Israeli Spies Condemn Routine Bugging of Palestinians

Israeli soldiers detain a Palestinian during clashes at a protest against the Jewish settlement of Ofra, in the West Bank village of Silwad, near Ramallah September 12, 2014. Mohamad Torokman/Reuters

Tel Aviv—Is this the Snowdenization of Israel's spy industry?

Right now, Israel can't get enough of "The letter." Signed by 43 reservist members of Unit 8200, an elite Israel Defense Force (IDF) intelligence unit, it emphatically denounces the morality of practices such as listening in to Palestinian chatter and other electronic signals picked from Israel's enemies. Its publication has caused a political bombshell, coming as it has so soon after the recent war in Gaza.

In a letter sent to Unit 8200's chief—their commander—and posted on several websites, the dissenting reservists announced they would refuse to serve in the unit any longer because it has become a tool in a campaign of oppression against Palestinians. Some of the signers gave interviews to the press, identified only by the first letter of their last name, following the rules that govern military officials who are unauthorized to speak to the press or whose positions require secrecy.

Shown only from the back on television, to maintain their anonymity, members of this elite spy unit compared their work in Unit 8200, the IDF's successful signal intelligence (sigint) arm, to the activities of East Germany's infamous Stasi secret police who routinely spied on ordinary citizens. The same comparison was widely made by German critics of the United States after Edward Snowden, a former contractor for the National Security Agency (NSA), disclosed that the NSA has listened in on phone conversations of the East German-born German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

In the letter, the signatories contended that Unit 8200's activity "harms innocent people and is used for the purposes of political persecution and violating the privacy of Palestinians." They said that in light of the latest war in Gaza they can no longer serve in the unit and would refuse to enlist if called for reserve duty.

Because of the unit's prestige as a highly-capable outfit deeply involved in Israel's war against terrorism, the letter immediately has become a sensation. The high regard in which the unit's members are held in the country has raised the political stakes and given some heft to arguments widely considered here to be held traditionally only by a fringe on the left, which nevertheless has become increasingly vocal in Israel's body politic in recent years.

Army officials say that the IDF has identified 37 men and women of the 43 signatories as authentic members of Unit 8200. Of those, says IDF spokesman Lt. Col Peter Lerner, only two have been called for reserve duty in the unit this year. None served during the latest war in Gaza.

Further, only a third of those who signed the letter were actually involved in intel work during their service, while the others were technicians or members of support units not directly involved in the type of activity denounced in the letter. Only six were ranked officers.

Most everyone in Israel is from time to time called to serve short stints in the army reserves long after their period of mandatory conscription is over. Familiarity with such service, and the letter's timing, published shortly after the war in Gaza that reached the largest urban centers of the country, has created an intense debate over the propriety of the public yet anonymous outing of service-resisters among members of the elite unit.

Service in Unit 8200 is widely considered a privilege by Israelis. Well connected parents of soon-to-be-conscripted teens typically try to pull strings to help their offsprings into the unit. Unlike many Israelis who emerge from battle-prone army units with skills that do not necessarily prepare them for civilian life, alumni of the sigint outfit learn technical abilities that have turned Israel into a high-tech giant. Many of those who have served in Unit 8200 went on to lead the industries that have earned Israel the nickname "startup nation."

The first wave of criticism against the group that signed the letter had to do with the feeling that for political reasons they have turned against a country that has invested its taxpayer funds in developing skills that have all but assured their financially-secure future.

And the fierce backlash against the protesters has cut across the political spectrum. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his critics further to the right joined with opposition leader Yitzhak Herzog of the center-left Labor party and others on the left in denouncing the letter's signatories.

The letter "reeks of a calculated political campaign that cynically takes advantage of the hard-earned reputation of one of IDF's most prestigious units," wrote Amos Yadlin, a former commander of AMAN, the army's intelligence arm that oversees Unit 8200.

He portrayed the letter signers as naïve thinkers who have not deeply examined the live-or-die morality of intelligence work in a country surrounded by enemies.

"The world of intelligence is far from sterile," Yadlin wrote. "An intelligence body does not operate by the same rules as a summer camp or a human rights organization. Intelligence gathering is a high-stake business that bears direct impact on questions of life and death, and that has strategic impacts on a country's national security."

Military officials, meanwhile, urged those who are still serving in the unit to report perceived wrongdoings to their higher-ups. They also said that those who had signed the letter were, in any case, not about to be called to reserve service anytime soon.

The whole episode is "characteristic of the political debate in Israel," said the IDF's Lerner, quickly adding, however, that "there is no place for it in the military."

"We have these enemies that when they can they'll blow themselves up in coffee shops," he said. "We have to prevent that from happening. To do that, we need intelligence. We need to know what is going on." Unit 8200, he added, is at the forefront of that battle.