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 the kidnappers of three 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.

Related:
How can you tell that Israeli refuseniks are scaring the system?
Israeli teens tell Netanyahu: We will not take part in occupation
Egyptian, Israeli activists make joint call to free conscientious objectors

Newsletter banner 5 - 540