Column: Seven decades later, the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is still being kept secret



I once broke into the abandoned village of Deir Yasin, a few miles outside of Jerusalem. The village was the site of an infamous massacre 50 years ago during the founding of the State of Israel. More than 100 Palestinian Arabs were killed there, including women, children and elderly civilians.

The village didn’t officially exist until I visited Israel in the late 1990s on my travels as a reporter; It was plagued with maps. The remaining homes were off-limits to the public; They were mostly within closed confines of the huge Kafr Shawl Mental Health Center complex.



I made my way across the gates on foot, and I found the old mosque and a mausoleum and some houses still mostly intact. I spoke to a Palestinian survivor who described fleeing across the hills as more than a dozen of her relatives killed by members of right-wing paramilitary groups fighting to create a Jewish state.

In addition, the natives were long dead or gone.



Nevertheless, the name Deir Yassin remained – and remains so today – a powerful symbol, and the murders on April 9, 1948, have been the subject of endless controversy among historians. How many Palestinian villagers were killed? Who ordered the atrocities and whose complicity was there? What does this tell us about the origins of the Palestinian refugee crisis and the Israel-Palestinian conflict?

Unfortunately, even today – even seven decades after the assassinations – the Israeli government will not release important files on Deir Yasin. The disappearance of the village behind the gates of a psychiatric hospital serves as a fitting metaphor for the continued secrecy surrounding the events of that day.



According to recent study By the AKWOT Institute for Israel-Palestinian Conflict Research, it is not only Deir Yassin documents and photographs that have been withheld from public view, but also other files on military operations that include allegations of human rights violations and atrocities against the Arab population. Huh. The Akewot study focused on the role of the Ministerial Committee on the issue of permission to examine classified archival material – an Orwellian name because the government committee in fact often seems dedicated. No extension allowed.

The secret material mostly dates back to around the time of Israel’s independence in 1948. According to an article by Haaretz, Some of this relates to the alleged “exile of the Arabs” or “the destruction of Arab villages”. There are reports of alleged murders, atrocities, criminal acts and human rights violations.

Why did these files remain secret for so long? The government would assure you that their release would threaten national security, foreign affairs or privacy, but there actually seem to be other motivations at work. As one state archivist wrote in describing the unreleased documents: “The content is obnoxious.” In 2000, Israel’s Attorney General ruled in relation to Deir Yassin that “there was no need to make public the documents relating to this painful and emotionally charged case.” Minutes of the Ministerial Committee of the same year show that the decision to expand the classification was made out of concern for “the image and perception of the State of Israel”.

In other words, it’s a PR campaign going on for seven decades.

“The state is trying to control the official story, the narrative, through its government archives,” says Lior Yavne, executive director of Akewot. “Historians can not only do their job, but fact-based political discussion becomes difficult when the secrecy of the root causes of conflict and its aftermath is blurred.”

For Israelis and Palestinians, it sometimes seems as though history has always existed, weighing heavily on each day of conflict. The past – including 1948, but going back beyond the British Mandate, beyond the Ottoman Empire all the way to biblical times – never seems far away. Just last week, Ben-Seon Cohen, the commander of ex-state paramilitary militias who entered Der Yassin that day in April 1948, died at the age of 94. He never expressed remorse for his role in the massacre, according to his obituary,

It is quite easy to see why Israel is unwilling to publicize documents that may be provocative or increase hostility to Zionism. Over the years, the government has issued many pages of military and security documents—but that puts millions of pages of records and files out of the hands of scholars, according to Yavne. In some cases it has declassified and then re-sealed the documents. In other cases it has extended the legal classification period.

Burying unpleasant history is not a strategy for democracy. Israel prides itself on being the most independent country in the region; If so, he should be transparent and honest about his past. Just as the United States must face statues of Confederate generals and politicians across the country, Israel must face its own origin story.

I have no interest in viewing Israel as illegal. I have long been a proponent of the two-state solution and would love to see a secure, strong and dynamic Israel flourish alongside an independent Palestinian state. I will be the first to admit that both sides of the conflict are guilty of unacceptable violence against innocent people.

But a country must face its history honestly – its faults as well as its strengths. For this, historians need access to the raw materials that tell the full story.

@nick_goldberg

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