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Benny Morris: Israel’s Concealing of Nakba Documents Is Totalitarian

Defense Ministry officials apparently hope their actions will raise doubts about the conclusions and credibility of various scholars, says renowned historian

Benny Morris
Benny Morris
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Cactus plants filled with bullet holes after the Deir Yassin massacre of April 9, 1948.
Cactus plants filled with bullet holes after the Deir Yassin massacre of April 9, 1948.Credit: AP
Benny Morris
Benny Morris

Who gave the order and is the operation legal? These are the questions that remain after Hagar Shezaf’s excellent investigative report in Haaretz a week ago: “Burying the Nakba: How Israel Systematically Hides Evidence of 1948 Expulsion of Arabs.”

Shezaf outlines how, since the mid-2000s or early 2010s, Malmab, the Defense Ministry’s secretive security department, has systematically culled from Israeli archives documents that paint the state’s conduct toward Palestine’s Arabs, particularly during the 1948 war, in bleak colors. In vaults, it hides away documents describing expulsions and massacres by various pre-state militias and then Israeli soldiers during that war and in subsequent years.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 34Credit: Haaretz

Malmab is supposed to protect the defense establishment from infiltration by hostile elements – spies, traitors and cyberattackers – and from leaks of documents on sensitive matters like intelligence and nuclear information. But instead it’s trying to prettify the state’s actions 70 years ago, essentially seeking to rewrite and whitewash the history of the Jewish state. No law defines Malmab’s roles, but doing PR for the state and whitewashing its past surely aren’t legitimate areas of activity for it.

About a decade ago, I began to hear rumors about the sealing of documents that I had already seen, that previously were open to the public. One of these was a document on the “emigration movement of Land of Israel Arabs between December 1, 1947 and June 1, 1948.” It was dated June 30, 1948, and authored by Moshe Sasson of the Arab section of the Haganah Intelligence Service. (This service of the pre-independence army, the Haganah, was known by the Hebrew acronym Shai.)

A copy of this document was open to the public at the archive of the Hashomer Hatza’ir youth movement at the Yad Yaari Research & Documentation Center at Givat Haviva. I didn’t check the matter and presumed that it was a random, isolated case. Maybe I should have checked.

But two years ago, as I was preparing a collection of articles for my latest book in Hebrew (“From Deir Yassin to Camp David,” 2018), I requested permission from the Israel Defense Forces and Defense Establishment Archives to take another look at the documents on the massacre by two militias/terrorist organizations – the Irgun and the Lehi – in the Arab village of Deir Yassin on Jerusalem’s western outskirts on April 9, 1948. On that day, 100 to 120 villagers were killed, a majority of them women, children and elderly.

These documents were open to researchers and the general public at the start of this century, and I quoted extensively from them in my article “The Historiography of Deir Yassin” in the 2005 edition of Tel Aviv University’s Journal of Israeli History. Now I was asking to see the documents again, but the director of the archive turned down my request. The only mumbled explanation was that “the documents are now closed.”

The documents that I wished to see were of two types: 1971 correspondence between former Haganah/IDF officials and Foreign Ministry officials about what happened at Deir Yassin in 1948, and documents from April 1948, mainly from the Haganah Intelligence Service, about the massacre that had just occurred.

Dubious booklet

The (secret) correspondence was sparked by the Foreign Ministry’s publication of a booklet that was distributed in English to Israeli missions around the world in 1969 and later also distributed in Israel by the Herut party, today’s Likud. (Disclosure: The booklet was written by my father, Ya’akov Morris, who worked at the ministry’s information department.) The booklet claimed that no massacre took place at Deir Yassin; the story was an Arab invention, “part of a collection of fairy tales.” The foreign minister at the time was Abba Eban.

People from the left-wing Mapai party and the Labor movement who were top defense officials in 1948 complained about the booklet. On January 31, 1971, Shaul Avigur, a founder of the Israeli intelligence community, protested to Gideon Rafael, the director general of the Foreign Ministry. Avigur attached to his letter a statement by Yehuda Slutsky, chief editor of the Hebrew-language book “History of the Haganah,” who confirmed that there had been a massacre at Deir Yassin.

Meanwhile, Yitzhak Levy, the head of Haganah intelligence in Jerusalem in 1948 who went on to become the IDF Jerusalem district commander and the deputy director of the Prime Minister’s Office, complained in a letter to Menachem Begin on April 12, 1971. Begin, the future prime minister who had led the Irgun in 1948 and led Herut at the time of the letter, denied that a massacre had taken place.

But Levy wrote that he had looked into the story and found that Deir Yassin was a quiet village that did not take part in the 1948 war and that a massacre by the Irgun and Lehi had indeed taken place there. Israel Galili, a Haganah leader in 1948 and a senior minister in 1971, also complained to Eban. Eventually, Eban responded that his ministry had shelved the booklet.

The relevant letters from 1971, which were open in 2003 and 2004, were closed to researchers and the Israeli public at Malmab’s order, and so in 2018 I was unable to see them.

Similarly, most of the “incriminating” material from April 1948, written by Haganah intelligence officers and open for viewing in 2003 and 2004, was closed by Malmab. (Incidentally, even before that, from the time I began working on the events of 1948 starting in the early 1980s, the IDF consistently refused to release photographs of the massacre victims in Deir Yassin, pictures that were apparently taken by Haganah intelligence before the victims’ burial.)

Three days after the massacre, on April 12, 1948, Levy reported to Haganah intelligence’s Arab section: “The takeover of the village was done with great brutality. Whole families, women, old people and children were killed …. Some of the captives who were taken and transferred to detention locations, including women and children, were cruelly murdered by their guards.” And in a supplementary report the next day, based on what Lehi members had said, Levy wrote: “[Irgun fighters] raped a number of girls and killed them afterward. (We [Haganah intelligence] don’t know if this is true.)”

These reports also contain much more detail on what the Irgun and Lehi did in Deir Yassin on April 9 (for example, looting), but Malmab has classified them in recent years. (Of course, other reports, by foreigners, about what happened in the village are open for viewing; in Britain’s National Archives, for instance. The British high commissioner, Gen. Alan Cunningham, reported to London on April 17, 1948, that the takeover of the village “was accompanied by every possible expression of barbarity” – as if he had seen Levy’s reports.)

Mind-boggling effort

The foolishness of Malmab’s actions in concealing the incriminating material about the expulsions and massacres by members of the Haganah, Irgun, Lehi and IDF in 1948 is mind-boggling. The entire story has already been told since 1988 in numerous books and articles in Hebrew and English, by myself and others, in part based on those documents that were once open for scholars and the general public. Malmab’s attempt to hide this material is akin to closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.

No reasonable person still believes that there were no acts of expulsion and massacre by the Jewish side in the 1948 war, which was launched by the Palestinian Arabs and the Arab states and which in my view was a justified war in defense of the Jewish community. It was a war in which the Arabs also committed massacres (at the Haifa refineries and in Kfar Etzion) and expulsions (from the Jewish Quarter in the Jerusalem’s Old City, for example), though to a lesser degree.

But, as Shezaf’s article indicates, Malmab’s chiefs hoped or are hoping that their actions of blocking accessibility to the Israeli material will raise doubts about the work, conclusions and credibility of various scholars, myself included, for readers of their books and articles.

In general, Malmab’s actions regarding the documents on 1948 and the following years (such as material on the expulsion of Bedouin from the Negev in the ‘50s) is a foolish and malicious act typical of totalitarian regimes. The question remains: Who gave Malmab the authority? Who ordered it to filter material from 1948 and about 1948 to prettify the history of Israel? Was it prime ministers Ariel Sharon or Ehud Olmert, or more likely, Benjamin Netanyahu? Or someone acting on his behalf?

There is also the question of just when Malmab began screening material on the treatment of the Palestinian Arabs, besides doing its legitimate job of screening material on the nuclear program or intelligence matters. And another question: Is this ongoing operation legal?

Israel’s archives law says that diplomatic documents are to be opened after 30 years and military documents after 50 years, unless declassification could harm national security or the country’s foreign relations. And if classification is to be extended, it’s not up to a shadowy body like Malmab to decide, but rather to a special ministerial committee headed by the justice minister, in agreement with the state archivist.

And such a decision is supposed to be considered regarding each document separately, not a wholesale effort. It’s highly probable that none of these things were done. Perhaps attorneys for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (or any other relevant organization) should raise the question of Malmab’s actions and authority before the High Court of Justice.

The damage to Israel’s image caused by Malmab’s actions and their inevitable revelation is much greater than any damage that could have been caused by revelation of the actions from 1948 (most of which were already public knowledge before Malmab’s purging operation began). What happened in 1948 happened 70 years ago in a difficult war that was forced upon the Jews. Malmab’s actions, meanwhile, only attest to Israel’s increasingly benighted character today.

Prof. Benny Morris, a historian, is the author of a number of books including “The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947–1949.”

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