The international media has been abuzz with stories about the petition letter signed by 43 reservists of the elite IDF intelligence unit 8200 on September 12. The letter, which is addressed to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, IDF General Chief of Staff, Benny Gantz and Military Intelligence Director, Major General Aviv Kochavi, states that the reservists refuse to continue service in the elite intelligence division, citing mistreatment and “extortion” of Palestinians under Israeli surveillance as the driving force behind their “moral” stance.
The news stories seem a bit “disproportionate” in their focus on a political statement made by a marginal 43 people out of the tens of thousands who have served and continue to serve in that elite military unit. The New York Times ran an article under the provocative headline ‘Veterans of elite Israeli unit refuse reserve duty, citing treatment of Palestinians’ while Australia’s ABC News ran the story under the banner ‘Israeli soldiers from elite wire-tapping unit refuse to use extortion, blackmail on Palestinians.’ Similarly, writing for the Australian newspaper, Middle East correspondent, John Lyons, published an article under the hyperbolic heading ‘Israeli soldiers quit over spy policy.’
Essentially, a very small number of both past and present members of the IDF’s 8200-intelligence agency signed the controversial protest letter, which states that they “refuse to continue serving as tools in deepening the military control over the Occupied Territories.”
Unsurprisingly, these damning accusations have attracted the ire of overwhelming majorities within Israel’s military and political communities.
Indeed, much of the criticism of the petition has been rooted in claims that the 43 soldiers have used the Israeli army, an apolitical branch that merely carries out orders set out by the government of the day, to make a loud political statement. In an interview with the Haaretz newspaper, IDF Spokesperson, Brig. General Almoz elaborated on this point, accusing the signees of hypocrisy.
“There is no place for refusal in the IDF. There are arguments and there are political stances. Celebration of democracy…what happened here, in my eyes? Exploitation of military service to express a political stance.”
Similarly, Israel’s Defense Minister, Moshe Yaalon, quickly came to the support of the elite military unit, praising its commitment to ethics and morality in spite of the difficult and time sensitive situations they face in protecting Israeli civilians from acts of Palestinian terrorism.
“Unit 8200 perpetuates the existence of the State of Israel. This attempt to harm the unit and to undermine its activity by calling for insubordination on the basis of claims that don’t correspond with the unit’s vision or the morality of its members is a stupid and offensive effort…the soldiers of Unit 8200 are moral, value-driven men and women who modestly perform their various jobs.”
One of the most problematic features of the media’s reportage of the issue, both in Australia and abroad, has been the deliberate filtering out of key nuances of the case. For example, on September 14 the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit issued a statement revealing that of the 43 signees, only ten were actively involved in the collection of intelligence. It noted that the majority of those who signed up to the petition hold only nominal roles within the intelligence unit – mainly in administration. Yet, this critical detail, which suggests that most of the signees have never even been involved in the methods of intelligence collection vis-à-vis Palestinians that they are so vehemently protesting, has scarcely featured in any media reports outside of Israel. Omission of such crucial context undermines the neutrality and credibility of such media analysis.
Moreover, political commentators in Israel have been quick to respond to set the record straight on why Israel has to engage in the admittedly sometimes ugly and unpleasant business of gathering intelligence from Palestinians.
In an opinion piece published in Israel Hayom, columnist Uri Heitner explained that contrary to claims made by the reservists that such intelligence “is used for political persecution” the intelligence gathering performed by Unit 8200 has actually thwarted countless suicide bombings in Israel over the past decade. He further notes that the superior service conditions given to soldiers in the 8200 unit, compared to combat soldiers for example, are proof that “they do holy work.”
“A total of 1,500 Israelis were murdered in terrorist attacks in the decade following the Oslo Accords (1993-2003). In the 10 years after that, there were nearly no attacks. This was not due to a change in the Palestinians’ beliefs or motivation. It was the result of a daily war against Palestinian terrorism through military operations and intelligence, a fight that saved human lives…”
“The IDF’s Unit 8200 is one of the most important arms in protecting the State of Israel in general, and fighting the Palestinian enemy in particular. In exhausting, daily gruntwork of bugging and intercepting information its soldiers put details together, and the information they bring in thwarts terrorist attacks by helping the Israel Defense Forces stop suicide bombers or take out a terrorist operative…”
Yet perhaps the most significant response to the 43 has been the stern response from fellow reservists in the Unit 8200 Intelligence Corps. Almost immediately, soldiers and commanders issued a counter-letter “distancing themselves from their colleagues’ grievances,” which has now gained over 200 signatures. The counter-petition, which is also addressed to the Israeli PM, IDF Chief of Staff and Military Intelligence Director, accuses the original letter of being “full of lies” and attests to the sense of ethics and morality that pervade all sectors of Israel’s intelligence agency.
Mirroring a similar format to the original letter, an approach that can be seen as a jibe at the defectors, the counter-letter states:
“We veterans of Unit 8200, reservists past and present, want to voice our shock and disgust and completely remove ourselves from the unfortunate letter written by our fellow unit members, who chose the path of political insubordination.”
“We are saddened by our friends’ cynical and politically motivated use of their legal and moral duty to serve the unit in the reserves…we cannot accept the accusations of the absence of ethical and moral standards guiding the unit’s intelligence-gathering. We will continue to serve with honor and pride at any time we are required to do so.”
Politically, there is bipartisan support for the intelligence agency, which is a rare spectacle in Israel’s divided political sphere. Israel’s opposition leader and head of the dovish Labor Party, Isaac Herzog, himself served in Unit 8200, and said in response to the original petition:
“This unit and its activities are essential not just in time of war, but especially in times of peace…”
“When one speaks of a political arrangement and setting borders, one speaks about early warning stations and intelligence capabilities to locate and stop extremist forces that would do anything to damage peace.”
Herzog notes that there is an appropriate way to launch complaints and dialogue within Israel’s military circles and it is not “by encouraging and calling for insubordination, or with a damaging publication abroad, the price of which we, Israeli citizens, will pay.”
Noted Israeli journalist and blogger Shmuel Rosner summed up the view of most Israelis to the whole affair:
“Gathering intelligence is dirty, and yet necessary, work. It involves borderline decisions and morally questionable actions. The reservists could not stomach it in this case because they strongly object to Israel’s policy. Had they thought there is no other way but to continue the occupation, or had they thought that the territories are Israel’s to keep, their mission would have made more sense to them and their conscience would feel less tainted by the type of things that they were asked to do (invading privacy, delivering information about targets for assassination etc)…
Opposition leader Yitzhak Herzog, who is himself a reserve officer in Unit 8200, used harsh words in his reaction to the refusal letter. ‘I oppose the refusal to serve and am wholly disgusted by it.’ This shows you how far from mainstream Israel these letter-signers are. Yet I don’t find the action disgusting. I think it is juvenile and idiotic. It will not do much to advance any of the goals of the signatories – if they even have any goals. Thus, Israel’s sane majority should object to the letter without being hysterical about it…
If the aim is for Israel to end the occupation because of a letter signed by 43 people, it is not quite realistic. If Israelis – for good or bad reasons – believe that their security depends on keeping the territories (or if they believe that the territories are for them to keep) the case made against it was not compelling enough to change their view. The fact that maintaining the occupation is neither easy nor rosy doesn’t come as much of a surprise. That Israel uses a whole variety of means to prevent Palestinian terrorism – and possibly also in its political fight against the Palestinian leadership – is also a well understood, if unpleasant, fact.
If the aim is to make the 8200 unit take a better look at its procedures – the letter might succeed, but this could have been achieved in better, more discreet, ways.
That’s why many Israelis might suspect that the motivation behind the letter is to smear Israel – and that even if the signatories had other motivations, the most likely impact of the letter is the smearing of Israel.”