What Kind of State Hides Away Documents Previously Open and Available to Researchers?
What Kind of State Hides Away Documents Previously Open and Available to Researchers?
What Kind of State Hides Away Documents Previously Open and Available to Researchers?
Israel is a State whose Intelligence Services are Engaged in Rewriting the History of the Nakba and the Ethnic Cleansing of the Palestinians
I was brought up as a Zionist and from an early age I learnt that, despite the wishes of the Israelis, the Arabs had insisted on leaving Palestine in order to let the Arab armies invade and drive the Jews out. In every Arab village there was a radio which conveyed orders from the Arab states to get out in order not to impede the invading Arab armies.
Looking at it today, it is a wonder how I and generations of Jews bought into these myths. They are, when seen in the cold light of day, absurd. No indigenous population voluntarily exiles itself. It makes no sense. Why would the Palestinians take orders from distant Arab rulers. But to us it made sense. After all ‘the Arabs’ were the enemy.
The history of what has happened has been told in many books and articles such as Ilan Pappe’s Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine and Benny Morris’s The Birth of the Palestinian Problem Revisited. Over half the Palestinian refugees had already been expelled by May 15th 1948 when Israel declared its independence.
We were also told how the Zionists begged the Palestinians to stay and in particular how the Mayor of Haifa Shabtai Levy pleaded with the Palestinians to stay. Indeed Golda Meir wrote in her autobiography “My Life” that Ben-Gurion asked her to try and prevent the flight of Haifa’s Arabs.
“Ben-Gurion called me and said: ‘I want you to immediately go to Haifa and see to it that the Arabs who remain in Haifa are treated appropriately. I also want you to try and persuade the Arabs who are already on the beach to return home. You have to get it into their heads that they have nothing to fear,’ he said. And so, I went immediately. I sat on the beach there and begged them to return home I pleaded with them until I was exhausted but it didn’t work,”
It was also a lie. In fact on 2nd June 1948, barely a month after their expulsion, David Ben-Gurion sent a letter to Abba Khoushy, the secretary-general of the Haifa Workers’ Council, and later the city’s mayor instructing him that ‘we don’t want a return of the enemy. And all institutions should act accordingly’ After Capturing Haifa, Ben-Gurion GaveOrder to Stop Fleeing Arabs From Returning. What we weren’t told was how the Palestinians in Haifa had been shelled and mortared by the Zionist terror militias and that the main militia, the Labour Zionist Haganah had used loudspeakers to warn of a terrible massacre if any Arabs stayed. Such was the panic that many Palestinians drowned in the sea at Haifa Port when boarding the boats to take them to safety. [See Ilan Pappe’s The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine]
We were also told how the Zionists begged the Palestinians to stay and in particular how the Mayor of Haifa Shabtai Levy pleaded with the Palestinians to stay. But as Michael Bar-Zohar, the biographer of Ben Gurion, noted appeals to“the Arabs to stay” were political gestures for external audiences whereas “[i]n internal discussions”, Ben-Gurion communicated that “it was better that the smallest possible number of Arabs remain within the area of the state.”[Michael Bar-Zohar (1977): Ben-Gurion: A Political Biography. Hebrew, Tel Aviv, vol. 2, pp. 702–3]
It would have been impossible to form a majority Jewish state if the Arabs had stayed. In 1961 two researchers, quite independently of each other, Walid Khalidi and Erskine Childers, conducted research which involved transcribing the CIA and BBC reports and tapes of the Arab radio stations of the period. [See Erskine Childers, The Other Exodus, The Spectator, 12.5.61.]
What Khalidi and Childers found was that these radio stations instructed the Arabs of Palestine to stay and indeed threatened them with dire consequences if they left. There was no evidence of any instruction to leave, contrary to the Zionist mythology and yet a whole lie has been built on this myth, which was constructed in order that Israel could avoid implementing UN Resolution 194. [see The Palestinian Exodus in 1948, Institute for Palestine Studies].
In Israel the official lie, that the Arabs left of their own accord, persists. In 2011 the Knesset passed the Naqba Law which authorised the Finance Minister to reduce state funding or support for an institution if it holds an activity that rejects the existence of Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state” or commemorates “Israel’s Independence Day or the day on which the state was established as a day of mourning.”
The Palestinians still left in Israel are supposed to rejoice on the day that their relatives were expelled or massacred. The State instructs them to commemorate and celebrate a lie on pain of suffering the consequences.
Interestingly by August last year the Finance Ministry had rejected all 98 appeals, 17 of which had been submitted by Israel’s fascist culture Minister Miri Regev, to reduce funding to institutions which had nonetheless held events commemorating Naqba day. In practice it was difficult to implement a law designed to change history to fit in with national myths.
However a Committee set up as a result of Regev’s whining decided to fine the Jaffa theatre a few thousand shekels for holding two events, one of which featured the poetry of Dareen Tatour, an Israeli Palestinian poet gaoled for her poetry by Israel.
It is clear that the Israeli state is intent on preserving the myth of its creation, that the Arabs ran away. It seeks to do this both by the use of legislation fining any institution, including schools, which provide another version of history and through closing their archives, even when they have previously been open to historians and researchers. The truth is a malleable instrument of power.
However the genie is out of the bottle. Once a document has been revealed and read no amount of retrospective censorship can put the genie back into the bottle. The mere fact that Israel is trying, by the crudest censorship, to put a stop to these embarrassing revelations about its history, by resealing the archives, is proof that Israel has a great deal to hide, not least the circumstances of its own creation.
History is being rewritten by Israel’s security services with the sole purpose of distorting the past in order to shape the future.
Today the same dilemma faces Israel as it did in 1948. The majority of those now living within Greater Israel are Palestinian Arabs. The Jewish State can only remain Jewish by depriving the majority of Palestinians under their control of any civil or political rights. In other words Israel has chosen a combination of apartheid (previously dressed up as the 2 State Solution) and bantustanisation. The question is whether and when it resorts to its final solution, transfer or ethnic cleansing. As Jonathan Ofir writes in the article below:
‘Everything is being buried, by an arm of the Israeli government. If someone were doing this to Holocaust documents, there would be a cry to the heavens. … The Jewish State is actively trying to erase the Nakba and any critical discussion of it. Holocaust denial is illegal in Germany – but Nakba denial is not illegal in Israel, and it is thriving.
Reading through the following articles and in particular the interview with Yehiel Horev, Director Malmab, the Head of the Defence Ministry Department charged with restricting access to already open archives is chilling. He makes no secret of his belief that historical documents are a plaything of a government intent on rewriting history. Horev explained that:
the objective is to undermine the credibility of studies about the history of the refugee problem. In Horev’s view, an allegation made by a researcher that’s backed up by an original document is not the same as an allegation that cannot be proved or refuted.
Horev elaborated, quite shamelessly, that
When the state imposes confidentiality, the published work is weakened, because he doesn’t have the document
There are those who still profess that Israel is just another liberal western democracy. This deception lies at the heart of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance misdefinition of democracy. What is happening with Israeli archives dealing with the origins of the State demonstrates that Israel’s democracy is just a facade, a sugar coating that covers a military state. What other democracy would allows its intelligence services to roam the country intimidating academic archivists into permiting the censorship of embarrassing documents?
Israeli historian Benny Morris is known for his uncovering of some of Israel’s darkest secrets from the Nakba. Only a week ago, he was mentioned in detail in Hagar Shezaf’s staggering investigative reportin Haaretz titled “Burying the Nakba: How Israel Systematically Hides Evidence of 1948 Expulsion of Arabs”. The piece uncovered a secret yet systematic operation by an Israeli Defense Ministry department, causing critical Nakba archives to disappear from the public eye – archives that had already been cited since the late 1980’s by historians such as Morris.
Yesterday, a Hebrew-only piece appeared in Haaretz, by Morris, titled “The Director of Historical Revisionism in the Defense Ministry”. The title is a sarcastic pun on the name of the revealed department, the “Department for Security of the Defense Establishment” (acronym Malmab in Hebrew).
Morris congratulates Shezaf for her “excellent investigative report” and continues to tell in detail of the disappearance of archives he had quoted from concerning the massacre of Deir Yassin from 1948.
Morris’s exposure reveals a multi-layered conspiracy of cover-up, historical revisionism and censorship that cuts across many decades:
About two years ago, when I was preparing a collection of articles for my recent book in Hebrew (“From Deir Yassin to Camp David”), I asked the Defense Ministry and IDF Archive for permission to peruse anew documents which regarded the massacre which was committed by the Etzel [Irgun] and Lehi [Stern Gang] in the Arab town Deir Yassin, on the western approaches of Jerusalem, on February 9th 1948. On that day 100-120 of the village residents were killed, most of them children, women and elderly. These documents were open to researchers and the wide public at the beginning of the 21st century and I had quoted from them extensively in the English article “The Historiography of Deir Yassin” which I had published in 2005 in the Tel Aviv University’s “Journal of Israeli History”. I had now asked to peruse them again, but the directors of the archive refused my request. They had no explanation other than the statement: “now the documents are closed”.
Morris reveals that the documents he was seeking were not only from 1948 (reports from the Haganah Intelligence Service), but also from much later – 1971.
The 1971 documents relate to secret discussions between former Haganah/IDF officials and Foreign Ministry officials concerning what happened in Deir Yassin. And the reason for the discussions is a booklet that was published in 1969 by the Hasbara Department of the Foreign Ministry, under Abba Eban. Morris explains about the content:
In the booklet it was claimed that there was no massacre in Deir Yassin and that the story about the massacre is supposedly an Arab fiction, ‘part of a collection of fables’.
Morris also discloses that it was his father, the late Yaakov Morris, who was the author of the booklet. The release of the booklet caused uproar amongst veterans of the Labor movement who had been leaders in the Zionist militias and the Israeli military in 1948, and they complained about the booklet. In 1971, Shaul Avigdor, who had been a Haganah immigration official, sent a complaint to Gideon Rafael, Director General of the Foreign Ministry. Avigdor attached an opinion from Yehuda Slutzki, author of the official Haganah history book, who affirmed that there indeed was a massacre in Deir Yassin. Yitzhak Levy, who was head of the Intelligence Service in Jerusalem in 1948 and later became Deputy Director General of the Prime Minister Office, wrote to Menahem Begin (Irgun commander and later Prime Minister) also in 1971 – Begin had denied the massacre.
Levitzeh [Yitzhak Levy] wrote that he had investigated the story at the time, and found that Deir Yassin was a quiet town, which had not participated in the battles of 1948 and that indeed a massacre had been perpetrated there by the Irgun and Lehi. Also Israel Galili, from the heads of the Haganah in 1948 and at the time a senior minister in the Israeli government, complained directly to Eban. Eventually Eban replied that his office had shelved the discussed booklet.
The relevant letters from 1971, which were open for perusal in 2003-2004, were closed to researchers and the wide public by order of the Malmab, and therefore in 2018 I was prohibited from seeing them. As well, most of the “incriminating” material from April 1948, which was written by the Intelligence Service officers and was open in 2003-2004, was closed by the Malmab (by the way, even earlier, since I began to work with 1948 matters from the early 1980’s, the Archive of the Defense Ministry and IDF has consistently refused to release for review photographs of the slain of Deir Yassin, which were apparently taken by the Intelligence Service people before they were buried).
Morris cites Yitzhak Levy, reporting about Deir Yassin in 1948:
The conquering of the town was done with great cruelty. Whole families, women, elderly and small children were killed… Some of the prisoners were taken to detention centers including women and children and cruelly murdered by their captors.
Levy had supplied his report the day after with a follow-up from testimonies of Lehi militants:
Lehi fighters raped a number of women and murdered them later.
Morris writes that these reports contain many more acts of the Irgun and Lehi in Deir Yassin, including looting etc.
Morris decries the “idiocy” of the Malmab in hiding these materials, since “the whole story was told and publicized since 1988 in many books in Hebrew and English, from my pen and from others”. But he resigns to the logic of it all:
Yet, as transpires from Shezaf’s article, the heads of Malmab in their actions hope or hoped that inaccessibility of the Israeli materials, which they had enforced, would cause doubt regarding the work, the conclusions and the very credibility of the researchers – including this writer – in whoever reads their books and articles.
What a cover-up, what a conspiracy (and that’s not just a theory). Everything is being buried, by an arm of the Israeli government. If someone were doing this to Holocaust documents, there would be a cry to the heavens. What a shame. The Jewish State is actively trying to erase the Nakba and any critical discussion of it. Holocaust denial is illegal in Germany – but Nakba denial is not illegal in Israel, and it is thriving.
H/t Ronit Lentin
Jonathan OfirIsraeli musician, conductor and blogger / writer based in Denmark.
Since early last decade, Defense Ministry teams have scoured local archives and removed troves of historic documents to conceal proof of the Nakba By Hagar ShezafJul 05, 2019
Four years ago, historian Tamar Novick was jolted by a document she found in the file of Yosef Waschitz, from the Arab Department of the left-wing Mapam Party, in the Yad Yaari archive at Givat Haviva. The document, which seemed to describe events that took place during the 1948 war, began:
“Safsaf [former Palestinian village near Safed] – 52 men were caught, tied them to one another, dug a pit and shot them. 10 were still twitching. Women came, begged for mercy. Found bodies of 6 elderly men. There were 61 bodies. 3 cases of rape, one east of from Safed, girl of 14, 4 men shot and killed. From one they cut off his fingers with a knife to take the ring.”
The writer goes on to describe additional massacres, looting and abuse perpetrated by Israeli forces in Israel’s War of Independence. “There’s no name on the document and it’s not clear who’s behind it,” Dr. Novick tells Haaretz. “It also breaks off in the middle. I found it very disturbing. I knew that finding a document like this made me responsible for clarifying what happened.”
The Upper Galilee village of Safsaf was captured by the Israel Defense Forces in Operation Hiram toward the end of 1948. Moshav Safsufa was established on its ruins. Allegations were made over the years that the Seventh Brigade committed war crimes in the village. Those charges are supported by the document Novick found, which was not previously known to scholars. It could also constitute additional evidence that the Israeli top brass knew about what was going on in real time.
Novick decided to consult with other historians about the document.Benny Morris, whose books are basic texts in the study of the Nakba – the “calamity,” as the Palestinians refer to the mass emigration of Arabs from the country during the 1948 war – told her that he, too, had come across similar documentation in the past. He was referring to notes made by Mapam Central Committee member Aharon Cohen on the basis of a briefing given in November 1948 by Israel Galili, the former chief of staff of the Haganah militia, which became the IDF. Cohen’s notes in this instance, which Morris published, stated:
“Safsaf 52 men tied with a rope. Dropped into a pit and shot. 10 were killed. Women pleaded for mercy. [There were] 3 cases of rape. Caught and released. A girl of 14 was raped. Another 4 were killed. Rings of knives.”
Morris’ footnote (in his seminal “The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949”) states that this document was also found in the Yad Yaari Archive. But when Novick returned to examine the document, she was surprised to discover that it was no longer there.
“At first I thought that maybe Morris hadn’t been accurate in his footnote, that perhaps he had made a mistake,” Novick recalls. “It took me time to consider the possibility that the document had simply disappeared.” When she asked those in charge where the document was, she was told that it had been placed behind lock and key at Yad Yaari – by order of the Ministry of Defense.
Since the start of the last decade, Defense Ministry teams have been scouring Israel’s archives and removing historic documents. But it’s not just papers relating to Israel’s nuclear project or to the country’s foreign relations that are being transferred to vaults: Hundreds of documents have been concealed as part of a systematic effort to hide evidence of the Nakba.
The phenomenon was first detected by the Akevot Institute for Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Research. According to a report drawn up by the institute, the operation is being spearheaded by Malmab, the Defense Ministry’s secretive security department (the name is a Hebrew acronym for “director of security of the defense establishment”), whose activities and budget are classified. The report asserts that Malmab removed historical documentation illegally and with no authority, and at least in some cases has sealed documents that had previously been cleared for publication by the military censor. Some of the documents that were placed in vaults had already been published.
An investigative report by Haaretz found that Malmab has concealed testimony from IDF generals about the killing of civilians and the demolition of villages, as well as documentation of the expulsion of Bedouin during the first decade of statehood. Conversations conducted by Haaretz with directors of public and private archives alike revealed that staff of the security department had treated the archives as their property, in some cases threatening the directors themselves.
[Yehiel Horev] explained that the objective is to undermine the credibility of studies about the history of the refugee problem. In Horev’s view, an allegation made by a researcher that’s backed up by an original document is not the same as an allegation that cannot be proved or refuted.
Yehiel Horev, who headed Malmab for two decades, until 2007, acknowledged to Haaretz that he launched the project, which is still ongoing. He maintains that it makes sense to conceal the events of 1948, because uncovering them could generate unrest among the country’s Arab population. Asked what the point is of removing documents that have already been published, he explained that the objective is to undermine the credibility of studies about the history of the refugee problem. In Horev’s view, an allegation made by a researcher that’s backed up by an original document is not the same as an allegation that cannot be proved or refuted.
The document Novick was looking for might have reinforced Morris’ work. During the investigation, Haaretz was in fact able to find the Aharon Cohen memo, which sums up a meeting of Mapam’s Political Committee on the subject of massacres and expulsions in 1948. Participants in the meeting called for cooperation with a commission of inquiry that would investigate the events. One case the committee discussed concerned “grave actions” carried out in the village of Al-Dawayima, east of Kiryat Gat. One participant mentioned the then-disbanded Lehi underground militia in this connection. Acts of looting were also reported: “Lod and Ramle, Be’er Sheva, there isn’t [an Arab] store that hasn’t been broken into. 9th Brigade says 7, 7th Brigade says 8.”
“The party,” the document states near the end, “is against expulsion if there is no military necessity for it. There are different approaches concerning the evaluation of necessity. And further clarification is best. What happened in Galilee – those are Nazi acts! Every one of our members must report what he knows.”
The Israeli version
One of the most fascinating documents about the origin of the Palestinian refugee problem was written by an officer in Shai, the precursor to the Shin Bet security service. It discusses why the country was emptied of so many of its Arab inhabitants, dwelling on the circumstances of each village. Compiled in late June 1948, it was titled “The Emigration of the Arabs of Palestine.”
This document was the basis for an article that Benny Morris published in 1986. After the article appeared, the document was removed from the archive and rendered inaccessible to researchers. Years later, the Malmab team reexamined the document, and ordered that it remain classified. They could not have known that a few years later researchers from Akevot would find a copy of the text and run it past the military censors – who authorized its publication unconditionally. Now, after years of concealment, the gist of the document is being revealed here
The 25-page document begins with an introduction that unabashedly approves of the evacuation of the Arab villages. According to the author, the month of April “excelled in an increase of emigration,” while May “was blessed with the evacuation of maximum places.” The report then addresses “the causes of the Arab emigration.”According to the Israeli narrative that was disseminated over the years, responsibility for the exodus from Israel rests with Arab politicians who encouraged the population to leave. However, according to the document, 70 percent of the Arabs left as a result of Jewish military operations.
The unnamed author of the text ranks the reasons for the Arabs’ departure in order of importance. The first reason: “Direct Jewish acts of hostility against Arab places of settlement.” The second reason was the impact of those actions on neighboring villages. Third in importance came “operations by the breakaways,” namely the Irgun and Lehi undergrounds. The fourth reason for the Arab exodus was orders issued by Arab institutions and “gangs” (as the document refers to all Arab fighting groups); fifth was “Jewish ‘whispering operations’ to induce the Arab inhabitants to flee”; and the sixth factor was “evacuation ultimatums.”
The author asserts that, “without a doubt, the hostile operations were the main cause of the movement of the population.” In addition, “Loudspeakers in the Arabic language proved their effectiveness on the occasions when they were utilized properly.” As for Irgun and Lehi operations, the report observes that “many in the villages of central Galilee started to flee following the abduction of the notables of Sheikh Muwannis [a village north of Tel Aviv]. The Arab learned that it is not enough to forge an agreement with the Haganah and that there are other Jews [i.e., the breakaway militias] to beware of.”
The author notes that ultimatums to leave were especially employed in central Galilee, less so in the Mount Gilboa region. “Naturally, the act of this ultimatum, like the effect of the ‘friendly advice,’ came after a certain preparing of the ground by means of hostile actions in the area.”
An appendix to the document describes the specific causes of the exodus from each of scores of Arab locales: Ein Zeitun – “our destruction of the village”; Qeitiya – “harassment, threat of action”; Almaniya – “our action, many killed”; Tira – “friendly Jewish advice”; Al’Amarir – “after robbery and murder carried out by the breakaways”; Sumsum – “our ultimatum”; Bir Salim – “attack on the orphanage”; and Zarnuga – “conquest and expulsion.”
Short fuse In the early 2000s, the Yitzhak Rabin Center conducted a series of interviews with former public and military figures as part of a project to document their activity in the service of the state. The long arm of Malmab seized on these interviews, too. Haaretz, which obtained the original texts of several of the interviews, compared them to the versions that are now available to the public, after large swaths of them were declared classified.
These included, for example, sections of the testimony of Brig. Gen. (res.) Aryeh Shalev about the expulsion across the border of the residents of a village he called “Sabra.” Later in the interview, the following sentences were deleted: “There was a very serious problem in the valley. There were refugees who wanted to return to the valley, to the Triangle [a concentration of Arab towns and villages in eastern Israel]. We expelled them. I met with them to persuade them not to want that. I have papers about it.”
In another case, Malmab decided to conceal the following segment from an interview that historian Boaz Lev Tov conducted with Maj. Gen. (res.) Elad Peled:
Lev Tov: “We’re talking about a population – women and children?”
Peled: “All, all. Yes.”
Lev Tov: “Don’t you distinguish between them?”
Peled: “The problem is very simple. The war is between two populations. They come out of their home.”
Lev Tov: “If the home exists, they have somewhere to return to?”
Peled: “It’s not armies yet, it’s gangs. We’re also actually gangs. We come out of the house and return to the house. They come out of the house and return to the house. It’s either their house or our house.”
Lev Tov: “Qualms belong to the more recent generation?”
Peled: “Yes, today. When I sit in an armchair here and think about what happened, all kinds of thoughts come to mind.”
Lev Tov: “Wasn’t that the case then?”
Peled: “Look, let me tell you something even less nice and cruel, about the big raid in Sasa [Palestinian village in Upper Galilee]. The goal was actually to deter them, to tell them, ‘Dear friends, the Palmach [the Haganah “shock troops”] can reach every place, you are not immune.’ That was the heart of the Arab settlement. But what did we do? My platoon blew up 20 homes with everything that was there.”
Lev Tov: “While people were sleeping there?”
Peled: “I suppose so. What happened there, we came, we entered the village, planted a bomb next to every house, and afterward Homesh blew on a trumpet, because we didn’t have radios, and that was the signal [for our forces] to leave. We’re running in reverse, the sappers stay, they pull, it’s all primitive. They light the fuse or pull the detonator and all those houses are gone.”
Another passage that the Defense Ministry wanted to keep from the public came from Dr. Lev Tov’s conversation with Maj. Gen. Avraham Tamir:
Tamir: “I was under Chera [Maj. Gen. Tzvi Tzur, later IDF chief of staff], and I had excellent working relations with him. He gave me freedom of action – don’t ask – and I happened to be in charge of staff and operations work during two developments deriving from[Prime Minister David] Ben-Gurion’s policy. One development was when reports arrived about marches of refugees from Jordan toward the abandoned villages [in Israel]. And then Ben-Gurion lays down as policy that we have to demolish [the villages] so they won’t have anywhere to return to. That is, all the Arab villages, most of which were in [the area covered by] Central Command, most of them.”
Lev Tov: “The ones that were still standing?”
Tamir: “The ones that weren’t yet inhabited by Israelis. There were places where we had already settled Israelis, like Zakariyya and others. But most of them were still abandoned villages.”
Lev Tov: “That were standing?”
Tamir: “Standing. It was necessary for there to be no place for them to return to, so I mobilized all the engineering battalions of Central Command, and within 48 hours I knocked all those villages to the ground. Period. There’s no place to return to.”
Lev Tov: “Without hesitation, I imagine.”
Tamir: “Without hesitation. That was the policy. I mobilized, I carried it out and I did it.”
Crates in vaults
The vault of the Yad Yaari Research and Documentation Center is one floor below ground level. In the vault, which is actually a small, well-secured room, are stacks of crates containing classified documents. The archive houses the materials of the Hashomer Hatzair movement, the Kibbutz Ha’artzi kibbutz movement, Mapam, Meretz and other bodies, such as Peace Now.
The archive’s director is Dudu Amitai, who is also chairman of the Association of Israel Archivists. According to Amitai, Malmab personnel visited the archive regularly between 2009 and 2011. Staff of the archive relate that security department teams – two Defense Ministry retirees with no archival training – would show up two or three times a week. They searched for documents according to such keywords as “nuclear,” “security” and “censorship,” and also devoted considerable time to the War of Independence and the fate of the pre-1948 Arab villages.
“In the end, they submitted a summary to us, saying that they had located a few dozen sensitive documents,” Amitai says. “We don’t usually take apart files, so dozens of files, in their entirety, found their way into our vault and were removed from the public catalog.” A file might contain more than 100 documents.
One of the files that was sealed deals with the military government that controlled the lives of Israel’s Arab citizens from 1948 until 1966. For years, the documents were stored in the same vault, inaccessible to scholars. Recently, in the wake of a request by Prof. Gadi Algazi, a historian from Tel Aviv University, Amitai examined the file himself and ruled that there was no reason not to unseal it, Malmab’s opinion notwithstanding.
According to Algazi, there could be several reasons for Malmab’s decision to keep the file classified. One of them has to do with a secret annex it contains to a report by a committee that examined the operation of the military government. The report deals almost entirely with land-ownership battles between the state and Arab citizens, and barely touches on security matters.
Another possibility is a 1958 report by the ministerial committee that oversaw the military government. In one of the report’s secret appendixes, Col. Mishael Shaham, a senior officer in the military government, explains that one reason for not dismantling the martial law apparatus is the need to restrict Arab citizens’ access to the labor market and to prevent the reestablishment of destroyed villages.
A third possible explanation for hiding the file concerns previously unpublished historical testimony about the expulsion of Bedouin. On the eve of Israel’s establishment, nearly 100,000 Bedouin lived in the Negev. Three years later, their number was down to 13,000. In the years during and after the independence war, a number of expulsion operations were carried out in the country’s south. In one case, United Nations observers reported that Israel had expelled 400 Bedouin from the Azazma tribe and cited testimonies of tents being burned. The letter that appears in the classified file describes a similar expulsion carried out as late as 1956, as related by geologist Avraham Parnes:
“A month ago we toured Ramon [crater]. The Bedouin in the Mohila area came to us with their flocks and their families and asked us to break bread with them. I replied that we had a great deal of work to do and didn’t have time. In our visit this week, we headed toward Mohila again. Instead of the Bedouin and their flocks, there was deathly silence. Scores of camel carcasses were scattered in the area. We learned that three days earlier the IDF had ‘screwed’ the Bedouin, and their flocks were destroyed – the camels by shooting, the sheep with grenades. One of the Bedouin, who started to complain, was killed, the rest fled.”
The testimony continued,
“Two weeks earlier, they’d been ordered to stay where they were for the time being, afterward they were ordered to leave, and to speed things up 500 head were slaughtered…. The expulsion was executed ‘efficiently.’” The letter goes on to quote what one of the soldiers said to Parnes, according to his testimony: “They won’t go unless we’ve screwed their flocks. A young girl of about 16 approached us. She had a beaded necklace of brass snakes. We tore the necklace and each of us took a bead for a souvenir.”
The letter was originally sent to MK Yaakov Uri, from Mapai (forerunner of Labor), who passed it on to Development Minister Mordechai Bentov (Mapam). “His letter shocked me,” Uri wrote Bentov. The latter circulated the letter among all the cabinet ministers, writing, “It is my opinion that the government cannot simply ignore the facts related in the letter.” Bentov added that, in light of the appalling contents of the letter, he asked security experts to check its credibility. They had confirmed that the contents “do in fact generally conform to the truth.”
It was during the tenure of historian Tuvia Friling as Israel’s chief archivist, from 2001 to 2004, that Malmab carried out its first archival incursions. What began as an operation to prevent the leakage of nuclear secrets, he says, became, in time, a large-scale censorship project.
“I resigned after three years, and that was one of the reasons,” Prof. Friling says. “The classification placed on the document about the Arabs’ emigration in 1948 is precisely an example of what I was apprehensive about. The storage and archival system is not an arm of the state’s public relations. If there’s something you don’t like – well, that’s life. A healthy society also learns from its mistakes.”
Why did Friling allow the Defense Ministry to have access the archives? The reason, he says, was the intention to give the public access to archival material via the internet. In discussions about the implications of digitizing the material, concern was expressed that references in the documents to a “certain topic” would be made public by mistake. The topic, of course, is Israel’s nuclear project. Friling insists that the only authorization Malmab received was to search for documents on that subject.
But Malmab’s activity is only one example of a broader problem, Friling notes:
“In 1998, the confidentiality of the [oldest documents in the] Shin Bet and Mossad archives expired. For years those two institutions disdained the chief archivist. When I took over, they requested that the confidentiality of all the material be extended [from 50] to 70 years, which is ridiculous – most of the material can be opened.”
In 2010, the confidentiality period was extended to 70 years; last February it was extended again, to 90 years, despite the opposition of the Supreme Council of Archives. “The state may impose confidentiality on some of its documentation,” Friling says. “The question is whether the issue of security doesn’t act as a kind of cover. In many cases, it’s already become a joke.”
In the view of Yad Yaari’s Dudu Amitai, the confidentiality imposed by the Defense Ministry must be challenged. In his period at the helm, he says, one of the documents placed in the vault was an order issued by an IDF general, during a truce in the War of Independence, for his troops to refrain from rape and looting. Amitai now intends to go over the documents that were deposited in the vault, especially 1948 documents, and open whatever is possible. “We’ll do it cautiously and responsibly, but recognizing that the State of Israel has to learn how to cope with the less pleasant aspects of its history.”
In contrast to Yad Yaari, where ministry personnel no longer visit, they are continuing to peruse documents at Yad Tabenkin, the research and documentation center of the United Kibbutz Movement. The director, Aharon Azati, reached an agreement with the Malmab teams under which documents will be transferred to the vault only if he is convinced that this is justified. But in Yad Tabenkin, too, Malmab has broadened its searches beyond the realm of nuclear project to encompass interviews conducted by archival staff with former members of the Palmach, and has even perused material about the history of the settlements in the occupied territories.
Malmab has, for example, shown interest in the Hebrew-language book “A Decade of Discretion: Settlement Policy in the Territories 1967-1977,” published by Yad Tabenkin in 1992, and written by Yehiel Admoni, director of the Jewish Agency’s Settlement Department during the decade he writes about. The book mentions a plan to settle Palestinian refugees in the Jordan Valley and to the uprooting of 1,540 Bedouin families from the Rafah area of the Gaza Strip in 1972, including an operation that included the sealing of wells by the IDF. Ironically, in the case of the Bedouin, Admoni quotes former Justice Minister Yaakov Shimshon Shapira as saying, “It is not necessary to stretch the security rationale too far. The whole Bedouin episode is not a glorious chapter of the State of Israel.
According to Azati, “We are moving increasingly to a tightening of the ranks. Although this is an era of openness and transparency, there are apparently forces that are pulling in the opposite direction.”~
Unauthorized secrecy About a year ago, the legal adviser to the State Archives, attorney Naomi Aldouby, wrote an opinion titled “Files Closed Without Authorization in Public Archives.” According to her, the accessibility policy of public archives is the exclusive purview of the director of each institution.
Despite Aldouby’s opinion, however, in the vast majority of cases, archivists who encountered unreasonable decisions by Malmab did not raise objections – that is, until 2014, when Defense Ministry personnel arrived at the archive of the Harry S. Truman Research Institute at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. To the visitors’ surprise, their request to examine the archive – which contains collections of former minister and diplomat Abba Eban and Maj. Gen. (res.) Shlomo Gazit – was turned down by its then director, Menahem Blondheim.
According to Blondheim, “I told them that the documents in question were decades old, and that I could not imagine that there was any security problem that would warrant restricting their access to researchers. In response, they said, ‘And let’s say there is testimony here that wells were poisoned in the War of Independence?’ I replied, ‘Fine, those people should be brought to trial.’”
Blondheim’s refusal led to a meeting with a more senior ministry official, only this time the attitude he encountered was different and explicit threats were made. Finally the two sides reached an accommodation.
Benny Morris is not surprised at Malmab’s activity. “I knew about it,”he says
“Not officially, no one informed me, but I encountered it when I discovered that documents I had seen in the past are now sealed. There were documents from the IDF Archive that I used for an article about Deir Yassin, and which are now sealed. When I came to the archive, I was no longer allowed to see the original, so I pointed out in a footnote [in the article] that the State Archive had denied access to documents that I had published 15 years earlier.”
The Malmab case is only one example of the battle being waged for access to archives in Israel. According to the executive director of the Akevot Institute, Lior Yavne,
“The IDF Archive, which is the largest archive in Israel, is sealed almost hermetically. About 1 percent of the material is open. The Shin Bet archive, which contains materials of immense importance [to scholars], is totally closed apart from a handful of documents.”
A report written by Yaacov Lozowick, the previous chief archivist at the State Archives, upon his retirement, refers to the defense establishment’s grip on the country’s archival materials. In it, he writes, “A democracy must not conceal information because it is liable to embarrass the state. In practice, the security establishment in Israel, and to a certain extent that of foreign relations as well, are interfering with the [public] discussion.”
Advocates of concealment put forward several arguments, Lozowick notes:
“The uncovering of the facts could provide our enemies with a battering ram against us and weaken the determination of our friends; it’s liable to stir up the Arab population; it could enfeeble the state’s arguments in courts of law; and what is revealed could be interpreted as Israeli war crimes.”
However, he says, “All these arguments must be rejected. This is an attempt to hide part of the historical truth in order to construct a more convenient version.”
What Malmab says Yehiel Horev was the keeper of the security establishment’s secrets for more than two decades. He headed the Defense Ministry’s security department from 1986 until 2007 and naturally kept out of the limelight. To his credit, he now agreed to talk forthrightly to Haaretz about the archives project.
“I don’t remember when it began,” Horev says, “but I do know that I started it. If I’m not mistaken, it started when people wanted to publish documents from the archives. We had to set up teams to examine all outgoing material.”
From conversations with archive directors, it’s clear that a good deal of the documents on which confidentiality was imposed relate to the War of Independence. Is concealing the events of 1948 part of the purpose of Malmab?
“What does ‘part of the purpose’ mean? The subject is examined based on an approach of whether it could harm Israel’s foreign relations and the defense establishment. Those are the criteria. I think it’s still relevant. There has not been peace since 1948. I may be wrong, but to the best of my knowledge the Arab-Israeli conflict has not been resolved. So yes, it could be that problematic subjects remain.”
Asked in what way such documents might be problematic, Horev speaks of the possibility of agitation among the country’s Arab citizens. From his point of view, every document must be perused and every case decided on its merits.
If the events of 1948 weren’t known, we could argue about whether this approach is the right one. That is not the case. Many testimonies and studies have appeared about the history of the refugee problem. What’s the point of hiding things?
“The question is whether it can do harm or not. It’s a very sensitive matter. Not everything has been published about the refugee issue, and there are all kinds of narratives. Some say there was no flight at all, only expulsion. Others say there was flight. It’s not black-and-white. There’s a difference between flight and those who say they were forcibly expelled. It’s a different picture. I can’t say now if it merits total confidentiality, but it’s a subject that definitely has to be discussed before a decision is made about what to publish.”
For years, the Defense Ministry has imposed confidentiality on a detailed document that describes the reasons for the departure of those who became refugees. Benny Morris has already written about the document, so what’s the logic of keeping it hidden?
“I don’t remember the document you’re referring to, but if he quoted from it and the document itself is not there [i.e., where Morris says it is], then his facts aren’t strong. If he says, ‘Yes, I have the document,’ I can’t argue with that. But if he says that it’s written there, that could be right and it could be wrong. If the document were already outside and were sealed in the archive, I would say that that’s folly. But if someone quoted from it – there’s a difference of day and night in terms of the validity of the evidence he cited.”
‘When the state imposes confidentiality, the published work is weakened, because he doesn’t have the document’
In this case, we’re talking about the most quoted scholar when it comes to the Palestinian refugees.
“The fact that you say ‘scholar’ makes no impression on me. I know people in academia who spout nonsense about subjects that I know from A to Z. When the state imposes confidentiality, the published work is weakened, because he doesn’t have the document.”
But isn’t concealing documents based on footnotes in books an attempt to lock the barn door after the horses have bolted?
“I gave you an example that this needn’t be the case. If someone writes that the horse is black, if the horse isn’t outside the barn, you can’t prove that it’s really black.”
There are legal opinions stating that Malmab’s activity in the archives is illegal and unauthorized.
“If I know that an archive contains classified material, I am empowered to tell the police to go there and confiscate the material. I can also utilize the courts. I don’t need the archivist’s authorization. If there is classified material, I have the authority to act. Look, there’s policy. Documents aren’t sealed for no reason. And despite it all, I won’t say to you that everything that’s sealed is 100 percent justified [in being sealed].”
The Defense Ministry refused to respond to specific questions regarding the findings of this investigative report and made do with the following response:
“The director of security of the defense establishment operates by virtue of his responsibility to protect the state’s secrets and its security assets. The Malmab does not provide details about its mode of activity or its missions.”
Lee Rotbart assisted in providing visual research for this article.
The village of Safsaf (“willow” in Arabic) appears on page 490 of the newest edition of Walid Khalidi’s All That Remains, a seminal book that catalogues 418 Palestinian communities that were destroyed and depopulated during the Nakba. A Palestinian eyewitness account describes the day when Zionist forces conquered the village and rounded up its residents in October 1948:
As we lined up, a few Jewish soldiers ordered four girls to accompany them to carry water for the soldiers. Instead, they took them to our empty houses and raped them. About seventy of our men were blindfolded and shot to death, one after the other, in front of us. The soldiers took their bodies and threw them on the cement covering of the village’s spring and dumped sand on them.
On Thursday, Haaretz published a widely-shared investigative piece by Hagar Shezaf on how Israeli authorities are systematically concealing archival materials relating to the 1948 war, even after they have been officially disclosed. It begins with an Israeli historian stumbling upon a document four years ago that was written in November 1948 by the Haganah’s former chief of staff. The note, which was first unearthed by New Historian Benny Morris in the 1980s, is also quoted in Khalidi’s book:
Safsaf – 52 men were caught, tied them to one another, dug a pit and shot them. 10 were still twitching. Women came, begged for mercy. Found bodies of 6 elderly men. There were 61 bodies. 3 cases of rape, one east of Safed, girl of 14, 4 men shot and killed. From one they cut off his fingers with a knife to take the ring.
It is strangely consoling to see official Israeli admission of the event. As Shezaf’s excellent article shows, and thanks to the vital work of Akevot – an Israeli organization that works to expand public access to documentation about the conflict held in government and private archives – along with other historians, archive research has made it irrefutably clear that Zionist forces consciously carried out brutal acts of violence against Palestinians to facilitate their expulsion.
Though this is hardly news, such archives remain valuable in providing what are essentially “confessions” by officials of the inhumane crimes they oversaw – crimes that are denied by Israel and its supporters to this day.
Yet, for many Palestinians, the bewildered reactions to these discoveries can be infuriating. They remind us of how thousands of Palestinian testimonies, and decades of Palestinian-led research, struggle to stir so much as a ripple in mainstream discourse about Israel’s history. A few Israeli documents, however, can swiftly rile up a storm.
The knowledge of this disparity has been a key reason for Israel’s obstinate archive policy: as one official blatantly told Shezaf, authorities deliberately continue to hide these documents in order to “undermine the credibility of studies about the history of the [Palestinian] refugee problem.” And many still fall for it
This cruel double standard over who has “permission to narrate” the conflict has been raised before – and, it seems, it must be raised again and again.
The world should not have to constantly catch up to what Palestinians have always known about the Nakba. Many Palestinians reading about Safsaf in Haaretz would have reached for their copies of All That Remains or other collections, correctly assuming they would find the same facts recorded years before. Descendants of Safsaf’s survivors would likely know the harrowing story by heart, having heard it from their grandparents’ own lips. Like all settler-colonial states, Israel fears the ghosts of its dark and violent origins. Palestinians are those living ghosts. Listen to what they have to say.
Israel recently published its catalogue of some 300,000 classified files, including thousands of documents from before the state was even founded. The very existence of the files had been kept a secret until recently. By Asaf Shalev
Israel’s State Archives unceremoniously published the contents of its catalog of classified archive documents this past summer, posting them online in 363 separate spreadsheets. Buried in the catalog of classified archives were more than 100 files dating back to the 1800s, and more than 2,000 files that predate the founding of the State of Israel but which the archive has yet to declassify.
The very existence of the 300,000 classified files—their names, dates, and origin within the state bureaucracy—had been kept a secret, until now. One-fifth of the files, deemed too sensitive still by the government, were excluded from the disclosure.
“There were many people who were concerned about the opening of this catalog,” State Archivist Yaacov Lozowick wrote in a statement accompanying the release.
The classified catalog, currently housed on the website of the State Archives, is hard to find, difficult to access, and almost impossible to search through or analyze. In order to understand what lies in the cryptic files, +972 Magazine enlisted various data-research tools and analyzed the hundreds of thousands of entries.
One of the things that stood out immediately was the age of some of files. The oldest item, a Foreign Ministry document titled “Parker Report,” dates back to 1821. That’s all we know about it. In total, the catalog of classified archival documents contains 125 items from the 19th century, and about 2,000 documents from before 1948, when Israel was founded. Because we cannot access the files themselves, it is impossible to say why documents that predate the state are still classified over 70, and in some cases, nearly 200 years later.
In contrast, in the United States the FBI and CIA routinely release old records, even ones that cast those agencies in a negative light. It is also telling that, unlike the U.S. government archives, which are run as an independent agency, Israel’s State Archives is a branch of the Prime Minister’s Office, whose current occupant has proven to be no champion of transparency. Documents from virtually every Israeli ministry appear in the catalog: each of the 363 original spreadsheets represent a different agency, sub-department, state-run company, and in a few cases, former senior officials who bequeathed their personal collections to the State Archives. Conspicuously absent are the Defense Ministry (aside from one cache of records produced during Israel’s first, short-lived occupation of Gaza in 1956), the military, the Mossad, and the Shin Bet security service. These institutions manage their archives separately, lest any documents wrangle free.
Almost three quarters of the files come from only three government bodies: Israel Police (28.2 percent or 71,874 files), the Foreign Ministry (24.2 percent or 61,620 files), and the Prime Minister’s Office (21 percent or 53,587 files). Next up are the Energy Ministry, the State Comptroller’s Office, the Israel Prison Service, and the Justice Department
Some of file names alone are tantalizing. For instance, there was “Nine Years Out of 2,000” which turned out to be a secret book commission by the Mossad about the history of immigration from Morocco. Another is called “Shariah Court of Gaza,” 1913-1922. There is a set of Jordanian government documents apparently confiscated in 1967, when Israel occupied the West Bank, which had been under Jordanian administration.
Then, there are those still-classified archival files with labels like “anti-Israel organizations” and the “fight against anti-Semitism,” produced by Israel’s diplomatic missions around the world. There are files on Deir Yassin and Kfar Qasim, the two most notorious massacres carried out by Israeli forces. The catalog contains 13 files from the 1940s and 1950s about the assassination of Folke Bernadotte, a Swedish diplomat representing the UN Security Council who was killed by a Zionist militia in 1948. The sinking of Israel’s Dakar submarine, still a mystery, is the subject of another classified file.
But even many files without sensational appeal promise to contain valuable historical information. For example, there is the case of the Israeli Black Panthers, a 1970s group of radicals who demanded social justice for Mizrahi Jews. As part of my research for a book I am writing about the group, I knew there were police files on the Panthers from references found in a couple of academic articles and a Haaretz magazine feature. Eventually, I obtained the documents, but not from the State Archives (where I was told the Panthers files were unsealed by mistake and subsequently re-sealed).
These police intel reports, containing invaluable and rare documentation of the Panthers by various undercover agents and informants, came from two files, the only two state archives files on the Panthers that we knew existed. A search for the keyword “Panthers” in the classified database yielded the two file numbers, along with 21 other files — from various police precincts — containing the words “Black Panthers” in their titles. It would not have been possible to find them without searching in the combined database. Knowing that the files exist is far cry from holding them in your hands, of course, and the chance of obtaining those particular files is nil at the moment.
I recently filed a request for the remaining Panther files only to be told that the person authorized to review and release archival police records died in accident more than a year ago. A police spokesperson said in an email that a job opening for such a person would be posted “soon,” providing no timeline for the recruitment and hiring process
‘A country without a history’
Gadi Algazi, a historian from Tel Aviv University, built his academic reputation by extracting social and cultural histories from the clutches of archives dating back hundreds of years. These days, Algazi is better known by his students and friends for his preoccupation with the more immediate past. He recently conducted research into a long-forgotten protest movement and he gives occasional talks on what he’s found.In the early 1950s, according to Algazi, residents of a transit camp for immigrants near Kfar Saba mounted a veritable political struggle demanding better treatment from authorities. Iraqi-born communists living in the camps riled up and then organized the community for a series of demonstrations and other actions. The police got called in and the whole affair was kept out of the papers and out of the wider public’s eye.
After a recent talk about the affair at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, I caught a ride with Algazi back to Tel Aviv and in the car, he told me, “Israel is a country without a history.” What he meant was that we know very little about the machinations of power, money, and social status that congealed in the 1950s, the critical decade after the country’s founding. The policy decisionsthat shaped Israeli society and allocated resources and privileges remain an enigma to this day, he explained. The Kfar Saba story is a foray into a time when Israel intra-Jewish ethnic lines were drawn. The discovery of the event would not have taken as long as it did in a country with an appreciation for its past.
“For the vast majority of historical researchers, the documentation kept in archives is the central raw material,” said Miriam Eliav-Feldon, a veteran history professor and the chair of the Historical Society of Israel, speaking at an event confronting the crisis of access to public archives a few months later. “Without it, it’s almost impossible to find out what took place, what the intentions and motivations of the individuals were.”
The effort to “rescue archival access” was launched more than two years ago when the State Archives shuttered its reading room. That’s where patrons used to fill out request slips and were hand-delivered boxes of files. The State Archives decided that all of its materials would be digitized, however, and meanwhile, anyone who wants access has to search the online catalog and request the files be scanned and posted online. The plan may have been well intentioned, Eliav-Feldon said, but it has led to long and erratic wait times and a lack of transparency about what is being released. “It makes it impossible to get work done,” she added.
A short time into the digital revamp efforts, lawyers for the Prime Minister’s Office imposed a new policy that gummed up the research process even further. Now, each file that has not already been scanned and uploaded must first be vetted by the government body that generated it to begin with. Want to read decades-old correspondence from the public security minister? The archive has to get the ministry’s approval first. The same goes for police reports, health ministry minutes and any other stacks of papers collecting dust on a warehouse shelf at the State Archives. Aside from having no conceivable incentive to allow the publication of potentially embarrassing documents, government bodies do not typically keep archival professionals on staff.
The coalition of archival access seekers reflects in many ways the various public battles being waged over Israel’s past. There are the Nakba scholars. There are Argentinian and Chilean Jews working to flesh out the extent of Israel’s ties with Latin American military dictatorships. Then there’s the reinvigorated campaign to expose the abduction and disappearance of thousands of babies of Mizrahi families. Without access to official archives, much of that work simply cannot be done. “Blocking access to the documentary record, to the memory cells of our recent past,” Eliav-Feldon said at the Tel Aviv University event, “does grave harm to our knowledge and understanding of our existence.”
You can search the catalog of classified Israeli archives (in Hebrew) thanks to the Akevot Institute for Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Research. The nonprofit organization performed its own web scraping and programming of the classified catalog, making the files searchable on its website. You are also welcome to download the database by clicking here and play with the data yourself.
Asaf Shalev is a journalist based in California. He is completing a book about the Israeli Black Panthers with UC Press. Find him on Twitter: @asafshaloo. Omri Kahalon, a software engineer, contributed to this report.