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Transcript of interview with three members of Unit 8200 in which they explain why they refuse to work in Palestinian territories.
Palestinians graffiti a building in Gaza City after an Israeli air raid killed 15 people, including Hamas military leader Salah Shehade, in 2002. The refuseniks said Unit 8200 was producing the target database used in such air strikes. Photograph: Cris Bouroncle/EPA.
Three signatories of the Israeli military intelligence refusenik letter agreed to be interviewed by the Guardian to discuss what motivated their concerns. They are all members of Unit 8200 – known in Hebrew as Yehida Shmoneh-Matayim – Israel’s largest signals intelligence gathering unit, active both abroad and in the Palestinian territories.
All three are now on the active reserve list and have said they will not do reserve service relating to the occupied Palestinian territories. Of the three, “A”, aged 32, and Nadav, 26, are sergeants, while “D”, 29, is a captain.
By agreement with the letter’s signatories, material relating to specific claims regarding the unit was provided in statements that they chose to disclose to the Israeli military censor. In face-to-face interviews they agreed to discuss what motivated them to sign the letter, declining to discuss specifics.
Below is a transcript of the Guardian’s interview conducted earlier this week in collaboration with several other media outlets. It has been lightly edited for repetition, brevity and sense. Two minor amendments were made at the request of the soldiers to clarify meaning.
How did you organise the letter?
D: For a couple of months friends [have been] joining and [it’s been] growing slowly … most of them are still active. We’ve been thinking about it for maybe a year.
It was a difficult dilemma. We were worried that this action would be seen only as a response to the war in Gaza and it is important to us to make it clear this is about the ‘normal’ situation [of the occupation].
A: We didn’t want it to be interpreted only in this context. We decided before the recent war to do this. For me there wasn’t any particular trigger. It was a long process of realising …
When people talk about the role that intelligence services play in non-democratic regimes usually their hair stands on their back a bit and they shudder.
And that’s not the way I thought about the military service that I did [at first]. It was a gradual realisation that this was me [as well]. That I was playing that role. That made me see in a different light what I’ve done and take this action.
I still feel very committed to how I was raised, and that’s what makes it so difficult. I still feel part of [Israeli] society.
N: I think because we are part of [Israeli] society is the reason [that] we are doing it. It is not an act against everything that is done …
A: We feel it as an act of taking responsibility for the things we take part in. But we also see it as part of a deep concern for the society we live in. We’re not trying to break away from it or anything like that.
Maybe you can say something about yourselves?
D: I currently live in Jerusalem. I’m a student. I’m doing a master’s in computers. I joined the military in 2003. I stayed until 2011. I was an officer. An intelligence officer. And I stayed for a couple of years extra. I was a team leader, then a section leader. A captain.
A: I was enlisted in 2001 after half a year of pre-military courses which I volunteered for. Afterwards I also stayed on for an extra period. I volunteered to become an instructor and then a team leader. Full time I was [there] five years. Since then I’ve been a student also in the Hebrew University. Now I live in Tel Aviv and my wife and I are expecting our first daughter. I’m studying maths.
N: I enlisted in 2007. I was in the army for almost four years. I was also an instructor. I finished the military in 2010. Now I live in Tel Aviv. I’m a student in the Open University and I’m studying literature and philosophy.
When you think about intelligence work, people think about it as “clean” because it’s not about running after people in alleys of refugee camps and shooting at protesters. What’s not “clean” about intelligence work that you wouldn’t want to be involved in?
N: The intelligence gathering on Palestinians is not clean in that sense. When you rule a population … they don’t have political rights, laws like we have. The nature of this regime of ruling over people, especially when you do it for many years, it forces you to take control, infiltrate every aspect of their life.
D: [This is] one of the messages we feel it is very important to get across mostly to the Israeli public because that is a very common misconception about what’s intelligence and I can say for myself and for many of the participants – refuseniks in our letter – that this is something [we also felt] when we were enlisting in the military. Not being aware of the conflict as much as we are aware of it today … [believing] our job was going to be minimising violence, minimising loss of lives. That made the moral side of it feel – be – much easier.
A: I distinctly remember before I was recruited, I felt very fortunate that I had this job that was so clean of moral dilemmas. [Because] our job was to make the work smarter. We were supposed to minimise the casualties both fighting terrorism. And when Israel is forced to strike back, we would be able to make sure only the bad guys get killed. And I think recent events … but this is not just about the recent war [in Gaza] … our experience after the past 10 years have made us see this is simplistic.
N: In the last month there were two occasions of this in newspapers that reflect this [point] exactly. There was a [Palestinian] parliament member in Ramallah. The army told her she had to move to Jericho because she was supporting demonstrations. That’s just one example of the things intelligence does that is not really to do with terrorism or anything like that.
D: A significant part of what the IDF [Israel Defence Forces] does is not the “title” [ie defence]. The “title” of what the IDF does in the occupied territories is ruling another people. One of the things you need to do is defend yourself from them, but you also need to oppress the population. You need to weaken the politics, you need to strengthen and deepen your control of Palestinian society so that the [Israeli] state can remain [there] in the long term … We realised that that’s the job of the intelligence.
Was there work they did not object to?
D: I think a lot of what the unit does, doesn’t have anything to do with Palestinians, we’re not only not against that, we’re all in favour, we think it is the right and duty of the state of Israel to defend its citizens. We took that very seriously while we were in the unit and we still take it seriously. That’s what makes this decision much more difficult because it’s not a black and white situation.
Did you feel your were violating people’s rights?
N: Definitely. In Israeli intelligence regarding Palestinians, they don’t really have rights. Nobody asks that question. It’s not [like] Israeli citizens, where if you want to gather information about them you need to go to court.
A: The only limitation is the limitation of resources. There’s no procedural questions regarding who can and cannot be surveilled. Everybody is fair game.
N: An 18-year-old soldier who thinks: “We need to gather information on this or that person” – that 18-year-old kid [in Unit 8200] is the one that decides.
A: It is well known that the intelligence is used. People are arrested in the Palestinian territories. Sometimes without trial. And even when they are taken to trial it’s often with evidence that can’t be exposed [in court] because it is classified. And the intelligence is used to apply pressure to people, to make them cooperate with Israel. These are all things that are known.
It’s no secret that Israeli intelligence is producing the target database that is used in the air strikes …
There was a big media outcry after [Hamas military leader] Salah Shehade was assassinated [in 2002] and 14 members of his family were killed. There was a big story around that and the commander of the air force then – Dan Halutz – said to the pilots: “You did well.” You’re not responsible. Your job is to deliver the ammunition to the target in the most professional and accurate way you can, and you did that and your hands are clean.
D: And you don’t see the big picture …
A: The question [is] who does see the big picture? Who does provide this information to these pilots? And the answer is clear [ie Unit 8200]. [There was] a famous incident. It was when “Lieutenant Alif” [Lieutenant A, a former member of their unit] refused to pass on information regarding the capacity of a building. The idea was to destroy a building and its inhabitants – and what I’m telling is not the story we were told in the unit – it was a story that was exposed by journalists in Israel years later.
D: In 2003 [during the second intifada] there was this general routine for the IDF to bomb buildings at night as a response to terrorist attacks or to pass a message or … whatever you like. After an especially bad terrorist attack in south Tel Aviv by the old bus station there was a decision that the response had to be more harsh this time.
The action that was decided upon was to destroy from the air a building belonging to Fatah, which wasn’t the organisation that was responsible for the terrorist attack. And the building wasn’t related in any way to military activity. It was some kind of welfare centre where they were giving out pay cheques.
Unlike previous times, an essential part [of the operation] was that building wouldn’t be empty and there would be people there, no matter who. Someone had to be there in order to die. The role of our unit was to give the green light for this attack. To say when the building isn’t empty. So this lieutenant – whose name wasn’t published – refused.
At first he tried to get the action cancelled. And then he spoke with his commanders but still found himself in real time being asked for that information. And even when he knew that now the building is not empty and was supposed to give the green light he said: “I’m refusing, I’m not doing it.” He got the operation cancelled.
The response of all the senior commanders – in the unit and in the military – was to be shocked by him daring to refuse a direct order that he had received. That was the only kind of inquiry that was taken into the matter. There were some reports – just days after the incident, in the Israeli media – but they were wrong. They changed the goal of the operation and said the goal was a targeted killing of …
A: I remember that it was the talk of the unit because it was in the news and we all had briefings about it. We were told he was “confused”. He didn’t understand what was asked of him. And the general message was there’s no such thing as a manifestly illegal order in the unit.
D: What’s important is that it wasn’t only the interpretation … the media and soldiers inside the unit were told a lie about what was the target of the operation. … The [fact that] the ultimate goal was to kill innocent people was hidden. I joined the unit several months after. The response was to kick [the lieutenant] out of his job – not the unit – until he finished his military service.
I received a lesson in the course where we discussed this [case]. As a person who spent many years in the unit, who took my job there very seriously, I was very motivated to be a part of this unit and to do our job and I feel very betrayed by this lie. I feel the worst thing about it is, it isn’t the momentary decision of a completely illegal, immoral operation, but the fact that for more than a decade later the unit still prefers not to deal with it …
N: To deny what really happened …
D: … to say that according to senior officers this operation was looked into before the order was given. Legal officers checked the order to make sure it was an OK operation to carry out. So according to these senior officers this was all OK. There was no problem. When they were asked in [this article] in 2011 they could not even understand what was the issue. They say “Leave us alone” to the reporter.
A: But you talked to the people who were there …
D: I did speak with people who were there. I don’t want to say exactly who. People who were in the room …
A: The reason I brought up the whole Lieutenant Alif case was to emphasise that on the one hand the pilots are not responsible and on the other hand we – who are providing the information – are not responsible. The feeling is that it’s never possible to point any fingers. There is no one who is responsible.
N: And when you look at what happened this summer when building after building was destroyed on the inhabitants and hundreds of innocent people were killed. No one raised an eyebrow as opposed to just one decade ago when a killing of a family of a commander of Hamas [Salah Shahade] – then people were shocked. It was a huge story in Israel.
D: The story [of Lieutenant Alif] is very important and representative of the response of senior commanders of the unit to this incident I was referring to. [The fact] that the incident is used to give soldiers in the unit the message: “You’re not responsible.” There’s no such thing as a definite illegal order.
And we think this message has been well understood in the unit, which we think is a part of the fact that in the recent decade we’ve seen a decline in how much the soldiers and the Israeli public cares that innocent people are dying.
A: It’s important to say, the reason I decided to refuse. I decided to refuse long before the recent [Gaza] operation. It was when I realised that what I was doing was the same job that the intelligence services of every undemocratic regime are doing. That I’m part of this large mechanism that is trying to defend or perpetuate its presence in the [occupied territories] …
N: … it is part of the effort to save the status quo.
A: To preserve and hold and deepen our hold on the Palestinian population. And I think for most of us this was the main reason for doing this. And of course the operations and the wars – the ongoing periodic wars are part of this.
How did the letter come about?
D: At first it was just a small group of people meeting and discussing both our political opinions and also going through a process of realising what we’ve been involved with. You have to understand that being in the unit is very, very secret. It is not only that we keep secrets from the outside but we keep secrets from each other. The whole culture is very secretive. It is very difficult to just be in a situation where you meet with each other to reach a position of productive discussion. So for all of us just coming out with our thoughts was in itself very difficult.
Slowly we discussed it with more friends – with friends from the unit we thought would be interested – and just expanded it.
A: You sort of feel around to see how people feel about doing reserve service.
D: First when we approached people we didn’t say: “Look this is our plan, what’s your opinion?”
A: I should say there are a lot of people who, when they leave the military service they start seeing Palestinians as people not just as sources of information, and getting a bigger picture of what’s happening and a lot of people … there’s very different levels of commitment and enthusiasm in doing the reserve service and a lot of people taper off.
D: It was clear from the beginning we wanted to do everything legally. We went to a lawyer and said we don’t want to commit an offence or say anything not allowed to can you help us figure out what we would be allowed to say.
N: We’re not telling secrets about what we did or the way the unit works. We don’t want to do that. We don’t want to hurt national security, we just want to say what is wrong with the things we did and the unit does.
We want people to know that being in intelligence is not clean, and to control a population of millions you can’t just do counter-terrorism and hurt the people who want to hurt you.
D: I think another aspect is the personal aspect. Our decision as individuals that we morally can’t continue to participate in these actions in military service. In theory there is the option of just avoiding the service, not going public but that brings me to – if I had to answer the question what are we doing this for – for me, it is to take responsibility.
I am very acutely aware that I was a part of the cycle of violence, in perpetuating it. I feel like in many moments in this long process I felt maybe just drop it. Maybe just forget about it. You can be leftist, you can go to demonstrations if you want. But I realised that is running away from responsibility because I am already a part. I’ve been a part for almost eight years of these actions that I disagree with.
What at the personal level influenced each of you?
D: During my military service, especially during my last years, I advanced through the ranks and I understood more about what is happening. About the unit’s role in the occupied territories. That was one stage. After I left in 2011 it the summer of the famous social protests, and I think that was a moment of political awakening for a lot of people despite quite a lot of cynicism in Israel about the impact of that. I felt it put me in a more responsible and involved mindset.
I had questions from my military service I couldn’t really deal with. But it was my whole life. My friends, my daily job. I wasn’t in a position where I could question then properly … Then I went back to things I was involved in. Thought about it. That was a bit of a Pandora’s box to open because I felt the moment I asked myself these questions I couldn’t run away from responsibility.
Another important realisation for me was that our unit was the intelligence side of an oppressive military regime [in the occupied territories]. Realising it in those terms also brought it much closer to me because my dad was Argentinian, and he was imprisoned by the military dictatorship in 1977.
I think this comparison – and that’s not at all to say the actions of this Argentinian dictatorship is at all similar [to Israel] – but it’s this realisation that we were imagining Palestinians as just plain enemies.
We didn’t realise there was a difference between [the Palestinians we rule over] and citizens of any other country that is the enemy of Israel. My hard realisation was when I realised our function is both to be the regime and also to gather this intelligence … It isn’t like a military issue where you need to know how many airplanes the enemy has. The targets of this intelligence are specific people and the consequences that this intelligence have are very, very serious and encompass many different areas of their life, because it is also [gathered] by the same regime that controls their lives.
And in this aspect it is the same thing as the dictatorship in Argentina that imprisoned my dad.
A: I identify with a lot of what D said. We are told, and we like to think about Palestinians as enemies in a symmetrical conflict. I started going on tours in Hebron and around Jerusalem and I started to see the reality of the people living there. And you are basically providing them with water and electricity. And you give them job permits. On the one hand, you decide whether they can work their land or not. And on the other hand, they don’t want you there.
And in this complicated situation you are bound to be drawn to do the all-encompassing surveillance that D has talked about. I’m the person who is doing it … [and I came to] see myself in the light of other oppressive regimes and the role that intelligence plays in these regimes was the turning point.
N: I have to say I was very proud when I first enlisted. I thought it was a very important unit. I am still proud of some things that I did there. I’m not saying that everything done is wrong. The thing that led me to take this decision is that during my service I started realising that we don’t only do things meant to ensure the security of Israel in the sense that these people want to hurt us, but more and more to do with innocent people.
There were times when I raised the question with my fellow soldiers in the unit, with the commanders, that maybe some things were wrong. The answer I was given all the time was: “No, it’s OK.” These questions kept arising in my head. Now as the years go by, and I see it from the outside, I realise that there are some things that are really problematic.
Intelligence can be gathered about everyone.
A: It’s not just a procedural objection that we have. It is the deeper issue that we are part of a regime that is denying Palestinians their rights. It’s been going on for almost 50 years.
D: The problem is that we realised what the actual role of the unit is, that’s what we are bothered about. We don’t think fixing the legal procedures a bit or caring a bit more about Palestinians would be a solution. We think it is a cause of the unit of the job.
A: I think we have said that some of the things that the IDF does really does deserve the title defence forces, but there is a significant proportion of what it is doing that does not deserve this title. It’s in the interests of perpetuating a regime that is oppressive. That is not democratic. It is these things we are trying to bring to the attention of Israeli public first and foremost. To create a discussion and think critically about it.
So you won’t serve across the Green Line in the occupied territories?
D: That is the exact parallel. It’s important to us, if it was up to us, our full names would be on the [published] letter. We are not allowed to reveal it because of secrecy laws.
When you look at [things] in terms of intelligence you can broadly say that there are two types of intelligence in the world. One is gathered – say in a democracy – that a regime collects against its citizens. For example, as an Israeli the government might collect intelligence on me but it has severe limitations on how to do that, and the way that it can use it against me is very limited. Even if it is taken to court in the end if there is a punishment it is only a punishment directly related to the offence I committed. So that you can, if you like, call civil intelligence.
Then there is military intelligence, which a country collects on another country. Then there’s no laws governing that, only diplomacy and international relations. That’s intelligence. It’s pretty dirty. But that’s the inherent rules of the game. The other country can defend itself to some extent. In most cases this kind of intelligence won’t have direct consequences for the actual civilian citizens in the other country that might be the target of this intelligence.
[But] in this situation, what’s common to the Palestinian situation – and the situation in Argentina [under the military dictatorship] – is that people get the worst of the two types of intelligence. On the one hand, there are no rules about collecting the intelligence, but at the same time this intelligence might have severe consequences regarding all areas of their life.
You realise that this might have consequences for you – socially and for future employment? You might pay a price for this?
N: This is a price I’m willing to pay. This is very important. You can’t run from responsibility.
D: It’s a serious dilemma for a lot of people I know who decided not to sign the letter. One of the main reasons was this: everyone of us sees the risk a bit differently. I think we are all worried about it but I feel like there is no other choice.
Author: Peter Beaumont