false flags .....
It is a dark underworld of kidnapping and forged passports, of straw companies and assassinations.
A place where young Australians with clean identities become invaluable assets to secretive spy agencies such as the Mossad.
There was no heart string they did not pull.
You cross a line when you enter this world. You travel to hostile countries under assumed identities and collect intelligence for foreign governments. You befriend and then recruit operatives, you take risks and, in some agencies, you may be required to kill.
It is now clear that at some point during his decade-long career spying for the Israeli secret service, Ben Zygier crossed a line.
But how a Melbourne man with dual Australian-Israeli citizenship went from espionage to being held in secret in a maximum-security prison near Tel Aviv where he ultimately met his death is only now being slowly unravelled.
Nor may the real circumstances of his death - described as asphyxiation or suicide by hanging in a ''suicide-proof'' cell under 24-hour video surveillance - ever be known.
But after two years, which included 10 months of secret detention, a trial conducted far from any public scrutiny, a court-ordered gag on any mention of his existence and a last-ditch attempt to suppress the story in the local media, Israel finally admitted a small part of the truth on Wednesday.
An Australian-Israeli citizen died in one of its prisons and its State Attorney's Office is evaluating whether his death was the result of negligence.
It is only this week that his identity was revealed by the ABC's Foreign Correspondent program. Before that he was known simply as ''Prisoner X''.
Born in 1976, Zygier grew up in the Melbourne suburb of Malvern and was a member of Hashomer Hatzair, a self-described Socialist-Zionist, secular Jewish youth movement.
His parents Geoffrey and Louise Zygier are well known to many in Melbourne's close-knit Jewish community. His father is the executive director of the B'nai B'rith Anti-Defamation Commission and his mother previously worked for the law school at Monash University.
After studying law at Monash, Zygier migrated to Israel in his early 20s where he lived on Kibbutz Gazit in the Galilee and served in the Israel Defense Forces, news service Haaretz reported. In 2006 he married an Israeli woman, with whom he had two children, one believed to have been born just before he died on December 15, 2010.
Over the last decade of his life, Zygier returned to Australia several times - in 2002 he worked at the Australian law firm Deacons and in October 2009 he was studying for an MBA at Monash, where he was seen socialising with international students from Saudi Arabia and Iran, a source said.
It was during these trips to Australia that he legally changed his name and obtained new passports and other documents. It is believed he changed his identity three times over this period - to Ben Alon, Ben Allen and Benjamin Burroughs - piquing the interest of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation.
But it is what he was doing with those multiple identities that ASIO was most concerned about.
According to two Australian intelligence sources who contacted Fairfax Media in October 2009, Zygier, with two other men, also Australian-Israeli citizens who had migrated to Israel, had been using the passports to travel to countries hostile to Israel, such as Iran, Syria and Lebanon, to spy on behalf of Israel.
The nature of their espionage work has never been revealed, and phone calls to high-ranking members of Israel's security community this week shed no light on the matter. No one would talk.
Nor could they shed any light on what Zygier may have done to warrant such harsh treatment by the Israelis, although an unnamed Australian security official told Fairfax Media on Thursday he may have been about to disclose information about Israeli intelligence operations, including the use of fraudulent Australian passports.
The three men were also tied together by their involvement in a communications company based in Europe that has a subsidiary in the Middle East, the Australian security sources said.
Offering sophisticated satellite services and secure data management, it is believed by many in the security services to be a ''straw company'' which, under the cover of commerce, allows staff to undertake intelligence gathering, trade-based espionage and other work in the countries it is purporting to be doing business with.
In January 2010, then Middle East correspondent for Fairfax Media Jason Koutsoukis travelled to Europe to visit the offices of the communications company. The office manager confirmed that one of the men - not Zygier - was employed by the company but was ''unavailable''. Soon after, the company's chief executive contacted Koutsoukis - he denied the man had ever been employed there and rejected the allegation that his company was being used to gather intelligence on behalf of Israel.
By now a good deal of what the Australian intelligence sources had told Koutsoukis about Zygier and his colleagues had checked out, and it was time to try and speak to the men directly.
Benji, as he was known to friends in Jerusalem, was emphatic in his denials when Fairfax Media confronted him in December 2009 with allegations that he was working for Mossad.
''Who the fuck are you?'' an incredulous Zygier asked Koutsoukis. ''What is this total bullshit you are telling me?'' Zygier said he had changed his name for personal reasons and appeared genuinely shocked that he could be under any kind of surveillance, Koutsoukis said.
''I have never been to any of those countries that you say I have been to,'' Zygier said. ''I am not involved in any kind of spying. That is ridiculous.''
Koutsoukis said Zygier was ''at first angry, then exasperated that I wouldn't accept his denials at what I was putting to him''.
''He told me he was like any other Australian who had made aliyah and was trying to make a life in Israel,'' Koutsoukis said. ''He was very convincing.''
A day after Koutsoukis first contacted Zygier, he returned home to find the door to his apartment open and his computer, which he had shut down, up and running.
Zygier's response was very different to the other man Koutsoukis managed to contact.
The man, who Fairfax Media cannot name, also denied that he had changed his name in order to obtain travel documents to travel through the Middle East. But unlike the handful of phone calls between Koutsoukis and Zygier, he cut off communication almost immediately.
''This is a complete fantasy,'' said the man, who also held British citizenship and had been investigated by MI6 for applying for too many new British passports, the intelligence source revealed.
It now appears Zygier was arrested by the Shin Bet, Israel's internal security service, in late February, soon after his last conversation with Koutsoukis but before the publication of the story in Fairfax newspapers that revealed ASIO was investigating three men, but did not name them.
He was taken to the isolation cell in Ayalon Prison in the city of Ramla, near Tel Aviv, where he remained until his death nearly 10 months later.
Zygier's arrest also came soon after the assassination of the senior Hamas operative Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Al Bustan Rotana Hotel in Dubai on January 19, 2010.
At first police believed the 49-year-old had suffered a heart attack, but their investigation led to the discovery that he had been poisoned' suddenly the death had all the hallmarks of an assassination by Mossad.
Dubai police authorities claimed Mossad agents were behind Mabhouh's death and revealed that the men had used foreign passports, including three fake Australian passports, to enter Dubai.
The incident would have raised the stakes in ASIO's passport investigation, which began six months before the assassination.
And although there was no suggestion from security sources at the time that Zygier or his two colleagues were implicated in the Dubai hit, there has been endless unsourced speculation this week in the Israeli media that there was a link between Zygier's arrest and the death of Mabhouh.
What is in no doubt is that the Dubai hit placed enormous pressure on Australia's diplomatic relationship with Israel; Australia expelled an Israeli diplomat and cut its intelligence sharing with Mossad over the affair.
The then Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said an investigation by Australian intelligence agencies found the fake Australian passports were the work of a state intelligence agency, leading to the conclusion that, ''Israel was responsible for the counterfeiting and cloning of those passports''.
''No government can tolerate the abuse of its passports, especially by a foreign government,'' Smith said on May 24, 2010.
For the 10 months Zygier was held in Israel's notorious Ayalon Prison in a cell called Wing 15 - purpose built for Yigal Amir, the man who assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 - his jailers did not even know his name.
Israel had gone into a comprehensive security lockdown over his arrest, insisting that the man in Wing 15 be referred to only as Prisoner X, or File 8434.
But such was the concern about sensitivity of Zygier's case that Israel decided to go one step further.
The government sought and received a gag order in March 2010 under the case name ''Israel versus John Doe'', as the ABC revealed this week.
It banned any mention of Prisoner X, Wing 15 in Ayalon Prison, or anything about the prisoner being held there - even the mention of the gag order itself was prohibited.
At the time, an Israeli journalist-turned-politician, Nitzan Horowitz, began raising concerns about the treatment of Prisoner X in a letter he sent to Israel's deputy attorney general in 2010.
''Keeping a prisoner or detainee from contact with all others and from the outside world over a long period of time is fraught with many dangers,'' the MP from the left-wing Meretz party wrote in the letter, which he posted on his Facebook page this week.
''Secret arrests and trials are unacceptable in a free democratic country; they pose a tangible threat to the rule of law and deeply harm the public's trust in the legal system.''
An official assured him the situation was under control. Instead it appears Zygier died in custody soon after Horowitz's letter was sent.
As the 34-year-old sat in his tiny cell in solitary confinement, a space just four-by-four metres with a bed, shower and toilet, under the gaze of 24-hour CCTV surveillance, the enormity of the trouble he was in must have been overwhelming.
But lawyer Avigdor Feldman, who believes he may have been one of the last people to see Zygier alive, described him as ''a good and nice fellow'', telling Walla! News he did not detect any depression or anxiety when they met.
Hired by Zygier's wife to assess the potential for a plea bargain during negotiations with high-ranking figures in the State Attorney's Office, he met the 34-year-old just two days before he died.
He described him in a separate interview with Israel's Channel 10 news as ''a balanced person … who was rationally weighing his legal options''.
Zygier was charged with ''grave crimes", Feldman told Channel 10, but said he consistently denied the allegations against him throughout his period of incarceration.
''His interrogators told him he could expect lengthy jail-time and be ostracised from his family and the Jewish community,'' Feldman said.
''There was no heart string they did not pull, and I suppose that ultimately brought about the tragic end.''
Back in Israel, after two days of intense pressure in which the Prime Minister's office pressured the media into not reporting on the case to save the ''embarrassment of a certain agency'' and left-wing politicians used parliamentary privilege to raise the matter in the Knesset to bypass the gag order, the government relented and revealed some of the details.
''For security reasons the prisoner was held under an alias,'' a statement released by the Justice Ministry read. His family were immediately informed of his detention and he was represented in all proceedings by three lawyers, the statement said.
''Proceedings regarding the prisoner were overseen by the most senior Justice ministry officials and the prisoner's individual rights were maintained, according to law.''
At no point in this process has Israel ever uttered the name Ben Zygier, or any of his other identities.
To get a taste of Israel's obsession with national security one only needs to read its newspapers.
The country is a ''little villa in the jungle'', an opinion writer penned this week, echoing the familiar theme that Israel is surrounded by hostile countries such as Iran and Syria and groups such as Hezbollah who want to destroy its very existence.
''There is a strong current of exceptionalism in Israel's long history on national security matters that is driven by the geopolitical threats it faces, which are obviously serious and real,'' said Ben Saul, a professor of international law at the University of Sydney who has worked on human rights cases in Israel.
But it is also driven ''by a religious dimension because of Israel's perception that it has certain divine rights to that land'', he said.
Saul called for a ''full public accounting'' on the manner of Zygier's death, which occurred against a background of Israel carrying out assassinations in foreign countries.
''You know this is par for the course for the Israelis and if this guy was seemingly such a threat that he had to be kept in solitary confinement … it would be unsurprising if he had been killed by Israeli operatives,'' Saul told Fairfax Media.
There was no evidence that this had occurred, Saul said, but to dispel those suspicions Israel should release the results of its investigation.
''In many ways [Israel] has got a free pass for a long time,'' Saul said. ''It insists that everything it does is in line with international law, but that very much depends who you are. If you are a Palestinian your ability to access justice in the Israeli system and get a good result is severely limited.''
Israeli human rights lawyer Michael Sfard, who represented and wrote a book with one of the country's most famous convicted spies, Marcus Klingberg, is horrified by the revelations about the Zygier case.
''Klingberg got pretty much the same treatment as this recent prisoner,'' Sfard said on Thursday.
But Klingberg's case - in which he was accused (and he admitted under interrogation) of spying for the KGB and was sentenced to 20 years in prison - was believed to be one of the last in which an Israeli was held in secret, Sfard said.
Sfard is also concerned by the discussion in Israel and Australia that assumes Zygier broke the law.
''He was not convicted, the trial never ended - it is very disturbing that there is this prima facie understanding that what the Mossad argues or claims is right - it is not necessarily always right'' and Zygier was not necessarily guilty as charged, he said.
For now, the gag order issued on March 4, 2010, still stands, albeit with a reduced scope, while a family is left to wonder how their son died alone in a suicide-proof cell, entrusted to the care of the Israeli prison service.