Israel has a secret Defense Ministry department which is assigned the task of making Nakba archives disappear. Today the Israeli daily Haaretz has published an extensive investigative report by Hagar Shezaf titled “Burying the Nakba: How Israel Systematically Hides Evidence of 1948 Expulsion of Arabs”.
The department is called “Director of security of the Defense establishment”, acronym MALMAB in Hebrew. In Hebrew it sounds even more obsessive, because the word describing “Defense” and “Security” is the same (‘Bitahon’), thus the “Director of Security of the Security Establishment”. So, what is the security establishment securing itself from?
Ostensibly, it was about searching archives for sensitive information concerning Israel’s secret nuclear program. But it becomes clear that the department has treated information about the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine (and also later expulsions) as a strategic threat. Thus, archives that had already been approved for declassification by the censor, already open and already cited, have been put into vaults again by order of these officials.
For several decades, the secret department has been disappearing archives. In the late 1980’s, documentation of the Nakba events by Israeli historians such as Benny Morris, Ilan Pappe and Avi Shlaim, also known as the “New Historians” became a problem for the state, in that they challenged the Israeli propaganda version and largely confirmed what was derisively deemed the “Palestinian narrative”. Yehiel Horev, the official who founded the department and headed it for two decades until 2007, was hardly secretive about its insidious motive. Asked about a critical document which Benny Morris had already cited in 1986, Horev said:
I don’t remember the document you’re referring to, but if he quoted from it and the document itself is not there [i.e., where Morris says it is], then his facts aren’t strong. If he says, ‘Yes, I have the document,’ I can’t argue with that. But if he says that it’s written there, that could be right and it could be wrong. If the document were already outside and were sealed in the archive, I would say that that’s folly. But if someone quoted from it – there’s a difference of day and night in terms of the validity of the evidence he cited.
In other words, the goal of the work is to undermine the credibility of those who have already cited these documents.
The specific document that is being referred to in the question is not just any document. This is a June 30, 1948 document called “The Emigration of the Arabs of Palestine”, made by Israeli military Intelligence Service, listing the reasons for the Palestinian flight. Eleven reasons are listed in order of importance, the top three of them being:
1. Direct, hostile Jewish [Haganah/IDF ] operations against Arab settlements.
2. The effect of our [Haganah/IDF] hostile operations against nearby [Arab] settlements… (… especially the fall of large neighbouring centers).
3. Operation of [Jewish] dissidents [ Irgun Tzvai Leumi and Lohamei Herut Yisrael]
The document later summarizes the factors, and concludes:
To summarize the previous sections, one could, therefore, say that the impact of “Jewish military action” (Haganah and Dissidents) on the migration was decisive, as some 70% of the residents left their communities and migrated as a result of these actions.
In confirming that these had been the major and overwhelming reasons for the Palestinian flight, the document confirmed that the Palestinians mostly fled out of direct fear and due to direct hostilities, and not, as the Israeli propaganda version went, because “Arab leaders told them to”. Such a document relates to culpability in terms of actively driving the Palestinians out, pointing to the notion of ethnic cleansing – which Ilan Pappe had spelled out in his seminal 2006 book “The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine.”
After having written the article in 1986, Morris also cited this document in later books. I have referred to it in earlier articles, citing these crucial parts.
That document is extensive. From the midst of the Nakba, it already describes in minute detail the depopulation of 219 villages and 4 cities, 239,000 Palestinians. The campaign of ethnic cleansing was in full gear, and within half a year would involve the depopulation of over 500 villages and towns and about 750,000 Palestinians. The document fills 29 pages and is chillingly meticulous. It lists the number of residents in each locality “during normal times”, very precisely (examples: “Salihiyya – 1520”; “Mansura – 360”), and then lists the reason for the depopulation (examples: “Ein Zaytoun – destruction of village by us”; Qabba’a – our attack on them”). Mostly the trajectory of flight is listed (for example with Qabba’a – “Lebanon”).
So what happened with this document? There was a glitch, a crack in the wall of denial.
Although it got classified after it was already cited, and despite the Malmab team having ordered that it remain classified, a few years later researchers from Akevot, a research institute dedicated to documenting human rights questions in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, would find a copy of the text and run it past the military censors – who authorized its publication unconditionally. Apparently, the departments assigned with concealing evidence did not communicate with each other properly. This crucial document is thus available in full from Akevot, here.
But the system of post-facto concealment keeps working. Haaretz tells the recent story of Israeli historian Tamar Novick, who found a 1948 document at the Yad Yaari archive in Givat Haviva. The document goes:
Safsaf [former Palestinian village near Safed] – 52 men were caught, tied them to one another, dug a pit and shot them. 10 were still twitching. Women came, begged for mercy. Found bodies of 6 elderly men. There were 61 bodies. 3 cases of rape, one east of from Safed, girl of 14, 4 men shot and killed. From one they cut off his fingers with a knife to take the ring.
It continues to describe other massacres, looting and abuse. The document itself was not signed (although it was in the file of the Arab Department official Yosef Vashitz of the Leftist MAPAM party), and it was cut off in the middle, so Novick decided to consult with Morris – who had mentioned similar events in his writings. Morris’s descriptions are from another document (a briefing by MAPAM Central Committee member Aharon Cohen), which also came from the same archive. Thus Novick went back to Givat Haviva to corroborate the two, and found that the document Morris cited was now gone.
“At first I thought that maybe Morris hadn’t been accurate in his footnote, that perhaps he had made a mistake,” Novick recalls. “It took me time to consider the possibility that the document had simply disappeared.” When she asked those in charge where the document was, she was told that it had been placed behind lock and key at Yad Yaari – by order of the Ministry of Defense.
The Malmab also makes later archives disappear. As for example a testimony concerning a 1956 expulsion of Bedouins by geologist Avraham Parnes:
A month ago we toured Ramon [crater]. The Bedouin in the Mohila area came to us with their flocks and their families and asked us to break bread with them. I replied that we had a great deal of work to do and didn’t have time. In our visit this week, we headed toward Mohila again. Instead of the Bedouin and their flocks, there was deathly silence. Scores of camel carcasses were scattered in the area. We learned that three days earlier the IDF had ‘screwed’ the Bedouin, and their flocks were destroyed – the camels by shooting, the sheep with grenades. One of the Bedouin, who started to complain, was killed, the rest fled… Two weeks earlier, they’d been ordered to stay where they were for the time being, afterward they were ordered to leave, and to speed things up 500 head were slaughtered…. The expulsion was executed ‘efficiently.’
The letter goes on to quote what one of the soldiers said to Parnes, according to his testimony:
They won’t go unless we’ve screwed their flocks. A young girl of about 16 approached us. She had a beaded necklace of brass snakes. We tore the necklace and each of us took a bead for a souvenir.
Recent interviews, like ones done in the early 2000’s by the Yitzhak Rabin Center, were also largely disappeared by the Malmab, like this section with Maj. General (Res.) Elad Peled, interviewed by historian Boaz Lev Tov:
Peled: “Look, let me tell you something even less nice and cruel, about the big raid in Sasa [Palestinian village in Upper Galilee]. The goal was actually to deter them, to tell them, ‘Dear friends, the Palmach [the Haganah “shock troops”] can reach every place, you are not immune.’ That was the heart of the Arab settlement. But what did we do? My platoon blew up 20 homes with everything that was there.”
Lev Tov: “While people were sleeping there?”
Peled: “I suppose so. What happened there, we came, we entered the village, planted a bomb next to every house, and afterward Homesh blew on a trumpet, because we didn’t have radios, and that was the signal [for our forces] to leave. We’re running in reverse, the sappers stay, they pull, it’s all primitive. They light the fuse or pull the detonator and all those houses are gone.”
Fortunately, Haaretz had the full transcripts.
This ‘task force’ called Malmab also issues threats against archivists. Menahem Blondheim, director of archive at the Harry S. Truman Research Institute at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, recalls his encounter with Malmab officials in 2014:
I told them that the documents in question were decades old, and that I could not imagine that there was any security problem that would warrant restricting their access to researchers. In response, they said, “And let’s say there is testimony here that wells were poisoned in the War of Independence?” I replied, “Fine, those people should be brought to trial.”
Haaretz notes how “Blondheim’s refusal led to a meeting with a more senior ministry official, only this time the attitude he encountered was different and explicit threats were made. Finally the two sides reached an accommodation.”
Apparently, this intervention by a secretive Defense Ministry body is causing considerable dissent at the State Archives. About a year ago, the legal adviser to the State Archives, attorney Naomi Aldouby, wrote an opinion titled “Files Closed Without Authorization in Public Archives.” According to her, the accessibility policy of public archives is the exclusive purview of the director of each institution.
Historians have suspected that such a secretive body existed, because they noticed the traces. Benny Morris:
I knew about it. Not officially, no one informed me, but I encountered it when I discovered that documents I had seen in the past are now sealed. There were documents from the IDF Archive that I used for an article about Deir Yassin, and which are now sealed. When I came to the archive, I was no longer allowed to see the original, so I pointed out in a footnote [in the article] that the State Archive had denied access to documents that I had published 15 years earlier.
This disappearance of already opened archives is part of a greater pattern of secrecy. According to Akevot director Lior Yavne, the IDF archive, which is the biggest archive in Israel, is almost entirely inaccessible. The Shin Bet (security service) archive is “totally closed apart from a handful of documents.” In 1998, the confidentiality of the oldest Shin Bet and Mossad archives was to expire (after 50 years). This was retroactively extended to 70 years in 2010, and last February to 90 years, despite the opposition of the Supreme Council of Archives.
Historian Tuvia Friling, who was Chief Archivist between 2001-2004, says that a central reason he resigned was this intervention by Malmab. He says that he first accepted their intervention on the pretext that archives were being put on the internet and that they came under the mandate of preventing nuclear secrets from being widely accessible – but then they were censoring other things:
The classification placed on the document about the Arabs’ emigration in 1948 is precisely an example of what I was apprehensive about. The storage and archival system is not an arm of the state’s public relations. If there’s something you don’t like – well, that’s life. A healthy society also learns from its mistakes… The state may impose confidentiality on some of its documentation – the question is whether the issue of security doesn’t act as a kind of cover. In many cases, it’s already become a joke.
Malmab founder Yehiel Horev told Hagar Shezaf:
When the state imposes confidentiality, the published work is weakened, because he [Morris] doesn’t have the document.
But isn’t concealing documents based on footnotes in books an attempt to lock the barn door after the horses have bolted?
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.
But the horse is really black. Another interview that Malmab sought to hide was an interview with Maj. General Avraham Tamir (also from the Yitzhak Rabin Center interviews). Tamir says:
Ben-Gurion lays down as policy that we have to demolish [the villages] so they won’t have anywhere to return to. That is, all the Arab villages.
Just as with the systematic destruction of villages during the Nakba, Israel’s secret “document disappearance” agency Malmab is trying to make the historical traces of the Nakba disappear, so that historians won’t have “anywhere to return to” in terms of research, even when it comes to verifying already-cited critical historical documentation. Malmab seeks to put the Nakba “horses” back inside the barn – so that the burden of proof is on historians to prove that “the horse is black” – to prove that there was a Nakba. And then it all becomes a discussion of “narrratives”.
As Horev says:
[T]here are all kinds of narratives. Some say there was no flight at all, only expulsion. Others say there was flight. It’s not black-and-white. There’s a difference between flight and those who say they were forcibly expelled. It’s a different picture.
Horev and Israel know, precisely, that it was overwhelmingly an issue of forced expulsion, and the terror of such expulsion that spread through Palestinian communities. They seek to hide the very documents that confirm this in no uncertain terms. The logic of this denial is clear – it seeks to avert the problem of culpability for the expulsion, for the ethnic cleansing, so as to deny responsibility for the return of refugees. Because the expulsion of the Palestinians has been a completely central need for Zionism and Israel in terms of the “demographic balance” in a “Jewish and Democratic” state. Maintaining that “balance”, and denying the refugee return, is a central Zionist goal, and it has been so since Israel’s inception.
The double appearance of “security” in Malmab’s acronym is indicative of the very opposite, insecurity. This is the inherent Israeli-Zionist moral insecurity, stemming from the knowledge that the Zionist project is based in its very existence upon the uprooting of others. There is a deep knowledge inside every Zionist: security can never be achieved if the grievance of the (ongoing) ethnic cleansing is not rectified. Instead of facing it, Israel applies denial, in hope that it will go away. But it will not. That horse is definitely black.
H/t Ofer Neiman, Ronit Lentin