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IDF's 'start-up nation' reservists refuse to serve the occupation

One of the most striking points in the unprecedented refusal letter is the forceful argument that Israel’s policies vis-a-vis Palestinians are simply unrelated to defense –and they are a matter of choice.

Israeli soldiers in the West Bank city of Hebron take part in the search operation for three kidnapped Israeli teenagers, June 18, 2014. (Photo by Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Israeli soldiers in the West Bank city of Hebron take part in the search operation for the kidnappers of three Israeli teenagers, June 18, 2014. (Photo by Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Forty-three members of the IDF’s prestigious and secretive Unit 8200 have signed a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stating their refusal to serve in reserve duty related to military governance over Palestinians. The document, made available by Ynet, expresses their opposition in blunt language (my translation):

We who came out of Unit 8200, men and women reservists past and present, declare that we refuse to take part in activities against Palestinians and refuse to continue serving as instruments to deepen the military rule over the occupied territories.

8200 is practically a legendary unit within the intelligence corps of the army. It is responsible for both internal and foreign signals intelligence-gathering, alongside the Mossad and Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service. A large unit with various subdivisions, some members are known for their Arabic language skills, used to monitor life and media in the Arab and Palestinian world. Perhaps its strongest reputation is as Israel’s high-tech incubator, developing the cutting edge technology related to communications, focused on hacking, and encrypting, decoding and transmitting information.

As civilians, its highly educated and largely Ashkenazi graduates, particularly the men, have often leveraged their skills in Israel’s high-tech industry and are commonly thought of as the sparky, plucky drivers of the “start-up nation.”

+972 Magazine’s Haggai Matar, writing in Hebrew on Local Call and citing a Yedioth Ahronoth article, described the incidents that the reservists concluded were unjustified (all excerpts my translation):

The refuseniks of 8200 gave different examples of things they do on a routine basis as part of their army service, such as revealing the sexual preferences of Palestinians in order to blackmail them and thereby recruit them as collaborators. That, or by exploiting economic hardships or medical needs of Palestinians who need treatment in Israel. The other main examples deal with … assassinations and bombings of Gaza since Cast Lead, including targets that [the signatories] say were unjustified, caused unnecessary harm to innocents and didn’t contribute to the security of residents of Israel.

Haggai interviewed Daniel, one of the reservists who initiated the letter about one year ago – long before Protective Edge.

Some of [the things the unit does] are supposed to protect us from violence, but some of it is just destroying Palestinian society, preventing them from improving their lives in any way…We’re not saying this because we read it in some newspapers or blogs, but because that’s what we had to do in the framework of our roles.

Daniel also stressed to Haggai that these incidents are not aberrations:

They are not exceptions that happened to some of them once or twice – the opposite: in their testimony they were careful to choose examples that are structural aspects of service in the unit, with the knowledge and approval of the chain of command.

Collective refusal in this elite unit is unprecedented. Haggai notes that the last group refusal from any unit was a decade ago.

A former member of the unit who agreed to speak with +972 Magazine anonymously, although she was not a signatory (nor was she approached), felt that the move was significant in several ways.

On an operational level, she explained, the skills that 8200 members possess are not easily replaced. A reservist who refuses duty can’t be replaced as easily as a combat soldier.

She also saw it as a statement that intelligence – specifically human intelligence which is one of the unit’s major tasks – is equally responsibility for the situation on the ground. “Maybe in the past they thought, if we were combat soldiers, we would be refusing. But now they realize there’s no reason, just because they’re intelligence, that they don’t have responsibility. That’s what’s new here.” They may even play a greater role:

The fact that they provide the technology and information is a greater responsibility in a way, because it’s acknowledging that the gathering of information can’t be separated from what happens on the ground. Sitting in front of a screen is no different from dropping a bomb.

The fact that they are reservists who have served in this unit for years means they cannot be written off as newcomers who may have started out as radical left-wingers; further, the signatories state that they do not intend to refuse tasks related to foreign intelligence.

Indeed, one of the most striking points in the letter is the forceful argument that Israel’s policies with relation to Palestinians are simply unrelated to defense –and they are a matter of choice.

Millions of Palestinians are living under Israeli military rule for 47 years already. This regime negates their basic rights and takes away large portions of land in order to settle Jews who are subject to a different system of laws, justice and enforcement. This reality is not the inevitable result of the state’s efforts to defend itself, but rather it is the result of choice. Settlement expansion has nothing to do with self defense, and the same goes for the limitations on construction and development, economic exploitation of West Bank lands, collective punishment of the residents of Gaza and the route of the separation fence.

How can you tell that Israeli refuseniks are scaring the system?
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    1. Richard

      Very interesting.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Danny

      “On an operational level, she explained, the skills that 8200 members possess are not easily replaced. A reservist who refuses duty can’t be replaced as easily as a combat soldier.”

      This is significant because the religious nationalists cannot easily infiltrate this unit like they have in other IDF units, for the simple reason that you need actual intellectual ability and skill for this job, which the Naftali Bennett types so obviously lack.

      Reply to Comment
      • bor

        Naftali Bennett made a small fortune in software.

        Reply to Comment
        • Ray

          You don’t have to be “smart” to be “successful” in the 21st Century. Just lucky, and self-serving.

          Reply to Comment
      • Kolumn8

        8200 has lots of religious Zionists. You have no clue. The same reason why there lots of them in the officer corps – high motivation and strong preparation – applies to all elite units, including 8200.

        Reply to Comment
        • Danny

          I used to work in Israeli high tech. While there were some kippah-wearers in the work forces I was in, the vast majority were secularists. The same applies to the 8200.

          Also, due to their militarist ideology, religious nationalists tend to prefer combat units (which partially explains the IDF’s terrible combat performances of late).

          Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn8

            You left the country what? 8 years ago?

            Religious Zionists tend to prefer combat units. Not all have the profile to make it into combat units. Those that cant still have high motivation and strong preparation. Where do you think they would end up, especially given how prestigious 8200 is these days? Yes, 8200 is mostly Ashkenazi secular, but it is silly to pretend that Religious Zionists are not well represented.

            Reply to Comment
    3. bor

      Um, intelligence services have been seeking “weaknesses” in prospective recruits forever. It’s what they do, everywhere in the world. You look for motives that enable you to recruit your spies.

      And yet, despite these astounding, overwhelming intelligence capabilities that affect every single innocent Palestinian, somehow Hamas managed to almost launch a coup in the PA and were certainly capable of building numerous very impressive hidden tunnels.

      Obviously, this letter reflects the view of soldiers that oppose Israel’s presence in Judea and Samaria and that is driving their agenda here. They have a right to express their views, most certainly, and even to refuse to serve in the unit.

      However, do they have a right to use their unit’s name as a brand to reinforce their claim? I don’t think so. The only way for the many 8200 soldiers and reservists whose views differ from these 43 to respond is to do so publicly but that exposes their names and affiliation with the unit.

      Also, it has to be said that these same mechanisms of intelligence gathering are the ones that those demanding uncovering extreme Jewish cells and “price tag” offenders expect Israel’s intelligence forces to use to find those offenders.

      מדובר צה”ל נמסר בתגובה: “יחידה 8200 פועלת מיום הקמתה לאיסוף מודיעין, המאפשר לצה”ל ולגופי הביטחון למלא את משימותיהם ומסייע מדי יום בהגנה על אזרחי מדינת ישראל. היחידה פועלת באמצעים מגוונים ובזירות רבות, תוך הפעלת שיטות וכללים המכוונים לצורכי המודיעין ולצרכיו בלבד.

      “המשרתים ביחידה מוכשרים לאחר תהליך איתור קפדני, בהכשרה שאין לא אח ורע בקהילת המודיעין בארץ ובעולם, במהלכה מוטמע בתכנים הנלמדים דגש מיוחד על תחומי האתיקה, המוסר ונוהלי העבודה. הללו מיושמים הלכה למעשה במהלך שירותים של החיילים והקצינים ביחידה, ואלו זוכים לבקרה מתמדת של מפקדים בדרגות שונות.

      לאורך השנים, ובשנים האחרונות במיוחד, זוכה היחידה להערכה יום-יומית, שפעמים רבות באה לידי ביטוי באותות הערכה, צל”שים ופרסי ביטחון ישראל.

      “פניית החתומים לכאורה על מכתב זה לכלי התקשורת, בטרם הפנו טענותיהם אל מפקדיהם או אל הגורמים הרלוונטיים בצה”ל, תמוהה ומעלה ספק באשר לרצינות הטענות.

      באשר לטענות הנוגעות לפגיעה בחפים מפשע, הרי שתהליך אישור המטרות בצה”ל הוא ארוך וקפדני ומביא בחשבון גם את נושא הבלתי מעורבים”.

      Reply to Comment
    4. bor

      Good comment on the Ynet article:

      כשיושבים בכורסא מול מחשב במשרד ממוזג, ממוגן ובעיקר הרחק מהלחימה. קל לשכוח מה המטרה שלשמה אתה פועל.
      רק אחרי שהם “יבלו” בשדה קרב, הם יוכלו לקלוט מה החשיבות, של לקבל אזהרה מראש על בניין ממולכד ומהיכן עלולים לצלוף עליהם.
      אולי הצבא צריך לכלול בהכשרת חיילי המודיעין, גם פרק קרבי, בו הם ילוו לוחמי חי”ר ושריון. וזאת כדי להכניס בהם מוטיבציה והבנה של חשיבות מעשיהם.

      The writer recommends that members of this intelligence unit be sent out during combat to join soldiers in infantry and tanks in order to understand the relevance and importance of their intelligence gathering.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ray

        You and the commenter you quoted completely missed the point. The reservists in question could give a crap about how “important” their work is. They didn’t refuse to serve because they don’t think their unit is strategically important to the Occupation enough, they refused because they’re against the Occupation, period.

        Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn8

          The point is that they placed their opposition to the occupation above the benefit they provide to the infantry soldiers that are sent into hostile areas in Gaza and to the civilians that are protected from Palestinian terrorists back home. Hence, the refusal. They placed their theoretical political ideas above the practical aspect of their work in protecting Israeli civilians and soldiers. Had they been in the field facing enemy fire along with the soldiers they refuse to provide information perhaps they would have had a different opinion on the matter because they would have cared about the lives of their fellow Israeli soldiers.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ray

            From YOUR perspective only is their work important to “protect” people. To them, the Occupation does not make people safe, or safeguard freedom.

            What would being in combat convince them of? That people kill each other in armed conflict? Accusing people of not caring about their supposed comrade’s “safety” because their consciences and ideals were more important is malicious and misleading. As far as I’m concerned, these reservists are on the same wavelength as Chelsea Manning.

            Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn8

            Being in combat would make them more concerned about the well-being of their fellow soldiers so they would understand the value of their intelligence work.

            If they choose meaningless and ineffective political protest over the importance of their work in protecting their fellow soldiers and citizens then they do not care about either. They could have just as easily published a protest letter without the refusal.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ray

            They chose not to be hypocrites, by doing what you suggested (protesting, but serving anyway).

            Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn8

            They chose refusing the orders of a democratically elected government over performing the duties they, by law, are expected to perform, and in doing so they have left others to do it in their place. They chose meaningless and ineffective political protest over contributing to the safety of their fellow citizens and soldiers.

            Reply to Comment
    5. Kolumn8

      8200 reservists get called up maybe once every couple of years for a day or two when their specific skills are in need – often due to the fact that they built some piece of software. Given the pace of change and reorganization in that unit their knowledge becomes obsolete within a few years.

      I know lots of former 8200 and not a single one that I know got called up during the last war. Of them only one is a leftist. None would refuse to show up.

      8200 is the biggest unit in the IDF with the most left-wing demographic profile. It graduates thousands of people annually, including some that drift to the extreme left after their service.

      All this makes the letter somewhat silly. Just another cry for attention by marginal leftists.

      Reply to Comment
      • Y-Man

        Always interesting to hear from the Kolumn spin zone. Good luck with that whole being-on-the-wrong-side-of-history thing. You and Lee Atwater will be hangin out in the afterlife for sure. Just kidding, there is no afterlife, and you will never be a influential as Lee Atwater, unless you are secretly Dov Weissglass or something.

        Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn8

          The ‘wrong side of history’ is a boring argument by very secular people with full absolute religious faith in historical determinism.

          I personally love this argument because it is an excuse for total inaction. You dont have to do anything but live your own life. ‘History’ (‘God’) will make sure that things turn out the way you prefer. Those with other ideas have the playing field all to themselves.

          Reply to Comment
    6. bor

      Well, 150 reservists condemn the letter and disagree with it.

      Meanwhile, over 150 reservists from the same unit signed a letter on Friday protesting the claims put forth in the original letter.

      “We regret that our comrades have made political and cynical use of their [military] service, while disseminating fraudulent statements about the unit,” read the letter, which, like the original, was also sent to Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, Gantz, and the head of Military Intelligence.

      “Having been familiar with the unit for many reasons, we can’t accept the claims regarding a lack of ethical and moral guidelines in the intelligence work of the unit,” the soldiers wrote. “Throughout our service, we bore witness to many cases in which the use of intelligence capabilities made it possible to safeguard human lives, on both sides.”

      “Even when moral dilemmas arise during the work, as well as in wartime, we have witnessed, and still witnessed, a mature and responsible response which is in line with international law and the ethical and moral code of the army.”

      But the PA likes it.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Laurent Weppe

      So… the fraction of the intellectual elite which has not yet abandoned ship may finally be starting to contemplate mutiny against their inept ruling class? Better late that never, I say.

      Reply to Comment
      • bor

        It turns out that the head of the Israeli left’s biggest party served in that unit and he has come out against this letter very angrily.

        These 43 signatories are the extreme of the extreme left in Israel, it appears, and just like the writers of 972mag they appear to live in some fantasy where they believe Israel needs to weaken itself in order to survive. Sheer lunacy.

        Reply to Comment
        • Philos

          Herzog’s condemnation speaks to the fact that there isn’t (and maybe never was) a Zionist Left. Just nationalists and reactionaries who disagreed a little on questions of political-economy but still nationalists and reactionaries

          Reply to Comment
          • bor

            You don’t know of what you speak.

            Reply to Comment
          • Laurent Weppe

            Just nationalists and reactionaries who disagreed a little on questions of political-economy but still nationalists and reactionaries

            Or maybe he’s merely another squishy social-democrat so terrified at the idea of becoming the next favorite boogeyman of the right-wing demagogues that he’ll bend over over backward to prove his dedication/loyalty/patriotism/insert-euphemism-used-in-place-of-gutless-coward-here.

            The truth is, it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things: it is an universal rule that the more inbred wealth and social rank become, the less overlap there is between the ruling class and the intellectual elite, the more often the two groups’ interests are in conflict, the stronger the mutual hostility grows: it’s happening all over the western world, but the process is especially fast in Israel: the act of defiance noted in this article very well be an early sign that the abscesses are about to burst where they are the more bloated and I, for one, consider this to be a good news.

            Reply to Comment
          • bor

            The precise opposite is happening, Laurent.

            You see, a mere 14 years ago, you had a leftist PM who, with the Israeli public’s support, extended a peace offer unlike anything imagines by the general public. After Arafat killed it, the Israeli left began to weaken. Then, when Arafat launched a war filled with suicide bombings of civilian targets, the Israeli left lost even more voters and strength. So then a few years later, another PM (Olmert) was elected on a platform of withdrawal from Judea and Samaria. Although the left didn’t demonstrate a lot of strength, this proposal was certainly to the left of, say, Rabin, by a significant margin.

            But Hizbullah attacking in 2006, the Hamas brutal takeover of Gaza, the incessant rockets, then another spurned peace offer by the Palestinians (2008) and wars against Hamas in Gaza as well as Palestinian games to avoid peace talks while pursuing a vigorous and relatively successful diplomatic war against Israel, weakened the Israeli left completely.

            Today, the left is moribund. That’s why 972 publishes in English. They know they can’t convince Israelis through democratic means, so they’re trying to convince the outside world to convince Israel to do something else really stupid and suicidal. And they’re doing it using foreign sources of funding.

            And this letter is a symptom of the same. It is clear to anybody with half a brain that whatever intelligence work Israel is doing is extremely important. A small minority from this unit who want Israel out of Judea and Samaria disagree, so they went public and they did it in a way that is almost certainly intended to influence people outside of Israel – they know very well that the last majority of their unit-mates disagree with them.

            If you think that calling people “nationalists” and “reactionaries” because they don’t want to be weakened or killed , then go ahead and call them what you will because I suspect you’re only going to find fewer and fewer who still believe that losing land or weakening defense will help in any way.

            Reply to Comment
    8. Average American

      No one is talking about the reason they object: this isn’t-really-an-occupation-because-it’s-our-land mentality. Eretz Israel mentality. Zionist agenda, reason for formation of Israel, conquer all of Eretz Israel exclusively for the Jews.

      Reply to Comment
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