Forty-three reservists in Unit 8200 have decided to refuse to serve. In a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and senior defense figures, they wrote that they’ve come to realize that the intelligence unit in which they served is part of the military control mechanism over the territories and the intelligence it collects is used for political persecution, to recruit informers and to extort them by various means, including exploiting the sexual orientation, illnesses and distress of innocent Palestinians.
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The letter caused a public storm over the weekend. A near wall-to-wall coalition, from the Labor Party to the extreme right, vied over which could condemn its signatories more harshly. Several politicians called for them to be punished and jailed. Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz suggested assigning them to guard duty in the Negev; Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman Zeev Elkin declared that they had “stuck a knife in the back of the Israel Defense Forces,” and former Unit 8200 commander Hanan Gefen said they should be investigated “in the interrogation rooms of the Shin Bet security service or the investigations unit of the Military Police.”
It’s true that organized refusal to serve could undermine the foundations of the military and extract a heavy public price. An individual who refuses to perform military service for reasons of conscience is different from a group organizing to do so in a public and political fashion, with the aim of encouraging additional objectors.
But the response to this type of refusal of orders should not be sweeping and heavy-handed punishment. Such aggressive responses have no place in democratic society. Veterans have the right to protest what they perceive to be unethical or illegal military activity. At the same time, the country’s military and political leaders would do well to listen carefully to the protest that emerges from the very heart of an elite corps such as Unit 8200.
What should be causing a public storm is not their act of refusal, but rather the practices that spurred it. Using improper means to recruit collaborators and gathering intelligence using methods that are not subject to public scrutiny are practices that should at the very least be publicly examined and debated. If not for the letter, the Israeli public would have not known about these practices, which can only be understood as the inevitable consequence of the decades-long occupation. The signatories tried to bring this problematic conduct to the public’s attention, and for this they do not deserve condemnation. Instead of tearing into the 43 objectors, we should listen to what they have to say.