Israeli Ministries Fail to Archive Government Files as Mandated by Law

Some ministries have not been handing over any documents at all

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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The Israel State Archives in 2016.
The Israel State Archives in 2016.Credit: David Bachar
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Many government ministries have been depositing too few digital files in the State Archives, according to official data obtained by the Movement for Freedom of Information. At the height of the coronavirus crisis, protests arose when it turned out that files documenting cabinet meetings, including the minutes of the coronavirus cabinet, would not be publicly accessible for another few decades, when the information would be less pertinent or practical except perhaps for historians and other researchers.

This is why there is such great interest in the information that has been revealed regarding how the files on government ministry operations have been handled.

The information shows that that in 2019 and 2020, the Finance Ministry sent only 8,416 files to the archives. The Foreign Ministry sent only 3,769 files and the Construction and Housing Ministry sent only 169. Other government institutions were even more negligent about meeting their archival obligations. The police, State Comptroller’s Office, Courts Administration and Israel Tax Authority did not send a single file to the archives during this period. This means that important information on how decisions were made that influenced the daily lives of the general public will remain confidential for a very long time.

A small government ministry should deposit about 50,000 digital files over a two-year period, experts say. A large ministry is expected to deposit about 300,000 files in that time frame. A digital file includes documents related to ministry activities on a specific matter, such as “police operations in Jerusalem” or the “foreign minister’s meetings in Rome.” Depositing these files in the state archives, according to the law, is essential to preserving information for coming generations, which is to be released and studied. Documents not deposited in the archive will disappear.

The figures released by the freedom of information watchdog demonstrate that most ministries have failed to execute this important responsibility, the effects of which will be felt for years to come. The Prime Minister’s Office, large and bustling with activity, deposited only 52,000 such files in the past two years. The Jerusalem Affairs and Heritage Ministry, a relatively small ministry which has been criticized for being superfluous, has deposited some 110,000 digital files during the same period.

Other large ministries deposited a much smaller number of expected files relative to the scope of their operations and importance. Topping this list are the Finance and Foreign ministries. Other ministries that stood out in this regard are the Environmental Protection Ministry, which archived 2,179 files, the Social Services Ministry with 891 files, and the Housing Ministry with 169. The Science, Infrastructure and Transportation ministries did not archive a single file during this period..

This data demonstrates which ministers and ministry director generals particularly failed at archiving files, an important responsibility given the significance of the data handled by these ministries. The director general of the Finance Ministry handed over only 42 files to the State Archives, while the director general of the Health Ministry – who was very busy with the pandemic during the period under review archived more than 40,000 files. In general, the Health Ministry stood out in its archival activity, logging more than 293,000 files during this two-year period. But the directors general of the Prime Minister’s Office, Justice and Transportation ministries did not archive a single file during this period.

The ministries have not only failed to archive important documentations, they have also failed to share which information they have alredy made public. According to regulations, when the State Archives receives a request to view certain files, it turns to the ministry or government body that deposited them, so they can examine whether it is possible to publicize the material. The figures show that the Israel Police received 1,838 historical files from the archive from 2018 to 2020, but only 19 of them were viewed, or fewer than two percent of the files accessed. This means that most of the police files that the public asked to see were not viewed.

The Public Security Ministry received 661 files from the State Archives to examine, but did not examine a single one of them. Neither did the Social Equality Ministry, which received only 27 files. The Health Ministry only went over two of the 808 requests it received.

The Movement for Freedom of Information said that both the government and the State Archives are having a difficult time meeting the requirements of the law concerning depositing and releasing archival material. It said that violations of this law impede the public’s right to access this information. The watchdog found that ministries were not amenable to supplying the information due to the large amount of time and effort involved. A lawsuit has since been filed to compel officials to comply with the request.

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