On Friday 43 soldiers and officers from the army’s Unit 8200 released a letter declaring their refusal to continue to spy on Palestinians.The Israeli public is used to hearing stories about soldiers from Unit 8200, the Israeli intelligence signals unit. Usually however these stories are about veterans of the unit succeeding in the cut throat world of hi-tech as a result of their training and experience in the intelligence world. Not for refusing to do their jobs.
Unit 8200 is roughly analogous to the USA’s National Security Agency (NSA) or the UK’s Government Communication Head Quarters (GCHQ). Their role is to intercept the electronic signals emanating from enemy states and use them to the advantage and defense of Israel.
The 33 soldiers and 10 officers were clear that they were not against the work done by the unit as a whole. Their moral issues concerned the collection and use of intelligence against Palestinians specifically.
This is the first time in a decade that such a letter has been made public. The last being a similar letter from the elite Sayeret Matkal at around the same time as another letter by combat pilots. The refusal by these 43 soldiers and officers ensured their dismissal from their (reserve) posts and a counter letter by over 200 members of Unit 8200 slamming their refusal and asserting the opposite to the claims was true.
If this letter was an example of left wing political activism it has no home in the Knesset. The letter has been dismissed across the board with the head of the opposition Labor Party, Isaac Herzog condemning the refusniks. Himself a former Major in unit 8200 he said;
He was opposed to, and repulsed by, so-called conscientious objectors.”
The former head of the Labour party Shelly Yachimovich went even further in her criticism saying;
Why didn’t you refuse at the time of truth? You would have refused, been judged, been dismissed from the unit, paid a price and lived at peace with your conscience”
She went on to call them “cowards”. In a statement the IDF said that;
Special emphasis is placed on the operations of the unit in order to ensure that civilians in the West Bank are inconvenienced only to the degree absolutely necessary in order to protect the Israeli population.
Does anyone really have a clue as to what it actually means to inconvenience people to the degree “absolutely necessary to protect Israel”? It’s about as enlightening as asking a soldier what he does during his service only to meet with the term “defending the country”.
These soldiers are telling us that our intelligence gathering apparatus is running amok, that its spying activities go above and beyond what is necessary for the defense of Israel and have moved into “persecution”. Both the IDF and their political oversight appear to be unable or unwilling to take their claims seriously.
These men and women are the keepers of our secrets, they are the ones who were chosen (from a massive pool of potential recruits) to defend us in a realm requiring special skills. They have been highly trained and we regaled them as heroes right up until the point at which their consciences got the better of them.
Have we returned to the 1950s? A time when there was simply no such thing as dissent. Is there to be no inquiry at all? Is there to be no investigation into their claims whatsoever? Is it really that easy to dismiss the words of so many men and women who up until Friday were thought of so highly?
Member of Knesset for Labour, Sheli Yachimovich attacked the refuseniks as cowards for not coming forward earlier. While Likud MK Yuli Edelstein attacked them for coming forwards at all. It seems that in Israel in 2014 a soldier with a conscience is as much an enemy as the Palestinians are.
“We in the IDF take a grave view of this, and disciplinary treatment will be sharp and clear,” These are the words of an IDF that took all of two days to decide that the most appropriate course of action is to go on the attack rather than examine the claims made by these 43 men and women and found them guilty of telling everyone what they actually think.
These soldiers are saying that there are structural flaws in the way 8200 collects information that affect the lives of innocent civilians in a way that is contrary to the standards that the IDF sets for itself. And if these people, the ones who have been doing the job don’t know then no one does. The government and the military should at least take the time to properly assess their claims and satisfy itself and the general public that there is no truth to their allegations.