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A history of silencing Israeli army whistleblowers – from 1948 until today

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One might expect that only historians would care to revisit the 1948 war that created Israel. And yet the debate about what constitutes truth and myth from that period still provokes raw emotions.

Much rests on how those events are reconstructed, not least because the shock waves have yet to subside. Israelis fear, and Palestinians crave, a clearer picture of the past because it would powerfully illuminate the present. It might also influence the international community’s proposed solutions for the conflict.

That is why the unearthing of an Israeli soldier’s letter from 1948 detailing what was probably the war’s worst massacre – one long buried by Israel – is of more than historical significance.

It comes as Moshe Yaalon, the defence minister, this week accused Breaking the Silence, an Israeli organisation that exposes military abuses, of “treason” for collecting evidence from the army’s current whistle-blowers.

Western understandings of the 1948 war – what Palestinians term their Nakba, or catastrophe – are dominated by an enduring Israeli narrative. Israel’s army, it is said, abided by a strict moral code. Palestinians left not because of Israel’s actions but on the orders of Arab leaders.

In this rendering, the Palestinians’ mass dispossession was the fault of the Arab world – and a solution for the millions of today’s refugees lies with their host countries.

For decades Israel’s chief concession to the truth was an admission that a massacre took place just outside Jerusalem, at Deir Yassin.

Israel claimed the atrocity was the exception that proved the rule: a rogue militia killed more than 100 villagers, violating Israel’s ethical codes in the chaotic weeks before statehood was declared.

Palestinians have always known of dozens of other large massacres of civilians from 1948 carried out by the Israeli army. The barbarity, they say, was intended to terrorise the native population into flight. This account puts responsibility on Israel for taking the refugees back.

But history is written by the victor.

In recent decades a few brave Israeli scholars have chipped away at the official facade. In the late 1990s a Haifa University student collected testimonies from former soldiers confirming that over 200 Palestinians had been massacred at Tantura, south of Haifa. After the findings were made public, he was pilloried and stripped of his degree.

A decade ago, the historian Ilan Pappe wrote a groundbreaking book, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, arguing that massacres like the one at Tantura were exploited to drive out Palestinians. He and others noted the suggestive titles of military operations such as “Broom” and soldiers’ orders to “clean” areas.

Pappe now lives in academic exile in the UK.

The biggest obstacle to shifting Israeli and western perceptions of 1948 has been the lack of a clear paper trail connecting the political leadership to the massacres. Israel locked away bundles of documentation precisely not to jeopardise the official narrative.

But things are changing slowly.

Last year a key deception was punctured: that Israel urged many of the war’s 750,000 Palestinian refugees to return. In a letter to Haifa’s leaders shortly after the city’s Palestinians were expelled, David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, demanded that any return be barred.

Now another letter, located by Israeli historian Yair Auron and published last week for the first time in English by the Haaretz newspaper, trashes the idea of an ethical Israel army.

Written by Shabtai Kaplan, a soldier and journalist, the letter confirms long-held suspicions of a massacre – one that dwarfs Deir Yassin – at Dawaymeh, near Hebron. Soldiers executed hundreds of men, women and children who offered no resistance.

The massacre, near the end of the war, was carried out by elite troops under the command of Yitzhak Sadeh. He developed the Israeli army’s famous doctrine of “purity of arms”.

Kaplan argues that the Dawaymeh massacre was part of “a system of expulsion and destruction”, with a clear goal: “The fewer Arabs who remain, the better.”

Kaplan’s letter was consigned to the vaults, as were so many other documents from 1948 that officials considered too damaging.

Nearly seven decades later, in an age of 24-hour news and social media, Israel is still desperately trying to conceal its darkest episodes by bullying the army’s current whistle-blowers.

Last week Benjamin Netanyahu’s government launched an investigation into Breaking the Silence. On Sunday Netanyau called the collection of soldiers’ testimonies “intolerable”, indicating that he may try to ban the group.

It is hard not to see parallels between the cover-ups of 1948 and those of today. Breaking the Silence’s disclosures, especially those relating to Israel’s series of attacks on Gaza, each of which has left hundreds of civilians dead, similarly give the lie to the army’s continuing claims of ethical behaviour.

In his 1948 letter, Kaplan observed of the failure by the political leadership to hold anyone to account for the massacres: “Inaction is in itself encouragement.”

Israel’s politicians hoped then that the Palestinians could be quickly terrorised from their lands. Decades later, the atrocities continue – and to the same end. But Israel must face facts: the days when such systematic brutality could be kept under wraps are now over.

A version of this article first appeared in the National, Abu Dhabi.

Jonathan Cook

Jonathan Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His new website is

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10 Responses

  1. pabelmont on March 23, 2016, 1:53 pm

    If Israel wants to keep its historical vaults closed, how comes it that they are open? Or are they still closed and the letter (Shabtai Kaplan) about the massacre was in a shoebox in someone’s attic?

    • Citizen on March 23, 2016, 3:59 pm

      There’s always something misplaced, something forgotten, and, eventually stumbled upon–occasionally by someone both smart and ethical, with a truth-seeker heart. Who has the longest periods and extensions of classified shelf-life? USA’s is long; if memory serves, Israel’s is even longer…

  2. Stephen Shenfield on March 23, 2016, 5:03 pm

    Could you please give a source for Ben Grunion’s letter to Haifa’s leaders? It could be very relevant to some research I am doing on the history of Haifa.

    • tree on March 23, 2016, 5:44 pm

      Not sure what Jonathan Cook’s source was, but I found it describe here in Haaretz:

      Here’s the cached version if you don’t have a subscription to get the whole article:

      On edit: What a whitewash Haaretz did of the story, quoting Shapira at length, claiming that the pathological liar Ben Gurion was SHOCKED at the lack of Palestinians in Haifa after they had been mercilessly attacked and forced out of the city.

      • tree on March 23, 2016, 6:05 pm

        Got to love the caption on the photo, too.

        “Arab residents leaving Haifa, accompanied by Haganah men, April 1948.”

        How considerate of the Haganah men to “accompany” the fleeing residents. And they even brought their rifles for protection. I’m sure that was much appreciated. I’m not at all surprised that Ben Gurion, according to his diary, was aghast at how all those Palestinians could have just up and left.


        And for those of you who don’t do links, here’s the relevant paragraph about the letter:

        The letter was sent by Ben-Gurion on June 2, 1948, a month and a half after Haifa was captured and a few weeks after Israel’s independence was declared. It was addressed to Abba Khoushy, the secretary-general of the Haifa Workers’ Council, and later the city’s mayor.

        “I hear that Mr. Marriot (Cyril Marriot, the British Consul in Haifa) is working to return the Arabs to Haifa. I don’t know how it is his business, but until the war is over we don’t want a return of the enemy. And all institutions should act accordingly” instructed Ben-Gurion.

      • lysias on March 23, 2016, 6:31 pm

        Jonathan Cook, in Ben Gurion ’48 letter barred return to Haifa, not only quotes from a translation of the letter into English, but also provides a facsimile of the letter in Hebrew.

  3. a blah chick on March 23, 2016, 5:35 pm

    “For decades Israel’s chief concession to the truth was an admission that a massacre took place just outside Jerusalem, at Deir Yassin.”

    And the only reason they admitted that much was that they thought they could pin it on the Irgun and the Stern gang people.

  4. lysias on March 23, 2016, 6:36 pm

    So collecting evidence about historical events nearly 70 years ago is regarded as “treason”.

  5. JWalters on March 23, 2016, 6:44 pm

    Thank you for these in-depth reports on the Nakba. The energy that has been spent suppressing these facts testifies to their importance. In America’s establishment media no one ever even MENTIONS the Nakba. Nakba-denial is the strict rule. This blanket cover-up is strong evidence that this media is controlled by the Israelis, since they have the motive to conduct this cover-up. These reports make clear why.

  6. Don on March 24, 2016, 12:23 pm

    “Israel locked away bundles of documentation precisely not to jeopardise the official narrative.”

    A bit off topic, but I wonder how many times I have read a Jewish intellectual demanding that the Vatican “open its archives”…(the answer is many, many times)

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