Veterans of Elite Israeli Unit Refuse Reserve Duty, Citing Treatment of Palestinians
By JODI RUDORENSEPT. 12, 2014
JERUSALEM — Denouncing Israel’s treatment of Palestinians under occupation, a group of veterans from an elite, secretive military intelligence unit have declared they will no longer “take part in the state’s actions against Palestinians” in required reserve duty because of what they called “our moral duty to act.”
In a letter sent Thursday night to their commanders as well as Israel’s prime minister and army chief, 43 veterans of the clandestine Unit 8200 complained that Israel made “no distinction between Palestinians who are and are not involved in violence” and that information collected “harms innocent people.” Intelligence “is used for political persecution,” they wrote, which “does not allow for people to lead normal lives, and fuels more violence, further distancing us from the end of the conflict.”
The letter, revealed Friday in Israel’s Yediot Aharonot newspaper as well as The Guardian in Britain, echoes similar periodic protests by reservists over the years, including a group of 27 pilots who refused to participate in what Israel calls targeted assassinations, and 13 members of the vaunted commando unit known as Sayeret Matkal, both in 2003. But it is the first public collective refusal by intelligence officers rather that combat troops. Unit 8200 has a special role in Israeli society as a coveted pipeline to its high-technology industry.
“After our service we started seeing a more complex picture of a nondemocratic, oppressive regime that controls the lives of millions of people,” said one of the group’s organizers, a 32-year-old sergeant major who was on active duty from 2001 to 2005. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because the military prohibits Unit 8200 members from being publicly identified.
“There are certain things that we were asked to do that we feel do not deserve the title of self-defense,” he added in a telephone interview. “Some of the things that we did are immoral, and are against the things we believe in, and we’re not willing to do these things anymore.”
The new refuseniks said their group began a year ago and was not motivated by Israel’s battle with Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip this summer, which a member said was “just another chapter in this cycle of violence.”
The timing is nonetheless powerful, coming after many longtime Israeli critics of the occupation complained that their voices were stifled during a unified rallying around the war effort.
Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, a spokesman for the Israeli military, said specific incidents mentioned in officers’ testimonies presented with the group’s letter would be examined, and that “ramifications” for refusing to serve — including possible criminal prosecution — would be handled individually. He disputed the general thrust of the letter, saying of Unit 8200, “there is special emphasis placed on the morality and ethics and proper procedures and what we expect.”
“We are facing a ruthless enemy that will carry out devastating attacks,” Colonel Lerner said. “As such, our intelligence needs to be, I would say, top of its professional capabilities in order to intercept that suicide bomber, in order to forewarn Israel when there is an attack that’s going to happen, to be able to get to them before they perform their bad deeds.”
In the testimony and in interviews, though, the Unit 8200 veterans described exploitative activities focused on innocents whom Israel hoped to enlist as collaborators. They said information about medical conditions and sexual orientation were among the tidbits collected. They said that Palestinians lacked legal protections from harassment, extortion and injury.
“Palestinians’ sex talks were always a hot item to pass on from one person in the unit to the other for a good laugh,” read one officer’s testimony.
Most of the people who signed the letter are in their late 20s or early 30s and had attained the rank of sergeant or lieutenant; many are still active reservists, though the organizers interviewed said none had served in recent months. That in part was because of what they called “gray refusal,” in which officers would avoid call-ups from friendly commanders.
A 26-year-old woman who was on active duty from 2006 and 2008 and now works at a technology start-up said that her refusal resulted partly from what she saw as a change in the military’s operations, or at least Israel’s response to it.
When 14 civilians were killed alongside a Palestinian commander targeted for assassination in 2002, she said, “it made huge waves throughout the media and in the army, there were committees to investigate.” In Gaza, “things similar to that and much worse happened,” she said, but “there was no talk about it.”
For a 29-year-old captain whose eight years in the unit ended in 2011, the transformational moment came in watching “The Lives of Others,” a 2006 film about the operations of the East German secret police.
“I felt a lot of sympathy for the victims in the film of the intelligence,” the captain said. “But I did feel a weird, confusing sense of similarity, I identified myself with the intelligence workers. That we were similar to the kind of oppressive intelligence in oppressive regimes really was a deep realization that makes us all feel that we have to take responsibility.”