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Latest Israeli refuseniks reveal yet more collective punishment

Israel's Unit 8200, known in Hebrew as Yehida Shmoneh-Matayim, is one of the country's most prestigious military intelligence units. Many who serve in it go on to high-flying jobs after their military service, although not much is known publically about its activities. Equivalent to Britain's GCHQ or American's NSA, it intercepts electronic communications including email, phone calls and social media, in addition to targeting military and diplomatic traffic and engaging in Israel's international "cyber-war" strategies. Its activities, by their nature secret, do not usually make the headlines.

All that changed this week, when 43 veterans of the unit – many of whom are still active reservists – signed a public letter saying that they will no longer spy on Palestinians living under occupation. With signatories including officers, former instructors and other senior officials, the letter condemns the widespread surveillance of innocent residents, and alleges that this "all-encompassing" intelligence is used for "political persecution" and to create divisions in Palestinian society. It also criticised the role of this intelligence in setting up airstrikes. "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," quoted Yedioth Ahranoth, Israel's most widely read newspaper. The names of the signatories were not made public, in accordance with their non-disclosure agreement with Unit 8200, which also works in Iran and other countries.

The letter has been dismissed by the military as a publicity stunt by a small minority. "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 Amos Yadlin, a former chief of military intelligence. However, the letter has shone a light on generally clandestine practices, and opened up a debate about intelligence gathering that mirrors the American debate about the NSA prompted by the Edward Snowden leaks.

A key complaint is that soldiers in the unit felt that the demands on them were more akin to the intelligence services of oppressive regimes than to those of a democracy. While they said that they were proud of some the work that they had done – that which genuinely enhanced Israel's security – it frequently went too far. "The Palestinian population under military rule is completely exposed to espionage and surveillance by Israeli intelligence," said the letter. "It is used for political persecution and to create divisions within Palestinian society by recruiting collaborators and driving parts of Palestinian society against itself. In many cases, intelligence prevents defendants from receiving a fair trial in military courts, as the evidence against them is not revealed." It alleged that a significant proportion of those targeted are unconnected to military activity. The letter also said that personnel were instructed to keep any damaging details of Palestinians' lives they found – including information on sexual preferences, infidelities, financial problems and family illnesses – so that it could be used to "extort/blackmail the person and turn them into a collaborator". It goes on to allege that some intelligence was not gathered to serve the state, but in pursuit of the "agendas" of individual Israeli politicians.

Since peace talks collapsed in 2000, Israel has seen other letters from conscientious objectors, or "refuseniks". The last major episode was in 2002, when 27 reserve pilots refused to fly assassination sorties over Gaza after 14 civilians, including children, were killed alongside a Hamas leader in a bombing. In 2012, the Oscar-winning documentary "The Gatekeepers" featured former directors of the Shin Bet internal security agency questioning the sustainability of the occupation. However, the latest letter is still unusual given the level of detail about the intelligence services.

While military leaders have dismissed the letter and cast doubt on the claims contained therein, there is no doubt that it raises serious questions about the state's treatment of civil liberties and human rights in the Palestinian territories. It is worth noting that while Israeli authorities require court authorisation to spy on citizens of Israel, including the 20 per cent Arab minority, they are far freer when it comes to Palestinians under occupation. The signatories to the letter said that they were not prompted to action by the latest war in Gaza, which left more than 2,000 Palestinians (mainly civilians) dead. However, the practices they describe – the mass surveillance and denigration of an entire population – is yet more evidence of collective punishment.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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