Ramallah, occupied West Bank – Last year, Rawhi Karkaz seriously damaged a joint in his left leg that left him unable to walk with ease. Gaza’s meagre medical capabilities left him without the assistance he needed, so he sought care in Israel, where he hoped to undergo surgery.
His hopes were dashed when he was confronted with a dilemma at Erez, the Gaza-Israel border crossing: Either he succumbs to military pressure to cooperate and provide information to the authorities, or he heads back home.
“‘We can give you something in exchange for something else,’ the authorities told me,” Karkaz said. “Of course I refused. Then they interrogated and placed me in Ashkelon prison, where I was held for 18 days.”
According to testimony by veterans of an elite Israeli military unit, Karkaz seems to fit the profile of Palestinians with financial or medical troubles whom Israeli authorities hope to enlist as collaborators.
Last week, 43 veterans of the so-called Unit 8200, an elite military intelligence unit, said the organisation listened in on Palestinians, collecting information that can be used to entrap or blackmail them. They wrote a letter to the country’s prime minister and army seniors, accusing authorities of using the information collected against Palestinians for political exploitation.
The veterans – some of whom still serve in the Israeli army reserves – said some Palestinians are coaxed into informing on fellow citizens with the lure of financial gain or promise of entry permits to Israel for work or medical treatment. Others are exploited using personal details, such as infidelities or sexual orientation, as leverage.
“We knew exactly who was cheating on their wife, with whom, and how often,” read one officer’s testimony. “The state of Israel will allow you to die before we let you leave for treatment without giving information on your wanted cousin,” read another.
A Palestinian human rights group said by recruiting Palestinians to pass on information, Israel is committing a war crime.
“Extortions and blackmail are rampant, and they include everything from permits for work and medical care inside Israel to attempts at warding off home demolitions,” said Mourad Jadallah, a legal researcher at human rights group al-Haq.
According to the group, Article 147 of the Fourth Geneva Convention says “compelling a protected person to serve in the forces of a hostile Power” is considered a ‘grave breach.’ War crimes include “grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions.”
Palestinians have hailed the Israeli veterans’ letter, calling it an “act of heroism” that supports their own “efforts to end the occupation”.
“What’s being leaked from the military establishment in Israel is boosting the anti-occupation solidarity groups,” said PLO Executive Committee Member Tayseer Khaled.
Jawad Bulos, director of the legal department of the Palestinian Prisoners’ Club, said Unit 8200 was one of the most prestigious in the eyes of Israeli society. “The unit’s successes have helped Israel throughout its many wars,” he said. “So this letter comes as a heavy blow to the Israeli military that’s currently engaged in a PR campaign following the Gaza offensive.”
Declaring a “moral duty” to no longer “take part in the state’s actions against Palestinians”, the group of 43 said the information being collected was “harming innocent people”.
The refuseniks have been slammed as ‘leftists,’ and at least 200 of their counterparts denounced their action. The group said they didn’t take lightly the fact that their letter sent shockwaves across Israeli society.
“We understand that our message is difficult to stomach,” they wrote in a second statement released after their colleagues signed a counter-letter defending the unit’s work. “Indeed, our decision to refuse came after a long and difficult personal journey.”
Extortions and blackmail are rampant, and they include everything from permits for work and medical care inside Israel to attempts at warding off home demolitions
The refuseniks said the concerns they raised that intelligence was being used for “political persecution” were promptly ignored.
“Based on our accumulated years of service in the unit, we know that there is no serious ethical discussion in Unit 8200,” they said of Israel’s equivalent of the US’ National Security Agency, which intercepts everything from phone calls to emails to social media.
But an Israeli military spokesperson said concerns were never raised with superiors. “Immediately turning to the press instead of to their officers or relevant authorities is suspicious and raises doubts as to the seriousness of the claims,” the spokesperson said. “The Intelligence Corps has no record that the specific violations in the letter ever took place.”
The refuseniks’ sentiment is echoed by other reservists who refused to serve in the past: In 2002, a group of reserve pilots said it would not take part in assassination flyovers. In 2003, 13 members of the commando group Sayeret Matkal, which had carried out the 1976 raid on the airport in Entebbe, Uganda, declared their refusal to “serve as a defensive shield for the settlement enterprise”.
But the unit remains one of the most prestigious in the country, a fact that contributed to the angry backlash among politicians. Israel’s defence minister said the refuseniks would “be treated as criminals”. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called their revelations “baseless slander”.
An Israeli military spokesperson said the unit’s mission was to gather intelligence to defend the country’s civilians.
“Throughout the training, a special emphasis is placed on morality, ethics, and proper procedure. Soldiers and officers in the unit act in accordance with their training and remain under the strict supervision of high ranking officers.”
But the refuseniks maintain that the unit – despite its role in counterterrorism – is largely engaged with perpetuating “a non-democratic, military rule over the Palestinian people”.
“In order to do that, it must infiltrate every aspect of Palestinian life, and this is something we cannot continue to do in good conscience,” they said.
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