Before we start, maybe tell me what the day-to-day of the job was like?
I was a soldier who did ‘dailies’ in the center of the country. I lived with my parents, and there were times during my service when I lived on base. By the time I was in ‘keva’, I rented my own apartment. The office itself was decorated in the familiar outdated style of offices, with tables, screens, and some funny stuff stuck on the wall that people put up or little decorations that each person brings to their own desk. Except that it’s the army, so you’re wearing uniform and sometimes there are chores like kitchen duty or guard duty, or military ceremonies.
It sounds pretty similar to your current job in the high-tech industry?
In many ways it’s similar and in certain respects it’s of course different. The unit  aims to create an atmosphere that will make you feel like you’re in high-tech, because of the reputation our unit has. Also in terms of methodology, a lot of the things are inspired by the world of high-tech. Because it’s ultimately, you know, like any high-tech company, except that as it turns out it belongs to the army, and our job is very specific. In the end, the way the tasks are divided is the same division [as in the high-tech industry], and if there’s a system development project then it’s managed in a very similar way, and so on. That’s why serving in the unit is considered such good experience, just like serving in the Army Radio unit is good experience for the media industry, even better than a degree in media studies.
There’s something in what you’re saying, and in the fact that you mentioned Army Radio, where there’s also a very non-military atmosphere, including lots of civilians working there who don’t wear uniform.
That’s right. I think it’s similar: our unit is a sort of cross-breed, because you have to remember that at the same time it’s also very militaristic. There are times when the militarism of it slaps you in the face. Both the uniform and guard duty and stuff like that, but mostly the motivation you have and the whole reason for you being there is to protect the country. And they don’t let you forget that. You also don’t want to forget it. There’s this narrative, it’s very much present and it’s really important for them to maintain that narrative. When you’re there, you believe, and you want to believe that what you’re doing is saving people’s lives and also ‘serving the national interest’, whatever that means. It’s something they drip-feed you all the time. On the one hand they want it to be glossy and attractive like a high-tech company, and on the other hand, for there to be a feeling of giving back to your country like in Sayeret Matkal. You’re expected to give hours of your time, to stay late when necessary, which is perhaps also similar to a high-tech company. But psychologically, the way they do that is to drip-feed you all the time about how you’re there for a specific purpose. It stays with you for years afterwards. Friends from the unit enjoy going to do reserve duty [after they’re released]. I can understand that, I was in that state of mind. And when I was there I was in it entirely. I went through a very long process since then.
What was the process?
It took a good few years from when I was released until the point when I signed the ‘refusal letter’. In general, there’s an element of volunteerism in the choice to serve in the unit. I also went to officers’ training course and I did it all because I genuinely wanted to. I felt that three years was too little, it wasn’t enough of a contribution to the State. I was immersed entirely within the Zionist narrative. I believed it was really important. That remained the case throughout my service. When I was released, it was clear to me that I’m interested in politics and that it’s important to hear the claims made against Israel. So throughout the time I became closer to the left-wing discourse, it was an attempt to be defensive let’s just say – to familiarize myself with the claims made against Israel, against the IDF, like those made by the left, the radical left, and to get to know what to say and how to respond to those claims. At the time it was clear to me that our side was right, I thought it was just a matter of finding the right answers.
Slowly but surely I became aware of it. At university I took courses on the history of the conflict, I made friends with Arabs and I took part in discussion groups with Palestinians, I went on tours of the occupied territories, and I read a lot.
Very slowly my views changed, and there was this one moment when a friend from the army got in touch with me. He said he’d seen on Facebook that I’m in a similar mindset to him, and started to tell me that he had some ideas about writing a letter. We met, at first it was just four of us I think, and we just spoke about it, and from there on it was a long process. It wasn’t like from that moment it was already obvious to me that I was about to sign a letter saying I refuse to serve. Perhaps some kind of protest, I was fine with that, but to refuse? At that time it sounded to me like a line that mustn’t be crossed. That it wouldn’t be clever and it shouldn’t be up for debate because it politicizes the army. I laugh about it now, but that’s what I thought at the time, it’s so ridiculous.
Because it is political?
Because serving is political and the army is political, and by thinking of the army as a non-political institution, or of a specific mission carried out by 8200 or the Intelligence Corps, as non-political, is completely ridiculous. But Israel is completely captive in that mindset. Or willingly captive. Referring to it as non-political – that in itself is a political decision. A decision that’s imperative in order to perpetuate the occupation.
Over time we brought in more people to join us, and we ended up with 43 officers and soldiers. For a whole year we talked about what it was exactly we wanted to write.
What was important for you to say?
We wrote that the unit is an integral part of the military rule, of this hybrid situation of a state that’s kind-of democratic or sees itself as democratic, but at the same time rules over a civilian population in a way that’s completely undemocratic. And our unit is a fundamental and essential but unspoken part of that. The unit is seen as a body whose entire job is to prevent terror attacks and to save innocent people. But actually the unit is an integral part of the day-to-day military control, just like you see in ‘The Lives of Others’ for instance. Because there isn’t, there’s no such thing as control over a civilian population without hermetic intelligence on the uninvolved civilian population. And it’s important to point out, it’s not just something temporary, but rather, just like everything else in the occupation, it’s an important part of what keeps it in place and maintains it. It’s inevitable as long as we want there to be an occupation.
And maybe that’s what’s so difficult for people to accept. It’s not just a matter of extreme situations when what we call ‘uninvolved’ people are affected. You need to use oppressive methods in order to get the information and you need the information in order to uphold the occupation. It’s not just ‘how it is for now’; it’s the standard.
So what do you mean when you say ‘uninvolved’?
This is something that I think a lot of people don’t understand. At the end of the day, there’s no such thing is ‘uninvolved’ people – not because everyone’s a terrorist, but because anyone, if used correctly, can be the key to whatever it is you want to obtain. Everyone’s a target. You want as much information as possible – so you’re interested in every neighbor with a roof, and every cousin and so on, because maybe you’ll be able to recruit him, and then he can help you with what you need; a good vantage point to set up a lookout from, for example. And that means that you become interested in all of that person’s problems – financial, health, sexual, family. For example, if hypothetically you’re interested in Hamas financial activity then you’re interested in the bank. So then all sorts of people, who are after all completely normal, are suddenly in that loop. And you can imagine a situation where you get someone like that into trouble. Let’s just say that ‘probably’ in the history of mankind, of intelligence, people like that have been affected.
But look, who even decides what’s allowed and when? Meaning, even if you accept that there are uninvolved people that it’s really important for us to follow, who decides what’s important? According to which rules? Which law? The way it is, more or less, is that every young soldier has the freedom to decide. As a regular simple soldier you have a lot of power over the lives of other people.
The system and the mechanism – or the lack thereof – is critically important. For instance, on this side of the Green Line, in a democracy, there are mechanisms that ensure that it’s impossible for the authorities to exploit their power improperly. The police, or the Shin Bet [intelligence agency] can’t just listen in to the conversations of any random person they feel like listening to. There are all sorts of impartial legal mechanisms, at least in theory, that act as checks on their power. So you can say – and there’s no doubt that there’s truth to this – that it’s not always ideal, and Israel isn’t the only place where there are problems; but even if it’s too easy to get a court order, at least it requires a certain process and there are a few people who oversee the process. When it comes to [Israeli] citizens, there’s no chance that I, as a 19-year-old soldier, can just decide to enter the life of another person because I feel like it.
But you could say, okay, but here we’re talking about an enemy state.
But in this case there is no state, and the few state bodies they have there themselves collaborate with the IDF. The Palestinians are under the IDF’s watchful eye and there is absolutely no legal limit, no check. Any soldier in the unit can simply decide. He doesn’t really need anyone’s permission.
But let’s say, ultimately both the IDF and the Intelligence Corps have limited resources, who even cares about these uninvolved people?
There are always limited resources, but that’s also something that’s changing in the world we live in today, and in any case when it comes to Palestinians there are no boundaries, so the availability [of resources] to track people is huge. We know that from civilian life, so it’s safe to assume that that trend is the same in the army. We know what Snowden has uncovered. Even if Israel isn’t exactly the USA, it’s presumably still got capabilities.
But for me it’s a different matter, because let’s define ‘uninvolved’. You see? You can just define uninvolved differently, because in the end you’re the one who decides who is involved. Again, there’s no mechanism. It’s teleological – someone who’s being tracked is essentially involved. It’s like that dark joke, “How do you know if the Palestinian is a terrorist? If the bullet hit him.” For example, people who protest against the separation barrier, are they involved or not? People who aren’t part of any organization, but now they became a central part of a non-violent protest. Should we be interested in them or not? Someone who writes a post against the occupation on Facebook, something political, but not violent – involved or not? Any person can be connected. For instance, if you watch Fauda or the movie Bethlehem, to take an example from popular culture. If it’s the cousin of someone suspicious, suddenly she’s also a target. Or if someone’s daughter has cancer, we can use that. Sometimes it just makes things easier for you when there happens to be a person on a certain street who’s watching. He has nothing to do with anything, but he can tell you what happened. And finally, okay, you don’t follow absolutely everyone, but every Palestinian knows and feels that at any given moment his or her life can be completely exposed to Israeli forces. That in itself is an awful threat to live under.
Is that something you understood during your service?
No no, I never even thought in those terms. Even if I understood that there were some things that I wasn’t entirely okay with, for example when innocent people are hurt, you tell yourself, okay maybe it’s not great but war is war and it’s not always perfect but sometimes things happen. Because everything is alright if ultimately you’re convinced that we’re the good guys, that we’re trying our best and we have no bad intentions. I really believed in what we were doing. I didn’t have the more complex criticism that says, even if I, and the soldiers under my command, and my friends, and my commander, none of us are bad people, and no one has bad intentions, it can still be a bad system that causes systematic injustice, and even if no individual person is bad it definitely doesn’t automatically justify everything the system does.
Were there moments during your service when you felt uncomfortable with something or you sat uncomfortably in your chair?
There were a few times like that but I was completely immersed in this belief that there’s a justification for everything. And there’s always this thought that, look, neither I nor any of my friends are abusing the power that we have, so everything’s okay. What was most lacking for me was an understanding of how asymetrical the situation was. That’s another thing that lots of Israelis don’t understand or don’t want to understand. The power we have, the strength we have as a country, and not any old country but rather a rich and developed country with a huge army. There isn’t, there’s just absolutely no symmetry in this fight. In a lot of Israelis’ heads, including in mine, there was this imaginary symmetry between Israelis and Palestinians, which leads to a justification that goes like this: We need to be strong in order to defend ourselves because if not – they’ll immediately kill us all.
Okay, so we’re stronger.
This whole thing is totally asymmetrical, whereby we can be almost anywhere at any time. And it can all be justified if you believe in the ‘reason’ given for it. In the unit it’s of course clear to everyone, and we even talk about the fact that innocent people can get hurt. Even in the intelligence training course. During the officers’ training course we’re told about fighting in the midst of a civilian population. We’re shown the movie ‘Black Hawk Down’, about America’s invasion of Somalia, and we talk about it. Or about the Lieutenant ‘A’ incident. An officer in our unit who refused orders to carry out an attack on a certain building because it would have led to the deaths of many innocent civilians, because from his point of view that was an ‘expressly illegal order’. They presented it to us as a moral dilemma, and they gave us the establishment’s answer that supposedly ‘solves’ it by saying that according to the textbook there’s no such thing, and can’t be any such thing as an expressly illegal order in the Intelligence Corps because you’re not the one pulling the trigger. Meaning, there’s always time to warn [the authorities]. There’s also the issue of different versions. The army claims that it had nothing to do with innocent people like Lieutenant A claimed. And I, as a cadet, accepted the establishment version and its rationale and I also presented that version myself when I became an instructor of that course. It was important to me to bring that case up because I saw myself as an ethically committed person. Ultimately, I completely accepted the system’s bottom line. They tell you, “do what we say, trust the commanders to know what they’re doing.” That’s what I conveyed as an instructor. I was taught, and I taught my subordinates, to obey, under the guise of ethical discussions.
So if not the Intelligence soldier – since he’s not the one with the gun – is it the pilot who’s supposed to stop illegal missions from taking place?
People remember the famous quote by Dan Halutz “a gentle bump on the wing”, but they don’t remember the context. He was talking about the assassination of Saleh Shkhadeh in 2002. F16 planes dropped a one-ton bomb which killed another 14 men women and children and injured dozens more. The pilot who carried out the mission later said that he did not know who was there, he just did what he was told, like a “war machine”, but if he had known what he found out later – which perhaps the intelligence did know – he wouldn’t have gone on the mission. He said clearly that as a pilot he has no way of knowing what the intelligence knows, and he acts ‘blindly’. What we understand from this story, together with the story of Lieutenant ‘A’, is that in fact no one is able to effectively cast a doubt, to go with their conscience or to refuse ‘expressly illegal orders’. Because that worn out story of expressly illegal orders is just part of the bigger story that we tell ourselves, which allows us to believe that there’s an internal mechanism to check and regulate ourselves; that there’s a moral cover. In reality, the system divides the responsibility up in a way that each individual person, whether it’s a pilot or an intelligence officer, remains in his own eyes a small peon who can’t see the bigger picture and can’t make a proper judgement. Everyone has their own job and ultimately they do what they’re told without asking questions, with the feeling of being in the most moral army in the world.
After following people for a while, do you start to get to know them? Do you develop a relationship with them?
I think there’s a whole spectrum of feelings. Ultimately they’re people, and pretty fast they become real characters. You can love someone or feel sorry for them, and sometimes you can’t stand the person or hate them. You know all sorts of intimate things about them. You know about the problems in his marriage, you know what they do or don’t do in bed, you know about his and his family’s medical history. You know what he’s afraid of. What bothers him, who he sucks up to or lies to and who he gossips about behind their back. Everything. Just take a second to imagine that all of your means of communication are open and revealed to someone sitting somewhere else who sees every word, and listens and listens and listens. It’s a strange feeling because you’re sitting and watching him without him knowing, supposedly.
They obviously assume that Israel is following them. Sometimes they even talk about it in their conversations. At the end of the day, we’re a group of perhaps a little geeky 18, 19 and 20 year olds. So for example, anything to do with sex is immediately included in the list of things that ‘interest you’. And then there are moments when we follow things that aren’t necessary, that have no intelligence-related significance any more, simply because we’re curious. And sometimes we laugh about them. We make fun of the guy who’s like this, and the one who’s like that. I, for example – you can understand this by the fact that I became an instructor and then an officer in the unit – I had a more careful approach to what was allowed and what wasn’t. But even if I didn’t take an active part in some of the, let’s say, less pretty things that went on, there was always a sensation of power, even if I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time.
And how does it feel?
It’s clear to you that you have the upper hand. And it feels good. The power that you have is something I can say in general about the unit. Because it’s not just a matter of listening to some person. In general there’s this attitude that we’re a unit that’s one of the best in the world of its kind, that we do crazy things. Amazing things. Sometimes you’re involved in matters that are top top secret. For example, something that has nothing to do with me but that we can talk about. So the whole story about the reactor in Syria that was publicized not too long ago, think about the fact that the amount of people who knew about it in Israel was very small. It was super secret on both sides. Now, if you’re part of something like that then you say, ‘wow, I’m part of something special, I must be special’. Even if that’s not exactly the situation, the feeling is almost one of ‘it’s just me and the Prime Minister and the Minister of Defense.’ These are situations in which you feel that you have a lot of power. You feel that everything depends on you, that if I suddenly think of some way of gaining information, then I can change the course of events, and the events will go into the history books. And another important thing is that they constantly drip-feed you with that feeling, and they say to you again and again – you can be the one to change everything, you can be the one who can come up with an idea and you can save Israel from the dangers that pose a threat to the country. It’s all part of your motivation, wanting to be part of the very best.
And how do you feel during a mission, when things are actually happening? For example, what’s called ‘targeted counterterrorism’, or in less militaristic language – assassination?
There’s the whole spectrum of feelings imaginable. There are sometimes cries of joy and relief at the same time. And there are some cases of connectedness, perhaps.
Connectedness to the object.
The object is the person.
Yes, object is sometimes the word used to describe the people we’re listening to. So that, for example, puts you in a weird position. There are two sides. On the one hand, you’re sort of in a state of real detachment from the objects of your investigation, both because they are the enemy and because you’ve never met them and you’re most likely never to meet them. On the other hand, you’re intimately close to them. It’s weird. There’s also the entire spectrum of political opinions in the unit. There are people who are dying to be part of an assassination and there are those who are sad about each assassination that they’re involved in because perhaps they have certain doubts, or they’re simply not happy about it, even if they see it as being necessary. In my case, the same rationalization that characterizes me now, characterized me then. I told myself, okay, I’m part of an army and armies are violent, but I’m also part of Israel and I know that Israel is a good country that protects Jews from a second Holocaust that could actually happen at any moment. So I may not have been happy and I certainly didn’t mark my headphones with ‘X’es, like some people do, but I’d say, it serves a purpose.
Do you know anyone who had any qualms, or who refused orders in real time?
Yes, I have a friend who was a classified media material specialist (‘alchutan’) with a story like that. Any information that can be used to put pressure on someone, you’re supposed to pass on. One of those things is sexual orientation. They specifically teach us words in Arabic that refer to it so that we can identify and pass on that information. This particular friend was also gay. He fulfilled his duties as well as he possibly could, and believed completely in what we were doing there, but when it came up in conversation that someone we were listening in on was gay, he didn’t pass it on. He made a decision, privately, that he would refuse orders on this specific issue. It wasn’t something he made a public declaration about or anything. In fact, no one could have known about it because he was the only one in the unit who heard about it. He told me about it only years later. It wasn’t one of the people who signed the letter. He didn’t do it for political reasons, but rather, it came from a much more personal place for him. I suppose the thought of him being responsible for someone being extorted for something around which they had a shared destiny…
So if I understand correctly, we’re talking about a very young environment, unripe in terms of political understanding, a lot more flexible in those years, perhaps. And apart from that, it seems to be socio-economically homogeneous environment, if you could call it that?
Yes, you could say that the environment is one of, let’s call it, descendants of Mapai. Specific schools. Maybe today it’s a bit different but I’m not sure. In any case, that position comes with a certain worldview. This is already very much my own understanding, but the way I see it, it’s another part to this story. We – and I’m a prime example of this – are not the people who go to guard the checkpoints, and we’re not the ones who serve in the border police force, and we’re not the ones who become paramedics in Hebron and arrive at the scene where El’or Azaria stood. So we don’t come up against these dilemmas. From our position, it’s easy to be critical of incidents like these. I think it has something to do with the sociology of Israeli society and the way in which the Zionist left plays what’s called a double game of denial. When you go to serve in 8200, you get out of having to directly face up to the significance of being part of a State that upholds a military regime, because you’re sitting opposite a computer screen far away from the front line. So it’s comfortable. Because you can still be a patriot, and you have an essential and important job but you can be blind to how critical that job is in preserving the military regime along with all of the most distasteful elements of it. You are the one exerting the power, and you get credit for doing something important, and you don’t have to deal with the consequences like the people on the ground. You’re there and you’re not there. It’s a win-win situation.
So the issue from your point of view is the way the day-to-day is made to disappear?
There’s a denial or suppression of how much your job is essential for the continued existence of the occupation. Because you don’t see it immediately, it’s very easy to dodge it. If you want to give it a title, I’d call it the banality of evil. Evil is spread across a sort of mechanism, and the entire mechanism bears collective responsibility, but as a small, hidden, internal part of it, you don’t feel that it’s your responsibility. It’s comfortable to think of evil as a moral problem for an individual person. For one person against another person. It’s easy to imagine situations like that of El’or Azaria, of whether to shoot the terrorist who’s already on the ground. But that’s a distraction.
Obviously we’re talking about difficult circumstances. I’m not trying to take away from that. But what you have to understand is that that’s not even the most difficult question. The question involves a lot more. It’s a question of what your job is and what everyone’s job is as part of an organization, and the influence you hold over the whole thing. The moment you think of it as individual people versus individual people, in small scenes, it’s easy to avoid [taking responsibility]. It’s part of our way of suppressing it. It’s easy to tut-tut at the soldiers who take pictures of themselves with a man who is blindfolded and whose hands are bound. But who’s doing the real damage? Her, or the officer in 8200? Her, or the person who managed to bring on board lots of undercover agents because he didn’t have a problem, for example, exploiting their sexual orientation or their children’s illness?
You’re not in the battlefield and you’re not at risk but you’re absolutely the one with the power.
Absolutely. You’re far away from the Green Line and you never have to meet a Palestinian, and you’re in a very safe environment, and even still, you feel that you have a lot of power and you know that your actions have a lot of influence over other people’s lives in a very direct way. The lives of both Palestinians and IDF soldiers. The entire time they’re drip-feeding you that you’ve been picked out ‘with tweezers’ to do this job, that you’re special and talented, and that it all depends on you. There’s a whole section of the training course dedicated to giving you the feeling that you’re capable. The whole time they tell you that everything’s possible and you have to be creative. Meaning, it’s still the IDF and there are moments when you go back to being just a simple soldier or low-ranking officer, but sometimes it really is true. I’ve been in situations where I’ve stood opposite very high-ranking people, I can’t say who, and they’ve come to hear you because you’re the expert on that particular matter. And it gives you the feeling that you’re part of the circle that gets to decide how things will look.
Do you sometimes think about whether you’re being followed?
Basically, it doesn’t feel so dangerous because of the difference in strength between the two sides, but there is a certain sense of paranoia, to some extent, or simply that you have to be careful. Nothing too extreme. On the other hand perhaps, I as a left-wing activist sometimes think about the fact that I could be a target. But I’m not that interesting. We’re not there yet; perhaps we’ll get there, but Jews in Israel are protected by a sort of norm or unwritten law that they’re “one of us”. But if someone were to think that I’m a threat, like Vanunu or Anat Kam, then why not. Obviously it’s possible. It’s perhaps not as simple as it would be if I were a Palestinian with Israeli citizenship. It’s a matter of rank. But it’s possible, there’s a mechanism and separation of powers, but if someone were to decide to go ahead, then it would be possible. There are legal means and technological means available.
So Israel is trapped in this situation, basically?
In order to maintain the status quo from Israel’s point of view, you need to constantly be increasing the pressure on the population. It’s constantly becoming more and more complex, and deep, and strong. And there’s no choice if we want to maintain our rule there. Anything short of complete submission is considered a breach of the military regime. It’s like an addiction – you constantly need to exercise more and more power over more and more people in order to preserve the ‘quiet’. So we go in further and further. Like you have mapping missions – whereby soldiers go from house to house – that the IDF does in order to ‘make our presence felt’, as it’s known. So you map houses in a pretty random way, but systematically. The ‘circle of damage’ gets constantly wider, and then in order to prevent an outbreak [of violence] you have to increase your presence even further and be everywhere. Whether it’s actual missions on the ground, or increasing the Intelligence Corps’ scope. You’re creating a clash that’s constantly growing and involves more and more people in a more and more acute way, and the intelligence is a fundamental and essential part of that.
Interviewer: Omer Even-Paz