Who’s afraid to reveal the Palestinian ‘secrets’ of 1948?

When the Israel State Archives refuses to release material looted from the Palestinians on the pretext that this would “undermine national security,” it’s clear that this is cover for a completely different fear

llustrative photo of the Israeli state archives in Jerusalem on 3 September 2012

Shay Hazkani writes in Haaretz on 4 December 2022:

You’ve doubtless wondered at some point, as I have, what kind of Arab state the Palestinians envisioned in 1948 if they had won the war. What were their plans? Where did they intend to build their version of the Ayalon Highway? Did they also want to dry up the Hula swamp to make more agricultural land available?   Oh, and what were their thoughts about the 628,000 Jews living in what is now Israel on the eve of the war? What did they intend to do with them?

Every week, columnist Ben-Dror Yemini tells his readers in Yedioth Ahronoth about Arab leaders in 1948 who called for the Jews to be thrown into the sea. In other words, they intended a systematic slaughter.

So, without burdening Haaretz readers with dry academic research, I think it’s worth informing them that in 15 years of searching, during which I read hundreds of propaganda documents from 1947 to 1949, I encountered only one case in which an Arab leader mentioned “sea” and “Jews” in the same sentence. That was the Egyptian Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, in a call to expel the Jews from Egypt.

The more familiar quotes (like the one attributed to the Arab League’s secretary general at the time, Azzam Pasha) aren’t backed up by reliable Arabic sources, and it’s not clear whether they were ever actually said.

In any event, I found no calls for murdering Jews just because they were Jews in either the propaganda or the educational material aimed at Palestinians and Arab fighters in 1948. Judging by the documents I collected for my latest book, the claims about an Arab plan to “throw the Jews into the sea” are actually rooted in official Zionist propaganda. This propaganda began during the war, perhaps to encourage Jewish fighters to leave as few Palestinians as possible in the areas that would become part of Israel. (Incidentally, a comparison of Arab and Jewish propaganda in 1948 reveals that the propaganda of the Israel Defense Forces and its precursor, the Haganah, was much more violent.)

I recently thought a golden opportunity to learn a bit more about the Palestinians’ plans for victory in 1948 had fallen into my lap. Five years after I sought permission to examine several files that were looted from Palestinian institutions during the war and whose existence had been concealed, the Israel State Archives provided me with a list of files from a secret Foreign Ministry department called the “political department” (which later became the Mossad). In 1948 and 1949, it was headed by an intelligence agent named Boris Guriel.

Two files on the list immediately caught my eye. The first, file MFA 5/6100, was titled “Palestine – an independent Arab state.” It contained documents produced by the Arab League, apparently as part of its correspondence with the “All-Palestine” government-in-exile that was set up in the Gaza Strip during the war.

The archives said this file contained “correspondence and reports about the establishment of an independent Arab state.” But it’s so secret that only 90 years after its creation – that is, in 2040 – will I be allowed to read it.  Imagine if another country possessed the archives of a Jewish community in Eastern Europe that was destroyed during the Holocaust.

Fine, I thought. Maybe they can’t tell me what the Palestinians were planning for their independent state, but every child in Israel knows that when it comes to the notorious mufti of Jerusalem, everything is already known and open to scrutiny. After all, Amin al-Husseini’s ties with senior officials in the Nazi Party and the horrific propaganda he broadcast over the radio during World War II have been favorite topics of Israel’s public-diplomacy machine for seven decades now.

But it turns out I was wrong again. The political department’s files also included documents written by the mufti between 1946 and 1948 (file MFA 3/6100). Yet these too, the archives informed me, can only be viewed 90 years after they were written.  But don’t worry, they did agree to share the mufti’s correspondence with senior Nazi officials. Only the trivial matter of what the leader of the Palestinian national movement was doing during the war can’t be revealed.

These two files are only the tip of the iceberg of the Palestinian political and cultural heritage concealed in Israel’s archives. These documents were taken as spoils from Palestinian institutions and individuals in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1982 (and of course, also in subsequent decades), but only some of them can be viewed.

By my estimate, tens of thousands of pages of Arabic documents that haven’t yet been made available to the public can be found in the Israel State Archives, the Israel Defense Forces Archive, the Mossad archive and the Shin Bet security service’s archive. The latter, according to one person’s account, burned some of this material back in the 1960s.   The fact that the Shin Bet archive is completely closed to the general public, with approval from the High Court of Justice, makes it impossible to know what it does or doesn’t contain. But even in the other archives, many of the looted files are kept hidden; in some cases, even a list of their contents isn’t available.

Incidentally, these aren’t just documents from the Palestinian political elite. At my request, a small number of looted Palestinian files from the IDF Archive were recently made available containing thousands of pages of documents about ordinary people.  One file, about a man named Wadia Iskander Azzam, includes his entire life: the land registry document for his home in Safed, his marriage certificate, the business cards he collected during his lifetime, his personal diary and a few poems he wrote – an entire world of documents about a person whose world was destroyed in 1948.

When the Israel State Archives refuses to release material looted from the Palestinians on the pretext that this would “undermine national security,” it’s clear that this is cover for a completely different fear. There are not and cannot be any state secrets in Arabic documents written by Palestinians, such as their plans for an independent Palestinian state or documents from an orphanage in Jaffa.

The biggest secret is the very existence of these documents, which are a memorial to a destroyed Palestinian civilization. This “secret,” the state officials responsible for declassifying the documents fear, might undermine the Israeli Zionist narrative and raise doubts among people willing to examine history with a critical eye.

Imagine if another country possessed the archives of a Jewish community in Eastern Europe that was destroyed during the Holocaust, or of a Jewish community in a Muslim country. Of course there’s no comparison, but what would Yad Vashem say? Or Jewish organizations in the United States? Would the American government intervene to bring those documents to safety?

Actually, you don’t have to imagine, because there have been a plethora of cases just like this over the last 70 years. One battle still going on involves the archive of the Jewish community in Baghdad, which the American occupation forces took from the headquarters of Iraq’s intelligence service in 2003.

The Americans scanned the entire archive and put it online, and now they plan to return it to the Iraqi government. But representatives of the Iraqi Jewish community are demanding that the documents from Baghdad, where no Jews remain, not be returned. The battle is still raging.

Israel too will have a hard time continuing to hold on to another people’s cultural heritage, especially when most members of that people have no right to access Israeli archives to study this heritage. Just as other aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have been internationalized, Israel’s theft and illegal possession of the Palestinians’ heritage will eventually reach international tribunals. Israel would be wise to prevent this by systematically releasing the documents it holds and making them accessible.

Shay Hazkani is an associate professor of history at the University of Maryland. His book “Dear Palestine: A Social History of the 1948 War” won the Korenblat Book Award in Israel Studies for 2022.

This article is reproduced in its entirety



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