<a href="http://www.mepc.org/articles-commentary/middle-east-focus">Middle East In Focus</a>
Over forty members of the elite Israeli military intelligence Unit 8200 have written a letter addressed to Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and the country’s military leaders decrying the deep scars the continued occupation of Palestinian territory has left not only the Palestinians, but on Israeli society as well. The ‘refusniks’ or ‘good kids,’ as the 43 signatories of the letter have been characterized depending on one’s perspective, question their government’s policy of continued and indiscriminate surveillance. By doing so they have touched a nerve in Israeli society, which is showing signs of growing uneasiness and tension in the aftermath of the most recent military incursion into Gaza, which left over two thousand Palestinians dead, mostly civilians.
The reaction to the publication of the letter has been swift on both sides. The most common objection raised against the authors of the letter has been their unwillingness to identify themselves, leading some like Major-General (res.) Amos Yadlin, a former head of the IDF's Military Intelligence Directorate, to conclude that: “the current campaign of the ‘8200 conscientious objectors’ has little to do with legitimate expression. It reeks of a calculated political campaign that cynically takes advantage of the hard-earned reputation of one of IDF's most prestigious units....In the Israeli public discourse, however, it would be better to have less manipulation and less eschewed depictions of the IDF's top-tier units. In contrast, what we need is more transparency on the identities of those behind this letter, and more appreciation for the important work done by the soldiers, officers and NCO's of excellent units such as 8200.”
Others have been even less kind to the former intelligence officers, accusing them of treason. For example, Arutz Sheva’s Paula Stern does not hold back on criticism of what she sees as opportunistic and shameful behavior on the part of the 43: “The worst traitors of Israel are those who claim to love the country and then betray it....By extension, since belonging to that honorable and important unit is classified, any moron can claim to be part of it and short of endangering the whole unit, the IDF will not comment....Logic would therefore dictate that these traitors of Israel are nothing more than opportunists wishing to damage Israel....The 43 claim they were highly motivated and this claim I believe — though I doubt it was motivation to actually serve the country of Israel. More likely our enemies — that I would believe.”
The Jerusalem Post editorial, on the other hand, suggests that their actions are driven by hubris and that such reckless behavior have no place in a democratic society with proper accountability mechanisms: “before applauding the actions taken by those who reject military rules, their well-wishers must imagine what their reaction would be if the identical moves were resorted to by holders of diametrically opposed ideologies....They are entitled to their opinions about what the policies of the state and its army ought to be. Since, however, the state is run by a democratically elected government and since the IDF is subordinate to that government, service personnel who flout authority in effect proclaim that their personal judgment trumps the will of the electorate....Our national defense would be undermined if every conscript/career soldier/reservist can take liberties with no guideline but his or her hubris.”
But, warns Forward’s Brent Sasley, the Israelis would do well not to dismiss the letter so lightly. Instead, Sasley argues, the letter must been as indicative of a society in flux, with changing norms and identity: “As Israelis begin to question the government’s foreign and domestic policies more and more, the emergence of similar processes in an institution considered so representative of the Israeli ethos is significant. It also underlines the point that some Israelis are pushing back against what they view as problematic, illiberal and dangerous policies....Despite the turn since the 1980s to an individualist society at the expense of a more collectivist culture, Israelis still — as all societies do — hold tight to their founding myths and symbols. Set high amongst the pantheon of Israeli myths, the IDF’s role in Israeli society, when questioned, is more than a story of conscientious objectors. It’s also a story of a changing understanding of Zionism, Israeli identity and, consequently, Israeli policy.”
Elisheva Goldberg, who calls the 43 signatories ‘good kids,’ continues to build on the theme of a societal shift, noting: “occupation has put Israel in an incredibly tight spot, both morally and technically. Even if refusal is unconscionable to the vast majority of Israelis — for reasons of security, social configurations, or integrity — this refusal will not be forgotten quickly. These Unit 8200 reservists have generated a tremor that is being felt under our feet, if not heard above ground....Israel is nowhere near that yet, but if some of the ‘good kids’ are already saying no, Israel’s fissures are only likely to deepen further in the days and wars ahead.”
Some support for the “refusniks” comes also from Nahum Barnea, who in a Yedioth Arhonoth op-ed, who argues a blanket denial against the accusations and charges set out on the letter would be providing the government with a cover-up, recommending instead a more honest and open discussion about the issues raised: “The refusal letter sent over the weekend by 43 Unit 8200 reservists gave every politician, every retired officer, in fact every social media babbler, an opportunity to pretend to be a patriot at the expense of the writers....One would have expected the military establishment to respond to this claim by committing to look into it and fix what needs fixing. Instead, we got a sweeping denial, a denial which put a bitter smile on the face of anyone who is familiar with the reality of the system....The occupation corrupts, the 8200 refuseniks say, and they are telling the truth. In the best-case scenario, the information they gather prevents a terror attack; in many other cases, it contributes to the occupation's maliciousness, arbitrariness and foolishness, or provides a decent cover to the government's false policy.”
Most regional dailies have so far dedicated very little space to this issue, with Gulf News’ George Hishmeh being one of the few to (approvingly) comment on the letter: “It was gratifying to learn this week that 43 veterans of an elite and secretive Israeli intelligence unit of the Israeli military have gone on record declaring that they would no longer participate in surveillance activities against the Palestinians....What disciplinary action the Israeli military takes against the protesters remains to be seen. This incident, however, highlights the local and international misgivings prompted by Israel’s genocidal 50-day war on the Gaza Strip, which remains until today besieged and hardly reassured of any international effort to bring them relief from their disastrous situation.”
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