“Refusal to serve of any kind should be condemned,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a speech at a cyber-conference in Tel Aviv. (Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)

Israeli officials denounced 43 reservists for declaring that they would no longer serve in the military’s main intelligence unit in protest of the government’s policies toward the Palestinians.

The members of Intelligence Unit 8200 sent a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that said they were refusing to “take part in actions against Palestinians” and “continue serving as tools in cementing the military’s control over the Occupied Territories.” The letter, sent last week, singled out the unit’s surveillance of Palestinians and accused it of collecting information that “is used for political persecution” and “harms innocent people.”

“Refusal to serve of any kind should be condemned,” Netanyahu said in a speech at a cyber-conference in Tel Aviv. “The political use that was made recently, including the airing of false accusations, is unacceptable. The Israeli Defense Forces, including all of its units, is the most moral army in the world.”

In a post on his Facebook page late Saturday, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon called the protest a “vile and reprehensible attempt to aid the lies and delegitimization spread around the world against Israel and its soldiers, without any basis.” Intelligence and Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz told Israel Radio on Sunday that the protest was “an act of subversion that deserves punishment.”

Netanyahu wrote on his Facebook page that the country owes a debt of gratitude to Unit 8200 soldiers for “continuing work that is so important for the security of Israeli citizens.”

While thousands of Israeli reservists over the years have refused on principle to serve in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, risking military prison sentences, group protests in elite units are rare. The protest comes at a time when Israel has been criticized internationally over its recent military operation against Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Palestinian civilians, as well as militants. About 70 Israelis, mostly soldiers, also were killed.

The protest has the potential to cause “serious damage” to the intelligence unit’s work, former military intelligence chief Shlomo Gazit said in a phone interview. Gazit, now a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, said it was too early to tell whether that would be the case.

He advised the military to avoid any severe reprisals against the reservists, arguing that the publicity would only aid their cause. He suggested that the soldiers be reassigned to duties other than intelligence work.

“The sooner we stop dealing with this letter, the better,” Gazit said.