Analysis

Unit 8200 Refuseniks Shed Light on Ethics of Israel's Intel Gathering

For the first time, a distinction has been drawn between intel gathering against Israel's enemies, and spying on ordinary Palestinian citizens. By not exiling like Snowden, the signatories were willing to pay the price of their actions.

Graduates of Unit 8200, the IDF's technological spearhead.
Moti Milrod

The Israel Defense Forces and Israeli society at large have been rocked in the past by various refusenik letters penned by soldiers and officers, usually reservists, who have expressed their opposition to serving in the occupied territories. In recent years there has been a steady trickle of both young conscripts and reservists refusing to serve and going to military prison for their refusal, including during the last conflict in Gaza. But the letter signed by 43 former Unit 8200 soldiers and officers, some of whom are still active reservists, has struck a particular chord and broken a number of hitherto unmentioned taboos.

Unit 8200 is the largest unit in the IDF. Its role as the main SIGINT – signals intelligence, or communications eavesdropping – body in Israel is filled in other countries by an entire independent agency, such as the NSA in the United States and GCHQ in Britain. In Israel, SIGINT is the preserve of the IDF's Military Intelligence Directorate, largely due to the fact that only the army, with its large pool of conscripts, is capable of locating and training the necessary large numbers of highly talented operatives who staff the unit. Consequently, the 43 signatories of the open letter to the prime minister and the chiefs of the IDF and its intelligence branch are a tiny proportion of the many thousands currently serving in 8200 and its alumni.

But the impact of their public act of dissent is immense, not due to their number, but due to the prestige of the unit. Unit 8200 has always been held in high esteem by the army, and, gradually, as the media began paying more attention to it, the unit became prestigious in the eyes of the Israeli public.

Extremely little can be said about its operations and the identity of its personnel, including the commanding officer, a brigadier-general whose name is never revealed in the press. But the fact that among the managers of some of Israel's most successful high-tech startups over the last two decades there have been a disproportionate number of former 8200 officers has created a halo of success around the unit and made its reservists sought-after employees.

Not everyone in Israel's technology sector shares the same appreciation. "Every kid who leaves 8200 nowadays thinks he's going to make a fortune with a cyber-security startup," joked one venture capital manager recently. Nevertheless, service in the unit is a useful adornment to any Israeli's CV. It is hardly surprising that, in their letter, the refuseniks' succeeded in articulating their concerns in such an eloquent fashion and that they have been adept at creating a media campaign that has included interviews with some of the most important international news organizations.

But the 8200 soldiers and officers are not the first IDF refuseniks from the elite branches of the military. Pilots have penned letters in which they state their refusal to attack Palestinian targets, and members of elite commando units have written similar things. What makes this latest letter unique is how it breaks down the once sacrosanct barrier between actual combat service – the ground soldiers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip or the pilots dropping bombs there – and those sitting safely far from the battlefield and taking part in the supposedly clinical field of electronic intelligence gathering.

This is the first time that the ethical and political aspects of military SIGINT have come to the surface in the Israeli public sphere. It is unclear as yet whether the fact that the 43 signatories broke the Israeli taboo of refusing to serve will give these issues full play in the mainstream media, but there has never been such an opportunity to do so in the past.

The Unit 8200 refuseniks are trying, for the first time, to establish a clear distinction between intelligence gathering against Israel's enemies – hostile states and terror organizations – and ordinary Palestinian citizens. They say the intelligence gathering "harms innocents and serves for political persecution and sowing discord in Palestinian society."

While their motivation is similar to that of previous refuseniks – ending the occupation – in this case they are not claiming that their unit is involved in war crimes or indeed in any specific criminal activity (though they do say that "unlike with Israeli citizens or the citizens of other countries, there is no oversight of the methods of gathering, surveillance and use of intelligence on Palestinians"). They are disputing, instead, the use of a military unit to achieve what they see as a political objective – perpetuating Israel's control of the territories and the expansion of the settlements there.

In doing so, they have opened whole new moral, legal and political fields to debate. Until now, intelligence gathering has been seen as a sacrosanct role of the defense establishment and the idea that it should be seen as politically motivated or that should be limited due to the Palestinians' right to privacy had barely ever intruded the public's consciousness.

Of course there has been a lot of criticism of Israel's policy toward the Palestinians by former intelligence officers, but this has nearly always come from senior commanders looking at the "big picture." One such example includes the documentary "The Gatekeepers," which interviewed a series of former Shin Bet chiefs deeply critical of the occupation. This is the first time that a group of low-level operatives has taken a moral stand on the actual methods being used.

Their effort to mark out a civilian and personal territory of Palestinian life that they feel should not be violated and has no relation to state security also includes their singling out, in interviews, the gathering of details on civilians' sex lives for use in blackmail operations. This is the first known instance in which members of Israel's intelligence community have refused to take part in such operations, and certainly the first case in which it has been exposed publicly.

But it shouldn't be surprising that this is happening now. Warfare in the 21st century is becoming increasingly sterilized, with less and less soldiers on the ground taking part in the cycle of intelligence gathering and target acquisition, with the actual strike often carried out by an unmanned drone or fighter-jet launching a standoff missile beyond the visual range of the target. This high-tech, impersonal, new style of warfare may remove soldiers from the battlefield but it also makes those non-combat intelligence soldiers who learn intimate details of the potential targets' lives, see their photographs and hear their voices, feel much closer and emotionally involved than ever before.

They may have actually harmed their cause by playing the refusal-to-serve card at this stage. Much of the Israeli public, including wide parts of the left wing, are adamantly opposed to any form of political refusal and uproar that has come in response to their letter will make it much more difficult to create a discussion on the issues they have raised.

Despite the furor being caused now by the letter, this is not Israel's Snowden affair. Unlike the rogue NSA systems administrator, Unit 8200's refuseniks have not left the country with hundreds of thousands of stolen files, and while giving interviews to the local and foreign media, they have done nothing to compromise state security or disclose classified information.

Perhaps the biggest difference is that, unlike Snowden, who has found asylum in Russia, the Israeli intelligence reservists who have spoken have all remained in their country to face the music. For many Israelis, they have put themselves beyond the pale by publicly refusing to serve. They would have caused infinitely greater damage to Israel's security had they chosen to act like Snowden and reveal operational details of Israel's intelligence gathering from the safety of exile. For those of them who still serve as reservists, this could mean prison sentences if they refuse to take part in operations linked to Palestinian targets and they will quite likely lose their security clearances, which could affect their employment prospects. They all knew the price of their actions and were prepared to pay it when they signed the public letter.

A Unit 8200 intelligence soldier at work.
Moti Milrod