The Hypocrisy of the 8200 Affair
“The dissenters are citizen heroes,” exclaimed former Knesset Speaker and former Jewish Agency head Avraham Burg. “One would have expected the military establishment to respond to this claim by committing to look into it and fix what needs fixing,” explained popular columnist Nahum Barnea in Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s largest daily newspaper. “The occupation corrupts,” he claimed. “The Israeli policy is a disaster.”
What sparked this opprobrium was the decision by 43 army reservists of the elite intelligence collecting unit 8200 to send a public letter to Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying they refused to continue performing reserve duty because they felt the work was immoral. But even as news was breaking in Israel of the letter, the “refuseniks” as they call themselves, borrowing the term from the Jewish prisoners of the Soviet Union, went trotting to The Guardian to give interviews. They claimed they wanted to disseminate “messages we feel it is very important to get across mostly to the Israeli public.” However, the fact that the largest articles on the subject so far – 7,000 words in total of interviews and statements – have been disseminated in the UK seems to belie that claim. As with most supposedly “moral” objections to Israel’s actions, this unit 8200 affair has less to do with morality than with political statements and insipient hypocrisy.
Let’s begin with what the soldiers claimed. They argued that their work involved “infiltrating every aspect of the lives of Palestinians.” In addition, “you also need to oppress the population. You need to weaken the politics, you need to strengthen and deepen your control of Palestinian society.” They argued intelligence work was simply a means to extend Israel’s control, and that it harmed people. One reservist gave as examples the fact that intelligence gathering is used in airstrikes, like the one that killed Hamas leader Salah Shehade in 2002 and killed 14 members of his family.
The letter signers admitted that they saw parallels between Israel’s regime and other dictatorships. One told reporters that his father was Argentinian and that he saw comparisons with the Argentine dictatorship. Another interviewee claimed he had an epiphany when he watched the 2006 film ‘The Lives of Others’ about the East German Stasi; “I realized that the job I had done during my military service was that of the oppressor.”
Unsurprisingly the interviews and letter have met with support among left wing commentators in Israel. It “should be causing a public storm is not their act of refusal, but rather the practices that spurred it. Using improper means to recruit collaborators and gathering intelligence using methods that are not subject to public scrutiny are practices that should at the very least be publicly examined and debated,” Haaretz editorialized. But the real hypocrisy is that the likes of Barnea and Burg, who should know better, targeted the rule over the West Bank as the problem. Barnea claimed that the intelligence work “contributes to occupation’s maliciousness and foolishness.” Burg intoned “The more Israelis, as individuals or in groups, refuse to continue the disregard, apathy and euphoria of the occupation’s injustice, the better it will be for us, because the one who disobeys is the best.”
What is particularly galling is the hypocrisy and manipulations inherent in this claim. First of all, where was Avraham Burg, Barnea, and all these supporters back in the 1990s, 1980s, and 1970s? Why is it that suddenly in 2014 the intelligence work is a problem, when it wasn’t for decades before when it carried out basically the same mission. Is it because the political allies of Burg, such as Yitzhak Rabin, were presiding over it? When Burg was speaker of the Knesset he had a chance to conduct hearings to put in place restrictions on the very thing he rails against conveniently now.
Worse still is the misdirection of this debate to be about the West Bank, when much of it is about Gaza, a territory Israel does not occupy. Take a recent article in the New York Times about Zafer tower in Gaza, a large residential building Israel struck in the last days of the recent conflict, which was accused of housing Hamas operations and leaders. The article reveals that the residents of the building received a call from “Mousa,” an Arabic-speaking Israeli soldier telling them to evacuate. Mousa kept calling to see if they had left. “Mousa called again, asking if everyone had evacuated. Residents realized an old woman who could not walk was still inside. Mousa gave them five minutes, and five young men ran back in and carried her out on a plastic chair.” The residents pleaded with Mousa not to destroy the whole building, to no avail. But what the story reveals most of all is the intense and obsessive care taken to avoid burying civilians in the destruction.
Mousa’s half dozen phone conversations with residents up until the airstrike was made possible by intelligence work of units like 8200, which monitor conversations (signals intelligence) throughout Gaza and the West Bank. Those signing the refusal letter sought to say they feel immoral about eavesdropping on these people’s lives, and that is understandable after the decade many spent in intelligence work. Surely some NSA workers in the U.S. feel the same. But it is a big step from the NSA or the work of “Mousa” to the Argentine dictatorship, which tortured and murdered people, or the Stasi, whose raison d’être was the suppression of internal civil liberties and the carting off of people who expressed mere opinions of the Communist regime.
Intelligence work is never clean. John Le Carre’s Little Drummer Girl, which is about the work of Israeli intelligence, already betrayed that in the 1980s. Revelations in 2011 proved that in the 1950s Israelis had been sent by internal intelligence services to marry local Arab women in places like Jaffa, to infiltrate the community. Years later the men were withdrawn and the women they had married, one of whom was a Christian Arab – who had converted to Islam to marry her “Muslim” husband and learned their relationships were an elaborate scam. Some of the women converted to Judaism. This was in the 1950s, and in 2014 Israeli intellectuals, commentators, and politicians are expressing “shock” about intelligence work? Didn’t they watch Munich? Didn’t they remember Ehud Barak dressing up as a woman? The reality is that listening to people’s phone conversations in Gaza is far more hands off than having agents disguised as Arabs working among the population.
Over the years, dozens of these “letters” by refusers and self-righteous Israelis on the left have appeared. In 2003 alone a group of elite pilots and members of the special forces Sayaret Matkal sent self-serving public letters complaining of moral qualms they had. It is part of the Israeli military tradition for some of the conscripts to decide to make a statement. That’s fine, but it should be seen for what it is, politics in the guise of morality.
When Haaretz says the Israeli public should “debate” the intelligence services methods they a proposing a preposterous nonsense that no democracy in the West does. No one debates how exactly the CIA or NSA or MI6 does its job. Every democracy should put in civilian control and safeguards to protect civil liberties. True, Israel’s control of the West Bank puts it in the odd position of ruling over people and using methods on them that its own citizens might not be exposed to. But this is not the case with Gaza: listening to phone calls in Gaza and collecting intelligence to exploit is no different than Americans listening to conversations in Iraq between Jihadist groups.
And this work is as old as intelligence gathering. If the refusers truly cared they wouldn’t have run off to give interviews to UK newspapers and provide ammunition for Israel’s enemies, they would have tried to pinpoint exact areas where Israel’s methods might be better. The same is true of the naysayers in the newspapers – if they want change they should propose how Israel can fight its enemies while not using traditional means of collecting information.
The author has a PhD from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem in historical geography with a concentration on the history of minorities in the Middle East, and has lectured at other academic institutions on American policy in the Middle East and American history. A fellow at The Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies, he has worked at the JDC and The Shalem Center. A long-time columnist and features writer for The Jerusalem Post, he has been the Oped Editor there since 2012. He can be followed on Twitter @sfrantzman and at his website sethfrantzman.com.