They say that Israel's occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is a mission of oppression.
They say that Israel is denying basic human rights to millions of Palestinians.
They say that if Israel continues the occupation, the country will endanger not just the lives and rights of Palestinians but the future of Israel itself.
Who are these militant critics of Israeli policies? More than a dozen members of the ultra-elite Sayeret Matkal unit of the Israeli Defense Forces. Arguably the most respected, and feared, soldiers in the Israeli military, members of the unit have for decades been at the forefront of their country's most daring military initiatives - including the 1976 rescue at Entebbe airport of 100 hostages being held on an Air France flight that had been hijacked by terrorists. The mystique surrounding the Sayeret Matkal unit is even more intense and dramatic than that associated with the U.S. Army Green Berets and Navy SEALs, or the British Special Air Service.
Sayeret Matkal is, in the words of military historian Yagil Levy, "the No. 1 military unit in Israel."
That is why it is so startling, and so very significant, that members of the unit have refused to participate any longer in what they describe as "missions of oppression." Like a growing number of Israelis, many of whom serve in the military, the dissident members of the Sayeret Matkal unit say they are no longer willing to cooperate with the occupation of Palestinian land on the West Bank and Gaza Strip - or with the often brutal actions that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon believes are justified as part of that occupation.
On Dec. 21, 10 soldiers and three officers of the Sayeret Matkal unit signed a remarkable letter to Sharon, in which they declared, "We shall no longer lend a hand in the occupation of the territories."
Accusing Sharon of using their unit and other Israeli military forces to promote the development of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land, the signers of the letter wrote, "We shall no long serve as a shield in the crusade of the settlements."
The letter sent shock waves through the Israeli political establishment that were even more intense that those felt in September, when 27 Israeli Air Force pilots and navigators said that they would refuse to participate in missions involving the territories. And it ought to be read closely by policy-makers in the United States, where the Bush administration and too many members of Congress continue to believe, wrongly, that support for Israel requires support for, or at the least acceptance of, the occupation.
In fact, the opposite is true, as the members of the Sayeret Matkal unit made clear in their letter to Sharon.
"Out of concern for the future of Israel as a Jewish, Zionist, Democratic state, and out of fear for its moral character," they wrote, "we declare that: We shall no longer lend a hand in the occupation of the territories. We shall no longer take part in the deprivation of basic human rights from millions of Palestinians. We shall no long serve as a shield in the crusade of the settlements. We shall no longer corrupt our moral character in missions of oppression. We shall no longer deny our responsibility as soldiers of the Israeli DEFENSE force.
"We fear for the fate of the children of this country, who are constantly subjected to an evil that is unnecessary, an evil in which we have participated. We have long ago crossed the line of those who fight for their own protection; we stand facing the border of those who fight to conquer another people.
"We shall not cross this border!"
By continuing to support Sharon's folly, the United States crosses that border, and in so doing encourages what some of the most respected members of the Israeli military appropriately characterize as "missions of oppression." Just as this letter from members of the Sayeret Matkal unit should lead Israeli leaders to rethink their misguided policies, so it should lead American leaders to rethink the role that U.S. support and encouragement of those same misguided leaders and policies have played in creating the current crisis.
Copyright 2003 The Capital Times