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Israeli commandos refuse to serve in W.Bank, Gaza
( 2003-12-22 09:11) (Agencies)

Thirteen fighters in Israel's most celebrated commando unit have publicly refused to serve in the West Bank and Gaza Strip  because they believe the army's operations there are immoral, Israeli media reported.

The commandos announced their refusal to serve in a letter sent to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who has come under increased pressure to halt efforts to quash a three-year-old Palestinian uprising and instead engage in peace treaty talks.

A Palestinian family looks through a hole in a wall in their home caused by the Israeli army in the West Bank town of Nablus. 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. [AFP/File]
"We will no longer be party to an oppressive rule in the territories and the disregard for the human rights of millions of Palestinians," the 13 Sayeret Matkal reservist commandos wrote in their letter, according to local television stations.

"We will no longer be a defensive wall against settlements," added the letter, in a reference to Jewish settlements in lands Israel occupied in the 1967 Middle East war.

The Sayeret Matkal, or General Staff Reconnaissance Unit, is Israel's most elite commando unit and has often been compared to the U.S. military's Delta Force or the British army's SAS.

It has carried out some of the Israeli army's most daring missions including the rescuing of 106 passengers taken hostage by Palestinian guerrillas at Entebbe Airport in Uganda in 1976.

During the uprising, the Sayeret Matkal has been involved in raids to arrest senior Palestinian militant commanders behind a suicide bombing campaign against Israel.

The commandos' letter followed a petition earlier in the year from 27 air force pilots -- all but nine of whom had retired -- as refusing to carry out missions against Palestinian militants in which civilians could be killed.

The 13 signatories to the commando letter were all identified as being reservists, but it was not clear how many were still involved in active military duty.

Sharon's office declined to comment, but military officials described the letter as political, noting that it was sent to Sharon and not military commanders.

"It is very serious that reserve soldiers are using their military past and the name of the unit in which they served as a vehicle to publish their political views," an army spokesman said about the letter.

One of the signatories, identified as Zohar, told Channel One Television: "This is not a political letter...we spoke of the phenomena of occupation which corrupts."

The commandos' letter joined the pilots' letter as the most high-profile acts of defiance by members of the armed forces since the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, when a tank brigade commander resigned rather than invade Beirut, after saying he saw children through his field glasses.

Some of Israel's top military and political figures served in the Sayeret Matkal, including former prime ministers Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu, whose elder brother was killed in the Entebbe rescue operation.

Israeli television stations said it was likely that those signatories still in active service would be dismissed from the unit. The air force removed the nine combat pilots still in active duty after they signed their protest letter in September.

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