In November 2017 we submitted to the Military Censorship’s review a 1948 document describing an investigation into serious crimes. Eight months later the Censor has yet to provide a decision approving or denying the release of the Riftin Report. This case is one example to of how different mechanisms prevent the release of archival records that may embarrass the state.
In 1957, Yaakov Riftin, a member of Mapam (the Workers’ Union Party) and formerly a member of the Yishuv Security Committee, spoke about a mission he was given by Committee Chair David Ben Gurion in February of 1948: “At one point, I was a one-man commission of inquiry. I was asked by Ben Gurion to look into complaints made by various parties about extra judicial executions. He demanded I investigate several cases concerning Arabs – in the north, something about Yigal Alon’s car taking an Arab in the trunk, hauling him, and then killing him. Later, something also happened in the south. These cases, and not just concerning Arabs, but also people suspected of spying, there were cases like this that raised concerns. I was given the powers of a commission of inquiry and a secretary – Nehamia Argov. […] I interrogated several people. I flew in a piper to Nir-Am, or somewhere similar, where there was a base, and I submitted a report to Ben Gurion”. (1)
Ben Gurion’s letter of appointment for Riftin, written on February 10, 1948 was somewhat more specific. Ben Gurion wrote:
“I have received complaints and serious allegations regarding acts of vengeance and lawlessness among some members of the organization [the Hagana] and the Palmach: Robbery of Arabs, murder of Arabs and Poles for no reason, or without sufficient reason, and in any case, without trial, improper acts directed at Jews as well, cases of theft, embezzlement, torture of Arabs during interrogation, and the likes.
Such acts, if true, are a moral and political danger to the organization and to the Yishuv and the strictest measures must be used in order to eradicate them. The matter must first be verified and those responsible brought to justice. For this purpose, I task you with investigating several facts brought to my attention by [Hagana’s] Intelligence Service directors.”
Ben Gurion attached to the letter a list of fifteen incidents brought to his attention by David Shaltiel, the head of the Hagana Intelligence Service (Shai). These included murders, extra judicial executions, robbery and looting. Riftin conducted his investigation over the following days. On the last page of his 18-page report, he listed the names of 15 members of the Hagana, some of them high ranking, whom he had interviewed. The report lists Riftin’s findings with respect to the fifteen incidents named in the list attached to the letter of appointment, as well as fifteen additional incidents he became aware of during the investigation, which he did not look into.
The existence of Riftin’s report is no secret. Academic literature cites Riftin’s recommendations as a major factor in the decision to appoint a military prosecutor for the IDF and establishing the Military Advocate General Corps. (2) Ben Gurion’s letter of appointment has been quoted in academic literature as were some of the recommendations, (3) and findings of the inquiry into the incidents were summarized. (4) The report itself, however, has never been published. A copy of the report is stored in the IDF and Defense Establishment Archive (IDEA). A copy is stored in at least one other archive.
In September 2016 and January and February of 2017, the Ministerial Committee for the Declassification of Archival Material discussed the declassification of the Riftin report, as well as two other matters. (5) A member of the public had asked to access the copy kept in the IDF Archive. As the restricted access period has passed, access can only be denied by decision of the state archivist with approval from the ministerial committee, established under Section 10(c) of the Archives Law. The committee ultimately rejected the Chief State Archivist’s opinion that the report should be declassified, and decided to keep the government archive copy of the Riftin report (as well as the other materials it discussed) sealed for five additional years. (6)
Akevot Institute researchers found and digitized a different copy of the Riftin report at the Yad Tabenkin Archive. On November 5, 2017, Akevot submitted the report to the Israeli Military Censor for its review ahead of its planned publication on the Akevot website.
In a telephone conversation, a Military Censorship staffer confirmed that it is not obligated to follow the decision of the ministerial committee, but that the office nevertheless wanted to review the document according to what he referred to as their “own considerations”. Several months later, and after Akevot issued a letter demanding the Censor give its decision within seven days, Akevot was provided with a copy of the report with each of the pages circled and stamped with the word “on hold”, in other words, barred from publication pending the final decision of the Military Censorship. Despite several reminders, for the past eight months, the Military Censorship has yet to provide a decision whether to allow the publication of this March 1948 document.
The case of the Riftin report is part of the much bigger picture of the attempts to prevent the publication of archival materials pertaining to harm Israelis caused to civilians in 1948 and later. The Military Court of Appeals is currently reviewing a request made by a historian to declassify documents relating to the Kafr Qassem massacre of 1956, which was submitted over the ardent objection of the Israeli Military Censor (which bases its position on two opinions provided by unnamed parties), the IDF Information Security Department and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Other documents pertaining to the killing of Palestinian civilians during the occupation of the Gaza Strip in 1956 stored in the IDF Archive were resealed, though they had been accessible in the past. (7) The same holds true for Israel State Archives files relating to serious incidents that were widely reported at the time of occurrence. (8)
In the current state of affairs, while many of the incidents are discussed in the press and in historical literature, the state goes to great lengths to withhold publication of the archival records documenting the incidents and the state’s responses to them, citing the need to protect national security and foreign relations. The result is the distortion of history and the denial of both a record of our near past and the ability to have a fact-based discussion about war crimes committed by IDF soldiers and members of the security forces over the years, including before statehood, and how to reckon with them.
The practice of denying public access to documents relating to abuses against civilians which may portray the state, its institutions and its agents in an unflattering light consistently relies on arguments relating to the protection of national security and foreign relations, which in turn rely on secret opinions that are never publicly scrutinized. It would not be overly presumptuous to question the repeated attempts to link the publication of decades-old documents to present-day security concerns and diplomatic relations. What cannot be questioned, on the other hand, is how critical the declassification of hidden archival materials is for the ability of various segments of society to get to know their documented history. Knowing the past is essential for exercising rights, for gaining recognition for past injustices, for promoting justice and healing within and among different groups. Thus, the declassification of archival materials without undue delays, is essential for the advancement of society, and it is no less a public interest than the ones cited as justification for the continuing to hide crimes committed before the State of Israel was established.