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Elite Israeli reservists say they won't spy on Palestinians

JERUSALEM -- More than two dozen reservists from the Israeli army's elite intelligence-gathering unit have sent a public letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the army chief of staff declaring their refusal to serve on intelligence missions against Palestinians.

The 27 reservists are part of a group of 43 signatories of the letter who identified themselves as veterans of the unit, known by its number, 8200.

"We cannot in good conscience continue serving this system and violate the rights of millions of people," they said.

The protest, made public yesterday, carried special weight because of the elite status of the secretive unit, which specializes in electronic surveillance. Its work includes collection of data used to monitor and target Palestinians and cyberwarfare operations.

The army defended Unit 8200's work, saying it operated under ethical guidelines strictly supervised by top officers and that there is "no record" of the violations alleged by the reservists.

In personal testimonies about their work, unit veterans described pervasive and unfettered intrusion into the private lives of ordinary Palestinians, including use of information about sexual preferences and medical conditions to coerce people into being informers.

"Palestinians' sex conversations were always passed along for a laugh," said one signer.

A signer who served during an Israeli army offensive in Gaza in late 2008 and 2009 described the scene in his section after airstrikes on intelligence targets, including suspected militants.

"When a hit was identified or reported, cheering and applause filled the room," he said. When a target was missed and bystanders were hit, "cries of disappointment were heard, not because people had been killed arbitrarily, but because they weren't the ones we were looking for," the signer said.

The reservists' letter was not the first of its kind to be published in Israel. In 2002, dozens of reserve combat soldiers signed a declaration that they would refuse to carry out occupation duty in the Palestinian areas. In 2003, a similar pledge was made by more than a dozen reservists from the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit, and a group of 27 reserve pilots declared their refusal to fly missions in Palestinian population centers, attacks they said harmed innocent civilians.

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