hebrew, it means Robust Forever.
Pini Herman, PhD. has served as Asst. Research Professor at the University of Southern California Dept. of Geography, Adjunct Lecturer at the USC School of Social Work, Research Director at the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles following Bruce Phillips, PhD. in that position and is a past President of the Movable Minyan a lay-lead independent congregation in the 3rd Street area. Currently he is a principal of Phillips and Herman Demographic Research. To email Pini: firstname.lastname@example.org To follow Pini on Twitter: Follow @pinih