Israeli Intelligence Veterans Refusal Letter

Bruce Reidel points us to a public letter sent by 43 reservists of the famed “unit 8200”, the SIGINT (signals intelligence) unit of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF),  to the IDF Chief of Staff informing him of their refusal to serve in the future in intelligence duties related to Palestinians. (The letter was first reported in Hebrew by Gili Cohen, of Haaretz, and subsequently in English in the British Guardian). 

My quick response:

To my mind the letter is significant in the sense that it breaks taboos – talking about intelligence openly, even if nothing they said is very surprising – but it’s much less important from a societal sense than similar previous letters from Israeli pilots or ground troop veterans.

First, this “unit” is a behemoth; it’s the largest unit in the IDF by far and really equivalent to a small branch (think NSA or the British GCHQ). It gets very high “quality” soldiers [Different units in the IDF pick soldiers based on various exams and unit priorities; this unit has a high priority in the order of selection. When choosing from, essentially, a cross-section of the whole population, the best IDF units are equivalent in an HR sense to the best colleges in the US. That is part of why the IDF’s best units are so effective]. Given how education and voting correlate in Israel, the unit’s alumni, I would readily guess, skew much more to the left than the general population. With so many alumni skewing to the left, it’s not surprising that some (a very small percentage) might refuse to serve. I’d be surprised if previous letters have not included alumni of the unit too, just not explicitly.

Second, while the unit is prestigious in some ways–in the soldiers’ intelligence and in future employment opportunities in the Israeli IT industry which feeds off this very unit–it’s not a front line unit, and this is very important in Israeli public perceptions. When pilots–essentially the highest priority HR selection–or ground troops come out publicly, as some have, it carries a great deal of weight due to their role in combat. By contrast, soldiers from 8200are seen as having a “cushy” job during their service, which, moreover, can set them up for great jobs later on.

Third, Israelis in general are far more sanguine than Americans about what intelligence gathers. The common Israeli response to the Snowden revelations was to brush them off – “Of course the NSA listens to everyone, that’s its job” is the general sense one gets. Israelis, for the most part, have few illusions that the remarkable and almost routine Israeli successes in counter-terrorism would be possible without widespread intelligence gathering of this sort. This says nothing about whether it’s right or wrong, of course, but it’s not about to shock Israeli society.

The more interesting aspects of what they say, to my mind, are in pointing out the ramifications of long-term Israeli control of the territories: the routine and widespread intrusion of Palestinians’ lives. The remedy, of course, would be largely political: one in which, perhaps, the need for aggressive counter-terrorism would be eased. But short of a comprehensive political solution or a fundamental change in the security environment–the opposite of what we’re seeing at the moment–I highly doubt Israeli intelligence will be less vigorous about collection efforts. 

Bruce Reidel adds:

I agree with your views Natan.  I would add one point. Within the Israeli intelligence community, Unit 8200 is the most secret.  Like NSA and GCHQ it tries to be invisible even though it is quite large.  We have had a long history of Mossadniks and others speaking out, this is a first for the sigint service to my knowledge.