Tel Aviv — Overnight, they have become the new bad boys of Israel, and denounced as childish activists who dared to sully the reputation of Israel’s revered intelligence outfit — Unit 8200 — to make a political statement against the occupation of the West Bank.
The officers’ message is that intelligence gathering has become as much a tool of perpetuating alleged injustices against Palestinians as combat soldiers. Their decision to speak out as 8200 veterans set off a storm: In the broadcast media they are targets for criticism that spans the Israeli political spectrum, and at home their parents worry they went too far by signing an open letter to the prime minister declaring that they won’t come back to reserve duty. Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon even said they committed a crime.
But the several dozen veterans of 8200 insist that they have taken a principled stand against alleged excesses of the intelligence gathering and Israel’s 47-year-old military control over the Palestinians. They also insist that they’ve committed no crime and that several testimonials about dubious intelligence activities were cleared for publication by the army.
“We’re not [Edward] Snowden,” said “G,” a 29-year-old doctoral student. “We haven’t leaked anything confidential or that violates information security procedures.”
Three of 43 signatories who agreed to meet face to face with a Jewish Week reporter in a tiny Tel Aviv apartment said that while they are willing to reveal their identities, the Israeli military forbids it. They explained that their public protest had been at least a year in the making, and that they delayed the publication of the letter until the completion of this summer’s Gaza war so as not to be interpreted as attacking the army during wartime.
“We have to take responsibility,” said “N,” a 26-year-old journalist who last served in the intelligence outfit about two years ago.
In a letter sent to the army and the Israeli prime minister, the soldiers wrote, “It is commonly thought that the service in military intelligence is free of moral dilemmas and solely contributes to the reduction of violence and harm to innocent people. However, our military service has taught us that intelligence is an integral part of Israel’s military occupation over the territories.”
G said that declaring they would no longer serve “was the moral thing to do,” instead of evading reserve service by making excuses.
A series of anonymous testimonials includes anecdotes of a botched targeted assassination, which killed a Palestinian child in Gaza: “We realized we had screwed up. It got quiet and uncomfortable.” Another claimed that any and all Palestinians are targets for “blackmail” by gathering information about sexual orientation, infidelity, or whether they are in need of medical treatment in Israel. “The state of Israel will allow you to die before we let you leave for treatment without giving information on your wanted cousin,” read one testimonial. Others spoke of soldiers that passed around intimate photos of Palestinians for laughs.
The three soldiers explained that they volunteered for 8200, extending their service beyond the minimum in the belief that they were going to do important work for the country. The unit’s snooping capabilities have earned it a reputation as one of the Israeli security establishment’s long arms. In recent years, the luster of the unit has grown because so many Israeli technology entrepreneurs have come out of the outfit. Soldiers who served in the unit can expect start-ups and technology companies to line up with job offers.
Eventually, the soldiers each described the moment he concluded that the intelligence they were providing was serving a political goal rather than self-defense. N said that superiors in intelligence dismissed his concerns, saying that they were doing nothing wrong.
The decision to go public with their stories and protest was a year in the making as they shared stories among former colleagues and colleagues of colleagues. They claim that more former soldiers would have signed on to the letter, but feared repercussions. “This is part of a desire to help Israel, but no one is dealing with [the claims] seriously,” said N.
The Israel Defense Forces chief spokesman, Brig. Gen. Motti Almoz, accused the reservists of exploiting their military roles to express a political position and vowed to punish the soldiers with “sharp and clear” action.
The letter marks the first time that intelligence officers en masse have refused to serve on the grounds of conscientious objection. In the past the protestors have been pilots and infantry soldiers, not officers.
“The traditional elites from the Ashkenazi middle class are more likely to serve in the intelligence rather than in combat; the combat soldiers have become dominated by the national religious,” said Ehud Eiran, a political science professor at Haifa University. “It reflects the changing nature of war, in which intelligence is central in targeting the enemy. I’m sure the U.S. is facing the same issues with its war.”
Critics have said the reservists are no better that pro-settler activists who threatened to refuse orders by the army to evacuate settlements if the time comes. Both are using the army as a platform to make a political point, and both risk shaking the foundation of the military.
“I oppose the occupation, and they oppose the occupation; I think the military is a tool of perpetuating the occupation, and so do they,” said Yossi Melman, an Israeli author who has written books on the Israeli intelligence community, including “Spies Against Armageddon.” He argues that the officers of the 8200 unit were naïve to think their jobs would not involve snooping that pushed the boundaries of the law. “I think [the signatories] are spoiled brats. They are trying to say: We are in an elite unit, and that’s why you should listen to us. They are no different than the foot soldiers.”
Despite the soldiers’ contention that the substance of their claims were being ignored, Melman said that they had achieved their goal of stirring up debate. Writing in Yediot Achronot, political columnist Nahum Barnea said, “It’s easy to think of an Iranian nuclear scientist or an ISIS commander or an army in Assad’s army as the enemy. It’s a lot more complicated to view a woman in Gaza who has cancer as the enemy. The occupation corrupts, say the Unit 8200 refuseniks, and they speak the truth.”
While the soldiers acknowledge that intelligence outfits all over the world engage in cyber snooping, they claim that Israel uses it against Palestinian targets who have no means of self-defense.
Avigdor Feldman, a prominent Israeli civil rights lawyer, suggests that the unit’s intelligence gathering may in fact be illegal.
“To use intelligence information gleaned by the use of technology to penetrate the private lives of Palestinians who aren’t suspected of any terrorism, and then to use that information to pressure them and extort them to become collaborators is something that is blatantly illegal,” he said.
Acknowledging that so far the open letter has stirred up more criticism than support, N insisted that he is remaining optimistic: “It’s created a lot of noise, that’s positive. Eventually, they [the military] will have to deal with the substance.”