Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded publicly Saturday to a letter sent out a day earlier by 33 reserve soldiers and 10 reserve officers from the IDF’s highly regarded 8200 intelligence unit who expressed their refusal to take part in any action designed to “harm the Palestinian population” in the West Bank.
“Israel’s citizens are grateful for your dedicated, professional service to the state. Carry on in your work that is so important to Israel’s security,” Netanyahu wrote in a Facebook post Saturday evening to members of the elite unit.
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said the attempt to harm the unit’s reputation by calling for a general refusal to serve was reminiscent of the delegitimization campaign against Israel in the world.
“The members of this unit are moral, ethical and carry out their work discreetly,” he said.
Opposition leader and head of the Labor Party, Isaac Herzog, who served as a major in the 8200 unit, also hailed its work and said he was opposed to, and repulsed by, so-called “conscientious objectors.”
“This unit and its activities are essential not just in time of war, but especially in times of peace,” Herzog wrote, adding that he believed the way in which the members went about voicing their objections was harmful and that Israeli citizens would ultimately pay the price.
The 43 reservists responded to the criticism Saturday night, saying their objections to higher-ups were met with silence. They added that the unit’s activities go well beyond self-defense, without denying the unit’s importance to the security of the state of Israel.
They said the unit’s activities in the Palestinian arena were “an inseparable part of the military rule under which they live” and is harmful to the innocents among them. They added that the names of the signatories would not be made public but were disclosed to commanders and military officials.
On Friday, the Palestinian Authority applauded the original letter.
Adnan Damiri, the official spokesman for the Palestinian Authority’s security forces, hailed the move as an ethical step and said the Palestinians “salute” such humanitarian initiatives to help an oppressed people.
In the public letter issued Friday, copies of which were sent to Netanyahu, Israel Defense Forces’ Chief of General Staff Benny Gantz, and the head of Military Intelligence, the reservists stated that their consciences would no longer allow them to contribute to the gathering of information on Palestinian society, Army Radio reported.
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 150-plus 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.”
The soldiers noted that when summoned for reserve duty, they cast their political opinions aside and “come to serve the country, as any soldier should do, particularly in a unit like ours.”
The original communication by the 43 reservists had stressed that, in the opinion of the reservists, such information was often used as a tool to exert control over innocent Palestinian civilians and to turn the residents of the West Bank against each other. The reservists added that the unit’s methods of information-gathering unjustly invaded the privacy of Palestinian civilians.
“The Palestinian population, which is under military rule, is completely exposed to the espionage and surveillance efforts of Israeli intelligence,” the letter read.
“The intelligence [that was] gathered, hurts innocent people, and was used in order to politically persecute [Palestinians], and as a means to create division in Palestinian society by mobilizing collaborators and directing Palestinian society against itself.
“We are unable, morally, to serve in such a system which harms the rights of millions of people,” the letter concluded.
The signatories, however, stressed that they would continue to take part in operations to gather information regarding enemy states.
“We understand the need to defend ourselves, and intelligence is by definition something dirty, and compared to other countries it really is self-defense. But with the Palestinians, the main objective is to maintain the military rule in the West Bank,” one of the reservists told Siha Mekomit magazine.
“We say this not because we read some newspapers or blogs, but because that is what we had to do in the line of duty.”
Unit 8200 is the main intelligence body in the military. The unit is responsible for collecting all of the army’s signal intelligence, including telephone calls, text messages, and emails.
The IDF, in response, said that special emphasis is placed on the operations of the unit in order to ensure that civilians in the West Bank are inconvenienced only to the degree absolutely necessary in order to protect the Israeli population.
“Unit 8200 is dedicated to gathering intelligence that allows Israeli Security forces to carry out their mission, which is to defend Israeli civilians,” an IDF spokesman told the Times of Israel.