A right-wing NGO on Friday demanded that IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz forcibly discharge a group of reservist soldiers in an elite intelligence unit who declared their refusal to serve as a protest of Israel’s policies in the territories captured in the Six-Day War.
The controversy stems from a letter signed by 43 reservist soldiers and officers in the vaunted Unit 8200, an intelligence outfit that is responsible for collecting signal intelligence and has often been likened to the US National Security Agency.
In the letter, which was addressed to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Gantz, and the head of the IDF’s intelligence branch, Maj.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi, the soldiers decry “the main function of 8200 in the territories, which is to control another nation.”
“The intelligence that is gathered [in the West Bank] harms innocent people and is used for the purposes of political persecution and violating the privacy of Palestinians,” the letter reads. “We are conscientiously incapable of continuing to serve this system.”
“We signed this letter out of a sense of urgency,” Capt. Daniel (alias) told Army Radio on Friday. “When I enlisted in the unit over 10 years ago, I knew that I was going to a place that I can do important work in defending the State of Israel. Today we understand that the situation is different, and that the only task of the unit in the occupied territories is not defense. The central task is to control another people.”
In response to the letter, the Legal Forum for Israel, a right-wing nongovernment organization that was formed to advocate against territorial concessions to the Palestinians, called on Gantz to oust the soldiers from the military.
“These people are not worthy of wearing the IDF uniform,” the group said in a statement. “It’s been less than two months since the murder of the three young boys at the hands of Hamas and the exposure of murderous terror tunnels and the firing of rockets on the State of Israel, and they are ignoring the dead and wounded while showing a readiness to harm the security of the residents of this country.”
“We refuse to take part in actions against Palestinians and refuse to continue serving as a tool for deepening military rule in the occupied (Palestinian) territories,” the letter read.
“Intelligence allows ongoing control over millions of people, thorough and intrusive monitoring and invasion into most aspects of life. All of this does not allow for normal living, fuels more violence and puts off any end to the conflict.”
No signatories’ names were published, in apparent keeping with their non-disclosure commitments to Unit 8200, which monitors enemy Arab states and Iran as well as the Palestinians.
Several were interviewed anonymously by Army Radio and other news outlets, however, and complained about what they described as the abusive gathering of Palestinians’ private information – for example, sexual preferences or health problems “that might be used to extort people into becoming informants.”
When surveilling its own citizens, including the 20 percent Arab minority, Israel requires court or parliamentary oversight. Israeli spies have a far freer hand against Palestinians in the West Bank or Gaza Strip.
Netanyahu’s office had no immediate comment on the protest letter. There was praise for it from the US-backed Palestinian administration, which has pursued uneasy West Bank security coordination with Israel even as peacemaking remains stalled.
“If there are, among the Israelis, 43 soldiers who reject the idea of occupation, we view this as a moral act,” Palestinian security services’ spokesman Adnan Damiri said. “We salute humanitarian ideas like this toward an oppressed people.”
The letter is said to be unrelated to Israel’s campaign against Hamas-controlled Gaza, in which around 2,100 Palestinians, mostly civilians, died. But some of the protesters rued their contribution to earlier air strikes on Palestinian militant chiefs which harmed innocent bystanders.
“We now understand that the responsibility is not just that of the soldier standing at the checkpoint, the soldier who squeezes the trigger,” one signatory, identified as a Unit 8200 reserve captain, told Army Radio. “We have responsibility.”
The military spokesman’s office said in a statement that Unit 8200 personnel were held to ethical standards “without rival in the intelligence community in Israel or the world”, and had internal mechanisms for filing misconduct complaints.
That process had been circumvented by the letter-writers, the spokesman’s office said: That they went first to the media “raises serious doubt as to the seriousness of their claims.”
Amos Yadlin, a former chief of Israeli military intelligence under Netanyahu, played down the letter, saying 43 reservists were a “fringe percentage” of those available to Unit 8200.
“It’s a big outfit, so naturally a few of its veterans may gravitate to the far left, as well as to the far right” said Yadlin, who now runs Tel Aviv University’s INSS think-tank.
Israel has in recent years seen similar statements by a small number of conscientious objectors among reservists of its air force and its premier infantry unit, as well as an Oscar-nominated documentary in which former directors of its Shin Bet domestic intelligence agency questioned the sustainability of the occupation.
The IDF Spokesman’s Unit said in a statement: “Unit 8200 has been working daily since its founding to gather intelligence, which allows the IDF and security bodies to carry out their duties. It assists in the defense of Israeli civilians every day.”
“The Unit operates through a range of means and in many arenas, while activating techniques and rules for intelligence purposes only. Those who serve in the unit are trained, after a lengthy and meticulous process, and undergo a program that has no equivalent in any other intelligence community in Israel or the world. During the training, a special emphasis is placed on the field of ethics, morality, and working rules. These are applied throughout the service of the soldiers and officers in the unit, who are continuously monitored by commanders of various ranks.”
The IDF spokesperson’s unit said that “concrete claims” made by some of those who signed the protest letter, which were brought up in an interview published on Friday by Ynet, “are not known to the Military Intelligence Directorate.”
The fact that those who wrote the letter spoke to the media “before speaking to their commanders, or to the relevant officers in the IDF, is strange and raises doubts about the seriousness of the claims,” the statement continued. “Throughout the years, and in recent years especially, the unit has received daily evaluations, which sometimes result in citations and Israel security prizes. Regarding claims that innocents are harmed, the process of authorizing targets in the IDF is long and meticulous, and takes into account the issue of noncombatants.”
Yaakov Lappin contributed to this report.
Via The Jerusalem Post