Israel manufactured a powerful narrative about a so-called “War of Independence,” obscuring the reality of Zionist paramilitaries’ ethnic cleansing of Palestinian land to pave the way for a colonial entity. As far as Israel is concerned, the atrocities of the Nakba should remain safely ensconced in its archives, as a 2019 report by Haaretz titled “Burying the Nakba: How Israel Systematically Hides Evidence of 1948 Expulsion of Arabs” pointed out.
Based upon research by the Akevot Institute for Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Research, the 2019 report exposes how Israel’s Defense Ministry is involved in an ongoing and systematic classification of Nakba-related documents – a task entrusted to Malmab, the ministry’s security department.
Former Malmab chief Yehiel Horev told Haaretz in the report that the department’s objective is to undermine the credibility of Nakba-related studies. “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,” Horev explained to Haaretz.
“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.”
The 2019 Haaretz report is of significant value as it exposes Israel’s preoccupation with the possibility of any remaining documents being available for research, confirming that Zionist officials and later Israeli ministers had full knowledge of the Nakba massacres. Two years later, this common assumption was proven correct.
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In a report that came out earlier this month, the Akevot Institute for Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Research and Haaretz revealed the extent of Israeli leaders’ knowledge of the Nakba atrocities in December. The latest report begins in a striking manner – so brutal were the Zionist paramilitary massacres of Palestinian civilians that Cabinet Minister Haim-Moshe Shapira declared that “all of Israel’s moral foundations had been undermined.” Leaving aside the contradiction of finding any semblance of morality in colonialism, the first Israeli ministers predicted the current state of Israeli consciousness and indoctrination into the colonial narrative.
Haaretz’s report on the subject reveals the detail made available to Israeli ministers. Soldiers’ letters, unpublished memoirs, and minutes from cabinet meetings that took place in 1948 have enabled researchers to piece together some gaps in the history of the Nakba. Two operations are discussed in detail – Operation Yoav and Operation Hiram – both of which are replete with massacres that spilled out and terrorized Palestinians who had no option but to flee against their will.
The details which emerge, as the Haaretz report illustrates, convey the extent of the Zionist paramilitaries’ brutal violence.
Deir Yassin remains the most well-known Nakba massacre of Palestinian civilians. Yet the new report shows how Deir Yassin was one of many massacres, equally gruesome, which Israel would prefer to keep away from public scrutiny.
Deir Yassin was one of many massacres, equally gruesome, which Israel would prefer to keep away from public scrutiny.
In Reineh, near Nazareth, 14 Palestinians were murdered “for the sake of robbery.” In al-Burj, three elderly Palestinians who remained in the village after Zionist paramilitaries ethnically cleansed the area were killed by grenades and firearms, and their bodies torched. An elderly man who was ordered to return later and who disbelieved the soldier’s story of the villagers’ deaths was shot four times and killed. In Meron, captives, including women and children, were ordered to dig a pit which later served as their mass grave.
Men from the Irgun paramilitary unit raped a teenage girl. “Afterward she was stabbed with a bayonet and a wooden stick was thrust into her body,” the testimony of Shmuel Mikunis from the Communist Party continued. In the Hula massacre, the Carmeli Brigade murdered 33 Palestinians in two days; those who showed signs of life after the initial rampage were shot to death. Shmuel Lahis, the sole commander who was tried for Nakba crimes and who only served one year out of his seven-year jail term, testified that the battalion commander told him, “There is no need to burden intelligence [personnel] with captives.”
One recurring tactic, which also featured in Operation Yoav and Operation Hiram, was holding Palestinians captive in a building and detonating the structure with the people inside.
Referring to the massacre in Al-Dawayima, soldiers stated, “the children were killed by smashing their skulls with sticks. There wasn’t a house without people killed in it.”
While the declassified documents are still heavily redacted by the Israeli state archivist to prevent direct mention of war crimes, Israel’s culpability emanates without a shadow of a doubt. “To go that far is forbidden even in times of war,” the Minister of Immigration and Health Haim-Moshe Shapiro had stated. Other ministers clearly affirmed their knowledge of ethnic cleansing orders.
The recent revelations ignite various observations. Several Israeli ministers who were knowledgeable about the atrocities expressed shame at the massacres, with some even admitting trouble sleeping. Agriculture Minister Aharon Zisling noted, “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 know that this could have consequences in every area of our life. One transgression generates another, and this matter becomes people’s second nature.”
The replacement of the indigenous population is in itself a violent act, let alone accompanied by the massacres coming to light from within the Israeli archives.
How would such ministers have expected that the Zionist project in Palestine, which uses the false premise of the region being “barren,” not have committed war crimes in Palestine? The replacement of the indigenous population is in itself a violent act, let alone accompanied by the massacres that are coming to light from within the Israeli archives.
What Israeli ministers focused upon in order to justify the colonial occupation of Palestine was to treat war crimes as an excess. With the separation between colonial atrocities and colonialism, Israeli ministers whitewashed their presence in Palestine and created a narrative that only accused parts of the army of acting immorally, while excluding the government from culpability. The Transportation Minister David Remez stated, “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.” As the future Israeli Defense Forces would prove, violence is at the root of Israel’s political foundations.
Zionist paramilitary groups Haganah and Palmach, which took part in the Nakba, were later incorporated into the IDF. “An obvious element of any settler-colonial project is military violence, without which such undertakings are impossible,” Haim Bresheeth Zabner states in his book, “An Army Like No Other: How the Israeli Defense Forces Made a Nation.”
With such brutal beginnings, and given that the IDF permeates through Israeli society, altering the Israeli consciousness is an arduous task and one that can only be done from within. Declassifying Nakba-related documents such as the ones partially published by Haaretz, constitute a direct challenge to the Israeli narrative.
Declassifying Nakba-related documents constitute a direct challenge to the Israeli narrative.
The declassified documents present an Israeli narrative that is well aware of the committed war crimes – a fact which subsequent governments have obliterated from the official version of Israel’s creation. It is of no surprise that the IDF constitutes such a prominent presence in Israel, imbued with purported values that seek to justify its existence through “morality.” If the IDF were to openly associate its origins with the atrocities its predecessors committed during the Nakba, Israel’s narrative would swiftly collapse.
Early this year, the world witnessed Israel’s reaction to B’Tselem’s designation of the occupation as apartheid, and the vindictive repercussions it unleashed against the non-governmental human rights organization. Israel’s anger stemmed from one simple fact – B’Tselem’s designation was substantiated with proof.
For an enterprise that knows its origins in lies that can be disproved, declassification of Nakba-related documents has an immense potential to challenge any Israeli government and to bring the settler-population to a thorough reckoning with its past. Israel’s protection of the colonized mindset is fragile if it still needs to keep historical documents under lock and key.
For decades, specific massacres like Deir Yassin were cited as proof of Zionist paramilitary violence and ethnic cleansing, shifting attention away from other massacres. To cloister Palestinians’ Nakba trauma to Deir Yassin, for example, would lessen the importance of discovering and publicizing other Nakba atrocities which are part of Palestine’s collective memory.
“The value of such documentation is to expose the nature of the Zionist project’s violence as structural, rather than incidental.”
The declassification also supports Palestine’s oral history of the Nakba which, given Palestinians’ global dispersal due to ethnic cleansing, has been a unifying factor among the diaspora and refugee population. Oral history is also the bulwark that shapes Palestinian collective memory. As Ilan Pappe succinctly writes, “The historiography of the Nakba, whether produced by Palestinian historians or others, is not validated by the presence of documentation in the Israeli archive; but the value of such documentation is to expose the nature of the Zionist project’s violence as structural, rather than incidental, and to discredit official Israeli discourse around the establishment of the state.” Declassification of Israeli documents serves such a purpose.
Israel’s state narrative leaves no space for debates on the Nakba. The truth is, if Israel declassified its archives and exposed its brutality, no debate would be necessary. The facts would speak for themselves.