Conscientious objectors in IDF unit 8200: It’s the occupation stupid

Most, if not all politicians who expressed their views on the open protest letter by 43 reserve soldiers from unit 8200 (the IDF’s unit that deals with electronic collection of intelligence) which took issue with the continuous harm done to civil liberties of Palestinians in the territories, where completely in the warm comfort zone of the national consensus. Some of them, notably MK Shelly Yacimovich expressed outright nasty views against the wayward reservists who dared to have pangs of conscience regarding some of their activities. Not surprisingly, in the wake of the recent war with Hamas, the national sentiment was to keelhaul the objectors and the sooner the better.

There were two notable exceptions to the regular leftist-bashing: One, by Prof. Gen. (Res.) Itzhak Ben-Israel, a retired member of the IDF General Staff  and an expert on military technology and intelligence who, speaking on army radio, surprised his host when he viewed the letter as a postive development. According to the General the letter was sent by  good people  who wanted to move the limits between the allowed and the forbidden into a positive direction and he didn’t view the letter as a grave event. A reasonable and moderate statement by someone who definitely knows what he is talking about and who is totally aware of the circumstances.

Another valuable and instructive comment was made by Hillel Ben Sasson, a researcher at the Molad Institute who also happens to know what he is talking about. And Ben Sasson explained the issue as follows in a lengthy post on his facebook page:

As somebody who knows the intelligence work performed by unit 8200 vis-a-vis the Palestinians, I would like to relate to what I think is the central issue that we should focus on:

For many years there was a clear separation of powers with regard to intelligence collection – the military and within it, unit 8200, was responsible for intelligence collection vis-a-vis enemy countries while the Israel Security Agency (Shabak) was responsible for the collection of intelligence within the State of Israel, including collection of intelligence on Israeli citizens (from the right and the left). The basic assumption behind this separation of powers was that Israeli citizens are part of Israeli sovereignty and are therefore entitled to all legal protections afforded by Israeli law (including protection from covert invasions of privacy) whereas combatants and citizens from enemy countries are not afforded the same protection.

I believe that only a few will argue the logic of the mandate of unit 8200 to collect intelligence, even invasively, in order to protect and defend the agreed upon borders of the State of Israel. The same legitimizations that permit infantry and tank soldiers to protect and defend the borders of the state are relevant, just the same for soldiers serving in unit 8200 vis-a-vis Syria, Lebanon, Iran and Iraq. I also believe that few will argue the assumption that young soldiers in compulsory service should not partake in the collection of intelligence on Israeli citizens. It should be understood that such operational activities which are on the outer fringes of the right of the state to protect itself, activities which include flagrant violations of citizens rights, should not be run by the military and it is only fair that it it is the ISA (Shabak) and not Military Intelligence (AMAN and unit 8200) that is empowered to perform these tasks.

And here we come to the department in unit 8200 that is collecting information on the Palestinians. This department was created within unit 8200 in the wake of the Oslo process when it was clear to everyone that shortly, any day now, a new Palestinian entity/state would come into being and would have to be dealt with intelligence-wise, just like the military deals with all other countries. At the time, this was the correct arrangement without going into details regarding the involvement of the intelligence collectors in targeted killings with potential for the disporportional killing of innocent bystanders.

But and this is a serious but, twenty years after the Palestinian department was set up in unit 8200, the status-quo of the occupation is still maintained. Palestine is not a state and its inhabitants are not citizens of Israel. This is a grey area and grey areas aren’t only dangerous but also create situations that conscript soldiers in the IDF are not supposed to deal with. The letter by the conscientious objectors which was published a few weeks ago is another writing on the wall by an occupation that has been around much too long, still maintained by the State of Israel.

The leadership of the State of Israel must decide – annexation of the territories and transfer of the intelligence collection activities to the ISA (Shabak), or, a 2 state solution and leaving the intelligence authority in the hands of MI (AMAN). Until then, the soldiers of unit 8200 who deal with Palestinians are no different from infantry soldiers manning a roadblock in the territories – both were sent by a weak leadership to perform tasks that were never to be handled by people their age and status. As long as these youngsters are captives of a weak leadership that is unable to reach any decision, the next conscientious objection is only a matter of time, if it will be by those supporting annexation to advance the end of Zionism or those who object to the occupation who are concerned about our future as a society and a people.

Ben Sasson certainly cleared up what the issue really is. And not surprisingly it is the ongoing occupation and Israel’s unwillingness to deal with the long term implications.

About the Author
The author served in the Prime Minister’s Office as a member of the intelligence community, is a member of the Council for Peace and Security and was a candidate in Labor’s 2012 primary election for the Knesset list