Israeli surveillance unit members ‘won’t spy on Palestinians’

Dozens of reserve soldiers from Israel’s top electronic surveillance unit say they will no longer spy on Palestinians living under occupation, an unprecedented rebuke to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s security policies.

The protest letter signed by 43 veterans of Unit 8200, sent to Netanyahu and armed forces chiefs and excerpted by Israel’s biggest-selling newspaper on Friday, was dismissed by the military as a publicity stunt by a small minority.

But by decrying the sweep of eavesdropping on Palestinians, and the role such espionage plays in setting up air strikes that have often inflicted civilian casualties, the move opened a window on clandestine practices that often go unreported.

It also tapped into wider international debate over the ethics of state surveillance following last year’s media leaks by Edward Snowden, a former contractor with the National Security Agency (NSA), which is also the US counterpart to Unit 8200.

Fueling more violence
“We refuse to take part in actions against Palestinians and refuse to continue serving as a tool for deepening military rule in the occupied [Palestinian] territories,” Yedioth Ahronoth daily quoted the letter as saying.


“Intelligence allows ongoing control over millions of people, thorough and intrusive monitoring and invasion into most aspects of life. All of this does not allow for normal living, fuels more violence and puts off any end to the conflict.”

No signatories’ names were published, in apparent keeping with their non-disclosure commitments to Unit 8200, which monitors enemy Arab states and Iran as well as the Palestinians.

Sex and audiotape
Several were interviewed anonymously by Yedioth and by Israel’s Army Radio, however, and complained about what they described as the abusive gathering of Palestinians’ private information – for example, sexual preferences or health problems “that might be used to extort people into becoming informants”.

Israeli authorities require court authorisation to spy on its own citizens, including its 20% Arab minority, but are freer when it comes to Palestinians.

Yedioth said the letter was unrelated to the recent Gaza war, in which some 2 100 Palestinians, most civilians, died. But some of the protesters rued their contribution to earlier air strikes on militant chiefs that harmed innocent bystanders.

“We now understand that the responsibility is not just that of the soldier standing at the checkpoint, the soldier who squeezes the trigger,” one signatory, identified as a Unit 8200 reserve captain, told Army Radio. “We have responsibility.”

Netanyahu’s office had no immediate comment in response.

The military spokesperson’s office said in a statement that Unit 8200 personnel were held to ethical standards “without rival in the intelligence community in Israel or the world”, and had internal mechanisms for filing misconduct complaints.

That process had been circumvented by the letter writers, the spokesperson’s office said.

That they went first to the media “raises serious doubt as to the seriousness of their claims,” the statement said. An officer in the military spokesperson’s office said there was no indication the signatories were not indeed Unit 8200 veterans.

Amos Yadlin, a former chief of Israeli military intelligence under Netanyahu, played down the letter, saying 43 reservists were a “fringe percentage” of those available to Unit 8200.

“It’s a big outfit, so naturally a few of its veterans may gravitate to the far left, as well as to the far right” said Yadlin, who now runs Tel Aviv University’s INSS think tank.

Since peace talks with the Palestinians collapsed into violence in 2000, Israel has seen similar conscientious objector statements by a small number of reservists from its air force and its premier infantry unit, as well as an Oscar-nominated documentary in which former directors of its Shin Bet internal security agency questioned the sustainability of the occupation. – Reuters

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

The mechanism of contagion in racism

How race came to function as fuel to an exploitative economic system. Take the case of South Africa…

Mogoeng’s Palestine stance calls into question his role at the ConCourt

We can only conclude that he ‘willingly and knowingly lent his personal credibility — and that of his office — to a white-washing of Israeli crimes’

Mogoeng on Israel: Bad faith and ‘impunified disregard’ for international law?

The chief justice needs to publicly account for his comments, by either walking them back or explaining his change of heart on international law and its institutions

Chief Justice’s views on Israel are guided by religion, not the Constitution

Mogoeng should remember that Israel/Palestine is an apartheid state, in which 90% of the land is reserved for Jewish occupation

Censorship, surveillance could be the biggest rights challenges post Covid-19

The impacts of these infringements could last well beyond the life of the Covid-19 pandemic

Denis Goldberg: Man of integrity, freedom fighter and true mensch

One of the truest tests of integrity is its blunt refusal to be compromised. — Chinua Achebe
Advertising

The PPE scandal that the Treasury hasn’t touched

Many government officials have been talking tough about dealing with rampant corruption in PPE procurement but the majority won't even release names of who has benefited from the R10-billion spend

ANC still at odds over how to tackle leaders facing...

The ANC’s top six has been mandated to work closely with its integrity committee to tackle claims of corruption against senior party members
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday