Secret Israeli Document Reveals Plan to Keep Arabs Off Their Lands

A document unsealed after 60 years reveals the Israeli government’s secret intentions behind the imposition of a military government on the country’s Arab citizens in 1948: not to enhance security but to ensure Jewish control of the land

Adam Raz
Adam Raz
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Arabs awaiting a security check in Kfar Qasem, during the War of Independence.
Arabs awaiting a security check in Kfar Qasem, during the War of Independence.Credit: GPO
Adam Raz
Adam Raz

Israel’s defense establishment has for years endeavored to conceal historical documentation in various archives around the country, as was revealed in an article in Haaretz last July.

That article, which followed up on a study by the Akevot Institute for Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Research, noted that for closed to 20 years, the staff at Malmab – the Defense Ministry’s secretive security department (the name is a Hebrew acronym for “director of security of the defense establishment”) – had been visiting public and private archives and forcing their directors to mothball documents relating to Israeli history, with special emphasis on the Arab-Israeli conflict. This was done without legal authority. The article sparked a furor, and dozens of researchers and historians urged the defense minister at the time, Benjamin Netanyahu, to halt the clandestine illegal activity. Their appeal received no response.

What sort of documents did Malmab order the directors to hide away in their archives’ safes? The many and varied examples include: thick files kept by the military government under which Israel’s Arab citizens lived for 18 years; testimony about the looting and destruction of Arab villages during the Independence War; cabinet ministers’ comments on the Arab refugee situation, following that war; evidence of acts of expulsion and testimony about camps set up for captives; information about Israel’s nuclear project; documents relating to various foreign policy issues; and even a letter sent by the poet and Holocaust survivor Abba Kovner about his own anti-Arab sentiments.

It’s not clear whether Malmab has reduced its activity in the archives since the article was published. However, it can be said that during the past six months, files earlier ordered closed by Malmab have been reopened, adding to our knowledge of the history of the two peoples who share this land. Though none are earth-shattering in historical significance, these are important documents that shed light on significant aspects of various events.

One such document is a secret codicil to a report drawn up by the government-appointed Ratner Committee in early 1956. The document, restored from oblivion in a safe at the Yad Yaari Research and Documentation Center at Givat Haviva, is titled, “Security Settlement and the Land Question.”

The importance of the information included in the codicil can be seen within the context of the history of the military government imposed on Israel’s Arabs in 1948, just months after independence, and abolished only in 1966. There were about 156,000 Arabs in Israel at the war’s end. Following the armistice agreement with Jordan (April 1949) and the annexation of the Triangle – a concentration of Arab locales in central Israel – 27 villages, from Kafr Qasem in the south to Umm al-Fahm in the north, also fell under the jurisdiction of the military government.

Administratively, the latter was divided into three regions: north, center (Triangle) and Negev. Sixty percent of Israel’s Arab citizens lived in Galilee, 20 percent in the Triangle and the rest in the Negev and in various so-called mixed cities, such as Haifa and Acre. In practice, about 85 percent of all Arab citizens were under the rule of the military government, subject to nighttime curfews and regulations requiring them to obtain a travel permit before leaving their area of residence.

The military government was based on the Defense (Emergency) Regulations, promulgated in 1945 by British mandatory authorities, and invoked by Israel to facilitate supervision of the movement and settlement of its Arab citizens, and to prevent their return to the areas captured by Jewish forces in the Independence War. The Jewish public was told that the purpose of the military government was to deter hostile actions against the state by its Arab citizens. In practice, however, it only exacerbated the enmity between the two peoples.

The secret addendum. Described the military government as a tool in the struggle against Arab "trespassers."

The military government, an ugly episode in Israeli history, was the subject of severe criticism at the time, not least by certain members of the Jewish community. Various parties on both the left and the right – Ahdut Ha’avodah, Mapam, the Communist Party and Herut (precursor of Likud) – objected, each for its own reasons, to its imposition. One reason for the opposition was that, as early as the early 1950s, the Shin Bet security service had concluded that the country’s Arab citizens did not pose any sort of security risk.

Opinion was also divided in Mapai, the ruling party (precursor of Labor). The state committee that was headed by Prof. Yohanan Ratner, a retired general and architect, was the second body appointed to consider whether the military government was necessary. The first, convened by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, in 1949, had decided to leave the status quo in place. In February 1956, the three members of the Ratner Committee reached the unanimous conclusion that “the military government has been reduced as much as it can be, and there is no place for a further reduction.” That this was probably a foregone conclusion is attested to by a remark made in public by a member of that panel, Daniel Auster (mayor of Jerusalem until 1950): “Of 200,000 Arabs and other minorities now residing in Israel, we did not find one who is loyal to the state.”

Secret action

A few years later, in the early 1960s, when pressure mounted to abolish the military government, Ben-Gurion explained that it was still essential in order to prevent an insurrection by the country’s Arabs. The state’s existence depends on the presence of the military government, he maintained, although he did not mention the opposition to it of the security establishment. However, it gradually became clear that what truly interested the advocates of the government was not security but control over land. That had been facilitated by Article 125 of the Defense (Emergency) Regulations (1945), under which a military commander can issue an order to close “any area or place.”

In a closed meeting of the Mapai leadership, in 1962, Ben-Gurion stated that without article 125, “we would not have been able to do what we did” in the Negev and Galilee. “Northern Galilee is Judenrein [empty of Jews],” he warned. “We will find ourselves in that situation for many years if we do not prevent – by means of Article 125, by administrative force and military force – entry into forbidden areas. And in the eyes of the Arabs these forbidden areas are theirs. Because the land of Ayalon [Valley] is Arab land.”

Despite the inherent logic of this argument, few testimonies exist about the military government’s latent nationalist motivations. For one thing, there was a tacit understanding, rarely violated, that this was not a subject for public discussion. The secret appendix to the Ratner Committee’s report, found in the Yaari Archives and in the State Archives, and being published here for the first time, is highly illuminating about the true motives that guided the country’s leaders.

According to the panel, the army alone could not safeguard state lands: only Jewish settlement – “security settlement,” as it was called – could do that in the long run. It was thus essential to establish Jewish settlements in the three geographical zones overseen by the military government. Such a process, however, would be lengthy, the committee members agreed, and in the meantime Arab citizens uprooted in the war wanted to return to their homes – something that could not be prevented through legislation. In the view of the codicil’s framers, “The laxness [by the Arabs] in seizing these areas is due mainly to the fact these areas were closed by the military government or under its supervision.” They added that only “the vigilance of the military government’s representatives largely prevented more serious lawlessness in regard to land seizure.” In other words, it was that government that prevented the Arabs from returning to their lands.

The report’s authors also objected to a decision made by Pinhas Lavon, a senior Mapai figure who opposed the military government and who replaced Ben-Gurion as defense minister in early 1954 (but resigned a year later during the so-called Lavon affair, which involved a covert operation in Egypt that went wrong). Lavon canceled the prior decision to divide Galilee into 46 separate, closed areas in which Arabs needed a permit to move from one to another. A division into three or four zones would be enough, to his mind, and would ease life for Arab citizens. The committee members were adamantly against this, arguing that it had led to excessively free movement by the Arabs, because of which “the takeover of the state’s lands increased.”

The Ratner Committee exceeded the official mandate it received upon its appointment in late 1955. Its secret codicil also includes detailed recommendations for amending property laws, particularly an Ottoman statute from 1858. The latter stipulated that anyone, Jew or Arab, who resided on land for 10 years consecutively was entitled to retain it permanently. Now, eight years after Israel’s founding, the committee was worried that within two years, much land would be lost and transferred to Arab citizens. Its recommendation, then, was to abolish the time frame in regard to remaining on these lands.

The text of the secret codicil shows unequivocally that a major task of the military government was to act as a means to control the state’s lands until their permanent status could be regularized and until, with state support, Jewish settlement could begin in formerly Arab areas. Hence, one of the committee’s conclusions: “Until the stabilization of security settlement in the few reserve areas that can still be settled, it is essential to maintain the military government in these places and to strengthen its apparatus… so that the military government can ensure, directly and indirectly, that the lands are not lost to the state.”

The panel described the military government as a tool in the struggle against Arab “trespassers,” and added that without the military government, “many more areas are liable to be lost to the state.” In a reprimand to the state, the committee noted that the military government was suffering from “known laxness… as a result of the criticism being leveled at it.”

Published in part at the time (without the secret section), the Ratner Committee’s recommendations provoked considerable public and governmental criticism. Ben-Gurion, who received a copy of the report in February 1956, blocked discussion of it for months because of disagreements within the government. The Sinai War, which erupted in October 1956, meant that it stayed off the agenda for an even longer period. Ultimately, the report was never submitted to the government for approval, but nevertheless served as the basis for policy in the coming years. In 1958, another committee, headed by Justice Minister Pinhas Rosen, suggested far-reaching changes in the military government, effectively proposing its almost total abolition. Not surprisingly, the cabinet held lengthy discussions in 1959 about whether to publish the recommendations of the Rosen committee.

Why did the state continue to conceal a report that was written more than six decades ago? The explanation might lie in a cabinet session in July 1959, in which Education Minister Zalman Aranne stated that “among the conclusions are some that are political.” In other words, security had nothing to do with it. He added, “The thing must be done, but not revealed, such as Judaizing Galilee, for example.”

Perhaps it’s appropriate here to recall the words of Yehiel Horev, the former director of the Malmab, who admitted in an interview to Haaretz last July that the defense establishment is simply trying to hamper historians. “When the state imposes confidentiality, the published work is weakened… If someone writes that the horse is black, if the horse isn’t outside the barn, you can’t prove that it’s really black.”

Adam Raz, a historian, is a researcher at the Akevot Institute for Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Research and author of the book “Kafr Qasem Massacre: A Political Biography,” published in both Hebrew and Arabic.

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