Citing National Security, Israel Likely to Keep Army File on Palestinian Refugees From 1948 Sealed

File includes research material commissioned by Ben-Gurion to 'prove' refugees were not expelled in 1948 War of Independence.

ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid
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Palestinian refugees leaving a village near Haifa, June 1948.
Palestinian refugees leaving a village near Haifa, June 1948. Credit: Corbis
ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

The Israeli government is expected to keep classified one of the main files in the Israel Defense Forces archives that concerns the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem in 1948, which Palestinians refer to as the Nakba, or catastrophe.

Officials in Jerusalem said that in a discussion by the ministerial committee on archival material, headed by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, the foreign and defense ministries were adamantly against opening the file to public scrutiny for fear of undermining state security and the country’s foreign relations.

The file, whose number is 681-922/1975, includes material commissioned by then prime minister David Ben-Gurion in the early 1960s to prove that nearly a million Palestinians who lived in cities and villages in what became Israeli territory in 1948 fled of their own accord during the War of Independence, and weren’t expelled by the IDF.

The research, whose existence was revealed three years ago in Haaretz by historian Dr. Shay Hazkani, was written by Middle East scholars at the behest of Ben-Gurion, who was trying to neutralize American pressure to return the refugees to their homes. He hoped that if the international community could be persuaded that the Palestinians left on their own and were not expelled, as they asserted after the war, the pressure on Israel would lessen. Government correspondence from that period shows that the researchers were told in advance what they were supposed to prove – that the Arabs fled with the encouragement of Palestinian and Arab leaders, that Arab armies aided those fleeing and that the Jewish forces tried to prevent the flight.

There were at least two studies on the issue commissioned by Ben-Gurion. The first was written by Rony Gabbay, who worked for an agency known in the 1960s as the Shiloah Institute, which eventually evolved into the Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University. The study was based on documents in various Israeli archives, including from the Shin Bet security service archive.

The second study was written by Moshe Maoz, then working for the prime minister’s adviser on Arab affairs and today professor emeritus of Islamic and Middle East studies at Hebrew University. Maoz’s study was partially based on Gabbay’s.

Attempts to unseal file stalled

In 2013, Hazkani, an assistant professor at the Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Maryland, together with attorney Avner Pinchuk of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, submitted a request to the IDF archive to release the classified file to the public. In November 2013, the IDF archive refused. They also approached the chief archivist at the State Archives, Yaacov Lazowick, who has the ultimate authority on such issues, asking that the file be opened. They argued that since the material in the file couldn’t have been written later than 1964, the 50-year limit on its restriction was probably up.

In July 2014 Lazowick told Hazkani and Pinchuk that after consulting with the IDF archive, he was asking to convene the ministerial committee on archival material to make a decision. This committee meets rarely; the last time it met was in 2008, when it decided to keep various files related to the Deir Yassin massacre confidential.

The committee was set to meet several times, but every time the meetings were postponed, first because of the dissolution of the Knesset and the 2015 elections, but later also because of scheduling problems. Last week, on September 11, the committee finally met to discuss what’s been dubbed the “Nakba file.” Aside from Shaked, the committee members are Culture Minister Miri Regev, a former chief military censor and IDF spokesman, and Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, a former chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and intelligence minister.

A senior Israeli official who attended the meeting said the foreign, defense and justice ministries were all categorically opposed to releasing the file. The Foreign Ministry noted that releasing it could affect Israel’s ability to deal with future negotiations with the Palestinians or decisions by the UN Security Council on core issues of a permanent arrangement like the refugee issue.

The ministerial committee did not make a final decision, instead requesting additional clarifications from various officials whose opinions were not heard. Until the panel meets again, the file will remain closed.

The official noted that Shaked had read large sections of the classified file and that it did not contain significant details that have not been published in the past. Still, given the ministries’ positions, the ministers seem likely to keep the file classified.

Hazkani noted that there are several files and documents in Israeli archives relating to 1948 that the public has never seen. With the encouragement of state officials, he said, both the state and IDF archives were “preventing researchers from Israel and the world from telling the story of 1948 in its entirety.”

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