Unit 8200 refuseniks face 'sharp' action from army, wave of anger from politicians
The 43 members of the elite Israeli intelligence team, Unit 8200, who signed an open letter of conscientious objection face “sharp and clear” disciplinary action from the army.
The letter, in which scores of reservists said they would not serve because of “abuses” committed against Palestinians, will be treated with the utmost severity, according to a statement posted on Facebook by Israeli army spokesperson Motti Almoz.
“There is no place for refusal in the [Israeli army]”, he wrote, accusing the reservists of exploiting their military service to “express a political stance.”
Almoz also alleged that only 10 of the letter’s signatories had actually been involved in the kind of work described in the letter.
However, the reservists hit back, accusing Almoz of manipulating the situation and making allegations that the refuseniks are unable to refute because of security restrictions.
The open letter, which was sent to Israel's political and military leadership last week and released to media on Thursday, was one of the most high-profile expressions of conscientious objection in years.
The signatories – who are reservists and former members of 8200 - said that the intelligence collected by the unit "was an integral part of Israel's military occupation," and that they would refuse to continue to serve.
The letter sought to change a common perception in Israel, where military service is mandatory, that a role in military intelligence is less harmful than that of a front-line soldier.
They charged that information gathered by Unit 8200 was used by civilian intelligence agencies to coerce Palestinians uninvolved in militant activity, and urged other members of the intelligence corps "to speak out against these injustices and to take action to bring them to an end."
Veterans rush to defence of Unit 8200
Almoz’s comments came as scores of Unit 8200 veterans rallied to its defence on Sunday, and politicians across the board criticised the refusal to serve.
In a letter of reply on Sunday, 200 veterans of the unit denounced their former comrades' refusal to serve.
"We wish to express shock, disgust and complete disassociation from the regrettable letter that was written by our comrades from the unit," they wrote in the letter, excerpts of which were published in the top-selling Yediot Aharonot newspaper.
"Political refusal to serve has no place anywhere, and particularly so in Unit 8200. The moment we, as soldiers in the reserves, are called to the flag, we set aside our political inclinations and opinions, and come to serve the state."
Commentators said the fact that the refuseniks were members of one of Israel's most prestigious military units made their conscientious objection all the more remarkable.
"The Unit 8200 letter represents a watershed moment in the expressions of military refusal in recent decades," wrote Shimon Shiffer in Yediot Aharonot.
"This time, we are talking about intelligence gatherers who are refusing to spy on millions of Palestinians ... about refusal by the soldiers to resign themselves to the day-to-day reality in the territories."
Unit 8200 carries 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.
Anger from politicians of various stripes
The refusniks' letter also drew criticism from politicians across the board, from both the government and the opposition.
Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon described it as a "foolish and offensive attempt" to harm the unit.
The speaker of the Knesset, Yuli Edelstein, said that those who signed the original letter of refusal had “done a great service to haters of Israel.”
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog, himself a veteran of Unit 8200, said he opposed soldiers refusing to serve.
"I'm not saying that there are no mistakes. It is certainly possible that there were," he wrote on his official Facebook page.
"But there are ways to complain and ensure such claims are examined and discussed," he said.
"There are ways to effect change... but not by encouraging and calling for a refusal to serve or through publishing damaging statements around the world."
A second Labor party official, Shelly Yachimovich, was less measured.
“Why didn’t you refuse at the time of truth? … Cowards.”
It is as yet unclear what kind of punishment the Israeli army is threatening the refuseniks with.
Israeli army soldiers can face jail if they disobey a direct order, but not for refusing reserve duty, according to an army sergeant who spoke to al-Jazeera.