The Classified Treasure Israel Will Never Fully Reveal

The IDF Archives celebrates its 65th birthday this year. Although it is open to the public and gets 14,000 annual requests for information, don't expect its staff to reveal where the treasures are buried.

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

At the entrance to the Israel Defense Forces Archives at the Tel Hashomer military base, a letter is on display. It was sent from the archives to Defense Minister and Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion on December 12, 1948. Five months after he had established the archive, at the height of the battles of the War of Independence, Ben-Gurion had to decide on an important issue: "the authority of the IDF Archives to deal with the military organizations that preceded the IDF in the country."

Alongside the letter, in his own handwriting, Ben-Gurion wrote his view on the subject: "The military archives should collect not only material about the IDF and its predecessors in the country ... but also the history of self-defense in all the diasporas, as well as the Jews' participation in national and international wars of liberation, and the role of Jews in the development of martial arts and techniques."

One of the senior members of the archive - who, for reasons unknown, refused to be quoted by name, commented this week: "That's also the greatness of the leader - that at the height of the battles of the War of Independence, he thought about the need to record history, and to leave material for future generations."

An interesting issue that arises from Ben-Gurion's words is the purpose and the role of the IDF Archive, whose full name is the Israel Defense Forces and Defense Establishment Archives. On the one hand, it's clear that an archive that keeps records from the people's army will also contain documents and archival items that are not related to security and the military. On the other, it's not at all certain that the natural place of the first prime minister's original diaries is the military archive. The staff explains that this was at Ben-Gurion's request. Whatever the case, to this day parts of the diary are still banned from publication: mainly, sections dealing with war crimes committed by the IDF in 1948, and with the establishment of the nuclear reactor in Dimona.

Personal papers

A visit to the archives last week, on the 65th anniversary of its establishment, also revealed that part of President Shimon Peres' archive is kept there. Peres, who at various points was the director general of the Defense Ministry, deputy defense minister and defense minister, feels that preserving his archive is very important, and even keeps a personal diary.

"The archive receives the personal papers of senior officials in the IDF and the Defense Ministry ... when they are discharged from the IDF, the archive enables them to deposit the documentation in the archive - as in a personal safe in a bank. A contract is drawn up with the depositors, and use of the documents requires permission from the depositor," explains Ilana Alon, director of the archive for the past four years. "Reading the material of people who are still alive requires their approval. Sometimes Peres opens his papers to the public," she adds.

Tel Aviv, 1950.
Tel Aviv, 1950.
Tel Aviv, 1950.
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Tel Aviv, 1950.Credit: IDF Archive, Ministry of Defense
1 of 5 |
Tel Aviv, 1950.Credit: IDF Archive, Ministry of Defense
2 of 5 |
Tel Aviv, 1950. Credit: IDF Archive, Ministry of Defense
The IDF Archives celebrates its 65th birthday this year

A source involved in the activity of the IDF archive tells Haaretz, off the record, that the president deliberately chose to keep his papers there, because he is pleased with the way they are preserved there, and by his access to them. In addition, the source says, there is a good ongoing relationship between Peres and the archive, and that in the past the archive "protected" Peres' interests when it prevented publication of papers that the president had mistakenly allowed to be published.

State Archivist Dr. Yaacov Lozowick explains that Peres is not exceptional in choosing to keep papers in the IDF archive. "Sometimes, public figures also give personal records to the State Archive, and people who served mainly in the defense establishment send their papers to the IDF archive," he says. "Since Peres was the director general of the Defense Ministry, and later the defense minister, it's clear that there are records of his there, just as there are records in the State Archive from his time as minister in other ministries and as prime minister," he adds.

The IDF Archive, which is adjacent to the IDF induction center at Tel Hashomer, takes care to fulfill Ben-Gurion's request, even after several decades. The archive includes a rare collection that documents the role of Jews in military activity, conflicts and wars all over the world. Among other things, you can find the personal ID of soldier Abraham Wolf, including records from the period when he served in the German army from 1851 to 1856; and a Rosh Hashanah greeting published by a military chaplain in Jewish Brigade No. 38, which fought as part of the British army during World War I.

Even on its 65th birthday - and although it is an archive that is open to the general public - visitors are required to go via two locked gates and to identify themselves at both, to a voice over an intercom. When you reach the end of the building, you have to leave all your personal belongings with the guard, including cell phones and personal computers. Those are the instructions.

No fewer than five male and female soldiers were manning the computer station at the reception desk. "The IDF pays us with female soldiers," they say at the archive, behind closed doors. "That's how the IDF repays the Defense Ministry so it will allow it to use the archive."

At the meeting with the director of the archive and the senior staff, we were accompanied by a young female soldier in uniform - a representative of the Defense Ministry, who wrote down her comments in a notebook. Members of the archive staff refused to be quoted by name. "I didn't even have my picture taken at my wedding, and you want me to tell you my name?" one says, smiling to himself.

The material held there is so classified that, even in order to display a few patently nonclassified pictures, the director had to make sure she wasn't using, God forbid, a wireless keyboard, "for reasons of information security." "Everything works so slowly. Why is it so messed up?" she wondered later on, trying to show us the outdated search system in action.

According to archive statistics, over a billion documents are kept on its shelves and in its computers; there are 2.5 million photographs; 80,000 hours of communications networks and General Staff deliberations; and 30,000 maps. These are stored in 450,000 containers, 10 million files and 3.5 terabytes of digital material.

IDF negligence

The archives contain all the material of the Defense Ministry and the IDF since the establishment of the state. Most of it, it must be admitted, is quite boring, and includes records of the ongoing work of all IDF units. In addition, according to the director, "we also have state treasures that don't belong to the IDF and the Defense Ministry. We are sitting on treasures here that I wish could be seen by everyone."

Some of these treasures, incidentally, disappeared due to the negligence of various IDF units, which were not meticulous about preserving the material and placing it in the military archive. One notable example was during the evacuation of the Gaza Strip in 2005. Representatives of the IDF Archive who were summoned to the area were shocked to discover a container loaded with garbage and many documents recording IDF activity in the Gaza Strip over decades of occupation.

The material kept in the archive now can only be seen if it was approved by the "exposure team" - which is subordinate to the military censor, and makes sure to guard documents that are liable to endanger state security or foreign relations, or to constitute an invasion of privacy. Highly classified materials are discussed in the "committee for reading restricted material." The time that passes between submitting the request to see the material and the eagerly awaited summons to the room where the scanned material is displayed on the computer screen can be a matter of months.

"We have 36 office workers and another 16 female soldiers. Just for the sake of comparison, the National Library has 560 employees and they have only five million files," complains Alon. "And there it's books that you can find in a second," adds the employee who refused to reveal his name. "Archives the size of ours in the outside world easily get 250 employees," Alon notes.

A minuscule percentage of the material is already on display in changing virtual exhibitions on the website and the IDF Archive's Facebook page. "For years the only thing they cared about here was good climatic conditions - but you also have to make sure to expose the material to the citizens of the country," Alon explains.

When asked whether Arab citizens are also eligible to see the archive material, the staff answer in the affirmative. "There's no discrimination here. When we open material for perusal, any citizen can see it. Even [Yasser] Arafat, if he comes back to life, can come to the reading room here," the senior employee laughs with great enthusiasm. "Look, at the moment there's an Arab in the reading room who's writing a doctoral thesis here," he adds. "Even Syrian intelligence is invited," another employee adds with a smile. "We even work with Al Jazeera," Alon boasts.

Palestinians also use the IDF Archive. "We provide documents that are used for lawsuits by Arabs from the territories. For example, if they have to prove whether or not an incident took place," says the senior employee. When asked to give a concrete example, he adds: "Let's say that, during the intifada, a mule to which an Arab from the territories was emotionally attached was killed. Now go prove whether or not it happened in a military zone."

Most of the requests from the archive come, unexpectedly, from the system itself. "We're the IDF records center. A year after the material is created it's already sent to us," says Alon. The archive staff is sometimes also required to work under pressure. "They contact us from the General Staff office in the middle of a discussion and ask us to find a specific document within 50 minutes. We find it, and that changes the nature of the discussion," says the senior employee.

The archive receives 14,000 requests a year. "We have people who make an 80th birthday party for Grandpa and want to find out what he really did in the army. In another case, a chef had to prove to his new employer that he had done a cooking course in the army over 30 years before. "His wife was so excited that she cried over the phone after we found the document," says the man. Another group using it are those suffering from posttraumatic stress, who "are still living in 1973 and come here to go back to the event, to read about it and be healed," says the staff.

One of the rare documents in the collection, of which the staff is especially proud, is a handwritten note from Yeshayahu Gavish, the head of Central Command during the Six-Day War. On June 9, 1967 he wrote to Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin: "I'm happy to report that all our forces are camped on the banks of the Suez Canal and the Red Sea. The Sinai Peninsula is in our hands. My greetings to you and to the entire IDF."

Last week, when Ilana looked at this note for the umpteenth time, she murmured: "In the digital age that wouldn't have happened. At most he would have texted 'I conquered.'

Then Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, second left. during a visit to northern Israel in 1964. Credit: Defense Ministry

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