Classified: Politicizing the Nakba in Israel’s state archives

Documents that have already been cited in history books are being re-classified in the State Archives.

Israeli state archive documents that were de-classified in the 1980s have been re-classified in recent years, according to a recently hired assistant professor at the University of Maryland’s Center for Jewish Studies.

Shay Hazkani, who was Israel Channel 10’s military correspondent from 2004-8 and will soon complete his doctorate at New York University, discusses the background and politics of the state’s decision to re-classify various documents in an interview for the Ottoman History Podcast.

In the interview, which was recorded in July 2014 (I came across it recently by chance), Hazkani estimates that about one-third of documents that were de-classified in the 1980s have been re-classified starting from the late 1990s, when the archives were digitized.


These reclassified documents were used extensively by prominent “new historians” like Benny Morris (“Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem”), Avi Shlaim (“The Iron Wall”), Hillel Cohen (“Good Arabs” and “1929”) and Ilan Pappe (“Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine”) and cited in their books.

But even though these books certainly exist in the public domain, and they do cite original documents in the Israeli state archives that note orders given to the nascent Israeli army to expel Palestinians during the 1948 war, the government of Israel continues to promote its official narrative — that the Palestinians left of their own accord. Hence the government and, more specifically, the security establishment attempts to control the discourse by re-classifying these documents.

The 25-minute interview is embedded below and well worth your time. Among other things, Hazkani explains that Israel adopted a law in 1955 that specified documents could be kept classified for a maximum of 50 years. But the Mossad, the army and the Shin Bet, which control very large archives, refused to comply with the law. Petitions to declassify specific documents have been brought before the higher courts, with some pending now.

Toward the end of the interview, Hazkani recounts a fascinating anecdote involving his own experience with re-classified documents, this time connected with an incident reported by Joe Sacco in his graphic novel “Footnotes in Gaza.” Sacco traveled to Gaza in 2002 and 2003 to research the book, which was published in 2009. The “footnote” refers to an incident that occurred during the Israeli army’s three-month occupation of Gaza during 1956-7, during the Suez War.

For the book, Sacco interviews several Palestinian eyewitnesses who describe having seen the Israeli army shoot and kill at least 100 civilians out of the hundreds that were rounded up and herded into a schoolyard in Rafah. According to the witnesses, the event took place on November 12, 1956. The details, as drawn and described in Sacco’s book, are quite harrowing, which explains why articles about the book published in Haaretz caused a furore. In the podcast, Hazkani recounts having followed the online discussions and debates about the claims in Sacco’s book.

One blogger, recounts Hazkani, writes in a post about having seen a specific document that confirms some of Sacco’s account. Hazkani happened to be on his way to the archive when he read that post; and since the blogger cited a specific file number, he asked to see it. But when he received the file, it contained a note that indicated the document had been reclassified the previous day — the same day the blogger had published his post.

There is obviously an inherent contradiction in Israeli authorities so clumsily trying to reclassify damning documents that have already been cited by well-known historians, even as it invests so much money and effort in promoting its image abroad as a transparent democracy. Israel is obviously not the only country that tries to shape its image by keeping documents classified for extended periods or even indefinitely. Hazkani mentions colonial archives recently uncovered in Britain, and Turkey’s still-classified archives from the Ottoman era. But Israel’s attempts to redact or classify documents after they have been extensively cited seems counter-productive at best.