Citing reasons of conscience, 43 reservists in Israel’s acclaimed military intelligence unit signed a letter declaring they will refuse to take part in future actions against Palestinians, Israeli new news media reported.
The letter, sent Friday to the prime minister, army chief of staff and senior military intelligence commanders, offers a rare window on the intelligence outfit, known as Unit 8200.
It is also a rare case of dissent in the prestigious unit, whose members typically remain tight-knit and tight-lipped well after active duty, forming a network of social and business ties that has spearheaded much of Israel’s high-tech community.
The reservists wrote that service in military intelligence is regarded as “devoid of moral dilemmas” and the information gathered is assumed to be used to enhance national security and thwart planned violence against Israeli civilians.
However, they continued, they have learned that it is also “an integral part of the system” of Israel’s continued military control of the Palestinian territories. Constant, invasive monitoring that is both indiscriminate and unsupervised by authorities undermines Palestinians’ ability to live a normal life, “fuels more violence and pushes the end of the conflict further away,” their letter said.
The reservists said they regret their role in gathering intelligence that leads to actions against innocent civilians and is used to turn agents and Palestinian society against itself, amid a systematic violation of its privacy.
“We refuse to continue serving as a tool for deepening the military rule over the occupied territories,” the reservists wrote, urging intelligence soldiers and other Israeli citizens to speak up about “these injustices” so they may end. “We believe Israel’s future depends on this.”
Unit 8200 oversees signal intelligence, gathering information from intercepted electronic and other communications. Candidates for service in the unit are identified while still in high-school.
Efforts to encourage Arabic studies as a cultural bridge have been largely frustrated by social and political antagonism. However, many of those majoring in the language do so with their sights set on service in the elite unit that potentially opens doors to future careers.
Similar public letters have been signed in the past, with soldiers criticizing Israel’s policies in the Palestinian territories and refusing to take part of it in the future. Usually these are initiated by older and more experienced reservists and not mandatory-service conscripts, who would be court-martialed.
In 2003, pilots stirred a fiery public debate when they signed a letter refusing to take part in airstrikes on civilian population centers. Although the declared targets of such strikes are military, many have claimed the lives of Palestinian noncombatants.
The current signatories say they are aware of the sensitivity and possible repercussions of their move. The most difficult part, one told the popular news outlet Ynet, is that “people will see this as a betrayal.” They emphasized that their refusal to report for future reserve duty was limited to assignments relating to the Palestinian territories.
Several hours after the initial letter was reported, other reservists of the same unit published a counter-letter, reported on the news site Wallla. “There is no place for political refusal in the army, and in particular not in 8200,” it said.
The writers emphasized that the unit was held to the highest professional and moral standards and regretted the dissenters’ move to undermine the unit’s work to defend the country and its citizens, adding that intelligence capabilities have often “saved lives on both sides.”
Moral dilemmas that arise in intelligence work, including during fighting, they wrote, are dealt with “responsibly and in keeping with international law and the army’s moral code of ethics.”
Palestinians welcomed the first letter. Adnan Damiri, a spokesman for the Palestinian Authority’s security forces, praised it as an ethical move and saluted the writers, Israeli media reported Saturday.
Sobelman is a special correspondent.