Fifteen members of the Israeli army's top commando unit have written to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon refusing to carry out missions in the Palestinian territories, private television reported.
According to the report, 15 reservists from the elite Sayeret Matkal unit, said they would no longer participate in the "rule of oppression" and the defense of Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories.
We will no longer corrupt the stamp of humanity in us through carrying out the missions of an occupation army... in the past, we fought for a justified cause (but today), we have reached the boundary of oppressing another people.
"We will no longer give our lives to the rule of oppression in the territories and to the denial of human rights to millions of Palestinians and we will no longer serve as a defensive shield for the settlements," the television quoted the letter as saying.
"We will no longer corrupt the stamp of humanity in us through carrying out the missions of an occupation army... in the past, we fought for a justified cause (but today), we have reached the boundary of oppressing another people," it added.
"We will no longer cross this boundary."
Since the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising in September 2000, Sayeret Matkal has spearheaded Israel's campaign to round up militants, tracking down and arresting senior wanted Palestinians, rounding up "terror units" and searching for weapons caches.
The letter was likely to send shockwaves through the defense establishment due to the seniority of the unit, best known for its spectacular rescue of 106 passengers from a hijacked plane at Uganda's Entebbe Airport in 1976.
Army radio said the letter would be presented to Sharon's office later Sunday.
Last week, the Israeli press revealed a 1992 plan to assassinate former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, after Iraq fired 39 Scud missiles at Israel during the 1991 Gulf war.
The plan was to have been carried out by the Sayeret Matkal unit, but was aborted at the last minute.
The latest refusal to serve comes three months after 27 airforce pilots sent a petition to airforce head General Dan Halutz outlining their refusal to undertake missions in the Palestinian territories.
The "refusenik" movement swung into the spotlight in January 2002, when 52 reserve officers and soldiers signed a letter saying they would not serve in the Palestinian territories.
As news of the letter spread, several politicians who served in the unit heaped condemnation on the signatories, saying the army was not a forum in which to raise political issues.
Former premier and head of the unit Ehud Barak, called on them "immediately" to retract their decision, saying it was "a serious mistake", army radio reported.
"Within a democracy there is no place for refusal... it is essential to conduct the struggle against the government's policies in the public sphere," he said.
Labour MK Matan Vilnai, who served as deputy commander of Sayeret Matkal, said the refusal to serve was "a phenomenon that must cannot be accepted in any manner... One must change policy with democratic tools and not through the army."
Ehud Yatom, a deputy from premier Ariel Sharon's right-wing Likud party who also served in the unit, called for the signatories to be brought to justice and said they were hurting the army's fighting capacity.
And the army's Chief of Staff, Moshe Yaalon said anyone who has anything to say about the army's actions should "do it within a military framework," the radio said.
The legal and constitutional committee at the Knesset (parliament) is to hold an urgent debate on opening criminal procedures against "refuseniks" in the coming days, the radio said.
The committee wants to broaden the scope for prosecution outside of the military tribunals.
© Copyright 2003 AFP