Forty-three reserve officers and other personnel of IDF Intelligence Unit 8200 have received local and international coverage for a detailed letter of protest and a refusal to serve further in their function of listening and reading Palestinian communications.
Their letter claims that the unit's work violated the civil rights and privacy of Palestinians, often without relevance for Israel's defense. They complained about colleagues who laughed while hearing telephone calls concerned with sex, and said that some of the material they uncovered was used for political, rather than military purposes.
Their protest has brought forth claims that the bravery of the 43, and standing up for civil rights shows the decency of Israeli military personnel and will aid Israel's concern for international legitimacy.
Others have said that it will add to the campaign of those who seek to de-legitimize Israel, by describing the nasty stuff the IDF does over the border among Palestinians, other Arabs, and perhaps among the Arabs of Israel.
It has also produced criticism from Israelis across the political spectrum for the cardinal sin of refusing military service, and the even more serious violation of revealing military details meant to be kept secret. Ranking politicians and retired senior military officers have said that the 43 should be tried for disobeying orders. At least one source has mentioned the charge of treason.
Critics compare the 43 to Anat Kamm, an IDF draftee who served more than two years in prison for passing secret information to a journalist. Kamm's political motives appear to resemble those of the current protesters. Among the details she leaked were indications that senior IDF personnel had planned and carried out target killings of individuals in violation of a Supreme Court ruling limiting the circumstances of when such a tactic could be used.
"There were some aspects of the IDF's operational procedures in the West Bank that I felt should be public knowledge... history tends to forgive people who expose war crimes."
Opponents of the 43 have noted that the IDF has mechanisms for officers and enlisted personnel to express their grievances. However, one of the initiators of the protest said they had tried, without success, to bring their complaints to the attention of their superiors.
The IDF spokesman said that only 10 of the protesters had been actively involved in the work described. Others were no longer involved, or were support personnel.
In this, the current group of protesters resemble 27 IDF pilots who said some years ago that they would stop flying targeted assassination missions that violated their conscience. Most of those protesters were retired, or pilots of transport planes not involved in assassinations.
As in previous cases, senior officers and other critics of the present protest see it as seeking to politicize a military that should operate only according to orders coming down through its professional hierarchy, whose senior members take policy direction from the Prime Minister, Defense Minister, or Security Cabinet.
No one should assert that "political considerations" are absent from decisions involving national defense, e.g., who to attack, when to attack and how to attack. However, the politics are expected to enter the IDF only at the top of the command structure, from the top of the Israeli government, and not be the province of every private, corporal, sergeant, lower- or middle-ranking officer.
More than 200 other personnel of Unit 8200 have signed a letter against their colleagues, stating their own commitments to the unit and affirming their belief that it is contributing in important ways to national defense.
What the protest reveals is what many of us have known, or suspected, on the basis of occasional reports or conversations with individuals doing the work. Unit 8200 is an intelligence unit, with personnel from graduates of the Arabic language classes of elite high schools, doing their compulsory military service by listening to telephone conversations, reading text messages and e-mails picked up wherever the intelligence staff hopes to receive useful information.
The material may be screened electronically for key words, then reviewed by lower level personnel who decide what ought to be sent higher in the organization. Among the concerns are communications about plans to attack Israelis or overseas Jews, and the kinds of personal communications that may identify individuals who could be tapped for other intelligence. Conversations about pre-marital sex, homosexuality, and adultery would fit the protesters' concerns about privacy and civil rights, but would expose individuals who could be pressed into Israel's service against the threat of disclosures that would bring significant sanctions from Arab society.
The work may be dirty, but hardly less so than training other high school graduates how to kill, and then sending them out to do it.
It should not surprise us that some of the information is used for "political" as opposed to overtly "military" purposes.
Here the protesters could learn something from an introductory course in political science. "Politics" is not all that precise. Leverage against a ranking member of an organizations that participates in terror, or against a ranking politician in a hostile regime (such as the Palestinians leadership of the West Bank, Gaza, one of the overseas refugee communities, or someone important in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, or Iran) may serve the purposes of Israel's national defense.
Someone claiming to be an English gentleman once said that people like him do not read other people's mail.
Against this is the epigram that all is fair in love and war. What can be learned about the love affairs and other personal secrets of one's adversaries may be useful in international politics, if not directly on the battlefield.
Among the defenders of unit 8200 is the claim that "everyone does it." Those doubting it can Google Edward Snowden. Whoever insists that Israel operate according to higher standards than all others should come back to earth.