Sunday, June 12, 2016

Israel blocks access to historical archives exposing its violent history and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians

Dear friends,
please find below two articles on the Israel's blocking of access to their military and state archives.  As both articles notes, Israel is actively seeking to restrict the release and access to documents which expose its calculated ethnic cleaning of the Palestinians, along with its violent war crimes and human rights abuses.

Historians, academics and activists are currently fighting against Israel's increase repression of historical documents.  The articles outline why this struggle and fight for access is so important.

In solidarity, Kim

Why Israel is blocking access to its archives

Israel is concealing vital records to prevent darkest periods in its history from coming to light, academics say.

Al Jazeera, 10 June 2016

Despite Israel's mounting secrecy, historic war crimes are still coming to light [Reuters]
Despite Israel's mounting secrecy, historic war crimes are still coming to light [Reuters]
Jerusalem - Israel is locking away millions of official documents to prevent the darkest episodes in its history from coming to light, civil rights activists and academics have warned as the country's state archives move online.

They claim government officials are concealing vital records needed for historical research, often in violation of Israeli law, in an effort to avoid damaging Israel's image.

The Israeli army has long claimed to be the "most moral" in the world.

Accusations of increased secrecy come as Israel marks this week the 49th anniversary of the 1967 war, when it seized and occupied Sinai Peninsula, Gaza Strip, West Bank, and Golan Heights.

Many of the records to which access is being denied refer to that war and the first years of Israel's military rule over Palestinians in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.

Menachem Klein, a politics professor at Bar Ilan University, near Tel Aviv, said researchers needed such documents to gain a clearer picture of events half a century ago, the goals of policymakers, and human rights abuses. "We have gradually been able to expose some of what happened in 1948 [the war that established Israel], but there is still very little available to help us understand the 1967 war," he told Al-Jazeera.

As part of its commemorations this week, the state archives published testimony by military commanders from 1967. However, local media noted that whole pages had been censored on "security grounds".

Nonetheless, some of the declassified material was revealing. Uzi Narkiss, who headed the army's central command at the time, suggested that he and other commanders hoped to ethnically cleanse most of the territories under cover of fighting. He told fellow officers: "Within 72 hours we'll drive out all the Arabs from the West Bank".

The campaign to open up Israel's archives is being led by the Akevot Institute, a group of Israeli human rights activists, lawyers and researchers trying to document the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In a new report, Point of Access, they note that only 1 percent of 400 million pages of documents have been made public.

Most of the files should have been accessible after 15 years. In many cases, Akevot says, the classified status of documents has expired, but they have still not been made public. Reasons for denial of access are rarely given.

In other instances, documents that were already declassified - some of them decades ago - have been re-sealed and are now unavailable.

Despite the mounting secrecy, historic war crimes are still coming to light.

In March the largest known massacre of Palestinians by the Israeli army during the 1948 war that founded Israel - what Palestinians call  al-Nakba - was exposed, in spite of official efforts to keep the atrocity under wraps for nearly seven decades.

The gag was effectively ended with the publication of a soldier's letter in the Haaretz newspaper, detailing the execution of hundreds of Palestinian men, women and children at the village of Dawaymeh, near Hebron. "The entire history of Israeli society and its conflict with the Palestinians is to be found in those archives," Lior Yavne, co-author of the report, told Al-Jazeera. "It is impossible to understand and write about that history without access." He added: "In practice, most of Israel's archives are permanently closed."

According to Akevot, Israel has exploited a new programme to digitally copy existing paper files to increase secrecy.

Archivists are currently scanning and uploading documents to create a comprehensive database -  a project that is likely to take more than 25 years. The archive's website went live in April.

However, the public nature of the database means hundreds of thousands of national security files have been submitted for the first time to an official body known as the military censor. Until now its powers had been largely restricted to oversight of the Israeli media, said Yavne.

The censor is reported to be refusing to release many of the documents, redacting others and reclassifying as secret many records that were previously available to researchers.

A growing backlog of tens of thousands of files that need to be reviewed has also blocked access to researchers, according to Akevot.

Requests to see documents can be denied if they damage national security or foreign relations, or violate privacy. Yavne said access to records after the specified time restriction had expired was regularly refused without legal authority. Files appeared to be withheld if officials feared they might "highlight human rights violations or shed light on sordid affairs."


The report notes that the records of government decision-making belong to the public but are treated as "a secret to be kept from it".

The current emphasis on concealment contrasts with the late 1980s, when parts of the archives from the 1948 war were opened.

A handful of Israeli historians, most notably Benny Morris, Ilan Pappe and Avi Shlaim, revealed that much of Israel's official history of the state's founding was based on misinformation.

These "new historians" unearthed evidence of wide-scale massacres of Palestinians, rapes and forced expulsions. They also showed that common assumptions about the war - such as that Palestinians had been ordered to flee by their leaders - were later inventions by Israel to minimise international criticism.

One Israeli academic, Shay Hazkani, has estimated that up to a third of records relating to the 1948 war that were declassified have been put under lock again. Given the large number of documents, many had yet to be examined by researchers. 

Nur Masalha, a UK-based Palestinian historian who exposed evidence in Israel's archives of expulsion, or "transfer", policies against Palestinians between 1948 and 1967, told Al Jazeera the clampdown on access to documents was part of wider internal repression in Israel.

It reflected, he said, Israel's mounting concern at the connections being made between Israel's past and present atrocities. "Israel has faced growing international condemnation for its war crimes in Gaza, and at the same time Palestinians, including those inside Israel, have become more determined to focus attention on the Nakba."

Some of the most highly classified records - which have been under lock for 70 years - are due to be made public in less than two years' time. That would turn the spotlight on the most contentious events from Israel's founding. However, according to Akevot, no preparations have been made by Israel's most secretive security agencies, the Shin Bet intelligence service and the Mossad spy agency, to release their archives.

The report says access "is expected to be denied" for the foreseeable future. Yavne said the Shin Bet had already ignored a commitment to make available sections of its archives after 50 years.

Those documents would shed light on Shin Bet policies in the state's early years, when a fifth of Israel's population belonging to the Palestinian minority were placed under a military government.

Details of this period would be embarrassing both because of the harsh treatment of Palestinians during military rule and because the template of the military government was later exported into the occupied territories, said Klein.

Archive documents might expose the Shin Bet's detention and torture practices, its use of blackmail and entrapment to recruit informants, and its harassment of Palestinian leaders. "The Shin Bet has always operated beyond the law," he said.

The Israeli prime minister's office, which oversees both the archives and the Shin Bet, declined to comment.


The end of history at Israel's state archives?

As part of a welcome digitization process, the Israel State Archives will soon revoke access to original paper documents, and the documents it puts online will be subject to military censorship. But academics and civil liberties groups are fighting back.

Illustrative photo of the digitization of archives. (Lilyana Vynogradova /
Illustrative photo of the digitization of archives. (Lilyana Vynogradova /

(Correction appended below)

Israel’s State Archives (ISA) will no longer give researchers and the public access to its historical materials and documents once it starts putting digitized documents online. Furthermore, and documents it does release will be subject to review by the country’s military censorship apparatus.

Currently, the military censor does not review every document given to researchers.
The changes at the State Archives will lead to a serious reduction in the availability and exposure of historical documents, the burying of documents that have already seen the light of day, and conducting historical research in Israel will become far more difficult than it is today, academics and legal experts are warning.

The new restrictions, which are scheduled to be implemented in the coming days, were formulated behind closed doors and are being presented as a benign digitization project.
The changes were revealed for the first time at the end of February, when letters began appearing in the State Archives’ viewing room in Jerusalem, announcing “ending the use of paper files.” The letters, signed by State Archivist Yaacov Lozowick, said that the State Archives plans to launch its new website in April and that it will include more than 10 million scanned pages (a mere 2.5 percent of the 400 million documents in the archive).

Lozowick wrote that the public will be able to request specific documents be scanned within two weeks (it currently takes two days to request a paper document). The letter also notes that “as part of the preparations we will have to cease providing original paper documents.” (The original Hebrew document can be read here.)

Quite ironically, the notice about revoking access to paper archive documents appeared only as a printed letter and not on the State Archives’ new website, which has since been launched.
The doors to the Israel State Archives (Courtesy of Akevot Institute for Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Research)
The doors to the Israel State Archives (Courtesy of Akevot Institute for Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Research)
When the changes were announced, a group of researchers asked for and held a meeting with Lozowick. “We’ve known about the multi-year digitization plan for a long time, but this was the first time they said that the provision of paper documents would cease, not to mention the matter of the censorship,” said Noam Hofstadter, a researcher at the Akevot Institute for Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Research.

The law that regulates Israel’s State Archives obligates the state to publish documents from various government ministries and branches 15 years after they first enter the archives. After 15 years (or longer under certain circumstances) a special ministerial committee can decide to keep specific documents classified based on national security, foreign relations, privacy or maintaining trade secrets. In reality, however, the committee has not met in eight years and it is the state archivist himself who decides whether or not to publish historical documents. We have already seen cases recently in which the State Archives has decided to re-classify documents that were already published.

“What the state archivist told us is that because the Internet is going to become the only channel for viewing documents, releasing documents will be considered publishing them according to the censorship regulations, which means that there will be another body filtering the release of documents,” Hofstadter added. “The state archivist confirmed to us that even documents which have already seen the light of day will go back to being classified.”

“We expect that those people in the State Archives who decide what to publish or not to publish will treat the documents differently now that they know they will be online, indexed by Google, and not just accessible to those researchers who physically come to the archives,” he added.

The Akevot researcher also said the state archivist admitted that scanned documents relating to state security have been scanned and published online without the approval of the military censor, and that in hindsight, the State Archives believes that it broke the law in doing so.

Who needs paper, anyway?

Illustrative photo of archived documents. (
Illustrative photo of archived documents. (
In the letter the Association for Civil Rights in Israel sent to Lozowick last week, Attorney Avner Pinchuk criticized the fact that a process as significant as revoking the public’s access to the physical archives was done without any public debate or announcement, and even without consulting the Higher Archives Council. (No such discussion appears in the council’s published protocols.)

Regarding the matter of censorship, Pinchuk argues that, “as opposed to news media outlets, which [regularly] fight the Censor over the right to publish sensitive information, one cannot reasonably expect the State Archives to be able to or even want to act similarly.” Likewise, the letter continued, the arrangements for censoring archive documents do not contain the usual mechanisms for resolving disputes with those who want to publish censored information.

The letter from ACRI adds that the current censorship regulations forbid mentioning that certain information has been barred for publication, which means that someone accessing the digitized archives will not even know a document has been stricken. The IDF Censor has been widely criticized recently for attempts at extending its reach into social media and other digital media. We wrote here about how +972 was affected by such an over-reach by the IDF Censor earlier this year.

‘Only in Iran’
Also opposing the new arrangement in the State Archives are dozens of members of Israeli academia — deans, heads of university departments dealing with history, the Middle East, Judaism, and more —who recently signed a petition against revoking physical access to paper archive documents.

“It is important to note that digitization is a good thing,” wrote Dr. On Barak, a senior lecturer at Tel Aviv University’s department of Middle Eastern and African history, a member of the Social History Workshop, and a leading voice in opposing the archival changes. “We aren’t just a bunch of old professors nostalgic for the smell of paper. As somebody who has worked in various archives I can say that in other places that are undergoing digitization they are preserving access to the paper documents, even if there’s less demand for it. Only in Iran did the digitization process lead to cutting off access to the paper files.”

According to Barak, there have been numerous studies in recent years about the necessity of preserving access to original paper archive documents. Among other reasons, access to physical documents is so valuable because thumbing through documents or skimming through a book can help find relevant information much faster than advanced digital searches. 

Furthermore, original paper documents can be valuable because of the way they were arranged, the other documents that were placed with them, and even the hand-written annotations or attached notes that can be lost in the scanning process. It is important, therefore, to be able to compare scanned documents with the originals.

“All of that was done without any consultation, public debate or feedback from end users,” Barak said. “Already the archives law is being used to bury [documents] that would otherwise be easily accessible via the freedom of information law. And yet, if they only said that the unscanned documents would be viewable, and if they spoke to those professionals who will be carrying out the scanning and digitization, I would be satisfied. It is clear that a compromise is necessary here.”

According to Hofstadter, Lozowick told him the main reason paper documents will no longer be accessible is budgetary and related to limited manpower resources. “Even in the optimal case the State Archives only expects to scan everything in its possession within 30 years’ time. Can’t they push that to 40 years and leave the public viewing rooms open?”

The Israel State Archives did not respond to our request for comment at the time of publication. Its response will be published here if and when it is received. [Update, April 13: I conducted a full interview with the state archivist, Yaacov Lozowick. Read it here.]

Correction [April 13]:
An earlier version of this article suggested that all documents that the State Archives scan and publish online will be sent for review to the IDF Censor. In reality only those documents deemed to relate to security matters must be sent for censorship. The error did not appear in the original Hebrew article and took place in translation.

This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here

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