Israel Removing Historic Evidence of War Crimes Against Palestinians

Alistair Avon / PNN / Bethlehem

An investigative piece published in Haaretz in early July uncovers measures taken by Israeli security forces to bury the history of their war crimes against Palestinians. In 1987, headed by Yehiel Horev, the Israeli military department Malmab (a Hebrew acronym for “Director of Security for the Defence Establishment”) began removing ‘sensitive’ documents from public archives. The department’s official aim is to remove sensitive information about Israel’s nuclear programme from public archives, but it has emerged that Malmab has also removed hundreds of documents relating to the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians during the 1948 Nakba, that had previously been declassified.

Unveiled Nakba Massacres

During the Nakba, 800,000 Palestinian people were forcefully evacuated from their homes and became refugees. The Israeli government’s official account of these events maintains that the Palestinian people chose to emigrate, encouraged by Arab politicians and leaders. Malmab has been removing any documents that counter this official narrative from public archives, deeming them a ‘security threat’. Haaretz found that Malmab has removed accounts of IOF generals about the massacres of civilians and the demolition of villages, as well as evidence of the expulsion of Bedouin communities during Israel’s early years of statehood.

One example of a document that has been removed from public archives is a series of interviews conducted in the early 2000s with former Israeli military figures by the Yitzhak Rabin Center. Haaretz compares the versions of these interviews that are now publically available with the originals. They find large sections to be missing. This missing segment from an interview that historian Boaz Lev Tov conducted with Maj. Gen. Elad Peled, is particularly shocking:

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.

Consequences of Military Operations

Another document removed by Malmab is a 1948 Israeli military intelligence paper titled ‘the emigration of the Arabs of Palestine’, written by an officer of Shia, the precursor to Shin Bet. The lengthy document intricately describes the ethnic cleansing of 219 villages and four cities. It lists the six principle reasons for Palestinians fleeing their homes: (1) “Direct Jewish acts of hostility against Arab places of settlement.” (2) the impact of these acts of hostility on neighbouring villages (3) operations by breakaway [Israeli terror organisations]”, particularly the Irgun and Lehi gangs (4) orders issued by Palestinian institutions and leaders (5) “Jewish ‘whispering operations’ to induce the Arab inhabitants to flee” (6) “evacuation ultimatums.” He estimates that 70 percent of the Palestinian refugees fled their homes as a direct consequence of Jewish military operations. The Israeli Zionist historian Benny Morris used this document to write a 1986 article about the Nakba. Soon after, Morris found that this document had been removed from public records.

Censorship of History

Moreover, Malmab is just one cog in a larger censorship wheel: Tuvia Friling, Israel’s chief archivist, notes, “In 1998, the confidentiality of the [oldest documents in the] Shin Bet and Mossad archives expired…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.” As of February 2018, this confidentiality period is 90 years. Haaretz also quotes 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.”

The Israeli, anti-Zionist historian Ilan Pappé told The Electronic Intifada that Malmab has removed many of the documents that he and the other ‘New Historians’ used to expose the truth of the 1948 Nakba, including massacres, rapes, pillaging and demolition of homes. Pappé says that many of the historians working with Nakba-era documents had already realised that Israeli security was removing these documents from public archives: he says, “[these historians] were unable to revisit ‘the village files’, which formed an important proof in my argument that the 1948 war was an act of ethnic cleansing.” Similarly, in a response to Haaretz’s original article, Morris describes how his recent request to see documents that he had used in 2005 to write about the 1948 massacre in the Palestinian town Deir Yassin, was refused. The IDF offered Morris no explanation other than saying, “now the documents are closed”.

Why Israel is Blocking Access to This Information

 Haaretz interviewed Yehiel Horev, who headed Malmab for more than two decades, about the archives project. He told Haaretz that exposing the truth about 1948 could ‘generate unrest among the country’s Arab population’. Many of the documents have already been published by the ‘New Historians’, but Horev hopes their removal will discredit these histories and undermine studies of Palestinian refugees. Other Israeli proponents of censorship argue that uncovering these facts could weaken Israel’s foreign relations, and result in Israel being tried for war crimes.

‘Eliminating the Native’

Ilan Pappé warns that this censorship “must be understood in a new political climate and [is] not simply an attempt to spare Israeli governments embarrassment”. The reasons that Israeli Security are hiding these documents, Pappé says, are more “profound and alarming” than that they challenge the official Israeli account of the Nakba; he says that “the reasons…are part of a new assault on Palestine and the Palestinians.” Pappé believes that the censorship of these documents is part of the wider American-Israeli endeavour to depoliticise the ‘Palestinian Question’. He links the censorship to other recent events such as the ‘Nakba law’, the recent settlement expansion and demolitions which represent an annexation of Area C, the 2018 Israeli Nation-State Law and Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Pappé argues that Palestine is now at a dangerous point in its history: Israel is attempting to conclude the ‘elimination of the native’, a term coined by the anthropologist Patrick Wolfe to describe the motive behind settler colonial movements such as Zionism. This is increasingly possible because Israel is becoming subject to less international criticism: pro-Palestinian politicians are increasingly dismissed as anti-Semites and legislation has been introduced in several countries to protect Israel from activism, including boycotts.

The removal of archival material about the Nakba is clearly one step towards ‘eliminating the native’, but how big is this step? Pappé argues that a comprehensive understanding of the Nakba is necessary to understand subsequent Israeli policy. It is true that the Palestinian people do not need Israeli archive documents, or the New Historians’ accounts of 1948 that they generated, to remember the Nakba. However, this archival evidence does expose the blueprint behind the Israeli war crimes of 1948, giving historians a broader understanding of the Zionist movement. On an international stage, they also lend credibility to the testimonies of the Palestinian people. Therefore, Israel’s removal of these pieces of Palestinian history from public view makes it harder to explain Palestine’s present and change its future.