I must say that I am very impressed with the ability of some Israeli leftists to be so enamored with their sense of righteousness that an otherwise significant message gets lost in a whole lot of garbage. And I wouldn’t be surprised if what they did is against the law as well.
What do 43 Israeli elite intelligence reserve personnel think makes them so special that they designate themselves as protectors of ethics and morals in this country? Their scathing letter to the Prime Minister and the IDF Chief of General Staff and Head of Intelligence found its way to the media and a lengthy article on the group of 43 was published in ynet on 9 September 2014. It was implied that many more agree with this stance but refrained from identifying themselves with it for fear of repercussions.
The ynet article opens with an epiphany on the part of one of the group: after having seen a movie about East Germany, he realized that he had been engaged in the same kind of intrusive behavior regarding Palestinians as East Germany’s dreaded secret police had done regarding its own civilian population. In spite of the questionable comparison, that would certainly be reason to reconsider what one had done as an intelligence officer, and the ethical self-exploration of all the letter signers is worthy of admiration. My issue with them is not with their examination of their beliefs and their struggle with their conscience, but rather, with the manner in which they chose to expose the nature of their operations to all, and their holier than thou attitude.
While the ynet article did not once associate the group with the political left of Israel, it is clear from their original letter in Hebrew that they are so aligned. Let me give a few examples from the letter (my translation): They talk about millions of Palestinians living under Israeli military control, about the occupied territories, settlement expansion, economic exploitation of land on the West Bank, collective punishment of the Gaza population and the separation fence. In short, all the rhetoric that is familiar to us from leftists. They claim that their intelligence activities were for the purposes of promoting these injustices and not for enhancing Israeli self-defense.
I wonder what makes them think that they are privy to the decision making levels in the army and government that would allow them to reasonably base such a determination that their intelligence is for promoting ‘The Occupation’ and not the defense of our country? Just because you believe Israel is wrong in hanging onto the West Bank and not yet signing a peace treaty with the Palestinians does not mean that you know enough about what is going on in the wings of the diplomatic stage or that you totally understand Israel’s defense needs to be able to make such damning statements. Political beliefs do not give one the privilege of knowing the difference between political and defense goals.
I have been told, by someone who I believe has access to accurate information, that Israelis do not know how many terrorist attacks are snuffed out before their execution. We do not know, because those that were prevented never make the news. And how does the army know about these intended attacks? Is it not the intelligence provided by the very unit to which our supposedly ethically motivated conscientious objectors belong that gives us the means to know?
For sure, it is a distasteful task to listen in to private conversations and know that the ‘dirt’ you pick up on will be used to find informants. But I think that that is a far less distasteful task than that of ZAKA picking up body parts and human tissue after a terrorist attack.
While I take issue with their leftist political views, my problem is not with that, but with the public nature of the way in which they chose to express their opinions. They are within their rights as thinking individuals to refuse to comply with reserve army call-up orders if they will be required to gather intelligence among the Palestinian population (and to take the consequences). But their letter encourages others in active duty or the reserves to join their ranks and refuse to serve. They suggest that if military orders support the political agenda of a right-wing government that is reason enough to disobey, as if they ‘know’ that a leftist government would have made peace by now.
The left is not the only side of the political spectrum to take issue with political implications of military orders. In 2005, religious soldiers, many of them from settlements, and some of them even from Gazan settlements, were ordered to physically remove settlers who were refusing to vacate their homes or the synagogues in Gaza. There was a clear conflict between their politico-religious beliefs and their duty as soldiers in the IDF. While this conflict was public knowledge, most of them did not call for rebelling against army duties nor did they try to incite others to disobey orders.
Equally importantly, have the letter-signers not considered the possibility that their exposure of how informants are found among the Palestinian population, something about which I have long wondered, might endanger some people who otherwise would not be suspected by family or neighbors of providing Israel with information?
The conscientious objectors might, in fact, rejoice if they were to learn that their disclosure of how they operate gave potential informants enough reason to take greater care about what they communicate and by what means, thus removing themselves from the reservoir of those who may serve our intelligence needs. If that is, indeed, a result of their letter, then they will have damaged Israel’s intelligence gathering and put us all in greater danger.
I love the fact that Israel is a democracy in which conscientious objectors have the right to freely express their opinions. In Israel, they are not in danger of being killed by the government or the army for criticizing policy and actions, as might happen in other places in our geographical neighborhood. They do risk public censure, however, and the writers of this letter were aware of this potential cost and seem to accept that as a consequence for speaking out against what they consider to be wrong. I can respect that. However, their use of their own obvious political agenda as a basis upon which to judge military tactics or strategy as unethical and immoral is, in my opinion, unethical, immoral and unfounded. And revealing the secret of how the unit operates, in part, may also be against the law.
At the same time, I hope that discussion of the issue does not degenerate into accusations of treason and wishes to send them to Gaza. The issue that they raise – of infringing the personal privacy rights of ordinary citizens for the purposes of intelligence gathering – is one worthy of serious discussion. I just wish they had raised it in a theoretical way instead of how they did. And I also wish that they had raised it in a manner that would keep the spotlight on the ethics of such behavior even when your life is on the line (or you believe that it is) rather than on the politics of diplomacy and peacemaking or war mongering and the fight between left and right ideologies. As it is, the real issue got lost in all the noise and, if you want to know what I really wish, because of the potential damage to our security, I really wish that they had just raised the issue among themselves and not in front of the entire world.