What is it that’s frightened the defense establishment so badly that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has decided to extend the period of confidentiality for archival materials from 1948 for another 20 years? What happened then, during the War of Independence, that still needs to be concealed from the public and to prevent its release, even after 70 years? Will it really cause irreparable harm to national security and Israel’s foreign relations if the public is able to examine documents about the massacre at Deir Yassin, for example?
Or maybe it’s actually the opposite? Is a strong and stable democracy such as Israel incapable of handling the publication of a few yellowing documents, even at the price of the embarrassment it will cause to some institution or person who is almost certainly not among the living?
The decision to extend the period of confidentiality on the materials held in the archives of the Israel Defense Forces, Shin Bet security service, Mossad and the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, nuclear research centers and the Israel Institute for Biological Research raises numerous questions. While it is possible to understand why the government wants to protect the details concerning its nuclear programs, for example, it is much harder to explain why documents about battles, incidents, operations and the events of 1948 – those involving members of the pre-state undergrounds Haganah, Palmach, Etzel and Lehi, groups that have not existed for decades – might possibly endanger anyone.
The claims of the defense establishment, in which the release of the material could well expose sources of intelligence information and the methods used by these organizations to this day, just doesn’t hold water. Even if these claims are true, that in a small part of these materials there is information which for various reasons is still classified as sensitive even in the 21st century, this is no reason to prevent the release of all documents created in 1948.
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The default should be the opposite: To release and publish as much as possible, and to censor and erase as little as possible. Or in other words, only those sections in specific documents that are problematic to release for now. For example, a document concerning the Shin Bet’s operations in the temporary transit camps around the time of the founding of the state – a real issue that is still being hidden from the broader public – can have the names of Shin Bet officers or their sources redacted, but the rest of the document must be permitted to be published. Even if exceptional security information is hiding in the minutes of the trial conducted for the Border Police officers who carried out the Kafr Qasem massacre in 1956, it is possible to remove this line so as to allow the release of the rest of the document – and so on and so forth.
Still, it is important to note in this context, as anyone can clearly see, that Israel is a special case. The archival material involved deals partly with the ongoing conflict whose end is nowhere on the horizon. For this reason, the rules about the documents concerning these matters is different from those documenting World War II, which are held in archives in Germany, Britain and Russia and for which no justification exists to prevent their publication.
Nonetheless, even given the present situation, some form of balance is necessary between the public’s right to know and protecting the country’s critical interests. It is important to note here too that it is unacceptable to hide superfluous interests under this terminology: political, personal or public relations interests in one form or another. Critical interests mean exactly that: those whose publication could endanger national security here and now or critically damage relations with other countries. The vast majority of the archival documents contain no information that remotely meets this definition.
It is not a matter of left and right. A government headed by Likud should also be able to respect this liberal stance. In fact, this was the formula used by none other than the last chief archivist, Dr. Yaacov Lozowick, whom no one can suspect of being anxious to expose documents that could jeopardize the security of the state. “A democratic society must allow free discussion of its wars,” he has said in the past in this context. “There are no general secrets. The State of Israel is strong, Israeli society is strong and there is no reason not to allow its citizens to freely research the documentation of its distant wars.”
In the last few years there have been a number of incidents that made headlines in which more than once the State Archive (either independently or at the instruction of higher-ups) made prohibited, ridiculous or superfluous use of the claim of “state security” in order to continue to censor decades-old documents. There is no shortage of examples. For example, the state officially still censors the Riftin report of 1948, which documents the executions by Haganah members of foreign citizens and Arabs. In fact, most of the report has already been published in books, on the internet and, most recently, in an article in Haaretz. Planet earth continued to revolve on its axis afterwards, too.
Another document from 1967, censored by the State Archives until recently, dealt with an incident in which the IDF shot in the direction of Syrian farmers and shepherds who were crossing the border fence. Last year the document was exposed to the public. Did anything change in Israeli-Syrian relations in the wake of the publication of the document?
In another incident the State Archive censored a security-related discussion that took place on June 2, 1967, in which the commander of the air force, Mordechai Hod, said that the IDF had “the exact numbers” of the deployment of the Egyptian air force. Did someone in the archives think that even after 50 years this information would endanger state security? In fact, in this case it was finally none other than the Israel Defense Forces and Defense Establishment Archives that publicized the information that the State Archive censored – and, in doing so, proved that there was no reason to censor that item.
The bottom line: The decision to extend the period of censorship on many archive documents is regrettable and will undermine historic and journalistic research, for the most part, for no good reason.