For D., it happened after his discharge from the army, when he saw the movie, The Lives of Others, about the Stasi, Communist East Germany's secret police, who listened in on people and thus invaded their private lives. "I was shocked," he says. "On the one hand, I identified with the victims, with the persecuted side, who were denied rights that are so fundamental that I take them for granted. On the other hand, I suddenly realized that during my military service, I was on the side of the persecutors, that we do the exact same thing, only far more efficiently."
The feelings of unease befell N. much earlier, already during the course of her military service, when as a representative of Unit 8200 she witnessed an assassination operation in which the target was mistakenly identified and a child was killed instead.
"In Dan Halutz's famous speech, with the controversial remark about a light tap on the wing (following the 2002 targeted killing of the head of Hamas' military wing, Salah Shehadeh, that also resulted in the death of 14 civilians, E.L.), he essentially said to the pilots, 'You're ok, you don't see the full intelligence picture and you carry out orders, and so you can sleep well at night,'" N. says.
"So the pilots aren't responsible for the killing because they are simply carrying out orders, and the people at 8200, too, aren't responsible for the killing because they carry out intelligence work only and pass on the information. Everyone shirks responsibility. So who then isn't supposed to sleep well at night? I think we all signed this letter because we realized that we aren't able to sleep well at night."
Read full letter (Hebrew)
D. and N. are two of the 43 officers and soldiers serving as reservists in the elite intelligence unit, 8200, who this week signed a letter in which they declare they refuse to play any part in actions against Palestinians and while therefore no longer report for reserve duty in that arena. "Our consciences won't allow us," they wrote, "to continue to serve this system and violate the rights of millions of people."
This is the first time that reserve members of the unit have drawn up a letter of refusal. "The general perception is that service in the Intelligence Corps is devoid of moral dilemmas and functions only to reduce violence and harm to the innocent," the letter reads. "During the course of our service, however, we learned that intelligence is an integral part of the military control over the territories. The Palestinian population, under military rule, is totally exposed to espionage and surveillance on the part of Israeli intelligence. In light of this, we have come to the conclusion that as individuals who served in Unit 8200, we, too, bear responsibility for the situation and are obliged to take action. We call on current and future Intelligence Corps soldiers, and the citizens of Israel at large, to sound their voices against these wrongs and to work towards bringing them to an end. We believe that the future of the State of Israel, too, depends upon it."
In their first interview, the reservists who signed the letter offer a rare glimpse of the soul-searching they went through in the framework of their service in the Israel Defense Forces' largest intelligence-gathering unit, which has long served as a breeding ground for the Israeli hi-tech industry and sends many of its graduates into high-powered positions in the economy and society. The incidents they speak about, they adamantly stress, have no connection to Operation Protective Edge, in which they didn't take part.
A Pandora's Box of thoughts
Six members of the unit came to the interview, which took place at the apartment of one of them, armed with written testimonies from other signatories. The people behind the initiative note that most of those who signed the letter do reserve duty in Unit 8200 and, from the point of the view of the IDF, are available for call-up at any given time. Some until now have exercised their refusal to do reserve duty under various pretenses, during Operation Protective Edge too.
"The unit is very much like a family, so the commander calls your directly to see if you can come for reserve duty; there's no mediation by a liaison officer with an official call-up," explains R. "We developed a system of avoiding duty using different excuses every time – an exam or a trip abroad. Thus, in essence, I avoided reporting for reserve duty without declaring that I refuse."
They are very sure of themselves and the dramatic step they have taken; nevertheless, the stress they are under is plain to see. Some are studying towards advanced degrees; others have already found positions in industry. They are the kind of people that Israeli society is happy to embrace and take pride in when all is well. But now – as is evident to them – they are about to pay the price.
"And that's the hardest part for me – that people will view what we are doing as treason," confesses S., a reservist officer from the unit and the highest-ranking signatory on the letter. "We all know that such a step places us beyond the boundaries of the Israeli consensus. Very many people support us and identify with us, but they fear the reactions and the personal price they would have to pay, and so they refused to sign," he says.
"I approached several people, and a good friend of mine from the unit said to me, 'I agree 100 percent with what is said in the letter, but I am afraid it would be detrimental to the career I am planning,'" N. relates. "Even the person who told me about the initiative didn't sign in the end because he got cold feet."
S. has no second thoughts about his decision, but is agonizing about the potential implications. "We want to reach the Israeli public and not to be shunned by it," he says. Our wish is for the message to be understood, for it to be a statement by people concerned about the situation here and who are doing it because we care and not for the purpose of burning bridges. But I am sure there will be elements who will exploit the letter and call it treason, just like they do these days to anyone who defies the consensus."
The idea of the letter had been simmering in their minds for a year. It started with a regular chat among members of the unit who remained in touch after their military service. "After my discharge, I felt like I had a Pandora's Box of thoughts," D. relates. "I started talking to a few people and discovered that many feel the same. It was all went ahead very cautiously. We spoke about our thoughts and the questions, and we thought about courses of action that we could choose. We began initially by formulating a declaration that we could stand behind. It took a very long time and went through various versions.
"It was important for us for the letter to be precise and focused so that it would win as widespread support as possible. Our refusal to serve relates only to the Palestinian arena and not to the other arenas with which the unit deals. Precisely because we think that refusal is a very radical and drastic step, particularly in Israeli society, it was important for us to make it clear in the letter that we are refusing only because from a moral perspective we are unable to be a tool to intensify the military control in the territories."
After they formulated the letter, they began to share the idea with other people in the unit – friends to friends. Senior members of the unit and its commanders were unaware of the initiative. "The approaches were made in face-to-face encounters, with us beating about the bust until we felt confident enough to speak about the issue directly. It all went ahead discreetly so that it didn't reach those who didn't need to know about it."
The quiet after the blast
The testimonies paint a picture that may trouble a portion of the public, but many will surely think that the actions of the unit are legitimate, certainly during periods of armed conflict.
"A change came over me during Operation Cast Lead, in 2008," says N., an Arabic translator at the Unit 8200's base who is responsible for the Palestinian arena. "When the operation started, something didn't seem quite right to me. Instead of attacking rocket and weapons dumps in the Gaza Strip, as defensive preparations for the campaign against Hamas, the air force attacked a police parade. The strike resulted in the death of 89 Palestinian policemen.
"I was just a regular soldier at the time, but I wanted the chain of command to know that I viewed the action as immoral and problematic, and not only because of the police casualties. These were precious hours in which we were supposed to be performing our duty – to prevent rockets from being launched against Israeli civilians – and this action didn't serve that purpose. Israel's home front was left exposed to rocket barrages, without the matter being dealt with as it should have been. The officer in charge agreed to convey my thoughts up the chain, but I didn’t get an answer.
"During the course of the operation, I worked with various teams that were involved in gathering and translating intelligence information about targets in the Gaza Strip. I remember the quiet that befell the rooms in which we worked in the seconds after the air force bombed the targets, a tense quiet with the hope for a hit. When a hit was confirmed, applause and cries of joy filled the room. The identikits that adorned the walls of the rooms were marked with Xs. I had a very hard time dealing with the fact that no one was interested if anyone else was hurt. No one stopped to ask himself if the targets we collect for the air force planes justify the total destruction of the lives of 1.5 million residents of the Gaza Strip.
"During the operation, the air force attacked the home of Nizar Rayyan (a Hamas leader in Gaza, E.L.), and 18 civilians were killed, mostly members of his family. On another occasion, there was an attempted strike against the leaders of Hamas' military wing. When the air force reported human casualties, the room was full of tension and expectation to see if the casualties were the intended targets of the attack. When it emerged that they were others, cries of disappointment echoed in the room – not because people were randomly killed, but because they weren't the ones we were looking for. It's hard for me to imagine what my base looked like during Operation Protective Edge; it probably looked the same as it did back then – but only more pronounced."
The assassination policy is particularly troubling to the consciences of those who signed the letter due to the fact that mistakes that occur claim the lives of innocent people, children too sometimes. "We provide the intelligence for the operation, incriminate the individual and pass on the information to the air force," N. relates. "The unit always has representatives in the field, in the Judea and Samaria Division and in the Gaza Division. Once, when I was the representative, a suspect was identified nearby a weapons dump in Gaza and we thought he was our objective. I remember the picture on the screen – the suspect in an orchard, an explosion, the smoke settling and his mother running towards him. We could then see that it was a child. The body was small. We realized we had screwed up. It was quiet, unpleasant. And then we had to continue. The mood was harsh, but there were more things to do.
"My duties there were allegedly technical. You're in an office, looking at a picture from a helicopter and the maps. It's very easy to cut yourself off from it and feel distant. It wasn't my job there to ask questions. They told me what they needed from me and that's what I did. I don't even know if there was an inquiry into what happened."
Most of the people in the unit do what they are told without asking questions. The signatories explain this by noting that from the outset, already during their course, the trainees are led to understand that when it comes to 8200, there is no such thing as a manifestly unlawful order. Some of the signatories, who served as instructors, conveyed this very message themselves, to their soldiers, despite the fact that doubt had started to creep in.
"They constantly told us that we are not the ones who are in the field, not the ones who are firing, and that it's not our job at all to make that decision," A. says. "There is something of an alternative mechanism in the unit that is called 'personal duty to report,' which means that you must voice your concerns if something is troubling you; but in some instances, they are clearly simply covering their asses."
The story of Second Lieutenant A. hovers constantly over the conversation with the signatories. A. was a young officer in Unit 8200 in 2003, at the height of the second intifada, who refused to pass on intelligence in preparation for an airstrike on a structure in the southern Gaza Strip due to concerns that innocent civilians would be harmed in the attack. The airstrike was intended to serve as a response to a terror attack in Tel Aviv's Neve Sha'anan Square in January that same year in which 23 people were killed. The target selected was a structure belonging to Fatah. According to sources inside the intelligence community, the instructions were to check when there were people in the building, no matter who they were, so that the green light for the airstrike could be given. The airstrike was called off due to A's refusal. He was tried, stripped of his position and assigned to administrative duties.
The incident led to a decision to conduct a lesson in all of the unit's courses that is based on the military inquiry into the affair. At the end of the lesson, the instructors lead the trainees to the conclusion that there is no such thing as a manifestly unlawful order. They discovered in retrospect that the inquiry was grossly deficient and inaccurate: The findings note that A. was instructed to ensure that the building was empty so that the airstrike could then take place. "Now, when I know what really happened in that operation," N. says, "I realize that all the discussion that took place about it with the trainees were ridiculous."
"In 2003, at least there was the second lieutenant who refused to participate in the operation," says A., one of the signatories on the letter. "There were no such individuals in 2014."
How do say 'homo' in Arabic
The reservists who signed the letter aren't troubled only by the unit's sterile approach to the assassination policy. According to them, the Israeli public believes that intelligence is gathered only against terror activists. They wish to cast light on the fact that a significant portion of the targets they monitor are innocent civilians who have nothing to do with military activity against Israel and are of interest to the intelligence organizations for other reasons. These civilians have no idea at all that they are intelligence targets, yet they are treated, according to the signatories, no differently to the terror elements, and the fact that they are innocent civilians does not constitute a relevant consideration.
"I had a lot of trouble with the fact that various personal details were noted as being of importance, details that could be used to extort people and turn them into collaborators," N. relates. "They told us at the base that if we uncover a 'juicy' detail, it is important to document it – for example, financial stress, sexual orientation, a severe illness on the part of the individual or a family member, or medical treatment that they require.
"Once, they played me the recording of a conversation between an Israeli security official and a Palestinian he was trying to recruit. There's a part in which he says, 'Your wife's brother, he has cancer,' and the Palestinian responds, 'So what?' And he says, 'You know, we have good hospitals.' He was clearly offering the Palestinian something or threatening him in some way.
"During my service, I collected, among other things, information about innocent people whose only sin was that they were of interest to the Israeli defense system for various reasons. If you are a homosexual who knows someone who knows a wanted individual, Israel will make your life a misery. If you required urgent medical care in Israel, the West Bank or abroad, we looked for you. The State of Israel will allow you to die before it allows you to leave for medical treatment without you first providing information about your wanted cousin. Any instance that leads to snaring an innocent individual who can be extorted in return for information or in order to recruit him as a collaborator was gold for us and for the entire Israeli intelligence community. In the training course, you actually learn and memorize different words for homo in Arabic."
The immense power in the hands of the soldiers and officers in the unit, most of them in their early 20s, could also be – the signatories to the letter say – the power to corrupt. "When I began my duties, I was surprised by the scope of the responsibility that rested on my shoulders," N. says. "I felt as if I had a say in important matters. I could initiate things that had implications for the lives of the Palestinians, and we exploit this influence that we have over their lives. Sometimes it involves real damage to the life of an individual, to his soul. We're talking about extortion and it can screw up their lives. The overriding approach in the unit is: 'Why not? If it's possible, then go for it.' I thought it was crazy to be able to do things I could. We're the bosses."
A number of the signatories note, too, that they found themselves having to deal with information of a distinctly political nature, and that this made them feel uncomfortable. "When I joined the unit, I thought I'd be dealing with thwarting terror, with whatever is necessary to preserve the security of the state," one of them says. "I discovered during my service that a large amount of effort in the Palestinian arena is directed towards things that are not related to security. I worked on gathering information on political matters. Some of them were related to objectives that could be seen as serving security needs, such as undermining Hamas institutions, and others were not. There were political intelligence objectives that don't even fall in with the Israeli consensus, such as bolstering the Israeli position versus that of the Palestinians. Such objectives do not serve the security system but rather the politicians and their agendas.
"It was very hard for me and others in the department to have to deal with some of the things we did. There was a particular project that shocked us when we learned of it. It was clearly something that we as soldiers are not supposed to do. The information was relayed almost directly to political elements and not to other arms of the defense establishment, and this made it very clear to me that it had very little to do with security needs."
Another problematic issue that arises during service in 8200 is the unit's spirit. Recordings of wiretapped conversations are kept to play to trainees and soldiers, without any consideration given to the fact that this constitutes serious ethical offenses. Sex chats, for example, are a big hit in the unit.
"I heard about a department that once turned out all the lights on the floor and played a recording of a sex chat at full volume – several dozen people listening to a sex chat and everyone cracking up with laughter," relates one of the signatories. "That's part of the spirit. And I don't mean only conversations that are stumbled upon by chance. Soldiers knew who to listen to and when in order to find them. They would be passed on from one to the other."
Another graduate of the unit spoke of feeling bad knowing, in precise detail, about the problems of all of the objectives. "It doesn't feel good to freely speak and laugh about this information. We knew who was cheating on his wife, with who and how often. There were conversations about 'funny' medical conditions such as hemorrhoids. It's part of the way of life in the unit and you call one another over to listen. Photographs relating to objectives or other Palestinians are passed around for fun. Family photographs are passed around and jokes are made about how ugly the children are, and also private pictures that couples have taken for one another.
"At a certain stage, I distanced myself from the whole story. I also told the friends around me that it isn’t the right thing to do, but everyone said that it wasn't hurting anyone. The commanders knew about it – no question about that. I wouldn't even say they turned a blind eye because it was clearly acceptable, that there was no problem with it. The soldiers don't really bother to hide what they are doing."
The consciences of the recruits
Alongside their concerns about the public criticism they expect to come under, the signatories are already dealing with internal criticism among their families, who are struggling to come to terms with the unusual step they have taken. "My family doesn't support my decision to sign the letter," N. says. "They don't think it's the right thing to do. They look at me like I'm some kind of radical who is doing something of no relevance in a democratic country."
R. says his family members are primarily concerned about the personal ramifications of the letter. "They are worried about me and my friends and hope that we don't end up paying too high a personal price," he comments.
The official letter, which was sent Thursday to the prime minister, the chief of staff, the head of Military Intelligence and the commander of Unit 8200, bears the signatories' full names and ranks. Publication of the letter, one can assume, will create much noise, and may also raise questions and doubts in the minds of 12th graders who are candidates for service in 8200. The signatories know this, but they have no intentions of calling on others to refuse to serve in the unit.
"If someone asks me, I'll tell them about the journey I took and my internal debate and how I feel about my service," A. says. "I will give him the tools, but every future recruit has his own conscience and he needs to make his own decisions. These are tough dilemmas, and anyone who refuses to be recruited into the unit will have to pay a very high price. On the other hand, he may be in the very same place I was in at his age – believing that what we do is designed to minimize the killing of innocent civilians. All I can do is present him with a different perspective."
The signatories stress they have no wish to establish a movement behind them. They view the letter as a mirror held up to society. "All we want to do is to turn on a warning light in the Israeli public – for them to understand that we've been there, we've done it, and we can no longer continue," says S. "We will agree to return to serve in the unit if we know that the purpose for which we are there is self-defense, and not to perpetuate the military regime."