Israeli politicians and a former military intelligence commander have hit back at reservists who criticized Israel for spying on ordinary Palestinians.
Last week, 43 Israeli military intelligence reservists signed a letter refusing to serve in the occupied Palestinian territories over fears snoops were planning to blackmail individuals into becoming informants. The letter alleged that Israel Defence Force Unit 8200 – Israel's equivalent of the NSA – undertook "all encompassing" surveillance of Palestinians' medical conditions, finances, sexual orientation and infidelity in order to gain information that might be used to blackmail individuals into becoming informants against their own people.
The memo, published alongside testimony from Unit 8200 reservists, claimed signals intelligence work was being used to support the "political persecution" of Palestinians and the occupation of Arab lands within the state of Israel. The text of the letter was submitted to the Israeli authorities prior to its publication on Thursday.
Video interviews of three of the reservist refuseniks, put together by The Guardian, can be found here.
The letter was sent to commanders as well as Israel’s prime minister by veterans of Unit 8200, who complained that Israel made “no distinction between Palestinians who are and are not involved in violence” and that information collected "harms innocent people." The criticism echoes protests in 2003 by 27 reservist pilots who refused to take part in "targeted assassinations" and 13 members of a commando unit known as Sayeret Matkal, the New York Times reports.
The military intelligence team sought legal advice prior to airing its grievances but this hasn't stopped the Israeli establishment from denouncing the refuseniks, whose names have not been publicized by either side of the debate.
Israel's prime minister, its president, opposition leaders and a former intelligence head all slammed the actions of the rebel reservists. Defense minister Moshe Ya'alon questioned their motives and threatened unspecified criminal sanctions.
"Their refusal is politically, not morally, motivated," Ya'alon said. "Soldiers should go to their commanders when they have a problem. Our officers and soldiers are doing sacred work which saves many lives and they deserve our gratitude. I will not allow a political abuse of this and those who signed this [refusal document] will be treated as criminals."
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu added: "The IDF [Israel Defence Force] is the most moral army in the world and it carries out the missions that we give it to safeguard our security. From my long years of acquaintance with the members of Unit 8200, the baseless slander leveled against them will not harm the vitally important work they do for the nation's security."
IDF Spokesperson Brigadier General Motti Almoz wrote on his Facebook page that the reservists' "disciplinary treatment would be sharp and clear," Haaretz reports.
The Israeli military said 200 other members of Unit 8200 had signed a counter-letter supporting its signals intelligence work.
A Unit 8200 Tumblr here does a good job of linking to source documents in the ongoing controversy over the refuseniks' stance against spying on innocent Palestinians. The original protest letter (in Hebrew) is here [PDF]. ®