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Israeli refuseniks expose Occupation’s dark underbelly

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A letter signed by 43 veterans of an elite Israeli military intelligence unit declaring their refusal to continue serving the occupation has sent shockwaves through Israeli society. But not in the way the soldiers may have hoped.

Unusually, this small group of reservists has gone beyond justifying their act of refusal in terms of general opposition to the occupation.

Because of their place at the heart of the system of control over Palestinians, they have set out in detail, in the letter and subsequent interviews, what their work entails and why they find it morally repugnant.

Veterans of the secretive Unit 8200, Israel’s NSA, say it is drummed into new intelligence recruits that no order is unlawful. They must, for example, guide air strikes even if civilians will be harmed.

The 43, all barred by Israeli law from identifying themselves publicly, say they avoided serving during Israel’s latest attack on Gaza, fearing what would be permitted. But their concerns relate to more than the legality of military attacks.

In a telling admission, one reservist said he first questioned his role after watching The Lives of Others, a film depicting life under the Stasi, East Germany’s much-feared secret police. The Stasi are estimated to have collected files on five million East Germans before the Berlin Wall fell.

According to the refuseniks, much Israeli intelligence gathering targets “innocent people”. The information is used “for political persecution”, “recruiting collaborators” and “driving parts of Palestinian society against itself”.

The surveillance powers of 8200 extend far beyond security measures. They seek out the private weaknesses of Palestinians – their sex lives, monetary troubles and illnesses – to force them into conspiring in their own oppression.

“If you required urgent medical care in Israel, the West Bank or abroad, we looked for you,” admits one.

An illustration of the desperate choices facing Palestinians was voiced by a mother of seven in Gaza last week. She told AP news agency that she and her husband were recruited as spies in return for medical treament in Israel for one of their children. Her husband was killed by Hamas as a collaborator in 2012.

The goal of intelligence gathering, the refuseniks point out, is to control every aspect of Palestinian life, from cradle to grave. Surveillance helps confine millions of Palestinians to their territorial ghettoes, ensures their total dependence on Israel, and even forces some to serve as undercover go-betweens for Israel, buying land to help the settlements expand. Palestinians who resist risk jail or execution.

The implication of these revelations is disturbing. The success of Israel’s near half-century of occupation depends on a vast machinery of surveillance and intimidation, while large numbers of Israelis benefit directly or indirectly from industrial-scale oppression.

Unlike their predecessors in Israel’s tiny refusal movement, the soldiers of 8200 have been uniquely exposed to the big picture of occupation. They have seen its dark underbelly – and this gives their protest the potential to be explosive.

Some in the international media have framed the soldiers’ bravery as a sign of hope that Israelis may be waking to the toll of the occupation on Palestinians and the health of Israeli society.

The dissenters of 8200 believed the same: that their confessions might lead to national soul-searching, investigations into their allegations, and mass protests like those that greeted news of Israeli war crimes in Lebanon in the early 1980s. They could not have been more mistaken.

Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, set the tone, denouncing the letter as “baseless slander”. The army said the soldiers would be “sharply disciplined”. The defence minister, Moshe Yaalon, termed them “criminals”.

The head of the opposition, Isaac Herzog, of the supposedly leftwing Labor party, characterised their protest as “insubordination”, while Smola, a party established this month to revive the left, called the soldiers’ act “evil”.

In the Israeli media the group were dismissed as deluded eccentrics, “trippy” losers and “spoiled brats”. If there is a constituency of concern among the public, it has kept stoically quiet.

Revealingly, Herzog was himself once a senior officer in 8200. He must have been party to the same ugly secrets but used his political influence to shield the system rather than blow the whistle.

It seems that when the barbarity of the occupation is at its most transparent, when it is hardest for Israelis to avert their gaze, they simply shut their eyes instead.

The wall-to-wall condemnation of the refuseniks mirrored Israelis’ almost-universal support for the recent attack on Gaza, even as they learnt of mounting Palestinian civilian casualties.

Over the past decade, one intelligence veteran lamented: “We’ve seen a decline in how much the soldiers and the Israeli public care that innocent people are dying.” That observation was firmly verified this summer in Gaza.

Thousands of Israelis who have passed through 8200 did not sign the letter, noted a commentator. Another pointed out that 43 dissenters were “insignifcant” compared to the 600,000 who serve in the military or the reserves.

None of this suggests Israelis are uniquely evil. Rather, it indicates how deeply dysfunctional their society has become – as one might expect after years of being collectively complicit in the oppression of another people.

Netanyahu is only too aware how to keep the Israeli public compliant. Last week he warned of an apparently alarming new threat: Hamas had responded to the operation in Gaza by waging “cyber attacks” on Israel, aided by Iran.

The insinuation was clear. Unit 8200 is all that stands in the way of the Jewish state’s destruction by the mullahs of Tehran. Those who undermine intelligence work endanger Israel’s survival.

Netanyahu knows it is a message that will find favour with Israelis. Their military is no callous and brutal leviathan. And they can continue to sleep easy at night, still history’s victims.

A version of this article first appeared in the National, Abu Dhabi.

Jonathan Cook

Jonathan Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His new website is

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22 Responses

  1. just on September 23, 2014, 10:26 am

    599, 957 to go…..

  2. amigo on September 23, 2014, 11:10 am

    “She told AP news agency that she and her husband were recruited as spies in return for medical treament in Israel for one of their children. Her husband was killed by Hamas as a collaborator in 2012.”

    Just one less Palestinian to worry about .The bonus is , his family are also out of the picture.

    Such nice neighbours , these citizens of the light unto the nations.If you like ghouls.

    The evil that is zionism cannot be allowed to continue to poison this planet.Time to invent an anecdote.Time to eradicate this pandemic from our midst before it consumes us all.

    Let,s call it a security risk and deal with it –period.

  3. catporn on September 23, 2014, 12:43 pm

    The Refuseniks are smart to speak out, for all the obvious reasons associated with the savage, grotesque treatment of the Palestinians, and the dehumanizing affect that it will have on the perpetrators themselves.
    But also because, as history shows, these sick forms of human control and manipulation, regardless of there originally intended target, will eventually be used against other parts of society. In fact, its probably already being used against dissenting voices, and if it carries on unchecked it will spread.

    Netanyahu, the Likud party, and all the other twisted characters Israelis have governing them, are like an indicator of just how sick that country has become, their unwillingness or inability to have compassion for the trauma they inflict daily on others is bound to have a detrimental effect on the part of them that’s still human, they don’t see themselves as complicit in the oppression and murder of another group of people, but they are, its undeniable and that must register in some part of their psyche.

    • piotr on September 23, 2014, 4:29 pm

      The refuseniks may be weird people who care EVEN if the shit is directed at the “others”. Few black sheep fail to absorbed fully the ethonocentric ideas of their society.

      Of course, there were plans to treat the Jewish black sheep differently then the rest, but so far, the ethos “you do not do such things to Jews” seems to prevail. But there exist “black sheep treatment” that is understandably feared, and causes various intellectual contortions.

      Again, the problem is how similar ideas (to Israeli ethnocentrism) get strong currency in USA, including full acceptance of what Israeli government and our domestic friends are doing.

  4. Nevada Ned on September 23, 2014, 1:20 pm

    Excellent article by Jonathan Cook, running true to form.
    A lot of Israeli and American Jews still prefer the pleasant lie to the unpleasant truth, about who is really oppressing whom.

  5. cogit8 on September 23, 2014, 1:28 pm

    Off-topic item: Palestinian rights supporter Yoshiko Yamaguchi, aged 94 has passed away in Tokyo. But you will not find any reference to her passion for Palestine in any MSM obituary (NYT, LAT, FT, the Guardian may have mentioned it).
    This woman of the world, inveterate campaigner for understanding between cultures rather than bombing, had an amazing life indeed. She was one of the greatest divas in 1940’s Shanghai, with a fabulous voice, and acted in movies under her Chinese name of Li Xiang Lan 李香蘭 . RIP, beautiful lady Yoshiko.

    • Mooser on September 24, 2014, 12:12 pm

      For those interested, you can find a lot of clips and tracks of Yoshiko Yamaguchi at You-Tube.

      Including her rendition of “Oh Danny Boy” in Japanese. which is very sweet.

      • amigo on September 24, 2014, 1:17 pm

        Thanks for that Mooser.

        This is one Irish man who has never heard Danny Boy sung in Japanese.It is brilliant.

      • cogit8 on December 5, 2015, 12:54 am

        Mooser, I’m a little late in getting back to you (I’ve been off writing a biography). Surprised to hear you know about this lady.
        Regarding Ms. Yamaguchi, you can find an interesting website full of her fabulous pictures and music at:

  6. just on September 23, 2014, 1:29 pm

    “Thousands of mourners have attended the funerals of two Palestinian men suspected of the kidnap and murder of three Israeli teenagers three months ago, an event that triggered a sequence of actions leading to the 50-day war in Gaza.

    Marwan Qawasmeh, 29, and Amer Abu Aisha, 32, were shot dead in a pre-dawn gunfight on Tuesday with Israeli special forces who had fired a rocket at a house in Hebron where the pair had been hiding. Three other men were arrested.

    Clashes broke out at the men’s funerals in the volatile West Bank city, with around 20 Palestinians reported to have been injured by live fire and rubber-coated bullets. One was in a critical condition, medical officials said.

    The governor of Hebron, Kamel Hmeid, said the men had been “executed” by Israel, whose forces made no attempt to detain or interrogate them.

    The killing of the men, described by the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) as “Hamas terrorists”, briefly threatened to derail talks in Cairo aimed at reaching a long-term ceasefire deal between Israel and Hamas following the end of the Gaza war.


    The IDF said a recent breakthrough in the hunt for the two Palestinian men had led the Yamam, a special police counter-terrorism unit, to the hideout in an area of Hebron about a week ago. Early on Tuesday, Israeli special forces entered the ground floor of the two-storey building and killed two Hamas operatives after coming under fire, Lerner said.

    Hmeid, said the pair were killed in the Hebron University area. The Hebron governor said: “We condemn this crime, this assassination, as deliberate and premeditated murder”.”

    the rest:

  7. Daniel Rich on September 23, 2014, 2:52 pm

    Well, I’ll drink a feisty Soda Stream pincher to that.




  8. seafoid on September 23, 2014, 3:31 pm

    I think the minuscule number of Israeli dissenters means Israel is virtually guaranteed to collapse. In nature, diversity helps to protect. Monoculture is most exposed to tail risk.

  9. JLewisDickerson on September 23, 2014, 5:03 pm

    RE: Thousands of Israelis who have passed through 8200 did not sign the letter, noted a commentator. Another pointed out that 43 dissenters were “insignifcant” compared to the 600,000 who serve in the military or the reserves. ~ Jonathan Cook

    “Israel’s Weird Elections”, by Uri Avnery, Counterpunch, 1/04/13:

    [EXCERPTS] . . . The Israeli media are already to a large extent neutralized, a creeping process not unsimilar to what the Germans used to call Gleichschaltung. [SEE: Gleichschaltung @ Wikipedia – J.L.D. ]
    All three TV channels are more or less bankrupt and dependent on government handouts. Their editors are practically government appointees. The printed press is also teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, except the largest “news” paper, which belongs to Sheldon Adelson and is a Netanyahu propaganda sheet, distributed gratis.
    [Naftali] Bennett repeats the ridiculous assertion that almost all journalists are left-wingers (meaning traitors.) He promises to put an end to this intolerable situation. . .
    . . . In the coming four years, the official annexation of the West Bank to Israel may become a fact. . .
    . . . If the government continues on its present course, this will lead to certain disaster – the entire country between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River will become one unit under Israeli rule. This Greater Israel will contain an Arab majority and a shrinking Jewish minority, turning it inevitably into an apartheid state, plagued by a permanent civil war and shunned by the world.
    If pressure from without and within eventually compels the government to grant civil rights to the Arab majority, the country will turn into an Arab state. 134 years of Zionist endeavor will come to naught, a repetition of the Crusaders’ kingdom.
    This is so obvious, so inevitable, that one needs an iron will not to think about it. It seems that all major parties in these elections have this will. Speaking about peace, they believe, is poison. Giving back the West Bank and East Jerusalem for peace? God forbid even thinking about it.
    The weird fact is that this week two respected polls – independent of each other – came to the same conclusion: the great majority of Israeli voters favors the “two-state solution”
    , the creation of a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders and the partition of Jerusalem. This majority includes the majority of Likud voters, and even about half of Bennett’s adherents.
    How come? The explanation lies in the next question: How many voters believe that this solution is possible? The answer: almost nobody. Over dozens of years, Israelis have been brainwashed into believing that “the Arabs” don’t want peace. If they say they do, they are lying.
    If peace is impossible, why think about it? Why even mention it in the election campaign? Why not go back 44 years to Golda Meir’s days and pretend that the Palestinians don’t exist? (“There is no such thing as a Palestinian people…It is not as though there was a Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took their country away. They did not exist.” – Golda Meir, June 13, 1969) . . .


  10. gracie fr on September 23, 2014, 5:33 pm

    “The implication of these revelations is disturbing. The success of Israel’s near half-century of occupation depends on a vast machinery of surveillance and intimidation, while large numbers of Israelis benefit directly or indirectly from industrial-scale oppression…..”

    A statement that underlines an almost identical moral relativism that has resulted from fear mongering by leadership and taken up by the echo chamber of the media. Thus torture, intimidation, repeated thunderous comments about inevitable annihilation if “protective measures” are not taken has cowed and silenced Jewish consciousness and is reflected in a mirror image to that of most Americans.

    How in heavens name can this be undone…..????

  11. Steve Macklevore on September 24, 2014, 7:34 am

    The longer the conflict goes on, the more I’m convinced that the only way it ends is through external pressure.

    As this article and the one about the spiritual retreat by Lynne Lopez-Salzedo show, the majority of Israelis and their Jewish American supporters cannot change.

    Only force, whether economic, social or even military or some combination of those will make them grant the Palestinians justice and freedom.

  12. Kathleen on September 24, 2014, 11:53 am

    Brave soldiers. Re discovered their humanity. Sounds like they will be in big trouble. Many in the intelligence communities have believed that Israel has been doing this for decades..collecting this kind of information on Palestinians others that they wanted to intimidate. Sure seems like the case when it came to the Fox News Carl Camerons exposure soon after 9/11 of Israeli owned communication companies having access to 95% of Americans phone calls. That four part report on Israeli data mining via Amdocs, Comverse Insofys etc was shut down on the Fox New page quickly

  13. American on September 24, 2014, 12:59 pm

    The 43 better get out of Israel before they are ‘disappeared’ or meet with ‘accidents’.

  14. American on September 24, 2014, 2:03 pm

    Speaking of Exposure of the Dark Underbelly……..Max is at the Russell Tribunal in Brussels.

    Check out his twitter……..

    I cant figure how he is able to get in and out of Gaza and do what he does……only thing that might enable him is his fathers former WH position and political connections. Irsael might be leery of roughing him up for fear of retaliation from his father who also might know where a lot of zionist bones are buried Israel doesnt want to hit the cable news if they do anything to his son.

    • just on September 24, 2014, 9:33 pm

      And speaking of ‘refuseniks’, Eran Efrati was very good today.

    • Kathleen on September 25, 2014, 11:50 am

      Interesting. Have always wondered why Phil and Max can move around in that neck of the woods so easily…when Norman Finkelstein, Medea and I think Colonel Ann Wright are blocked from coming into Israel.

      Had the great honor of talking with Seymour Hersh in a line at Starbucks at Union Station in D.C. He had been refused access into Gaza during Cast Lead. Remember how journalist were blocked from reporting during that massacre

      • American on September 25, 2014, 1:19 pm

        I have tried to think of what differences there might be in Phil and Max as compared to Norman, Medea and Col Wright to explain it:
        Norman has ripped the Holocaust Industry to shreds.
        Medea is one who actually gets in the ‘politicians’ faces.
        Col Wright has respected military and ‘moral’ status in her resigning over Iraq) for her blasting of Israel-US.

        But then you have Max’s book which was a nuclear bomb on Isr society.
        And Phil’s daily revelations on Israeli crimes and the tentacles of the I-Column in the US.

        So thinking like Isr and a Z what would be my reasons for the difference? Maybe it is Max’s father connections in his case.
        Maybe in MW-Phils case they see some value in his effort to separate (Israel) blame from US Jews blame cause if there was a big turning against US Jews Isr would be up shit’s creek without a paddle. But then otoh MW ‘rebel rouses’ Jews against zionism–but on another other hand maybe they think zionism ideology isnt well known enough among the public for it to really have any impact on illuminating what Israel actually is for many people.

        But on the other, other, other hand they never exhibited good sense in who they attack and attack any and everyone. The US Zs call MW and Phil a-s or self hating, I believe I’ve seen the same slur applied to Max so I dont know.
        Phil and Max should tell us how they do it.

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