The Israeli government is keeping many of the state’s archival documents classified, censored and out of the reach of potentially critical historians. But determined scholars continue to uncover tantalizing paper trails that challenge Israel’s air-brushed official narratives.
It became a little more difficult to study the history of Palestine and Israel on January 21, 2019, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signed a new amendment to the archive law extending the classification period for certain materials from 70 to 90 years. The extension includes the archives of Shin Bet (the domestic intelligence service), Mossad (the foreign intelligence service), the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission, the Israel Institute for Biological Research and an array of military units collecting “raw intelligence material.”1 The complete list of the military units is not even available, since it too has been classified.2 In other words, even what is classified is classified.
The government is extending the period of classification at the same time that Israel’s Ministry of Defense is aggressively expanding the kinds of materials under its purview—effectively removing them from public view. A recent exposé by the Israeli NGO Akevot: Institute for Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Research revealed that officials from the Ministry of Defense have been conducting unannounced visits to a number of non-official archives—like those of the kibbutz movement—and confiscating what they argue are classified documents that should not have been stored there. Even those documents that have long been used by scholars may suddenly disappear without notice. A former top official at the ministry did not even bother to hide the purpose: to discredit historians working on topics the state deems sensitive by insinuating that they falsified documents.
These new restrictions on the public availability of certain archives are part of a much longer history of Israel seeking to control the stories historians tell about its past. The chief Israeli archivist admitted as much in a rare moment of candor in January 2018, noting that choices of what to declassify sometimes involve “an attempt to conceal part of the historical truth in order to build a more convenient narrative,” particularly those materials that might “incite the Arab population” or “be interpreted as Israeli war crimes.”4
The new restrictions are thus setbacks in the long struggle to use official Israeli records and materials to ascertain a more complete history of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, the Palestinian exodus or Nakba, the military government over Palestinian citizens of Israel or the post–1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Even those interested in the involvement of the Israeli intelligence community in suppressing the protest of Mizrahim (Jews of North African or Middle Eastern descent) would be stonewalled.
Nevertheless, the new amendment and recent reclassification measures by the Ministry of Defense will not succeed in erasing all the paper trails in the Israeli archives. Israel prides itself on operating a professional system of archives, based on a German model and liberal declassification laws. As long as these principles—if only rhetorically—continue to drive the state’s actions it will prove very difficult, if not impossible, to erase all those trails, even if searching for them will become more laborious. As examples from my own work as a historian over the past decade illustrate, some of these trails will continue to challenge the official narrative in ways that exceed the state’s ability to control.
It is impossible to discuss paper trails in the Israeli archives without mentioning the work of the so-called New Historians from the 1980s, namely Benny Morris, Avi Shlaim, Ilan Pappé and Tom Segev. Despite criticism of their methodology and some of their conclusions, there is little doubt these individuals were the first professional Israeli historians to introduce the practice of what Ann Stoler refers to as “reading against the archival grain.” In doing so, they challenged the officially sanctioned Israeli narratives about the founding of the country in 1948—most famously Israel’s denial that it played a major role in the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem. It is not clear whether their archival findings coincided with a mistaken release of documents by the archives, or if there was a strategic decision by the bureaucracy to declassify them.
What is clear, however, is that these historians unearthed official documents confirming Israeli culpability in expelling Palestinians, blocking the return of those who fled and committing a series of war crimes. In one seminal document from June 1948—located by Benny Morris and thereafter removed from public view—an intelligence officer listed many of the depopulated Palestinian villages from the first stage of the 1948 war, conveniently explaining for each village the means by which it was uprooted. Among the factors mentioned for the Palestinian exodus were “direct hostile Jewish operations,” “Jewish whispering operations” (i.e. psychological warfare), “ultimate expulsion orders,” “fear of Jewish [retaliatory] response” and others.5 Although Palestinian and Arab scholars had argued as much for decades (mostly relying on oral history), their claims had often been marginalized in Western scholarship.6 This denial was no longer possible after the work of the New Historians came out.
The trail introduced by the New Historians still exists, but it has become harder to follow in the past decade. Even more significant than the 2016 closing of the reading room in the Israel State Archives was the recent formal introduction of members of Military Censorship into the archives’ headquarters. These military officials are tasked with approving any publication of documents on top of the work of the declassification teams.7 Trying to follow the New Historians’ footnotes may very well lead to a dead end. In fact, the chief archivist exposed in 2018 that in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) archives alone, 200 files containing some 20,000 pages that had been opened in the past were sealed again in the last several years. Thousands of other files which are formally designated as “declassified” have at least a third of the file removed or redacted. Still, a large number of documents used by the New Historians are, in fact, still available for scholars, perhaps due to the realization that hiding them would be more incriminating than allowing access.
A Paradoxical Opening?
One trail in Israeli archives that is much easier to follow was created by the state’s own attempt to sustain the official Israeli narrative, an initiative that is almost as old as the state itself. Launched in the late 1950s and going full steam today, Israeli governments have attempted to make sure the Israeli narrative continues to appear credible. In so doing, they (perhaps unintentionally) created an archive of the official narrative.
One unintentional paper trail opened up by the state revolves around the study commissioned by Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion in 1961 to prove that Palestinians left in 1948 “of their own free will” at the command of Arab leaders, rather than being expelled by Jewish forces (shockingly, this is still the official Israeli version).8 I was able to locate much of the correspondence about its production but was blocked from viewing the study itself (despite Israeli law which stipulates it should be open). In early 2017 the Ministerial Committee for Permitting Access to Classified Archival Sources headed by then Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked, decreed that file 618/922/1975 in the IDF archives would remain classified, citing “fear that its declassification would have real consequence for the state security and foreign relations.”9
But the trail has not gone cold. The documents I was able to uncover about Ben-Gurion’s study point to a certain cache of Arabic documents from 1948 taken by IDF soldiers in compounds of the Arab League’s volunteer army known as the Arab Liberation Army (ALA). Those documents, according to the scholars Ben-Gurion employed, established beyond any doubt the culpability of Arab leaders in the Palestinian exodus of 1948, thus exonerating Jewish forces.
The claim that Arab leaders called for a Palestinian exodus was proven to be a canard long ago, but following the trail of documents from Ben-Gurion’s pet study to the ALA documents inside the IDF archives proved very revealing. In this archive are dozens of petitions by Palestinians seeking permission from the ALA to leave Palestine. They give many reasons for their desire to leave. Some had their village destroyed by Jewish forces, others were trying to locate family members who had already left and one was looking for his lost child. These documents do indeed tell a story of a partially willful departure of destitute people in the midst of war, just like Ben-Gurion had wanted.
But there is something else in the ALA files, conveniently overlooked by the group of scholars commissioned by Ben-Gurion to write the study. There are a number of ALA decrees and pamphlets unequivocally urging Palestinians not to leave their villages and even threatening them if they dared to flee. The commander of the ALA, Fawzi al-Qawuqji, on April 24, 1948 resolutely threatens those who would try to flee:
Some of the evil propagandists and the agents of Zionism are spreading defeatist propaganda with the intention of confusing and slowly planting fear in the hearts of the quiet inhabitants. In addition, some cowards evacuated their houses in the villages and cities because of…false propaganda or fear which took over their weak hearts. …I am warning the evil propagandists and agents of Zionism and the hired cowards that their actions will result in the most severe punishment and I will sentence them to death.10
There are even more concrete threats issued by the commander of the Alawite battalion of the ALA, Ghasan Jadid. His battalion’s documents, with the exception of this one, are featured prominently in Ben-Gurion’s study. Jadid warned that “whoever tries to leave his village will be fired upon and his possessions and livelihood will be confiscated.”11 These sources constitute part of the Palestinian archive—concealed inside the Israeli archives—that some scholars have been using over the past decade.
In addition to the trail leading to the ALA files, the documents that discuss Ben-Gurion’s study are a treasure trove in elucidating just how much material is still out there. One letter in the file indicates that the scholars working on locating evidence that Palestinians left “voluntarily” were able to find much relevant material in the archive of the Shin Bet. Until a decade ago, Israel did not even formally acknowledge that the Shin Bet had its own archive. But in 2009, as a result of litigation, the state committed to the High Court of Justice that the archives of the Shin Bet and Mossad (among others) would formally become part of the Israel State Archives and be subject to the same declassification laws. While the new amendment means it would take another 20 years for the Shin Bet to start systematically declassifying its files, the current law obliges the organization to examine each individual request it receives for documents based on published criteria.12
That step provided a significant opening for scholars. After all, the work of the Shin Bet and Mossad was fundamental in shaping the patterns of the conflict, and the fact that those archives were entirely off-limits to historians had clearly slanted research. Moreover, large caches of documents from the pre-state period were deposited in the Shin Bet and Mossad archives, some of which have now been damaged beyond repair because of poor maintenance.13 In other instances, documents pertaining to sensitive or unlawful activities carried out by branches of the government were transferred over to these archives, such as the materials of a secretive department in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, active during the 1948 war.14 Nevertheless, in the decade since the formal integration of the secret services’ archives into the state archives, all requests for the declassification of documents from these collections have been denied.
One of those rejections was for my own document request on the Shin Bet’s involvement in stifling Mizrahi protest in the 1950s. For decades Mizrahi activists had claimed that the Shin Bet was attempting to manipulate their actions behind the scenes, ranging from seduction and bribes to crude violence. The Shin Bet’s refusal to declassify any documents on the Mizrahi issue was especially egregious. Its own history unit had published extensively on the Shin Bet’s involvement in the Mizrahi protest known as the 1959 Wadi Salib revolt as part of a commercially available book on the tenure of Amos Manor as head of the organization.15 But when I asked to view the same documents, I was told that the Shin Bet had examined my request but rejected it “for reasons of protection of state security.”16
This rejection seemed like an excellent test case to take to court. On January 1, 2019 the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and I appealed to the High Court to compel the Shin Bet to release all documents about its involvement in the Mizrahi protests in the 1950s. Since filing the lawsuit, another scholar petitioned the High Court to force the Shin Bet to provide him with the documents he needs for his study. If accepted—even partially—these cases could set an important precedent for the declassification of archival documents from Israel’s secret services.
An Intimate Archive
Perhaps the most exciting and promising paper trail in the Israeli archives is altogether different than the official correspondence of spies and bureaucrats discussed thus far. This paper trail is also closely linked with the work of the Israeli intelligence apparatus, but intelligence agents in this case are merely a shadow. My own research is largely based on archival findings that were long thought not to exist.17 These documents are narratives written by ordinary men and women, Jewish and Arab, and copied without their knowledge by the state.
A massive apparatus of postal censorship, operating from 1948 until 2004, produced verbatim copies of private letters written by Israeli soldiers and civilians, by Palestinians under the military government (and later under occupation) and even by Palestinian refugees living in camps. The letters were copied before being delivered, but the purpose was not to spy on individuals (although that was done as well), but rather to get a sense of the “state of mind” of these populations more broadly so that they could be better controlled.
The use of these documents raises methodological as well as ethical problems. On the ethical side, scholars are working with source material that was created by a big brother apparatus, largely for nefarious purposes. In the case of refugees’ letters, intercepting them was largely done to find routes used by returnees (“infiltrators” in Israeli lingo) so they could be blocked. Nefarious purposes may also be at play for other sources in state and colonial archives. Still, the degree of intimacy in private letters is probably unparalleled in other sources.
Ironically, the Israeli archives often use the disingenuous argument of protecting the privacy of those whose letters were secretly copied as a pretext to block declassification of letters that could prove embarrassing for Israel. I noticed this practice on numerous occasions, but the refusal to declassify one group of documents, in particular, stands out—the intercepted letters of Palestinians from the West Bank in the 1970s. Some of these letters discussed the anger and resistance of Palestinians whose lands were expropriated for settlement construction. Yet, black rectangles or redaction notifications often replaced the parts in the letters discussing these topics. The accompanying explanation cited “privacy concerns.”
Methodologically, the use of these sources may also prove tricky. First, assuming men and women writing at the time knew their letters were subject to surveillance and censorship, can a scholar really argue today that these are authentic reflections of ordinary men and women’s identity, or of their individual or collective “moods” more broadly? If my experience reading letters from 1948 can serve as a case study, I would argue they do. Like all sources, the letters have to be critically analyzed. Yet the sheer number of letters which tell novel stories about the war establish their value for writing “history from below.”
A second concern is the level of manipulation that occurred when the letters were originally chosen for copying. Here too, critical analysis is absolutely essential and one may draw from the experience of earlier scholars: Other states, including the British, French, American and Russian, employed similar surveillance techniques. Due to the fact that copies of original letters (reproduced inside intelligence reports) are available to scholars, it is possible to ascertain that the British and American censors reliably reflected the views of individuals in their reports. Meanwhile, French and Russian censors often tailored their reports to the views of their superiors (at least in the Russian case this was because the censors feared for their lives).
The Israeli case is more akin to the organizational culture of British and American censorship than the French and Russian ones. While the censors were certainly not concerned about infringing on the privacy of those whose letters were being copied, they saw the integrity of their reports as one of censorship’s most important tasks. In fact, in response to objections from other army officers about the representativeness of the censorship reports, the chief censor noted that his reports were not spiced up in any way and did not contain any of the censors’ personal views: “we collect quotations, and I am extremely sorry that I can’t present them through rose-colored glasses, but only as they are,” he wrote to his commanding officer.18 Scholars, in an odd turn of events, could become the beneficiaries of these sources and help unearth marginalized voices.
A Partial Set Back
The ex-intelligence officers in charge of declassification in Israel have always weighed public relations considerations in making decisions about what to release. At least in the 1990s and early 2000s, however, there were some checks and balances in place: These bureaucrats feared that the government’s legal advisors or the courts might intervene in declassification if they went too far in their attempts to remove materials from public view. Nevertheless, the illiberal trends in Israel in the past decade meant that these declassifiers have been emboldened. They no longer fear the wrath of legal advisors or the courts, both of which have been weakened dramatically in the past decade.
The new measures trying to stifle archival research in Israel are certainly alarming, and scholars and activists worldwide should continue fighting them. But not all is bleak. There are still many more trails to follow—and many doctoral dissertations and books to write—with existing declassified sources from Israeli archives. The scanning initiative of the state archives—notwithstanding its problems in keeping scholars from the actual paper sources—even allows those who are blocked from entering Israel due to political activism some degree of access to the archival holdings. Together with the leaps and bounds in oral history, scholars of Palestine and Israel will certainly be kept busy in telling new stories that are at odds with the simplified narratives of pundits and politicians. ■
1 “Archive Regulations 2019 (Amendment),” January 21, 2019, in Reshumot (The Official Gazette) 8162, February 3, 2019, p. 1964.
2 “Archive Regulations 2010,” in Reshumot (The Official Gazette) 6917, pp. 1462–1467.
3 Hagar Shezaf, “Burying the Nakba: How Israel Systematically Hides Evidence of 1948 Expulsion of Arabs,” Haaretz, June 5, 2019.
4 Prime Minister’s Office, Israel State Archives, “A Report by the Chief Archivist on Archival Declassification,” January 15, 2018, pp. 16–17.
5 Benny Morris, “The Causes and Character of the Arab Exodus from Palestine: The Israel Defence Forces Intelligence Branch Analysis of June 1948,” Middle Eastern Studies, 22/1 (January 1986), pp. 5–19.
6 Rashid Khalidi, The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood (Boston: Beacon Press, 2007); Nahla Abdo-Zubi and Nur Masalha, An Oral History of the Palestinian Nakba (London: Zed Books, 2018).
7 Ofer Aderet, “Israeli Military Censor to Post Officer in State Archive Office, Worrying Historians,” Haaretz, December 27, 2018.
8 Shay Hazkani, “Catastrophic Thinking: Did Ben-Gurion Try to Rewrite History?” Haaretz, May 16, 2013.
9 Naomi Aldobi, Legal Advisor to State Archives to Avner Pinchuk, Association for Civil Rights in Israel, “Attn: Request by Dr. Shay Hazkani in File 618-922-1975 ‘A Study on the Flight of Refugees,’” June 14, 2017.
10 Al-Inqadh Forces HQ/Northern Front/Commander, Fawzi al-Qawuqji, “Notice No. 6,” April 24, 1948, Israel Defense Forces Archives 376/100001/1957.
11 Jaysh al-Inqadh/ Safad Region/Alawite Battalion, “Commander of the Safad Region to the Inhabitants of…,” July 19, 1948, IDF Archives 435/10001/1957.
12 State of Israel/General Security Service [Shin Bet], “Summary of Procedure: A Version for Publication,” published February 2019, Israel State Archives Website. https://www.archives.gov.il/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Summary-of-procedures-SHABAK-2019.pdf.
13 Eldad H.aruvi, Palestine Investigated: The Criminal Investigation Department of the Palestine Police Force, 1920–1948 (Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2016).
14 A little-known intelligence unit operated from inside the Ministry of Foreign Affairs led by Boris Gurevich, a former Haganah intelligence officer, ran several spy rings in Arab countries. Mostly staffed by Mizrahi men, the unit carried out sabotage and “black propaganda” operations in order to destabilize Arab regimes and hinder their war efforts. Gurevich’s actions, according to Isser Harel, later head of Israeli Mossad, walked the fine line “between law and licentiousness.” Ian Black and Benny Morris, Israel’s Secret Wars: The Untold History of Israeli Intelligence (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1991).
15 Yair Spiegel, Days of Amos: The Third Head of Shin Bet—Amos Manor, the Operations and Scandals (1953–1963) (Tel Aviv: Modan Publishing; Ministry of Defense Publishing; Shin Bet, 2017). [Hebrew]
16 Quoted in Ofer Aderet, “Petition Demands Release of Classified Israeli Documents on 1950s Immigrant Transit Camps,” Haaretz, January 1, 2019.
17 Nahla Abdo-Zubi and Nur Masalha, An Oral History of the Palestinian Nakba.
18 Intelligence Base/Intelligence 4 [censorship], Commander of Intelligence 4 to Head of Intelligence Department, “Attn: ‘Soldier’s Opinion’ Report,” June 5, 1950, IDF Archives 670/1109/2005.