‘Cast thy bread’: Israeli biological warfare during the 1948 War
by Benny Morris & Benjamin Z. Kedar, Middle Eastern Studies, DOI: 10.1080/00263206.2022.2122448
700,000 Palestinians fled Palestine, then 80% of the Arab population in the area, for either their safety or they were forced out by Israeli soldiers. Between 400 and 600 Palestinian villages were destroyed.
January 3-10, 1948, Palestine. Extensive Jewish Agency purchases of U.S. war surplus high explosives with which to fight Arabs were disclosed in the New York City area. While 191 tons of TNT and the more powerful M-3 were seized before shipment, 73 tons cleared New York for Palestine. The TNT shipment was accidentally discovered when longshoremen loading the American Export Lines freighter “Executor” in Jersey City on January 3, dropped a box marked “industrial machinery” and while attempting to repair the box, found cans of TNT bearing U.S. Army markings. The “machinery” proved to be 32 1/2 tons of TNT, which the U.S. Customs impounded as contraband because of the ban on American arms shipments to the Middle East. On January 10, the FBI was attempting to trace the source of the contraband. The Jewish Agency for Palestine acknowledged on January 10 that it had purchased 199 tons of M-3 from the War Assets Administration at the Army’s Seneca Ordnance Depot near Romulous, New York. Federal and state agents recovered 126 tons from a farmhouse and trucks near Asbury Park, New Jersey, and Barclay Heights and Saugerties, New York on January 8-9 but 73 tons were believed to be en route to Palestine. The Jewish Agency called its transaction with the WAA legal, admitted having set up “Foundry Associates, Inc.” in New York with a Haganah agent in charge, to buy explosives for their war on the Arabs. The FBI said Leonard Weisman, president of three New York firms (Pratt Steamship Line, Material Redistribution Corporation and Paragon Design and Development Co.) gave the Haganah agent office space but did nothing illegal. WAA stopped all deliveries on unfilled orders on January 9 in the New York area. It said Foundry Associates, Inc., had sworn that it was a normal trader in explosives, thereby qualifying to buy the M-3, and that the export question was a U.S. Department of State matter.
January 4, 1948, Jaffa. A series of Jewish terrorist bombings inflicted heavy Arab casualties. 14 were killed and 100 injured when the Stern gang destroyed the Arab National Committee headquarters in Jaffa.
January 5, 1948, Jerusalem. 15 Arabs were killed after the terrorist militia Haganah bombed the Semiramis Hotel.
The blast was meant to hit the headquarters of Abd al-Qadir al-Husayni, commander of the Arab militias fighting Jewish forces in the Jerusalem area. A squad of Haganah soldiers gained entrance to the hotel’s basement and placed explosives there before detonating them. Husayni was not in the building, but dozens of Arab civilians were. The exact number of dead and injured is unknown to this day. According to one report, 26 people were killed and a further 60 injured.
Most of the dead were from the Christian Abu Suawan family, including women and children, as well as the Spanish vice-consul to Jerusalem, who was living in the hotel. Davar reported the incident the next day and, like before, did not provide its readers with the full picture. “The Haganah blew up Arab militia headquarters in Jerusalem,” the headline read. “This was one of the nests of killers in Jerusalem,” the paper declared.
Assassinations, Terror Attacks and Even Castration – the Hidden Actions of Israel's Pre-state Militia by Ofer Aderet, Haaretz, June 13, 2020
January 7, 1948, Jerusalem. 14 Arabs were killed by two Irgun terrorist bombs at Jerusalem’s Jaffa Gate.
January 12, 1948, Tel Aviv. Stern gang members looted Barclay’s Bank in Tel Aviv of $37,000.
January 13, 1948, Washington. The U.S. War Assets Administration received orders from Army Secretary Kenneth Royal to cancel its sale of 199 tons of M-3 explosive to a purchasing agent of the Jewish Agency, which got 73 tons out of the country before the rest was seized.
January 14-15, 1948, New York. The FBI arrested six New York men on charges of trying to ship Haganah 60,000 pounds of TNT, which was seized in Jersey City after having been bought from the Letterkenny Arsenal Ordnance Depot in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.
January 16-17, 1948, Haifa. Zionists claimed they had murdered 82 Arabs, mostly civilians, in a 24 hour period. In retaliation for the massacres, Arabs machine-gunned 35 Haganah men who were en route to attack another Arab farming settlement.
January 31, 1948, London. British Foreign Office officials revealed that over 1,000 Soviets, all Russian-speaking Communist military technicians, had been intercepted on the immigrant ships “Pan York” and “Pan Crescent.”
February 3, 1948, Jerusalem. Stern gang terrorists killed two British policemen.
February 10, 1948, Palestine. Jewish terrorist groups murdered ten Arabs near an RAF camp in central Palestine. A further 23 Arabs were murdered by Jewish groups throughout Palestine.
February 15, 1948, Galilee. Jewish terrorists raided an Arab settlement in upper Galilee, killing 30 Arabs, including 10 children, and blew up bridges.
February 20, 1948, The Palmach unit of the Haganah terrorist gang launched an operation in Caesarea, North of Tel Aviv, in which they demolished 30 houses, six were left standing due to lack of explosives. Yitzhak Rabin opposed the attack. Although occupied by Arabs the buildings were Jewish owned.
February 27, 1948, Jerusalem. Two anti-Communist Polish residents of Jerusalem were murdered by Stern gang terrorists who claimed the Poles were “pro-Arab.”
February 29, 1948, Rehovoth. The British Mandate Government denounced the Jewish Agency after 28 British soldiers were killed and 35 seriously injured when a Haifa-bound train from Cairo was blown up. Stern gang terrorists took credit for the bombing of the British train as revenge for the Ben Yehuda Street bombing in Jerusalem.
March 1, 1948, Jerusalem. The car of British Commander Lt. Gen. McMillan was bombed near Jerusalem but the general was not in the car at the time.
March 2, 1948, Haifa. Stern gang terrorists detonated a truckful of explosives at an Arab office building in Haifa, killing at least 14 Arabs.
March 5, 1948, Tel Aviv. Haganah killed 15 Arabs near Tel Aviv in revenge for the March 4 ambush of their members.
April 6, 1948, Palestine. Jewish terrorists invaded the British Army’s largest camp near Pardes Hannan south of Haifa in a raid for firearms and murdered seven British soldiers.
April 9, 1948, Deir Yassin. Irgun and Stern Gang massacre 260 Arab civilians, half of them women and children in Deir Yassin
more extensive details on the Deir Yassin massacres here
April 25, 1948, Jaffa. The Irgun launched an attack on Arab Jaffa claiming that it was a stronghold for Arabs. They also attacked Tel Aviv with 2,000 men, armored cars and mortars and captured the Arab district of Mansieh. Their advance was halted when British fighter planes and light artillery were used against the Irgun.
April 27, 1948, Palestine. Initially condemning the Irgun for its attack on Jaffa, the Haganah reached an agreement with Irgun and the latter agreed to operate under Haganah control. Both groups then attacked, Haganah seizing Jaffa’s eastern and southern suburbs. The Arab city was encircled by April 29, and all but 15,000 of Jaffa’s Arab inhabitants had been driven from the city, although the town was officially termed an Arab area. In Tel Aviv, the Stern gang robbed Barclay’s Bank of $1 million.
April 30, 1948, Jerusalem. Haganah scored victories against the Arab residents after fruitless UN efforts to arrange a truce that would protect historical shrines in the ancient Walled City. Jewish extremists threatened to dynamite the Arab Dome of the Rock Mosque unless all Arabs immediately evacuated Jerusalem. The British response was that if this happened, they would blow up the Wailing Wall, the last remnant of the destroyed temple. The Haganah agreed to respect both Arab and Christian monuments but insisted all Arabs and Christians must leave Jerusalem. In a move they described as “defensive,” the Haganah overran the Christian Arab Katamon quarter in southwestern modern Jerusalem and captured most of the Moslem Mamilla cemetery. Jewish workers seized the general post office in Jerusalem. In Katamon, Haganah captured St. Simon’s Greek Orthodox Monastery, drove out the monks and vandalized the building. British troops stepped in to prevent further massacre of the Arabs.
May 1, 1948, Ein-al-Zeitun massacre:
The attack on Ein al Zeitun was conducted by the 3rd Battalion of the Palmach under the command of Moshe Kelman, as a preliminary operation to prepare for an assault on the Arab quarter of Safed. Davidka mortar bombs were used for the first time. The village was taken without much difficulty. Most of the villagers fled during the battle, and the remainder, apart from 30-100 men aged 20-40 were forcibly expelled afterwards.
The Palmach soldiers then began to destroy the village. Palmach officer Elad Peled recalled that “our men began blowing up the village. The intoxication of victory blinded them and they went berserk, breaking and destroying property. The Jews of Safad saw Ein Zeitun blown up and crushed, and were “happy”…
One Yiftah HQ report says that “30” Arab prisoners were “transferred to Golani [Brigade].” But a day or two later two Palmach soldiers, acting on Third Battalion OC Moshe Kelman's orders, murdered several dozen prisoners, probably including young men from Ein al-Zeitun, in the gully between Ein al-Zeitun and Safad. According to Netiva Ben-Yehuda, the captive men were tied up and thrown into the deep gully between Ein al Zeitun and left for two days. Kelman then decided to “get rid of this problem altogether,” but most of his men refused. Finally, he found two willing to do it, and the prisoners were killed. Two days later, word of the massacre leaked out, and it was feared that British or UN investigators would arrive, so some soldiers, including Ben-Yehuda, were detailed to untie the corpses and bury them
According to a testimony Aharon Yo'eli, a soldier present, obtained by Israeli historian Uri Milstein “2 Israelis came from Safad and took 23 men from Ayn Zaytoon, stripped them of watches and wallets, took them to a hill and shot them. Israelis were looking for other Israelis to kill Arabs; many Jews in Safad were Hassidis (strictly observant). ….”
May 2, 1948, Jerusalem. The British finally halted widespread strife in Jerusalem by rushing several thousand mechanized army units and Royal Marine commandos back to Palestine. Their primary purpose was to protect Arab civilians who were being slaughtered by rampaging Zionists.
May 5-8, 1948, Palestine. The Haganah, now styling itself a “Jewish Army,” struck Upper Galilee in northeastern Palestine and claimed to have crushed any Arab resistance by the end of the week. Safad, capital of Upper Galilee and normally a city of 15,000 Arabs, was reported by the Jewish Agency as having been “cleansed” of Arabs by May 6. The only remaining occupants of the town were 2,000 Jews. Haganah announced that all Arab property had been confiscated from the owners and would be given to Jewish settlers.
May 4, 1948, Tel Aviv. The 37-man Jewish Legislative Council met in Tel Aviv and heard Premier-designate David Ben-Gurion declare that 150,000 Arabs had been driven from their homes in the past five months but that the Jews “haven’t lost a single settlement.” The Stern gang resumed “direct war” against the British for protecting the Arab population in Jerusalem. Seven British soldiers were killed near Nethanya. At the same time, Stern gang took credit for a letter bomb which killed the young brother of a British army officer in England.
May 6, 1948, Jerusalem. Haganah was re-designated as the Jewish State Army and reported that 200 aircraft, later revealed by British authorities as having come from Czechoslovakia, whose new communist government is almost entirely composed of Zionists and who have been pouring weapons into Palestine, are slated to reinforce the new army. The army will be increased to 85,000 immediately.
May 22, 1948, Jerusalem. Thomas Wasson, U.S. Consul General in Jerusalem and a member of the Council’s Truce Commission, was fatally wounded by a Stern gang sniper near the U.S. Consulate. Two other Consulate members were also assaulted, one dying the next day.
September 17, 1948, Jerusalem. Yitzhak Shamir’s Stern Gang assassinate Swedish peace mediator, Count Folke Bernadotte Angered by his order to readmit 8,000 Arab refugees driven from three villages near Haifa by attacks of Jewish terrorists, the Stern gang assassinated Count Folke Bernadotte, UN mediator for Palestine. Also killed in the attack was French Col. André Serot, chief of France’s 100-man contingent in the unarmed UN truce-observer team.
October 29, 1948, Safsaf. Israeli terrorist group Irgun ethnically cleansed the village of Safsaf in Palestine, lining some 52-70 men up, shooting them, dumping them in a ditch, and raping multiple women and a teenage girl.
October 31-November 1, 1948, Israeli soldiers captured a Lebanese village and massacred the villagers, killing all men between 15 and 60 and kicking all women and children out of the town. An unknown amount of people were killed.
by Adam Raz, Haartez, December 9, 2021
Testimonies continue to pile up, documents are revealed, and gradually a broader picture emerges of the acts of murder committed by Israeli troops during the War of Independence. Minutes recorded during cabinet meetings in 1948 leave no room for doubt: Israel's leaders knew in real time about the blood-drenched events that accompanied the conquest of the Arab villages
Operation Hiram. Within 30 hours, dozens of villages in the Galilee were conquered.
Credit: Boris Carmi / Meitar Collection / National Library of Israel
The discussions were fraught with emotion. Cabinet minister Haim-Moshe Shapira said that all of Israel’s moral foundations had been undermined. Minister David Remez remarked that the deeds that had been done remove us from the category of Jews and from the category of human beings altogether. Other ministers were also appalled: Mordechai Bentov wondered what kind of Jews would be left in the country after the war; Aharon Zisling related that he had had a sleepless night – the criminals, he said, were striking at the soul of the whole government. Some ministers demanded that the testimonies be investigated and that those responsible be held to account. David Ben-Gurion was evasive. In the end, the ministers decided on an investigation. The result was the establishment of the “committee to examine cases of murder in [by] the army.”
It was November 1948. Testimonies of massacres perpetrated by Israel Defense Forces soldiers against Arabs – targeting unarmed men as well as elderly folk and women and children – were piling up on the cabinet table. For years these discussions were concealed from the public by the military censors. Now, an investigative report by Haaretz and the Akevot Institute for Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Research for the first time makes public the sharp exchanges between the ministers on this subject and reveals testimonies about three previously unknown massacres, as well as new details about the killing in Hula, Lebanon, one of the most flagrant crimes of the war.
In October 1948, the IDF launched two large-scale operations: In the south, Operation Yoav, which opened a road to the Negev; and in the north, Operation Hiram. In the latter, within 30 hours, dozens of Arab villages in the north were overrun and tens of thousands of residents fled or were expelled from their homes. Within less than three days, the IDF had conquered the Galilee and also extended its reach into villages in southern Lebanon. The overwhelming majority of them took no part in the fighting. Most of the exchanges of fire were between the IDF and the Arab Salvation Army, consisting of volunteers from Arab countries.
At the time of Israel’s campaign to conquer the Galilee, 120,000 Arabs remained in the area, half the number who had resided there on the eve of the United Nations’ adoption of the partition plan, in November 1947. The IDF’s rapid advance toward the northern border brought the soldiers into contact with the population that remained in the villages, among whom were elderly folk and women and children. The Palestinians’ fate was now in the hands of the Israeli forces. That was the background to the massacres that were perpetrated against civilians and against Arab soldiers who were taken captive. At the war’s end, some 30,000 Arabs remained in the north.
The atrocities of the 1948 war are known from diverse historical documentation: soldiers’ letters, unpublished memoirs written in real time, minutes of meetings held by political parties, and from other sources. Reports about military and governmental investigations are for the most part classified, and the heavy hand of military censorship continues to obstruct academic research and investigative reporting. Still, the open sources provide a picture that is slowly becoming clearer. For example, testimonies about previously unknown massacres that took place in Reineh, at Meron and in Al-Burj, which are discussed below.
The village of Reineh, near Nazareth, was conquered even before Operation Hiram, in July 1948. A few months later, Aharon Haim Cohen, from the department of the Histadrut labor federation that dealt with the Arab population, demanded that a representative of the parallel section in Mapam, a left-wing party that was part of the government, clarify the following: “Why were 14 Arabs murdered in the village of Reineh at the beginning of September, among them a Bedouin woman and also a member of the Land of Israel Workers Alliance, Yusuf al-Turki? They were seized next to the village, accused of smuggling, taken to the village and murdered.” Sheikh Taher al-Taveri, one of the leaders of the Palestinian community in the north, maintained that the Reineh massacre “is not the only one” and that these acts were “being carried out for the purpose of robbery.” The victim’s families claimed that those murdered had been carrying hundreds of liras, a very substantial amount.
The village of Al-Burj (today Modi’in) was also conquered in July 1948, in Operation Dani. According to a document, whose author is unknown, that was found in the Yad Yaari Archive, four elderly men remained in the village after its capture: “Hajj Ibrahim, who helped out in the military kitchen, a sick elderly woman and another elderly man and [elderly] woman.” Eight days after the village was conquered, the soldiers sent Ibrahim off to pick vegetables in order to distance him from what was about to occur. “The three others were taken to an isolated house. Afterward an antitank shell (‘Fiat’) was fired. When the shell missed the target, six hand grenades were thrown into the house. They killed an elderly man and woman, and the elderly woman was put to death with a firearm. Afterward they torched the house and burned the three bodies. When Hajj Ibrahim returned with his guard, he was told that the three others had been sent to the hospital in Ramallah. Apparently he didn’t believe the story, and a few hours later he too was put to death, with four bullets.”
According to the testimony of Shmuel Mikunis, a member of the Provisional State Council (predecessor to the Knesset) from the Communist Party, and reported here for the first time, atrocities were also perpetrated in the Meron region. Mikunis got around the censors in real time by asking the prime minister a parliamentary question, which ended up in the Knesset Archive. He demanded clarification from David Ben-Gurion about acts that Mikunis said had been done by members of the underground Irgun militia: “A. They annihilated with a machine gun 35 Arabs who had surrendered to that company with a white flag in their hands. B. They took as captives peaceful residents, among them women and children, ordered them to dig a pit, pushed them into it with long French bayonets and shot the unfortunates until they were all murdered. There was even a woman with an infant in her arms. C. Arab children of about 13-14 who were playing with grenades were all shot. D. A girl of about 19-20 was raped by men from Altalena [an Irgun unit]; afterward she was stabbed with a bayonet and a wooden stick was thrust into her body.”
At Meron, it was reported, ‘They took as captives peaceful residents, among them women and children, ordered them to dig a pit, pushed them into it... and shot the unfortunates until they were all murdered. There was even a woman with an infant in her arms.’
This is the place to emphasize that we have no additional testimony that reinforces the brutal descriptions of the events in Reineh, Al-Burj and Meron. This is not surprising, considering how much material remains locked away in the archives. With regard to Mikunis’ testimony, there are additional reasons to suspend healthy skepticism. In that same parliamentary question to Ben-Gurion, Mikunis provided a minutely detailed description of the massacre in the Lebanese village of Hula, and it turned out later, in court, that his sources were reliable. (There is no evidence of a response from the prime minister.)
‘Some still showed signs of life’
The ministers appear to have been especially perturbed by the Hula massacre. The village was conquered by a company of the Carmeli Brigade, 22nd battalion, under the command of Shmuel Lahis. Hundreds of residents, a majority of Hula’s population, fled, but about 60 people remained in the village and surrendered without resistance. After the conquest, two massacres were perpetrated there, in two successive days. On the first day, October 31, 1948, 18 villagers were murdered, and on the following day the number of victims stood at 15.
Lahis, the company commander, was the only combatant who was tried on murder charges in Operation Hiram. He was acquitted by reason of doubt in the first episode, but was convicted of the second day’s massacre, which he carried out himself. The Lahis verdict was later relegated to the law archive of Tel Aviv University, and a short excerpt from the ruling on his appeal is here published for the first time.
Lahis ordered the removal “of those 15 Arabs from the house they were in and led them to an isolated house which was some distance from the village’s Muslim cemetery. When they got there, the appellant [Lahis] ordered the Arabs to be taken into one of the rooms and there he commanded them to stand in a line with their faces to the wall… The appellant then shot the Arabs with the Sten [gun] he held and emptied two clips on them. After the people fell, the appellant checked the bodies and observed whether there was life in them. Some of them still showed signs of life and the appellant then fired additional shots into them.”
Lahis stated in his defense that he had operated in the spirit of the battalion commander, who told him that “there is no need to burden intelligence [personnel] with captives.” He explained that he felt a powerful need for revenge because of the death of his friends, even though his victims had not taken part in the fighting. He was sentenced to seven years in prison; on appeal the prison term was reduced to one year. He served it in quite comfortable conditions in a military base in the north.
Over the years, the judges offered various explanations for the light sentence. Judge Gideon Eilat justified the sentence by noting that Lahis was the only person brought to trial, even though graver murders had been committed. Judge Chaim Dvorin said, “As a judge it was difficult for me to come to terms with a situation in which we are sitting behind a table and judging a person who behaved during battle as he behaved. Could he have known at the time who was innocent and who was an enemy?”
Following his release, Lahis was pardoned by President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi. Three decades later he was appointed director general of the Jewish Agency. In that capacity he conceived the idea of Jerusalem Day, commemorating the re-unification of Jerusalem during the Six-Day War, which has since been marked annually.
A 1949 cabinet meeting. Ben-Gurion chided his ministers: “It’s easy to sit here around this table and cast blame on a small number of people, on those who fought.”
Credit: Hugo Mendelsohn / GPO
Millions of documents from the state’s founding are stored in government archives, and banned from publication. On top of this there is active censorship. In recent years personnel of the Malmab unit (Hebrew acronym for “director of security of the defense establishment”) have been scouring archives around the country and removing evidence of war crimes, as an investigative report by Hagar Shezaf in Haaretz revealed in 2019. However, despite the efforts at concealment, the accounts of about massacres continue to accumulate.
The groundwork was laid by the historian Benny Morris, who conducted comprehensive, pioneering research in archives, starting in the 1980s. To this was later added the work of another historian, Adel Manna, whose focus is oral history and who studied the history of the Arabs of Haifa and the Galilee. Manna described, among other events, the execution squad that massacred nine residents of Majd al-Krum (his own birthplace). Additional publications over the years, such as the testimonies reported here, are gradually filling in the missing pieces of the puzzle.
Morris recorded 24 massacres during the 1948 war. Today it can be said that the number is higher, standing at several dozen cases. In some of them a few individuals were murdered, in others dozens, and there are also cases of more than a hundred victims. With the exception of the massacre in Deir Yassin, in April 1948, which has resonated widely over the years, this gloomy slice of history appears to have been repressed and pushed aside from the Israeli public discourse.
Among the major massacres that took place during Operations Hiram and Yoav were the events in the villages of Saliha, Safsaf and Al-Dawayima. In Saliha (today Kibbutz Yiron), which lay close to the border with Lebanon, the 7th Brigade executed between 60 and 80 inhabitants using a method that was employed a number of times in the war: concentrating residents in a building in the village and then blowing up the structure with the people inside.
In Safsaf (today Moshav Safsufa), near Safed, soldiers from the 7th Brigade massacred dozens of inhabitants. According to one testimony (subsequently reclassified by the Malmab unit), “Fifty-two men were caught, tied them to one another, dug a pit and shot them. Ten were still twitching. Women came, begged for mercy. Found bodies of 6 elderly men. There were 61 bodies. 3 cases of rape.”
In the village of Al-Dawayima (today Moshav Amatzia), in the Lachish District, troops of the 8th Brigade massacred about 100 people. A soldier who witnessed the events described to Mapam officials what happened: “There was no battle and no resistance. The first conquerors killed 80 to 100 Arab men, women and children. The children were killed by smashing their skulls with sticks. There wasn’t a house without people killed in it.” According to an intelligence officer who was posted to the village two days later, the number of those killed stood at 120.
An article published by an anonymous soldier in the journal Ner after the war indicates that the phenomenon of killing non-combatants was widespread in the IDF. The writer related how his comrades in the unit had murdered an elderly Arab woman who remained behind during the conquest of the village of Lubiya, in Lower Galilee: “This became a fashion. And when I complained to the battalion commander about what was going on, and asked him to put a stop to the rampage, which has no military justification, he shrugged his shoulders and said that ‘there is no order from above’ to prevent it. Since then the battalion just descended further down the slope. Its military achievements continued, but on the other hand the atrocities multiplied.”
‘This is a Jewish question’
In November-December 1948, when the war pressure had abated somewhat, the government turned to discussing the reports of massacres, which reached ministers in different ways. A perusal of the minutes of these meetings leaves no room for doubt: The country’s top leaders knew in real time about the blood-drenched events that accompanied the conquest of the Arab villages.
In fact, the minutes of cabinet meetings from this period were made available for public perusal as early as 1995. However, the sections of the discussions that were devoted to “the army’s behavior in the Galilee and the Negev” – the term on the cabinet’s agenda – remained redacted and censored until only a few days ago. The present report was made possible following a request to the state archivist made by the Akevot Institute.
Even now, the transcripts are not available in full. It is evident that the direct mentions of war crimes remain redacted. However, the exchanges between the ministers about the question of whether to investigate the crimes or not – exchanges that were concealed for 73 years – are now available to researchers, journalists and curious citizens. Here, for example, is what the cabinet meeting of November 7, 1948, sounded like:
Morris recorded 24 massacres during the 1948 war. Today it can be said that there were several dozen cases. In some of them a few individuals were murdered, in others dozens, and there are also cases of more than a hundred victims.
Minister of Immigration and Health Haim-Moshe Shapira (Hapoel Hamizrahi): “To go that far is forbidden even in times of war. These matters have come up more than once in cabinet meetings, and the defense minister investigated and demanded, and orders were given. I believe that in order to create the impression that we take this matter very seriously, we must choose a committee of ministers who will travel to those places and see for themselves what happened. People who commit these acts must be punished. The matter was not a secret. My proposal is to choose a committee of three ministers who will address the gravity of the matter.”
Interior Minister Yitzhak Gruenbaum (General Zionists): “I too intended to ask a question along these lines. I have learned that an order exists to cleanse the territory.” At this point Gruenbaum tells about an officer who transported residents in a bus to enemy lines, where they were expelled, and adds, “But apparently others lack the same intelligence and the same feeling. Apparently the order can be executed by other means.”
At this point many lines are redacted.
Labor Minister Mordechai Bentov (Mapam): “The people who did this claimed they had received orders in this spirit. It seems to me that we have not been as helpless about any issue as we are, apparently, about this issue. In my opinion this is not an Arab question, it is a Jewish question. The question is which Jews will remain in the country after the war. I see no way but to eradicate the evil with a strong hand. As we have not seen that strong hand in [army] headquarters or in the Defense Ministry, I support Mr. Shapira’s proposal for a committee to be chosen, which will be given the authority by the government to investigate every person it wishes. It’s necessary to investigate the chains of command, who received orders from whom, how things are being done without written orders. These things are done according to a particular method. It turns out that an order is one thing and procedure another.”
Prime Minister and Defense Minister David Ben-Gurion (Mapai): “If they flee, there is no need to run after them. However, it is different with regard to residents who remain in their places and our armies chase them away. That can be prevented. There is no need to chase them away. In Lod and Ramle explicit orders were given not to chase away the inhabitants and it turned out that they were forced [to leave]. I wanted to go to Lod in the first days after the conquest, and I was given a few excuses as to why I shouldn’t go. The first time I accepted them naively. A more serious matter is that of the theft. The situation in that regard is horrible.”
The November 7, 1948, meeting ended with a decision to appoint a committee of three ministers to examine the testimony about massacres. The committee consisted of Haim-Moshe Shapira, Bentov and Justice Minister Pinhas Rosenbluth (Rosen), from the Progressive Party. A week later they informed the cabinet that the meager powers they had been given did not enable them to get to the truth of the matter. Three more days passed, and the cabinet met again to discuss the investigation of the crimes.
Bentov: “It is known to me that there are circles in the army who want to sabotage the government’s decisions.”
Shapira: “We must find the best way to stop the plague. The situation in this matter is like a plague. Today the committee heard one witness, and I buried my face in my hands, in shame and disgrace. If this is the situation, I don’t know from which side a greater danger exists to the state – from the side of the Arabs or from our own side. In my opinion, all our moral foundations have been undermined and we need to look for ways to curb these instincts. We have reached this state of affairs because we did not know how to control things when this first started. My impression is that we are living in a fools’ paradise. If no shift occurs, then we are undermining the government’s moral basis with our own hands.”
Agriculture Minister Aharon Zisling (Mapam): “I received a letter from a certain person about this matter. I have to tell you that I knew about the situation in this matter, and I placed the subject on this table more than once. After reading the letter I received, I couldn’t sleep the whole night. I felt that something was being done that was affecting my soul, the soul of my home and the soul of all of us here. I could not imagine where we had come from and where we are going. I know that this is not a chance thing but something that determines the nation’s standards of life. I know that this could have consequences in every area of our life. One transgression generates another, and this matter becomes people’s second nature.”
Arab residents flee the Galilee toward Lebanon.
Credit: Fred Csasznik
Police Minister Bechor-Shalom Sheetrit (Sephardim and Oriental Communities): “Already in the first days of the People’s Administration [pre-May 1948 temporary legislative body], I demanded a stringent approach on this matter, and you didn’t listen to me. You are overwrought about their grave deeds. I put forward several proposals on this subject, and to this day not one of them has been accepted.”
Transportation Minister David Remez (Mapai): “We have slid down a terrible slope – true, not the whole army, but if there are deeds like these and they are recurring in quite a few places, they are undoubtedly horrific to the point of despair.”
Following the discussion, Ben-Gurion declared incisively: “Since the committee did not fulfill the role it was tasked with, it is hereby abolished.” To which Gruenbaum retorted, “We are burying the matter.” Minister Shapira, who had been the one to call for the committee in the first place, commented that he felt the earth give way beneath his feet.
In fact, the ministers grasped very quickly that the prime minister had no interest in a through investigation of war crimes. He refused to grant the committee of three the authority to subpoena witnesses, and blamed its members’ laziness for its failure. Whereas some ministers demanded the establishment of a committee with teeth and urged that those responsible be brought to justice, Ben-Gurion pulled in a completely opposite direction. The meeting ended with the following decision: “The government assigns to the prime minister [responsibility for] investigating all of the claims made about the army’s behavior vis-a-vis Arabs in the Galilee and the south.”
Two days after the meeting, on November 19, 1948, he appointed the attorney general, Yaakov-Shimshon Shapira, to investigate the events. The prime minister noted in the letter of appointment that the attorney general “is hereby requested to take it on himself to examine and investigate whether harm was inflicted by soldiers and the army on the life of Arab residents of the Galilee and the south, which was not in accordance with the accepted rules of war.”
Two weeks later, the attorney general submitted his report to the prime minister. In the cabinet meeting of December 5, Ben-Gurion read out its main points, but this section of the minutes remains redacted. In the 1980s, historian Morris petitioned the High Court of Justice, requesting that the report be made available to him, but the petition was rejected. The Akevot Institute has been working for several years to have the report declassified.
The report is mentioned only a few times in the academic literature – so few that some have questioned its very existence. The historian Yoav Gelber, the author of one of the most informative books about the War of Independence (“Independence Versus Nakbah: The Arab-Israeli War of 1948,” in Hebrew), wrote that he did not find “Shapira’s investigative report or any reference to it, or any other evidence to the effect that an investigation was conducted in the matter of the irregular actions that took place in the Galilee.” Nevertheless, the report does exist, and the minutes now made available show that the cabinet ministers were not at all pleased with its content or its recommendations.
After reading out the main points of the report to the cabinet, Ben-Gurion said, “I do not accept everything he [Shapira] wrote, but I think he has done something important and has said things that others would not have dared say.” He then took the opportunity to criticize his fellow cabinet members. “Of course, it’s easy to sit here around this table and cast blame on a small number of people, on those who fought.”
Haim-Moshe Shapira: “The attorney general has indeed presented a report from what he was told, but that is not his job. In my opinion, the only thing that it’s still possible to do, is to select on behalf of the government a public committee that will investigate the matter and go fully into its details. But if these deeds are covered up, the blame lies with the entire government if it does not being the offenders to justice.”
Remez: “These deeds remove us from the category of Jews and from the category of human beings altogether. Precisely on these grave matters we have been silent to this day. We must find a way to put a stop to these deeds, but we must not silence our conscience by placing the whole gravity of the blame on boys who were dragged in the wake of deeds that were done earlier.”
The public at large appears not to have been disturbed by any of this. The philosopher Martin Buber termed the frame of mind that dominated Jewish society at the time a ‘war psychosis.’
Bentov: “People get used to the fact of turning away and start to understand: there is no justice and no judge.”
Throughout the cabinet meetings, there were several mentions of a code of silence existing among soldiers about war crimes. Minister Shapira stated: “The fact is that the soldiers are afraid to testify. I asked one soldier whether he would be willing to appear before the committee. He asked me not to mention his name, to forget that he spoke with me and to consider him someone who doesn’t know a thing.”
Ben-Gurion also addressed the difficulty of breaching the circle of silence: “In regard to the Galilee, a few things have been published. Not all the rumors fit the facts. Several things have been confirmed. What happened in Dawayima cannot be confirmed. There is a cover-up. The matter of the cover-up is extremely serious. I assigned someone to conduct a clarification about a certain matter, and an organized operation was mounted against him not to do the clarification. He was under great pressure.” Ben-Gurion asserted that it was impossible to ascertain the truth, not in the north and not in the south. He added that in the Negev, “deeds were done that are no less shocking than the deeds in the Galilee.”
The code of silence helped those who wished to sweep the crimes under the carpet and avoid investigations and indictments. Indeed, Shmuel Lahis, the commander of the unit that perpetrated the Hula massacre, was among the few who were accused of murder in the War of Independence. Not even the Al-Dawayima massacre, which was investigated internally by the IDF, produced indictments.
The intensity of the cover-up in the army comes through in a book by Yosef Shai-El, a soldier in Lahis’ company, who testified in the trial against his former commander. In his unpublished memoir from 2005, “The First Eighty Years of My Life,” Shai-El writes: ‘After the trial verdict was handed down, I went through hard times for a while. People would grab me in cafés and various places in the city and hit me. I made it a habit to go out with a pistol in my pocket. I’d found the pistol in an abandoned house in Acre long before. Everyone knew I was a sniper, and I enjoyed quiet for some time. The police informed my father that there was a plan to kidnap me from the house, and I hid in a friend’s home.”
Even those who did not have the benefit of silence and a cover-up, and were tried for crimes committed in the war, were finally let off the hook. In February 1949 a retroactive general pardon was issued for any crimes committed during the war. The public at large appears not to have been disturbed by any of this. The events described above took place during the period when the military justice system was being created. This might explain why the military internalized an organizational culture that goes easy on the killing of Palestinians by soldiers during operations. The philosopher Martin Buber termed the frame of mind that dominated Jewish society at the time a “war psychosis.”
Half a year later, the first Speaker of the Knesset, Joseph Sprinzak, appeared before the parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. Mentioned in the meeting were two items that had appeared in the press that day, which epitomized the attitude toward the acts of murder during the war. One report referred to an officer who during the fighting had ordered the murder of four wounded individuals; the second report was about a person who sold stolen army equipment. The former was sentenced to six months in prison, the latter to three years. Sprinzak, in any event, was under no illusions. “We are far from humanism,” he told the committee. “We are like all the nations.”
Adam Raz is a researcher at the Akevot Institute for Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Research.
by Hagar Shezaf, Haartez, May 7, 2019
Since early last decade, Defense Ministry teams have scoured local archives and removed troves of historic documents to conceal proof of the Nakba
Four years ago, historian Tamar Novick was jolted by a document she found in the file of Yosef Waschitz, from the Arab Department of the left-wing Mapam Party, in the Yad Yaari archive at Givat Haviva. The document, which seemed to describe events that took place during the 1948 war, began:
“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.”
The writer goes on to describe additional massacres, looting and abuse perpetrated by Israeli forces in Israel’s War of Independence. “There’s no name on the document and it’s not clear who’s behind it,” Dr. Novick tells Haaretz. “It also breaks off in the middle. I found it very disturbing. I knew that finding a document like this made me responsible for clarifying what happened.”
The Upper Galilee village of Safsaf was captured by the Israel Defense Forces in Operation Hiram toward the end of 1948. Moshav Safsufa was established on its ruins. Allegations were made over the years that the Seventh Brigade committed war crimes in the village. Those charges are supported by the document Novick found, which was not previously known to scholars. It could also constitute additional evidence that the Israeli top brass knew about what was going on in real time.
Novick decided to consult with other historians about the document. Benny Morris, whose books are basic texts in the study of the Nakba – the “calamity,” as the Palestinians refer to the mass emigration of Arabs from the country during the 1948 war – told her that he, too, had come across similar documentation in the past. He was referring to notes made by Mapam Central Committee member Aharon Cohen on the basis of a briefing given in November 1948 by Israel Galili, the former chief of staff of the Haganah militia, which became the IDF. Cohen’s notes in this instance, which Morris published, stated: “Safsaf 52 men tied with a rope. Dropped into a pit and shot. 10 were killed. Women pleaded for mercy. [There were] 3 cases of rape. Caught and released. A girl of 14 was raped. Another 4 were killed. Rings of knives.”
Morris’ footnote (in his seminal “The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949”) states that this document was also found in the Yad Yaari Archive. But when Novick returned to examine the document, she was surprised to discover that it was no longer there.
Palestine refugees initially displaced to Gaza board boats to Lebanon or Egypt, in 1949.
Credit: Hrant Nakashian/1949 UN Archives
“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.
Since the start of the last decade, Defense Ministry teams have been scouring Israel’s archives and removing historic documents. But it’s not just papers relating to Israel’s nuclear project or to the country’s foreign relations that are being transferred to vaults: Hundreds of documents have been concealed as part of a systematic effort to hide evidence of the Nakba.
The phenomenon was first detected by the Akevot Institute for Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Research. According to a report drawn up by the institute, the operation is being spearheaded by Malmab, the Defense Ministry’s secretive security department (the name is a Hebrew acronym for “director of security of the defense establishment”), whose activities and budget are classified. The report asserts that Malmab removed historical documentation illegally and with no authority, and at least in some cases has sealed documents that had previously been cleared for publication by the military censor. Some of the documents that were placed in vaults had already been published.
An investigative report by Haaretz found that Malmab has concealed testimony from IDF generals about the killing of civilians and the demolition of villages, as well as documentation of the expulsion of Bedouin during the first decade of statehood. Conversations conducted by Haaretz with directors of public and private archives alike revealed that staff of the security department had treated the archives as their property, in some cases threatening the directors themselves.
Yehiel Horev, who headed Malmab for two decades, until 2007, acknowledged to Haaretz that he launched the project, which is still ongoing. He maintains that it makes sense to conceal the events of 1948, because uncovering them could generate unrest among the country’s Arab population. Asked what the point is of removing documents that have already been published, he explained that the objective is to undermine the credibility of studies about the history of the refugee problem. In Horev’s view, an allegation made by a researcher that's backed up by an original document is not the same as an allegation that cannot be proved or refuted.
According to a document from '48, 70 percent of the Arabs left as a result of Jewish military operations.
The document Novick was looking for might have reinforced Morris’ work. During the investigation, Haaretz was in fact able to find the Aharon Cohen memo, which sums up a meeting of Mapam’s Political Committee on the subject of massacres and expulsions in 1948. Participants in the meeting called for cooperation with a commission of inquiry that would investigate the events. One case the committee discussed concerned “grave actions” carried out in the village of Al-Dawayima, east of Kiryat Gat. One participant mentioned the then-disbanded Lehi underground militia in this connection. Acts of looting were also reported: “Lod and Ramle, Be’er Sheva, there isn’t [an Arab] store that hasn’t been broken into. 9th Brigade says 7, 7th Brigade says 8.”
“The party,” the document states near the end, “is against expulsion if there is no military necessity for it. There are different approaches concerning the evaluation of necessity. And further clarification is best. What happened in Galilee – those are Nazi acts! Every one of our members must report what he knows.”
One of the most fascinating documents about the origin of the Palestinian refugee problem was written by an officer in Shai, the precursor to the Shin Bet security service. It discusses why the country was emptied of so many of its Arab inhabitants, dwelling on the circumstances of each village. Compiled in late June 1948, it was titled “The Emigration of the Arabs of Palestine.”
Read a translation of the document here
This document was the basis for an article that Benny Morris published in 1986. After the article appeared, the document was removed from the archive and rendered inaccessible to researchers. Years later, the Malmab team reexamined the document, and ordered that it remain classified. They could not have known that a few years later researchers from Akevot would find a copy of the text and run it past the military censors – who authorized its publication unconditionally. Now, after years of concealment, the gist of the document is being revealed here.
The 25-page document begins with an introduction that unabashedly approves of the evacuation of the Arab villages. According to the author, the month of April “excelled in an increase of emigration,” while May “was blessed with the evacuation of maximum places.” The report then addresses “the causes of the Arab emigration.” According to the Israeli narrative that was disseminated over the years, responsibility for the exodus from Israel rests with Arab politicians who encouraged the population to leave. However, according to the document, 70 percent of the Arabs left as a result of Jewish military operations.
Palestinian children awaiting distribution of milk by UNICEF at the Nazareth Franciscan Sisters’ convent, on January 1, 1950. Credit: AW / UN Photo
The unnamed author of the text ranks the reasons for the Arabs’ departure in order of importance. The first reason: “Direct Jewish acts of hostility against Arab places of settlement.” The second reason was the impact of those actions on neighboring villages. Third in importance came “operations by the breakaways,” namely the Irgun and Lehi undergrounds. The fourth reason for the Arab exodus was orders issued by Arab institutions and “gangs” (as the document refers to all Arab fighting groups); fifth was “Jewish 'whispering operations' to induce the Arab inhabitants to flee”; and the sixth factor was “evacuation ultimatums.”
The author asserts that, “without a doubt, the hostile operations were the main cause of the movement of the population.” In addition, “Loudspeakers in the Arabic language proved their effectiveness on the occasions when they were utilized properly.” As for Irgun and Lehi operations, the report observes that “many in the villages of central Galilee started to flee following the abduction of the notables of Sheikh Muwannis [a village north of Tel Aviv]. The Arab learned that it is not enough to forge an agreement with the Haganah and that there are other Jews [i.e., the breakaway militias] to beware of.”
The author notes that ultimatums to leave were especially employed in central Galilee, less so in the Mount Gilboa region. “Naturally, the act of this ultimatum, like the effect of the 'friendly advice,' came after a certain preparing of the ground by means of hostile actions in the area.”
An appendix to the document describes the specific causes of the exodus from each of scores of Arab locales: Ein Zeitun – “our destruction of the village”; Qeitiya – “harassment, threat of action”; Almaniya – “our action, many killed”; Tira – “friendly Jewish advice”; Al’Amarir – “after robbery and murder carried out by the breakaways”; Sumsum – “our ultimatum”; Bir Salim – “attack on the orphanage”; and Zarnuga – “conquest and expulsion.”
In the early 2000s, the Yitzhak Rabin Center conducted a series of interviews with former public and military figures as part of a project to document their activity in the service of the state. The long arm of Malmab seized on these interviews, too. Haaretz, which obtained the original texts of several of the interviews, compared them to the versions that are now available to the public, after large swaths of them were declared classified.
These included, for example, sections of the testimony of Brig. Gen. (res.) Aryeh Shalev about the expulsion across the border of the residents of a village he called “Sabra.” Later in the interview, the following sentences were deleted: “There was a very serious problem in the valley. There were refugees who wanted to return to the valley, to the Triangle [a concentration of Arab towns and villages in eastern Israel]. We expelled them. I met with them to persuade them not to want that. I have papers about it.”
In another case, Malmab decided to conceal the following segment from an interview that historian Boaz Lev Tov conducted with Maj. Gen. (res.) Elad Peled:
Lev Tov: “We’re talking about a population – women and children?”
Peled: “All, all. Yes.”
Lev Tov: “Don’t you distinguish between them?”
Peled: “The problem is very simple. The war is between two populations. They come out of their home.”
Lev Tov: “If the home exists, they have somewhere to return to?”
Peled: “It’s not armies yet, it’s gangs. We’re also actually gangs. We come out of the house and return to the house. They come out of the house and return to the house. It’s either their house or our house.”
Lev Tov: “Qualms belong to the more recent generation?”
Peled: “Yes, today. When I sit in an armchair here and think about what happened, all kinds of thoughts come to mind.”
Lev Tov: “Wasn’t that the case then?”
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.”
IDF soldiers “guarding” Palestinians in Ramle, in 1948.
Credit: Collection of Benno Rothenberg/The IDF and Defense Establishment Archives
Another passage that the Defense Ministry wanted to keep from the public came from Dr. Lev Tov’s conversation with Maj. Gen. Avraham Tamir:
Tamir: “I was under Chera [Maj. Gen. Tzvi Tzur, later IDF chief of staff], and I had excellent working relations with him. He gave me freedom of action – don’t ask – and I happened to be in charge of staff and operations work during two developments deriving from [Prime Minister David] Ben-Gurion’s policy. One development was when reports arrived about marches of refugees from Jordan toward the abandoned villages [in Israel]. And then 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, most of which were in [the area covered by] Central Command, most of them.”
Lev Tov: “The ones that were still standing?”
Tamir: “The ones that weren’t yet inhabited by Israelis. There were places where we had already settled Israelis, like Zakariyya and others. But most of them were still abandoned villages.”
Lev Tov: “That were standing?”
Tamir: “Standing. It was necessary for there to be no place for them to return to, so I mobilized all the engineering battalions of Central Command, and within 48 hours I knocked all those villages to the ground. Period. There’s no place to return to.”
Lev Tov: “Without hesitation, I imagine.”
Tamir: “Without hesitation. That was the policy. I mobilized, I carried it out and I did it.”
The vault of the Yad Yaari Research and Documentation Center is one floor below ground level. In the vault, which is actually a small, well-secured room, are stacks of crates containing classified documents. The archive houses the materials of the Hashomer Hatzair movement, the Kibbutz Ha’artzi kibbutz movement, Mapam, Meretz and other bodies, such as Peace Now.
Revealing the events of '48 could generate unrest among Israel's Arabs, says Yehiel Horev, the ex-official who launched the project.
The archive’s director is Dudu Amitai, who is also chairman of the Association of Israel Archivists. According to Amitai, Malmab personnel visited the archive regularly between 2009 and 2011. Staff of the archive relate that security department teams – two Defense Ministry retirees with no archival training – would show up two or three times a week. They searched for documents according to such keywords as “nuclear,” “security” and “censorship,” and also devoted considerable time to the War of Independence and the fate of the pre-1948 Arab villages.
“In the end, they submitted a summary to us, saying that they had located a few dozen sensitive documents,” Amitai says. “We don’t usually take apart files, so dozens of files, in their entirety, found their way into our vault and were removed from the public catalog.” A file might contain more than 100 documents.
One of the files that was sealed deals with the military government that controlled the lives of Israel’s Arab citizens from 1948 until 1966. For years, the documents were stored in the same vault, inaccessible to scholars. Recently, in the wake of a request by Prof. Gadi Algazi, a historian from Tel Aviv University, Amitai examined the file himself and ruled that there was no reason not to unseal it, Malmab’s opinion notwithstanding.
According to Algazi, there could be several reasons for Malmab’s decision to keep the file classified. One of them has to do with a secret annex it contains to a report by a committee that examined the operation of the military government. The report deals almost entirely with land-ownership battles between the state and Arab citizens, and barely touches on security matters.
Another possibility is a 1958 report by the ministerial committee that oversaw the military government. In one of the report’s secret appendixes, Col. Mishael Shaham, a senior officer in the military government, explains that one reason for not dismantling the martial law apparatus is the need to restrict Arab citizens’ access to the labor market and to prevent the reestablishment of destroyed villages.
A third possible explanation for hiding the file concerns previously unpublished historical testimony about the expulsion of Bedouin. On the eve of Israel’s establishment, nearly 100,000 Bedouin lived in the Negev. Three years later, their number was down to 13,000. In the years during and after the independence war, a number of expulsion operations were carried out in the country’s south. In one case, United Nations observers reported that Israel had expelled 400 Bedouin from the Azazma tribe and cited testimonies of tents being burned. The letter that appears in the classified file describes a similar expulsion carried out as late as 1956, as related by geologist Avraham Parnes:
The evacuation of Iraq al-Manshiyya, near today's Kiryat Gat, in March, 1949.
Credit: Collection of Benno Rothenberg/The IDF and Defense Establishment Archives
“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.”
The testimony continued, “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.”
The letter was originally sent to MK Yaakov Uri, from Mapai (forerunner of Labor), who passed it on to Development Minister Mordechai Bentov (Mapam). “His letter shocked me,” Uri wrote Bentov. The latter circulated the letter among all the cabinet ministers, writing, “It is my opinion that the government cannot simply ignore the facts related in the letter.” Bentov added that, in light of the appalling contents of the letter, he asked security experts to check its credibility. They had confirmed that the contents “do in fact generally conform to the truth.”
It was during the tenure of historian Tuvia Friling as Israel’s chief archivist, from 2001 to 2004, that Malmab carried out its first archival incursions. What began as an operation to prevent the leakage of nuclear secrets, he says, became, in time, a large-scale censorship project.
“I resigned after three years, and that was one of the reasons,” Prof. Friling says. “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.”
Why did Friling allow the Defense Ministry to have access the archives? The reason, he says, was the intention to give the public access to archival material via the internet. In discussions about the implications of digitizing the material, concern was expressed that references in the documents to a “certain topic” would be made public by mistake. The topic, of course, is Israel’s nuclear project. Friling insists that the only authorization Malmab received was to search for documents on that subject.
But Malmab’s activity is only one example of a broader problem, Friling notes: “In 1998, the confidentiality of the [oldest documents in the] Shin Bet and Mossad archives expired. For years those two institutions disdained the chief archivist. When I took over, they requested that the confidentiality of all the material be extended [from 50] to 70 years, which is ridiculous – most of the material can be opened.”
In 2010, the confidentiality period was extended to 70 years; last February it was extended again, to 90 years, despite the opposition of the Supreme Council of Archives. “The state may impose confidentiality on some of its documentation,” Friling says. “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.”
In the view of Yad Yaari’s Dudu Amitai, the confidentiality imposed by the Defense Ministry must be challenged. In his period at the helm, he says, one of the documents placed in the vault was an order issued by an IDF general, during a truce in the War of Independence, for his troops to refrain from rape and looting. Amitai now intends to go over the documents that were deposited in the vault, especially 1948 documents, and open whatever is possible. “We’ll do it cautiously and responsibly, but recognizing that the State of Israel has to learn how to cope with the less pleasant aspects of its history.”
In contrast to Yad Yaari, where ministry personnel no longer visit, they are continuing to peruse documents at Yad Tabenkin, the research and documentation center of the United Kibbutz Movement. The director, Aharon Azati, reached an agreement with the Malmab teams under which documents will be transferred to the vault only if he is convinced that this is justified. But in Yad Tabenkin, too, Malmab has broadened its searches beyond the realm of nuclear project to encompass interviews conducted by archival staff with former members of the Palmach, and has even perused material about the history of the settlements in the occupied territories.
Malmab has, for example, shown interest in the Hebrew-language book “A Decade of Discretion: Settlement Policy in the Territories 1967-1977,” published by Yad Tabenkin in 1992, and written by Yehiel Admoni, director of the Jewish Agency’s Settlement Department during the decade he writes about. The book mentions a plan to settle Palestinian refugees in the Jordan Valley and to the uprooting of 1,540 Bedouin families from the Rafah area of the Gaza Strip in 1972, including an operation that included the sealing of wells by the IDF. Ironically, in the case of the Bedouin, Admoni quotes former Justice Minister Yaakov Shimshon Shapira as saying, “It is not necessary to stretch the security rationale too far. The whole Bedouin episode is not a glorious chapter of the State of Israel.”
Palestinian refugees leaving their village, unknown location, 1948.
According to Azati, “We are moving increasingly to a tightening of the ranks. Although this is an era of openness and transparency, there are apparently forces that are pulling in the opposite direction.”
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.
Despite Aldouby’s opinion, however, in the vast majority of cases, archivists who encountered unreasonable decisions by Malmab did not raise objections – that is, until 2014, when Defense Ministry personnel arrived at the archive of the Harry S. Truman Research Institute at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. To the visitors’ surprise, their request to examine the archive – which contains collections of former minister and diplomat Abba Eban and Maj. Gen. (res.) Shlomo Gazit – was turned down by its then director, Menahem Blondheim.
According to Blondheim, “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.’”
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.
'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.'
Benny Morris is not surprised at Malmab’s activity. “I knew about it,” he says “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.”
The Malmab case is only one example of the battle being waged for access to archives in Israel. According to the executive director of the Akevot Institute, Lior Yavne, “The IDF Archive, which is the largest archive in Israel, is sealed almost hermetically. About 1 percent of the material is open. The Shin Bet archive, which contains materials of immense importance [to scholars], is totally closed apart from a handful of documents.”
A report written by Yaacov Lozowick, the previous chief archivist at the State Archives, upon his retirement, refers to the defense establishment’s grip on the country’s archival materials. In it, he writes, “A democracy must not conceal information because it is liable to embarrass the state. In practice, the security establishment in Israel, and to a certain extent that of foreign relations as well, are interfering with the [public] discussion.”
Advocates of concealment put forward several arguments, Lozowick notes: “The uncovering of the facts could provide our enemies with a battering ram against us and weaken the determination of our friends; it’s liable to stir up the Arab population; it could enfeeble the state’s arguments in courts of law; and what is revealed could be interpreted as Israeli war crimes.” However, he says, “All these arguments must be rejected. This is an attempt to hide part of the historical truth in order to construct a more convenient version.”
Yehiel Horev was the keeper of the security establishment’s secrets for more than two decades. He headed the Defense Ministry’s security department from 1986 until 2007 and naturally kept out of the limelight. To his credit, he now agreed to talk forthrightly to Haaretz about the archives project.
“I don’t remember when it began,” Horev says, “but I do know that I started it. If I’m not mistaken, it started when people wanted to publish documents from the archives. We had to set up teams to examine all outgoing material.”
From conversations with archive directors, it’s clear that a good deal of the documents on which confidentiality was imposed relate to the War of Independence. Is concealing the events of 1948 part of the purpose of Malmab?
Palestinian refugees in the Ramle area, 1948.
Credit: Boris Carmi / The IDF and Defense Establishment Archives
“What does ‘part of the purpose’ mean? The subject is examined based on an approach of whether it could harm Israel’s foreign relations and the defense establishment. Those are the criteria. I think it’s still relevant. There has not been peace since 1948. I may be wrong, but to the best of my knowledge the Arab-Israeli conflict has not been resolved. So yes, it could be that problematic subjects remain.”
Asked in what way such documents might be problematic, Horev speaks of the possibility of agitation among the country’s Arab citizens. From his point of view, every document must be perused and every case decided on its merits.
If the events of 1948 weren’t known, we could argue about whether this approach is the right one. That is not the case. Many testimonies and studies have appeared about the history of the refugee problem. What’s the point of hiding things?
“The question is whether it can do harm or not. It’s a very sensitive matter. Not everything has been published about the refugee issue, and there 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. I can’t say now if it merits total confidentiality, but it’s a subject that definitely has to be discussed before a decision is made about what to publish.”
For years, the Defense Ministry has imposed confidentiality on a detailed document that describes the reasons for the departure of those who became refugees. Benny Morris has already written about the document, so what’s the logic of keeping it hidden?
“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 this case, we’re talking about the most quoted scholar when it comes to the Palestinian refugees.
“The fact that you say ‘scholar’ makes no impression on me. I know people in academia who spout nonsense about subjects that I know from A to Z. When the state imposes confidentiality, the published work is weakened, because he 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?
“I gave you an example that this needn’t be the case. 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.”
There are legal opinions stating that Malmab’s activity in the archives is illegal and unauthorized.
“If I know that an archive contains classified material, I am empowered to tell the police to go there and confiscate the material. I can also utilize the courts. I don’t need the archivist’s authorization. If there is classified material, I have the authority to act. Look, there’s policy. Documents aren’t sealed for no reason. And despite it all, I won’t say to you that everything that’s sealed is 100 percent justified [in being sealed].”
The Defense Ministry refused to respond to specific questions regarding the findings of this investigative report and made do with the following response: “The director of security of the defense establishment operates by virtue of his responsibility to protect the state’s secrets and its security assets. The Malmab does not provide details about its mode of activity or its missions.”
Lee Rotbart assisted in providing visual research for this article.
by Ofer Aderet, Haaretz, October 18, 2021
The list of historical documents reveals suspicions that Haganah soldiers committed murder, torture, theft and looting during the War of Independence
Irgun members receiving training from an instructor near the Jaffa Tel Aviv border in the street on March 4, 1948.
Credit: Jim Pringle / AP
On the morning of April 9, 1948, some 130 fighters from the Etzel and Lehi pre-state underground militias raided the Arab village of Deir Yassin, with the aid of the Haganah, as part of Operation Nahshon to break the blockade on Jewish Jerusalem. Over 70 years later, exactly what happened after the forces entered the village remains unclear.
Most historians say that 100 residents of the village, including women, children and elderly people, were killed by fire from the Jewish fighters. The question of whether a massacre occurred at the site, or whether it was a fierce battle, remains controversial to this today. Few have seen the pictures documenting the horrors.
The fog that continues to surround the affair is partially due to the work of the Ministerial Committee on the Matter of Permission to Examine Classified Archival Material, which is under the auspices of the Prime Minister’s Office. While few people have even heard of this body, in contrast to its name, it acts to censor documents – especially those that the government considers to be sensitive, and ones that deal with the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Now, the full list of censored documents is being exposed for the first time. The list includes material related to the expulsion of Arabs in 1948 and the commission of war crimes.
According to the Archives Law, examination of documents preserved in the Israel State Archives can be restricted for a period of 15 to 90 years from the date of its creation, depending on the document’s content and source. For example, minutes of confidential meetings of Knesset committees are made available after only 20 years, while materials from the cabinet, Defense Ministry and IDF are restricted for 50 years. Materials from the Shin Bet security service and the Mossad are closed for 90 years from the date of their creation.
Jewish soldiers at Deir Yassin village in 1948, a still from the documentary movie 'Born in Deir Yassin.'
Credit: IDF archive
Jewish soldiers at Deir Yassin village in 1948, a still from the documentary movie ‘Born in Deir Yassin.’
Credit: IDF archive
In the case of documents that are thought to be a “danger” to national security or Israel’s foreign relations, it is possible to extend the prohibition on their release with the approval of the ministerial committee.
The committee, which meets very rarely, has no members at the moment. It was last composed of former-ministers Miri Regev and Yuval Steinitz. In spite of its very limited activities, the committee’s work has great importance and influence.
Lod refugees during Operation Dani, in 1948
Ministry of Minority Affairs files: 1948-1949
Content: Deportation of Arabs, “many times the contents are unpleasant”
Status: In 1985 the ministerial committee decided that the files would remain sealed. At the state archivist’s request, 40 of the 80 documents were declassified. To this day it's unclear which files were intended, and it appears that most of them were never publicized
The Riftin Report: 1948
Content: Details of a probe conducted at the request of Prime Minister Ben-Gurion, concerning a series of problematic incidents where were suspicions that Haganah soldiers had perpetrated murder, torture, theft and looting during the War of Independence
Status: The committee repeatedly decided to censor the document in question. The previous state archivist argued that the report should be declassified but the committee rejected his request and the report has been deemed "secret" until 2022. Its main contents were revealed in a Haaretz
The refugees' research: 1964
Content: Report initiated at the request of Prime Minister Ben-Gurion, concerning the "reasons the refugees fled in 1948"
Status: The state archivist supported declassification of the report but the IDF Archive rejected that idea. The document is being kept secret until 2022, due to the fear that its publication will damage Israel’s international status and “affect future negotiations with the Palestinians or UN decisions regarding the Palestinian refugees”
Deir Yassin file: 1948
Content: Haganah report on the massacre committed in the Arab village by the Etzel and Lehi pre-state underground militias during the War of Independence, which also includes photos of the victims
Status: In 2000 the attorney general ruled that “there is no need to open for perusal materials relating to this painful and emotionally charged affair.” The ministerial committee accepted that decision and repeatedly extended the period during which the report was classified. In 2007 the panel determined that “problems involving Israeli foreign relations that concern the events occurring in 1948 have not been resolved, nor has the conflict reached its end.” A petition submitted to the Supreme Court – by film director Neta Shoshani, her partner, journalist Gidi Weitz, and Haaretz newspaper – demanding that the report be declassified was rejected in 2010. In 2017 censorship of the materials in question was extended until 2022
39 pages of minutes from government meetings: 1948-1949
Content: Deportation of Arabs, destruction of Arab villages, acts of looting, robbery, rape and murder by Haganah and IDF soldiers
Status: Censorship of the minutes was supposed to have been lifted in 2007, but the contents have not been publicized
Ten IDF Archive files: 1948
Content: Military documents from the War of Independence, content unknown
Status: Censorship of the documents was supposed to have been lifted in 2007, but the contents have not been publicized
Yaakov Shimshon Shapira report: 1948
Content: A report written by Israel's first attorney general on the instructions of Prime Minister Ben-Gurion. The report was meant to examine “whether injuries involving the lives of Arabs in the Galilee and the south had been caused by soldiers and the army, which were not in accordance with the accepted laws of warfare”
Status: The state archivist wrote in 1985 that the report included a “description of shocking events.” He requested approval to classify the documents as “secret,” due to potential harm to national security and the state’s foreign relations. The committee approved his request and the report has not been released to this day
The list of documents was received in response to a Freedom of Information Law request from the Akevot Institute for Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Research. Akevot noted that behind many of the committee’s decisions stood “political and image considerations, which are not based on factual and legitimate reasons.” In a new report documenting the committee’s work, the executive director of Akevot, Lior Yavne, and senior researcher Adam Raz say that the documents continue to be censored “under the pretext of concern for national security and the state’s foreign relations.” The committee’s actions have “caused a distortion of the history of the founding of the state, and harm the public and political discourse in the State of Israel,” Akevot said.
The Ministerial Committee on the Matter of Permission to Examine Classified Archival Material was established under the government of Menachem Begin. On the newly-formed committee’s agenda was a request by the Prime Minister’s Office to seal dozens of files from the now-defunct Ministry of Minority Affairs, which operated during the early days of Israel. The Prime Minister’s Office claimed that it was because “they mention the expulsion of the Arab population, confiscation of its property and brutal acts conducted by soldiers.”
The then-state archivist, who was involved in the matter, wrote that the expulsion was conducted “by commanders with stature in our political field.” The archivist also noted that “many times the contents are unpleasant.” Nonetheless, the archivist supported releasing the documents and could not find justification for sealing them to the public. Instead of implementing his decision, the state archivist passed on the matter to the ministerial committee, which decided against him. The files remained sealed due to the fear that they would damage Israeli foreign relations.
The decision was a matter of the “image and perception of the State of Israel, and of components that could strongly damage Israel’s foreign relations. This is not the appropriate time to open publication of such sensitive material.”
The committee’s decision exceeded its authority. Originally, the legislature granted it the authority to approve or reject decisions made by the archivist on censorship of archival materials. In this case, and in many of the cases that followed, the process was reversed: The committee censored documents, in opposition to the position of the state archivist.
A year later, the committee convened once again to censor historical documents. The meeting came in response to a request from historian Benny Morris, who asked to see a report from the end of 1948 written by the first attorney general, Ya’akov Shimshon Shapira, on the instructions of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. The report was meant to examine “if there had been injuries caused by soldiers and the army to the lives of Arabs in the Galilee and south, which were not in accordance with the accepted laws of warfare” during Operation Yoav and Operation Hiram, during Israel’s War of Independence.
Arab refugees stream from Palestine on the Lebanon Road, November 4, 1948
The state archivist at the time, Paul Avraham Elsberg, wrote that the report included a “description of the shocking events.” In his request to the ministerial committee, Elsberg requested approval to classify the documents as “secret,” the highest designation, due to potential harm to national security and the state’s foreign relations. The committee convened a few days later. The meeting was attended by only one of its members, Justice Minister Avraham Sharir. He recorded in the minutes that Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Moshe Arens had “stated their position” that the materials should be marked “secret” – and so they were. The report has not been released to this day.
Many years passed until the committee convened again. In 2000, a meeting was held in the attorney general’s office on the necessity of concealing a report by the Haganah on the Deir Yassin affair, as well as a number of photographs documenting the aftermath. The meeting minutes state that the decision was a matter of the “image and perception of the State of Israel, and of components that could, in the opinion of almost all the meeting participants, strongly damage Israel’s foreign relations. This is not the appropriate time to allow the open publication of such sensitive material.”
Palestinian refugees in Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, 1948. Credit: UNRWA Photo Archives/AP
The ministerial committee met eight months later and approved the continued confidentiality of the material for one year. In 2002, it extended the confidentiality for another five years, As a result of a request to view the materials, which was received by the State Archives in 2007, from director Neta Shoshani – the committee convened once again to discuss the matter.
“The issue of Israel’s foreign relations where the events that occured in 1948 are concerned have not been resolved, and the conflict has not reached its end,” the committee said, and extended the nondisclosure for five more years. A petition filed with the High Court of Justice against the decision, by a number of plaintiffs which included Haaretz, was denied. In 2017, the ministerial committee once again extended the confidentiality of the files for another five years. This period will end next year.
In 2017, the committee came into direct conflict with the state archivist. The committee had decided – for the fifth time – not to lift the censorship of an archival document known as the Riftin Report. The report included details of a probe conducted at Ben-Gurion’s request concerning suspicions that Haganah soldiers had committed murder, torture, theft and looting during the War of Independence. Then-Chief Archivist Yaacov Lozowick made a surprise decision, reversing the position of his predecessor. He backed the report’s release, explaining: “The State of Israel is strong, Israeli society is strong, and there is no reason not to allow its citizens unfettered research in the documentation of its distant wars.”
The committee rejected Lozowick’s opinion. The report is still classified as secret, in part, the committee said, because its publication would cause a “storm and maybe even acts of revenge.” In this case as well the committee exceeded its legal authority in censoring documents that the state archivist sought to release – the opposite of what the committee is entitled to do by law.
Another story, whose main contents were revealed in a Haaretz article in 2018 and whose full contents were discovered by Akevot at the beginning of this year, hides behind this document. Public uproar and acts of vengeance never materialized after its publication, which was made possible after Akevot staff located a copy of the report in the archives of Yad Tabenkin, the Kibbutz movement’s research and documentation center. The archive is not part of the State Archives, meaning that the law allowing the state archivist to convene the ministerial committee to censor the document did not apply. At the request of Akevot, the military censor also examined the report and determined “there is no censorship reason to prevent the report’s publication.” Akevot is currently fighting over the publication of 35 appendices to the report, which are still being kept under wraps.
In 2017 the committee had decided for the fifth time not to lift the censorship of a document concerning suspicions that Haganah soldiers had committed murder, torture, theft and looting during the War of Independence.
“The continued censorship is not meant to protect the state’s external interest, but is directed internally,” states the report from Akevot. “The concealment does not only make it difficult for historians; it has a concrete influence on the internal Israeli academic, public and political debate in our times. It is intended to preserve a neutered and distorted state narrative about the foundations of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and from there – it has a concrete and decisive interest to maintain it,” wrote Akevot.
Occasionally, the archives also attempt to cover up the concealment efforts themselves. This is what happened in the case of the document known as the Axes Document, which was written in 1988 by the IDF Archives, and was intended to outline directions “with security, diplomatic and personal sensitivity,” which would determine which material should be censored.
Only recently, at the end of a long battle, was Akevot able to obtain the document. Officially, the document is no longer in effect and the State Archives and IDF Archives do not operate according to it. But in practice, in many cases, the reasoning behind censorship of materials – even if not officially acknowledged – are based on the same guidelines as in the document. One of these was described as “material that could well damage the image of the IDF as an occupying army lacking moral foundations.”