On February 10, 1948, Ben Gurion appointed Yaakov Riftin, a member of Mapam and the Yishuv’s Security Committee, (1) to investigate a string of serious events that had been brought to his attention, in which members of the Haganah were suspected – including extrajudicial killing, looting, and torture during interrogation. Three weeks later, Riftin presented his findings to Ben Gurion and attached a list of recommendations. The existence of the Riftin report is no secret. His recommendations are recognized as a key factor in the decision to appoint a general advocate for the military and establish the Military Advocate General’s Corps. (2) Literature quotes Ben Gurion’s letter of appointment, describes the inquiry’s findings and quotes some of the recommendations, but the report itself has not been made public until now. This is its first full publication. For our English readers, the report was also translated from Hebrew by Akevot.

In the letter appointing Riftin, Ben Gurion wrote:

“I have received complaints and serious allegations regarding acts of vengeance and lawlessness among some members of the [Haganah] 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.”

In the letter, Ben Gurion included a list of 15 incidents that had been brought to his attention by David Shealtiel, the head of the Haganah’s intelligence arm – Shai, which included murders, extrajudicial executions, robbery, and looting. Riftin conducted his investigation over the following days and delivered his report to Ben Gurion – an 18-page document bearing the date March 1, 1948. The report listed Riftin’s findings regarding the 15 events mentioned in the letter of appointment, as well as 15 other incidents that had come to his attention during his inquiries and which he did not investigate. He also listed several recommendations to stop the “spread of unruly conduct.”

A chronology of concealment

The Yaakov Riftin investigation file is stored at the IDF and Defense Establishment Archive (IDEA). The file contains a copy of the report Riftin presented to Ben Gurion along with 35 annexes – likely records of Riftin’s investigative efforts, which he used while writing the report.

In 2004, Shlomo Nakdimon, a journalist, asked the IDEA to declassify the report. (3) Declassification teams at the Israel State Archive (ISA) and the IDEA tried to prevent the file from being declassified with backing from the Chief State Archivist.” To this end, The Chief State Archivist contacted the Government Secretariat, asking to convene the Ministerial Committee for Permission to Access Classified Archival Records (4) so it could approve his decision to continue keeping the file closed for public access. The Chief State Archivist later prepared a background document listing the reasons for his decision to keep the records confidential. The first reason cited was privacy. The report lists the names of perpetrators and victims. The Chief State Archivist maintained releasing these names would be a violation of their privacy. Under the Access Regulations in force at the time, the records would be closed for a period of 70 years. (5) The second reason listed was national security, as individual mention of atrocities such as the murder of prisoners, “could cause unrest and perhaps even acts of vengeance.” The Chief State Archivist also stated adverse effects on foreign relations as a reason, “since some of the acts, primarily the murder of prisoners, as well as others, were a violation of international law. Finally, some of the atrocities were perpetrated against Polish defectors, which is a highly sensitive matter that could damage relations between the two countries.” (6)

The Ministerial Committee convened in June of 2004, with only two of its three members present, and did not make a decision in the Chief State Archivist’s request. Then Minister of Justice Yosef Lapid voted in favor of approving the request to classify the report as confidential. Meir Shitrit, serving as a minister without portfolio at the Ministry of Finance, voted against. (7) In July 2006, the Committee voted in favor of keeping the Riftin report confidential for five years. The IDEA file containing the report and its annexes, however, was kept sealed even after the five-year period expired.

In 2017, the ministerial committee once again addressed the Riftin report, following another request for access. The Chief State Archivist at the time, Dr. Yaakov Lazowick, favored allowing public access to the IDEA file containing the report and its annexes. Dr. Lazowick concluded the detailed explanation he gave for his position on declassifying the Riftin report by stating, “The State of Israel is strong. Israeli society is strong. There is no reason not to allow its citizens to freely research records of its bygone wars.” (8)

The IDEA administration objected to the declassification of the report and two other files, providing its reasons in classified letters to the members of the committee. The committee ultimately decided, against the Chief State Archivist’s position, to keep the Riftin report and the other two files confidential for five more years, until February 2022. An application filed by Akevot Institute under the Freedom of Information Act to receive copies of the committee session transcripts, the reports submitted to it, and the names of the individuals present during the session was rejected on the grounds that the materials requested were “secret.” (9)

Israeli Military Censor: more concealment without authority

The regulations that set the Restricted Access Periods on archival materials and provide the framework for the Chief State Archivist’s power to continue to restrict access once this period has expired (with the approval of the special ministerial committee), were enacted under Section 10 of the Archive Law. The section itself applies exclusively to records stored in government archives, that is the ISA and its branches. (10)

Akevot Institute researchers had located another copy of the Riftin report (without the annexes) at the Yad Tabenkin Archive prior to the 2017 decision by the ministerial committee. Yad Tabenkin is a public archive, independent of the ISA, and is therefore exempt from the provisions of Section 10 of the Archive Law. In November 2017, Akevot Institute submitted the Riftin report copy it had located for review by the Israeli Military Censor ahead of publication on the institute’s website. After several months and a number of reminders, Akevot Institute received the copy back with the stamp “on hold” on each of its pages, meaning the document could not be published before a final decision was made by the Israeli Military Censor. For three years the Censor refrained from making such decision.

The censor’s handling of Akevot’s request to publish the Riftin report was covered in Ofer Aderet’s story in the Haaretz newspaper in July of 2018, (10) which cited the report extensively. After the story’s publication, Akevot Institute’s director met with a senior official at the censor’s office, who said the office was holding off on its review of the report because of the ministerial committee’s decision and not blocking its publication due its own professional assessment. In August 2020, Adv. Avner Pinchuk, from the Association for Civil Rights in Israel contacted the Israeli Military Censor on behalf of Akevot Institute, clarifying the censor’s office had an obligation to review the material presented to it for inspection regardless of decisions by other authorities.

Following this letter, the censor’s office did perform a review of the Riftin report and in November 2020, three years after receiving the copy – approved in writing that there was “no censorship impediment to publishing the report.”

The report’s 35 annexes, likely copies of testimonies Riftin collected during his investigation and additional records, remain inaccessible to the public in the IDEA file.

Codenames used in the Riftin report

The Riftin report was written over the course of February and March 1948, before the establishment of the State of Israel, a time when the Haganah was still largely an underground organization. It is, accordingly, replete with underground codenames. They are decoded below, based mostly on Gershon and Aliza Rivlin’s book A Stranger Cannot Understand: The Book of Codenames, published by the Ministry of Defense in 1988 in Hebrew.

Amitai: David Ben Gurion

Kiryati: Haganah Tel Aviv District and its commander

Hillel: Yisrael Galili, commander of the Haganah National Headquarters

Givati: Haganah South District and its commander, Shimon Avidan

Isser: Isser Be’eri, Acting Head of Shai (Shai is the Hebrew acronym for Information Service, the Haganah’s intelligence arm)

Etzioni: Haganah Jerusalem District and its commander

Yavneh: Jerusalem District Shai and the District Shai Officer

Council: Palmach headquarters

Sasha: Yigal Alon, Palmach Commander

Jacques: Likely South District Commander Shimon Avidan


The full Riftin report,
March 1, 1948