Israel's internal dissenters

Veterans of Elite Israeli Unit Refuse Reserve Duty, Citing Treatment of Palestinians
New York Times, 2014-09-13

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.”

Reprisals for Israeli Soldiers Refusing to Spy
New York Times, 2014-09-15

JERUSALEM — The Israeli military on Sunday threatened disciplinary action against a group of veterans and active reservists of a secretive military intelligence unit who declared that they would no longer participate in surveillance activities against the Palestinians.

Dozens of other veterans and reservists from the unit came to its defense and expressed outrage at their colleagues’ public act of refusal.

The protest and counterprotest exposed some of the complexities of life in Israel, where most 18-year-olds are conscripted for up to three years of service, and the episode set off an impassioned debate that had far more to do with the nature of military service and the selective refusal of duties than with the concerns raised by the would-be whistle-blowers about the treatment of the Palestinians under occupation.

[Note the truly pathetic attempt of the New York Times reporter
to pass off the concerns expressed in the letter as merely "expos[ing] some of the complexities of life in Israel"
rather than as due to the specific problems they addressed.
This is a standard method of diverting attention from the issues that are addressed to secondary issues and questions of motivation.
If you are non-Jewish and criticize Israel, many will ascribe your motivation to "anti-Semitism".
That tactic can hardly work in this case, as those leveling the criticism are Israeli Jews serving in the Israeli military.
So the NYT reporter ascribes their motivation as merely dislike for military service.

Officials and politicians from the right and the left harshly criticized the 43 veterans of the elite Unit 8200, who lodged their protest in a letter sent Thursday night to their commanders as well as to Israel’s prime minister and army chief. The letter was made public on Friday. They wrote that they refused to continue to be “tools” of Israel’s military rule in the occupied territories, that the surveillance work they had been required to perform made “no distinction between Palestinians who are and are not involved in violence” and that information collected “harms innocent people” and “is used for political persecution.”

Brig. Gen. Moti Almoz, the chief military spokesman, said in a statement that the Israeli Army constituted “one common camp — perhaps the widest in all of Israeli society — and we think sevenfold before we express political positions in forums not meant for such expression.”

Accusing the protesters of exploiting their army service for political ends, General Almoz said that the army’s top brass viewed the act with the “utmost severity” and that disciplinary measures would be “sharp and clear,” without elaborating about whether the protesters would face criminal prosecution. He added that only 10 of the 43 who signed the protest letter were actively involved in intelligence gathering.

While this was not the first collective public protest by army reservists, it was the first by intelligence officers and the largest among soldiers in years.

Yediot Aharonot, the newspaper that revealed the protest letter on Friday, in tandem with The Guardian of Britain, printed excerpts on Sunday of a letter that it said had been signed by at least 200 members of the unit who distanced themselves from the 43 protesters and said that the dissenters “chose the path of political insubordination.” Those 200 members rejected their colleagues’ assertions about the absence of ethical and moral standards guiding the unit’s intelligence gathering.

The names of those who signed the letters were not published because the military prohibits Unit 8200 members from being publicly identified.

Some commentators said that despite the contentiousness of the idea of soldiers’ refusing orders, the substantive points raised by the protesters should be examined. But many of them noted the danger of selective refusal, pointing to the soldiers who support Israeli settlements in the occupied territories yet might one day be required to dismantle West Bank settlements in the West Bank, as the army did in 2005 in Gaza.

And many critics castigated the 43 objectors for taking their protest to the news media rather than registering their complaints within military channels, particularly, they said, since Unit 8200 has the reputation of being like “a family.”Amos Yadlin, a former chief of military intelligence, said he believed that the claims in the protest letter were false, but even if they were true, he said, “military intelligence has the means to discuss every moral dilemma.”

“Many hundreds of soldiers and civilians,” Mr. Yadlin told Israel Radio, “are walking around today and don’t know they were saved by the soldiers of 8200 who warned of a terror attack.”

Isaac Herzog, the chairman of the center-left Labor Party and a former major in Unit 8200, said he opposed the concept of refusing orders and excoriated the 43 protesters for their “harmful global declaration,” alluding to the battle that Israel faces in regard to world opinion, especially after this summer’s 50-day war in Gaza.

Shelly Yacimovich, the former leader of the Labor Party, writing on her Facebook page, asked why the 43 did not protest in real time and refuse orders they considered immoral. Alluding to the lucrative employment opportunities in Israel’s high-tech industry that await many graduates of Unit 8200, Ms. Yacimovich said they should “be grateful” to the military.

Responding to the criticism, the group of 43 protesters issued a statement saying that the letter from the other soldiers affiliated with the unit “does not contradict any of the concrete issues raised by our refusal letter and the testimonials that were published in Yediot Aharonot.”

“Some of us,” the statement added, “have tried to raise our concerns in front of our commanders, as mentioned in the testimonies, but these concerns were ignored.” While the army does grant a small number of exemptions each year to conscientious objectors, it makes a distinction between pacifists who oppose any use of force and what it calls cases of “selective objection.”