43 reserve members of the IDF’s prestigious intelligence group, Unit 8200, signed a letter (original letter here) refusing to take part in operations targeting Palestinians or in furthering the military Occupation. Activists who’ve paid attention to Israeli military affairs over the past decade or more know that hundreds of soldiers and inductees have similarly refused military service in the West Bank. But this group is different. Unit 8200 is the equivalent of the NSA. It is one of the most critical weapons in the IDF arsenal to defend the nation’s security. It participates in myriad ways supporting, and even initiating IDF operations. It is the biggest intelligence unit in the Israeli army. This is the first time any such officers have publicly protested.
These refusers are not Edward Snowden. They are not spilling secrets or naming names. But their motivation for protesting against Israeli intelligence operations is almost the same as Snowden’s. They claim that there is virtually no oversight or restraint against spying on Palestinians. That there is no distinction made between innocent and guilty Palestinians. That their goal as intelligence operatives was to subvert Palestinian society from within. Here is a translation of the letter, which was addressed to the prime minister, IDF chief of staff, and Aman (intelligence) chief:
We the undersigned, veterans of Unit 8200, current and past reserve soldiers, declare that we refuse to take part in activities against the Palestinians and refuse to participate in or enable the deepening of military rule in the Occupied Territories.
There is a view that service in IDF intelligence is devoid of moral dilemmas and contributes only to preventing violence and injury to the innocent. However, during our military service we learned that intelligence is a inseparable part of military rule in the Territories. The Palestinian population, living under a military regime, is completely exposed to spying and surveillance of Israeli intelligence. As opposed to Israeli citizens and citizens of other nations, there is no supervision [“review”] of methods of gathering, tracking or using intelligence information related to the Palestinians, whether they are involved in violence or not. Information gathered damages the innocent and is used for political persecution and creating divisions within Palestinian society through recruitment of collaborators and turning of Palestinian society against itself. In many cases, intelligence prevents doing proper justice to the accused under military courts through preventing him from seeing the evidence against him. Intelligence enables continuing rule over millions of people, authority that is deep and penetrates into every facet of daily life. These things prevent normal life and spark further violence and further distance any end of the conflict.
Millions of Palestinians have lived under Israeli military rule for 47 years. This rule negates their basic rights and expropriates their lands in order to settle Jews upon them who are subject to a separate police, legal and judicial system. Such a reality is not a part of the efforts of the state to defend itself, but rather a result of a choice. Broadening the settlements has nothing to do with self-defense. Nor does limiting [Palestinan] building and development and economic exploitation of the West Bank, or the collective punishment of residents of Gaza, or the route of the Separation Wall.
In light of this, we have reached the conclusion that we who served in Unit 8200 have a responsibility for this situation and a responsibility to act. Our consciences do not permit us to continue serving this system, which damages the rights of millions of human beings. Therefore those among us who are reservists declare that we will refuse to take part in operations against Palestinians. We call upon intelligence officers, currently and in future, and all Israeli citizens, to make their voices heard against these injustices and to act to bring them to an end. We believe that Israel’s future depends on it.
In an interview with Yediot Achronot, one of the signers expanded on his objections of Israeli intelligence gathering methods. His claims echo Edward Snowden:
As a soldier in Unit 8200 I participated in gathering intelligence on people accused of attacking Israelis. But along this we gathered intelligence on those who were innocent, whose only sin was that they were of interest to the intelligence apparatus for various reasons. Reasons of which no one had any knowledge.
Every Palestinian is exposed to perpetual monitoring without any legal protection. The lowliest army personnel can decide that someone is a target for intelligence gathering. There is no process under which damage to the rights of an individual is weighed to determine if it is justified. The idea of Palestinian rights is non-existent.
The signatories also pointed to another controversial Shin Bet “recruitment” technique, by which they exploit character flaws or vulnerabilities among Palestinians in order to blackmail them to become agents. Intercepting private phone conversations, text messages, and e mails is a prime tool in this process, making Unit 8200 officers complicit.
Like Snowden, signers of the letter are also being accused by the IDF of not using normal internal channels to make their complaints known. The army claims it has internal review processes that would guarantee examination of such complaints.
Unfortunately, in one sense the refusers are on shaky legal footing regarding their claims. Not because they’re not correct in substance–they are. But because, similar to the NSA (which has virtual carte blanche regarding foreign citizens), Palestinians have no standing under Israeli law. They are not citizens and therefore are not afforded even the minimal protections offered to Israelis. One can argue that Unit 8200, like the NSA should have constraints on its operations against non-citizens. But that’s not the case.
To be honest, the letter specifies the refusers will not spy on Palestinians. But there is plenty of other objectionable Unit 8200 activity having nothing to do with Palestinians. It provides intelligence data on Israeli enemies like Hezbollah and Iran. It intercepts private communication used to assassinate militants and even officials of foreign countries. Targeted killings violate international law, whether carried out by the U.S. or Israel. This behavior is no less a product of the same spy regime which has no oversight or restraints, and which the letter criticizes.
The IDF’s response was characteristically mendacious:
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.
In terms of how the intelligence personnel’s participation in this letter will be seen by the populace, they will be treated as the Justice Department has treated Snowden. They will be seen as oddballs and in certain circles as traitors. In such a view, these are the creme de la creme of society. The nation gives them everything. Entrusts them with its secrets. And they turn around and bite the hand that feeds. Shameful.
I can’t exaggerate how brave these officers have been. As those who read this blog regularly know, service in Unit 8200 is a steppingstone into Israeli high tech. It offers a wide array of professional opportunities that are not available to those who don’t serve there. Veterans network amongst each other and it’s like a Good Old Boys’ club, only more so. The signers will be blackballed. They will lose privileges, friendships, promotions. This is a big step for them.
The names of the signatories have so far been shielded from public knowledge. Though clearly the IDF knows who they are since the did sign their names to the original letter. I predict that the prime minister will find a way to leak the names.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.