Petition Demands Release of Classified Israeli Documents on 1950s Immigrant Transit Camps

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Laying pipes in a transit camp near Tel Aviv, 1950s.
Laying pipes in a transit camp near Tel Aviv, 1950s.Credit: Zoltan Kluger/GPO
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel petitioned the High Court of Justice Tuesday to order the Shin Bet security service to disclose archival material about its actions against immigrants from North Africa and the Mideast living in transit camps in the 1950s.

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The petition was filed in the name of historian Dr. Shay Hazkani, nine months after Haaretz reported that the Shin Bet was concealing historical documents about activities in the transit camps that were intended to quash immigrant protests over difficult living conditions.

ACRI is demanding that classified documents involving what the Shin Bet called “preventing political subversion in the transit camps” be released to the general public. They also ask that the Shin Bet release all material on the suppression of the 1959 riots in Haifa’s Wadi Salib neighborhood over ethnic discrimination against North African immigrants.

A transit camp for North African immigrants.Credit: Zoltan Kluger/GPO

The petition also demands that the Shin Bet publicize the procedure for disclosing archival material, and to continue to publicize the materials without a High Court petition compelling it to do so.

Hazkani, an Israeli historian at the University of Maryland in the United States, is researching the integration of Jews from Arab countries and the Mideast in Israel.

In 2017, he filed a request with the state archivist to examine archival materials from the 1950s that dealt with Shin Bet activities among Mizrahi Jews, including its activities in the transit camps and in thwarting the Wadi Salib riots. However the Shin Bet turned down his application “for reasons of protection of state security.”

According to the petition, while the Shin Bet refuses to disclose documents about its activities against Mizrahi protests, it published its own version of the events in a book called “Yamei Amos” (“Days of Amos”) about the era of the third Shin Bet chief, Amos Manor. The book made extensive use of official materials from the Shin Bet archive.

“The Shin Bet is breaking the law and preventing historical research into many issues important to Israeli society from the 40's, 50's and 60's,” Hazkani said. Moreover, Hazkani added, the Shin Bet allowed a close associate to publish biased research, “and in so doing disrupts research into its involvement in the suppression of Mizrahi protest. According to the Shin Bet, we should make do with the fact that the agency’s heritage department has already ‘admitted’ the agency’s involvement in the Wadi Salib revolt and in the transit camps, but without allowing other researchers to examine the documents and ask questions,” he said.

Nurses in a transit camp near Rosh Ha'ayinCredit: Théodore Brauner/GPO

Hazkani said he hoped the court would compel the Shin Bet to “act according to the law and in so doing allow other researchers to tell the story of the Mizrahim and the Shin Bet. This is not just a historical issue, but an open wound in Israeli society, and dealing with it requires that researchers have access to the raw information.”

ACRI Attorney Avner Pinchuk, who filed the petition, said: “In a democratic society there are things that must be kept secret, even for many years. But the Shin Bet reveals nothing.” According to Pinchuk, the archival material should be made public “so that we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past, so we can promote an egalitarian society without discrimination and protect human rights.”

The previous state archivist, Dr. Yaakov Lazovik, has been critical of Shin Bet censorship of archival documents. “A democratic country must not conceal information merely because it might embarrass the state,” he said.

In the past, restrictions on publication of Shin Bet archival materials have remained in place for 50 years from the documents' creation. But even when 50 years had passed, they ignored the law and refused to allow public access to archival material from the first years of Israel's existence. In 2010, the period of restricted access to Shin Bet material was increased to 70 years.

No response has been received from the Shin Bet, despite Haaretz having sent a request nine months ago.

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