Elite Israeli Troops Refuse To Serve in the Territories
By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 22, 2003; Page A19

JERUSALEM, Dec. 21 -- Thirteen reservists from Israel's elite military commando unit stated Sunday in a letter to the prime minister that they would no longer serve in the occupied territories, joining other influential security officials who have recently criticized Israeli military tactics and treatment of the Palestinians.

"We have long ago crossed the line between fighters fighting a just cause and oppressing another people," three officers and 10 soldiers of the army's most secretive unit, the Sayeret Matkal, said in the letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The letter was made public by the soldiers, who signed with their ranks, first names and the first letter of their last names.

The reservists said they were taking the dramatic step of publicly criticizing their government's policies "out of deep fear for the future of the state of Israel as a democratic, Zionist and Jewish country and out of concern for its moral and ethical image."

"It is very grave and unfortunate that reservists use the unit in which they served as a platform for publicizing their political views," said an Israeli military spokesman, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The condemnation of government policies in the West Bank and Gaza Strip by the commandos echoes similar recent remarks by a group of 27 reserve pilots, four former chiefs of Israel's powerful domestic security service, the military's current chief of staff, and a separate list of 574 army reservists. The statements by reservists are being organized by a group calling itself Courage to Refuse.

The criticism from within the Israeli military and security forces has unsettled the Sharon administration and has contributed to discontent expressed in the last few months by many segments of Israeli society over the government's handling of the Palestinian uprising, now in its fourth year.

Political analysts said the comments from soldiers and military officers on operations in the occupied territories was one of the reasons Sharon announced last week that his government would unilaterally establish what he called a security line between the West Bank and Israel if the Palestinian Authority did not act quickly to stem terrorism.

An open protest letter from members of a military unit that has been involved in dozens of the Israeli military's most sensitive operations is highly unusual, analysts said.

"This is the number-one military unit in Israel," said Yagil Levy, author of a recent book on the Israeli military. "Until 10 years ago nobody could even mention its name publicly because it was covered by censorship regulations. It is a very mysterious unit responsible for the most heroic missions the Israeli Defense Forces have ever made."

Members of the commando unit specialize in counterterrorism, assassinations and rescue missions. One of their most famous operations was the 1976 rescue of hostages from a hijacked French airplane in Entebbe, Uganda. Israeli documents  declassified after last week's capture of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein confirmed accounts that the unit planned an assassination attempt against Hussein in 1992, but it was aborted when five commandos were killed during a rehearsal for the mission.

Some of Israel's most prominent current and former leaders have been members of the commando unit, including former prime minister Ehud Barak; Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu; Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, chief of staff of the armed forces; and the director of the Shin Bet security agency, Avi Dichter.

Although the unit does not participate in routine activities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, it has reportedly been involved in some of the most critical missions, involving intelligence gathering and assassinations of Palestinians.

The 13 reserve officers and soldiers accused the Israeli government of "depriving the rights of millions of Palestinians" and using soldiers as "human shields for the settlements."

The letter said, "We will no longer butcher our humanity by taking part in an occupying army's missions."

At least two reservists from the unit were jailed last year by the military for refusing to serve in the Palestinian territories. It was unclear whether those two were among the signatories of the letter because the names of the jailed men has not been divulged publicly.

Effi Eitam, a reserve general and the head of the National Religious Party, which strongly supports Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories, said, "Those who signed are not worthy of being called soldiers," the Associated Press reported.

Separately on Sunday, Israeli military activities continued in the West Bank, where a six-year-old Palestinian boy, Mohammad Naim Isryda, was shot in the chest and killed while playing near his house in the Balata refugee camp on the edge of Nablus, Palestinian medical officials reported. Israeli military officials said soldiers opened fire on the area after a homemade explosive was thrown at them. Another youngster from the camp, Nur Emran, 13, died from injuries he suffered on Tuesday, when an Israeli soldier shot him in the head with a rubber-coated steel bullet. The soldiers opened fire on youths who were throwing stones, bricks and bottles, a military spokesman said. The spokesman said the military had not received any formal complaint that a youth had been hit.

2003 The Washington Post Company

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