Emilio Morenatti/AP

Israeli leaders condemn military refuseniks as 'criminal'

Past and present members of elite Unit 8200 pen letter announcing their refusal to spy on and exploit Palestinians

Israeli leaders on Monday condemned members of an elite military intelligence unit as “criminal” for signing a letter last week declaring their refusal to spy on Palestinians, local media reported.

Signatories to the letter, which was published on Thursday, said they took “moral” issue with the extent of military surveillance carried out on residents in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The letter stated: “We, veterans of Unit 8200, reserve soldiers both past and present, declare that we refuse to take part in actions against Palestinians and refuse to continue serving as tools in deepening the military control over the occupied territories.”

Unit 8200 – which does not require court approval to spy on Palestinians, but does for Israelis – collects personal information sometimes used to coerce Palestinian citizens into collaborating with the Israeli military or government, members said.

The intelligence gathered plays a key role in coordinating airstrikes against Palestinian targets, which often result in civilian deaths, and serves to prolong Israel’s military occupation of Palestinian territories, the signers added.

But Israeli leaders on Monday dismissed the letter as part of a subversive political agenda and called for criminal sanctions against the signatories.

Minister of Defense Moshe Yaalon requested the military chief of staff to define those who signed the letter as “criminal” in comments made at a cyber-security conference in Tel Aviv, Israeli news website Arutz Sheva reported.

“Their refusal is politically, not morally, motivated … those who signed this [refusal document] will be treated as criminals,” Yaalon said.

Israel Defense Forces (IDF) spokesman Brig. Gen. Motti Almoz said in a Facebook statement on Sunday that “the disciplinary treatment would be sharp and clear” for those who signed the letter, Haaretz reported.

“There is no place for refusal in the IDF. There are arguments and there are political stances,” Almoz said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu joined the outcry, accusing the soldiers of “baseless slander” at the same cyber-security conference Yaalon attended.

“This is an act that should be condemned … and that constitutes political exploitation of the IDF,” Netanyahu said.

Previous “refuseniks,” as Israelis opposed to military service in the occupied Palestinian territories are commonly known, have been jailed during combat operations and publicly vilified, but never criminalized. Those who signed the letter said they were careful to consult with lawyers beforehand to avoid criminal charges.

But Israeli commentators noted that in this case, the refuseniks had not simply voiced opposition to isolated events, such as airstrikes on civilians, but instead posed a critique of the occupation itself. 

“This time we are not talking about soldiers and officers … who are refusing to pull the trigger, or about pilots refusing to drop bombs from the air. This time we are talking about a refusal to monitor millions of Palestinians who have been under occupation since 1967. This time we are talking about a refusal to accept the routine life in the territories,” an editorial by analyst Shimon Shiffer in Israeli news website Ynet read. 

The controversial letter explained: “The Palestinian population under military rule is completely exposed to espionage and surveillance by Israeli intelligence. It is used for political persecution and to create divisions within Palestinian society by recruiting collaborators and driving parts of Palestinian society against itself.”

Signers said personnel are instructed to save any damaging personal details discovered about Palestinians — including sexual preferences, infidelity, or any weaknesses that could be exploited to force them to work with Israeli intelligence as collaborators, the Guardian reported.

The refuseniks clarified that their objection was unrelated to Israel’s latest war in Gaza, which left over 2,100 Palestinians and 72 Israelis dead, and destroyed much of the territory’s infrastructure.

“We were worried that this action would be seen only as a response to the war in Gaza, and it is important to us to make it clear this is about the ‘normal’ situation [of the occupation],” a signatory identified as “D” said in an interview with various outlets.

In 1967, the Gaza Strip and West Bank, including East Jerusalem, were captured by Israel and placed under military occupation. Residents of the occupied territories, unlike Israeli citizens, are subject to a different set of laws some of the refuseniks called immoral.

“Our decision as individuals that we morally can't continue to participate in these actions,” D said in the interview.

Another signatory, identified as “Nadav,” 26, said in the same interview: “In Israeli intelligence regarding Palestinians, they don’t really have rights … It’s not [like] Israeli citizens, where if you want to gather information about them you need to go to court.”

Israel has in recent years seen similar statements by a small number of conscientious objectors among military reservists, as well as an Oscar-nominated documentary, “The Gatekeepers,” in which former directors of the Shin Bet domestic intelligence agency concluded that the occupation was unsustainable. 

“What the IDF does in the occupied territories is ruling another people,” Nadav added. “One of the things you need to do is defend yourself from them, but you also need to oppress the population. You need to weaken the politics, you need to strengthen and deepen your control of Palestinian society so that the [Israeli] state can remain [there] in the long term … We realized that that’s the job of the intelligence.”

With wire services

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