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43 Israeli soldiers protest abuses, spying on Palestinians

12:00 Sep 12 2014 Israel

43 Israeli soldiers protest abuses, spying on Palestinians
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sraeli 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)
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JERUSALEM (AFP) -- Forty-three reservists and former members of an elite Israeli army intelligence unit condemned alleged "abuses" of Palestinians in the occupied territories, in an open letter published on Friday.

The letter, addressed to Israel's prime minister, armed forces chief and head of military intelligence and distributed to media, said information gathered by Unit 8200 was used by civilian intelligence agencies to coerce Palestinians uninvolved in militant activity.

The signatories of the letter said they would refuse to be party to such acts in future.

"There's no distinction between Palestinians who are, and are not, involved in violence," an English language copy of the letter says.

"Information that is collected and stored harms innocent people. It is used for political persecution and to create divisions within Palestinian society by recruiting collaborators and driving parts of Palestinian society against itself."

The soldiers also said that they had spied on the sexual "preferences" of Palestinians in order to use them as blackmail against individuals they wanted to "turn into collaborators" for the Israeli occupation forces.

The admission verifies long-standing Palestinian claims that the Israeli military has pressured gay Palestinians into working with them by using their sexuality against them.

"We cannot continue to serve this system in good conscience, denying the rights of millions of people," the 43 soldiers and officers wrote.

The signatories gave just their ranks and first names or first initials.

"Those among us who are reservists, refuse to take part in the state's actions against Palestinians," the letter, seen by AFP said.

"We call for all soldiers serving in the Intelligence Corps, present and future, along with all the citizens of Israel, to speak out against these injustices and to take action to bring them to an end."

The letter, published less than three weeks after the Israeli military's fierce military offensive against Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip, slammed the "collective punishment of inhabitants" of the coastal territory.

Army questions their motive

It did not specifically mention the July-August war which took the lives of more than 2,100 Palestinians, most of them civilians, and 73 people on the Israeli side, 67 of them soldiers.

The army on Friday questioned the accuracy and motivation of the protesters' accusations.

"The Intelligence Corps has no record that the ... violations in the letter ever took place," it said in a statement.

"Immediately turning to the press instead of their officers or relevant authorities is suspicious and raises doubts as to the seriousness of their claim."

Members of Unit 8200, considered among Israel's best and brightest, carry out electronic communications monitoring and surveillance, similar to work performed by the US National Security Agency and Britain's GCHQ.

The unit is one component of the broader military intelligence corps and shares information with Israel's civilian intelligence agencies.

A former commander of the unit, reserve Brigadier General Hanan Gefen, accused the letter's authors of a grave breach of trust.

"If this is true and if I were the current unit commander, I would put them all on trial and would demand prison sentences for them, and I would remove them from the unit," he was quoted as saying by Maariv newspaper on Friday.

"They are using information that reached them in the course of their duties to promote their political position."

One of the signatories, speaking on condition of anonymity, told top-selling Yediot Aharonot newspaper: "I think that all of us who signed the letter did so because we understood that we are unable to sleep well at night."

Most Israeli men perform three years of compulsory military service after school, and women two years, followed by regular spells of reserve duty for years afterwards.

Ma'an staff contributed to this report.
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By Gili Cohen and Jonathan Lis for Haaretz
| Sep. 13, 2014 | 11:50 PM


Opposition leader and Labor Party chairman Isaac Herzog has criticized the “call for insubordination” in the letter by army intelligence reservists announcing their refusal to take part in actions against Palestinians.

Writing on his Facebook page Saturday, Labor Party chief Herzog said he opposed the 43 reservists’ refusal to follow orders.

Herzog, who served as a major in the elite Unit 8200 himself, wrote that the unit’s activities were “vital not only in wartime but mainly in peacetime. 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.”

According to Herzog, though mistakes have been made, there is a right way to complain and launch a discussion, and it’s not “by encouraging and calling for insubordination, or with a damaging publication abroad, the price of which we, Israeli citizens, will pay.”

The reservists’ letter Thursday was addressed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and Military Intelligence chief Aviv Kochavi.

“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,” the reservists 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.”

The signatories claimed that while surveillance of Israeli citizens was strictly limited, “the Palestinians are not afforded this protection.”

They said the information that is collected in the military’s computers “harms innocent people. It is used for political persecution and to create divisions within Palestinian society by recruiting collaborators and driving parts of Palestinian society against itself.”

According to the reservists, “In many cases, intelligence prevents defendants from receiving a fair trial in military courts, as the evidence against them is not revealed. Intelligence allows for the continued control over millions of people through thorough and intrusive supervision and invasion of most areas of life. This does not allow for people to lead normal lives, and fuels more violence further distancing us from the end of the conflict.

The soldiers noted that millions of Palestinians have been living under Israeli military rule for more than 47 years.

“This regime denies the basic rights and expropriates extensive tracts of land for Jewish settlements subject to separate and different legal systems, jurisdiction and law enforcement,” they wrote.

“This reality is not an inevitable result of the state’s efforts to protect itself but rather the result of choice. Settlement expansion has nothing to do with national security. The same goes for restrictions on construction and development, economic exploitation of the West Bank, collective punishment of inhabitants of the Gaza Strip, and the actual route of the separation barrier.”

'Root of all evil'

Smola, a new left-wing Zionist movement, has also come out against the letter.

“Refusal to serve — on the left and the right — is the root of all evil,” said Smola founder Eran Hermoni, a former head of the Labor Party’s youth wing. We are completely opposed to the government’s policy and believe that continuing to control another nation will bring disaster to the Zionist vision, but we will fight it democratically.”

Late Saturday, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon praised the “sacred work” by Unit 8200 and deplored “the attempt to damage it and its activity by calling for insubordination based on claims that are inconsistent with its activities and its values.” He cited an “attempt to aid the lying campaigns abroad to delegitimize the State of Israel and the IDF.”

Maj.-Gen. (res.) Danny Rothschild, a former coordinator of government activities in the territories and current head of the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Herzliya, said over the weekend that both the letter and a letter of support in Unit 8200 “should not have been sent.”

A number of Unit 8200 veterans have told Haaretz that at any given time thousands of soldiers serve with the unit, so a letter by 43 people shouldn’t surprise anyone. One reservist said that because any reservists there can easily choose not to do reserve duty with it, the signatories’ announcement had more symbolic than practical value.

Yesh Gvul is an Israeli peace group that campaigns against the occupation by backing soldiers who refuse “duties of a repressive or aggressive nature,” as it says on its website.

“You [Ya’alon and Netanyahu] thank Unit 8200 soldiers for their professional service on the one hand and with the other hand instruct them to continue to carry out war crimes,” the group said in a statement, referring to remarks on Facebook by Ya’alon and Netanyahu about the reservists’ letter.

“You send soldiers to die in wars of choice [and] bring Israel to nondemocratic abysses with your choice to continue to rule over another people.”

According to Yesh Gvul, “Instead of listening to the clear voice of Unit 8200 objectors, which calls on you to end the rule over millions of Palestinians, you continue on your path of wars and blood .... Israelis will only have security when you end your positions and Israel begins looking for a political solution to the conflict.”

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By Dahlia Scheindlin for 972mag
|Published September 12, 2014

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.
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