Netanyahu Likely to Extend Secrecy of Some 1948 War Documents 20 More Years

Defense establishment asked to lengthen classification period to 90 years, from 70, for material on Deir Yassin massacre, among other events

Arab fighters scan the hills of the Bab El Wad area on May 10, 1948. Arab and Jewish Forces clashed in a battle for control of the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway in Palestine.
Jim Pringle / AP Photo

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to sign regulations extending the period of confidentiality for information in the defense archives from 70 years to 90 years. The Defense Ministry and other organization requested the extension to prevent the release this year of some materials relating to the period of the War of Independence in 1948.

The extension is intended to prevent the exposure of intelligence sources and methods that are still in use today by security forces. The archives also include information that was received from foreign sources under the condition that it would not be released, say defense officials. The draft regulations state that even after 70 years have passed, exposure of some of the archival materials could harm national security. In 2010, Netanyahu extended the period of confidentiality for security archives from 50 years to 70 years.

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The legal adviser to the Israel State Archives, Naomi Aldubi, circulated a draft of the new regulations to the relevant government ministries Wednesday. The document states that the new regulations will apply to materials held by the Shin Bet security service, the Mossad and the archives of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, nuclear research centers and the Israel Institute for Biological Research. The new rules would also prevent the publication of raw intelligence from Military Intelligence as well as information concerning intelligence gathering for materials classified as secret and higher, along with materials concerning certain Israel Defense Forces and Defense Ministry units.

The decision is expected to make life much more difficult for historians, other researchers and journalists and would also limit the public’s access to valuable historical information of public interest. For example, the new regulations would prevent the release of certain materials concerning the massacre at Deir Yassin in 1948.

In practice, the government will be able to prevent the release of any document related to the War of Independence that it wishes to keep secret. The new rules also contradict the recommendations of the supreme advisory council overseeing the Israel State Archives, which recommended extending the confidentiality of only some of the documents for five years.

The Archives Law states that any person has the right to examine documents stored in the state archives, but also grants the government authority to restrict access according to the level of classification — for example, materials classified as “secret” — and according to the amount of time that has passed since the materials were created. This period ranges between 15 and 75 years, in accordance with the materials’ source and contents. For example, the classification period for the minutes of classified sessions of Knesset committees is limited to 20 years; for foreign policy documents the period is 25 years; for police archives, 30 years and for minutes of the security cabinet 50 years. Intelligence materials, including those of the Shin Bet, Mossad, Atomic Energy Commission and Biological Institute, remain classified for 70 years.

Even after this period expires, the state archives and other archives, such as the IDF Archives, have not acted on their own initiative to release the materials. In practice, the end of the classification period alone is not sufficient for automatic declassification of the material. First, the chief archivist must examine the materials. After that, a special ministerial committee, headed by the justice minister, has the right to apply additional restrictions on access to them.

The committee used its power to prohibit access to the so-called Riftin report on extrajudicial executions carried out by the Haganah pre-independence army. In 1998, half a century after the report was written, its confidentiality period expired, after which it should have been unsealed. In the 20 years that have passed since then, two state archivists requested, and received, extensions of the classification period from the ministerial committee.

The draft proposal does stipulate that the relevant organizations must draw up new protocols that would enable the unsealing of classified materials after 50 years, on their own initiative. In addition, they would be instructed to conduct an annual review of their classified documents in order to determine whether they can be declassified.