In the largest act of conscientious objection in Israel in more than a decade, more than 40 reservists and veterans of a prestigious army intelligence unit have declared that they refuse further military service because they reject being “tools” of Israeli control over the occupied territories.
“We declare that we refuse to take part in actions against Palestinians and refuse to continue serving as tools in deepening the military control over the occupied territories,” wrote reservists of Unit 8200, many of them still active reservists, which is believed to operate one of the largest listening bases in the world, in a letter to army chief of staff Lt. Gen Benny Gantz and published in Israeli media today.
“There is no distinction between Palestinians who are and are not involved in violence,” they wrote. “Information that is collected harms innocent people. It is used for political persecution and to create divisions within Palestinian society by recruiting collaborators and driving parts of Palestinian society against itself. Intelligence allows for the continued control over millions of people through thorough and intrusive supervision and invasion of most areas of life.”
In anonymous testimonies, signatories of the letter spoke of their misgivings. While there have been such letters before, the last notable one being in 2003 signed by 27 reserve pilots - complaints in as much detail are not common.
One reservist testified: “Any such case, in which you ‘fish out’ an innocent person from whom information might be squeezed or who could be recruited as a collaborator was like striking gold for us”. Another reservist recounted how to boost morale, commanders of unit 8200 would play for the troops intercepted conversations of Palestinian couples arguing or of Palestinians having phone sex. ’’Sex talk was considered entertainment. Phone sex was always considered a hit.” the soldier recalled.
In anonymous testimonies, signatories of the letter said that the unit would target details such as the sexual orientation of Palestinians so that they could be blackmailed into becoming informers. The same treatment was meted out to the seriously ill in need of medical care in Israel, reservists claimed.
An Israel Defence Force spokesman said in response that the unit's activities are aimed at defending Israeli civilians, and that the intelligence corps has “no record that the specific violations raised in the letter ever took place”.
“The unit uses a wide variety of methods on many fronts which are exclusively dedicated to gathering critical information. Those who serve in the unit undergo a thorough screening process and intense training unmatched by any of the world’s intelligence agencies. Throughout the training, a special emphasis is placed on morality, ethics and proper procedures.”
In interviews with The Independent, several signatories said that it was only after they finished active duty and had a chance to reflect over what they had done that they decided to refuse further service. They said they were determined to take the step although it may put them at odds with friends and potential employers and goes against the prevalent ethos that deems military service as a core Israeli value.
“We don’t want to come out as having a very general pacifist message,” said A, 32, a sergeant major who served in the unit between 2001 and 2006, and who is now a PhD candidate. “We are saying that intelligence gathering on people who have no civil or political rights is not something we can take part of.”
D, 27, who served from 2003-11, and rose to be captain, said he was jolted into questioning his role when after completing his service when he saw a movie, The Lives of Others, about intelligence gathering in East Germany. He added that his thinking was influenced by the experiences of his father, an immigrant from Argentina, who had been imprisoned without trial by the military dictatorship there in 1977.
"I am not comparing the military occupation here to the crimes in Argentina but I am comparing the problematic situation where a regime collects intelligence and civilians have no protection from this and this intelligence can have severe consequences on their lives.”
Excerpts from the testimonies
Names have been witheld in keeping with secrecy regulations
One: I was once made to listen to a talk an Israeli security officer had with a Palestinian he tried to recruit. It's an excellent talk for instruction and learning and was used by the unit for some years. There's a point where he says "your wife's brother has cancer". The Palestinian says "so?" And they go on to speak about something else but the Israeli keeps going back to the cancer issue. He said something like "our hospitals are good" and he was clearly offering something to the Palestinian or threatening him.
The Israeli public thinks that intelligence work is only against terrorism but a significant part of our objectives are innocent people not at all connected to any military activity. They interest the unit for other reasons usually without having the slightest idea that they are intelligence targets. We did not treat those targets any differently than we did terrorists. The fact that they were innocent was not at all relevant as far as we were concerned.
Two: The peak of my service within the Israeli army was the period during which I collected information on people who were accused of attacking Israelis, trying to attack Israelis, the desire to harm Israelis, and thinking of attacking Israelis in addition to collecting information on completely innocent people, whose only crime was that they interested the Israeli defense establishment for various reasons. Reasons they have no way of knowing.
If you're homosexual and know someone who knows a wanted person and we need to know about it-Israel will make your life miserable. If you need emergency medical treatment in Israel, the West Bank or abroad, we searched for you. The state of Israel will allow you to die before we let you leave for treatment without giving information on your wanted cousin. If you interest Unit 8200 as a technological unit and don't have anything to do with any hostile activity, you're an objective.
Any such case, in which you ''fish out'' an innocent person from whom information might be squeezed or who could be recruited as a collaborator was like striking gold for us and Israel's entire intelligence community.
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