Israel intelligence reservists say they’ll no longer spy on Palestinians

Staff Sergeant Nadav, 26, reservist of Israeli Intelligence unit 8200 in Tel Aviv, September 7, 2014. ( Quique Kierszenbaum/McClatchy)
Staff Sergeant Nadav, 26, reservist of Israeli Intelligence unit 8200 in Tel Aviv, September 7, 2014. ( Quique Kierszenbaum/McClatchy) McClatchy

More than two dozen reservists from the Israeli army’s elite intelligence-gathering unit have sent a public letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the army chief of staff declaring their refusal to serve on intelligence missions against Palestinians.

The 27 reservists are part of a group of 43 signatories of the letter who identified themselves as veterans of the unit, known by its number, 8200.

Their protest, made public Friday, carried special weight because of the elite status of the secretive unit, which specializes in electronic surveillance and is the largest unit in the Israeli army. Its work includes collection of data used to monitor and target Palestinians.

The letter asserts that despite the prevalent perception that intelligence work “is free of moral dilemmas and only contributes to the reduction of violence and harm to innocent people . . . we learned during our military service that intelligence is an integral part of the military control of the occupied territories.”

Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are “completely exposed to espionage and surveillance by Israeli intelligence,” as opposed to citizens of Israel and other countries where there are restrictions on information gathering by the authorities, the letter asserts.

“We cannot in good conscience continue serving this system and violate the rights of millions of people,” the letter says.

The letter was released weeks after an Israeli offensive against Islamist militants in Gaza in which more than 2,000 Palestinians were killed, most of them civilians, but organizers said the declaration was a year in the making.

The army defended Unit 8200’s work, saying that it operated under ethical guidelines strictly supervised by senior officers and that the military intelligence branch has “no record” of the violations alleged by the reservists.

In personal testimonies about their work made available to McClatchy, veterans of the unit described pervasive and unfettered intrusion into the private lives of ordinary Palestinians, including use of information about sexual preferences and medical conditions to coerce people into becoming informers.

The 8200 unit analyzes electronic data gleaned from wiretapped phone calls, emails and radio communications in the Palestinian areas and across the Middle East, and key information collected by the unit has been shared with the United States. The unit also handles the military’s cyber-warfare operations.

The army statement said that the unit gathers “critical information” and its training program places “a special emphasis on morality, ethics and proper procedure.”

“Soldiers and officers in the unit act in accordance with their training and remain under the strict supervision of high ranking officers,” the army said. “The Intelligence Corps has no record that the specific violations in the letter ever took place.”

However, testimonies provided to McClatchy by signers of the letter, who did not identify themselves publicly under army secrecy rules, portray the unit’s activities differently. They describe unbridled prying into Palestinians’ private lives to gain intimate information that could be used to turn them into informers.

“We knew the exact medical conditions of some of our targets,” said one signer. “I felt bad knowing precisely the problems of every one of them and about us talking and laughing about this information freely, or that we knew exactly who was cheating on his wife, with whom and how often.”

“Palestinians’ sex conversations were always passed along for a laugh,” said another. “You also pass along photos for laughs . . . family photos . . . private photos, for example, that couples took for one another.”

Other signers described their role in tracking and targeting suspected Palestinian militants.

A signer who served during an Israeli army offensive in Gaza in late 2008 and 2009 described the scene in his section after airstrikes on intelligence targets, including suspected militants.

“When a hit was identified or reported, cheering and applause filled the room,” he said. “X’s were marked on headsets, X’s were marked on composite sketches of faces that were on the walls of the rooms. No one asked about ‘collateral damage.’”

When a target was missed and bystanders were hit, “cries of disappointment were heard, not because people had been killed arbitrarily, but because they weren’t the ones we were looking for,” the signer said.

In one case, a signer recalled how she and her colleagues called in an airstrike on a Palestinian spotted near a weapons depot in Gaza.

“Judging by his location, the time and similar data, we concluded it was (the target),” she said. “After we eliminated him it turned out that he was a kid. . . . I remember an image on the screen of him in an orchard, the explosion on the screen, the smoke clearing and his mother running to him, and then we could see he was a child. The body was small. We realized that we had screwed up.”

The reservists’ letter was not the first of its kind to be published in Israel. In 2002, dozens of reserve combat soldiers signed a declaration that they would refuse to carry out occupation duty in the Palestinian areas. In 2003 a similar pledge was made by more than a dozen reservists from the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit, and a group of 27 reserve pilots declared their refusal to fly missions in Palestinian population centers, attacks they said harmed innocent civilians.