Over the coming week, The Nakba Files will feature a series of posts on the theme of the archives.
In recent months, reports have emerged about plans for sweeping changes at the Israel State Archives (ISA) that would severely restrict the availability of historical records. The ISA is closing its reading room, the sole venue through which researchers can physically access archival papers. It is taking this decision in the name of devoting more resources to digitizing archival records — a process that could take decades to complete. In the meantime, ISA considers putting documents online to be a form of “publication” and hence subjected to additional scrutiny from the office of the military censor.
Last week, the NGO Akevot released a major report on governmental archives in Israel, providing valuable background on the relevant legal framework and the significant obstacles to access that exist:
The report shows that due to the Government Archive’s policies, a paucity of the materials preserved in the Government Archives is accessible for public consultation: a mere one percent of all the materials in the Israel State Archive (ISA) and in the IDF and Defense Establishment Archive (IDEA). The report findings address, inter alia, the barring of public access to the lion’s share of documentation whose restricted access period has expired; routine extensions of barring viewing of archival records without legal authority; allocating limited resources for making materials accessible for viewing; failing to present complete catalogues to the public; inexplicable and nontransparent conduct by the archives in response to access requests; and the sealing of the GSS (Shin Bet) and Mossad archives.
On The Nakba Files, we hope to expand the discussion on archives in Israel, which has tended to emphasize abstract liberal values such as freedom of information or the public’s right to know. It is also a discussion that has not included many Palestinian voices. Over the next few days, we will feature posts discussing the archives in relationship to the Nakba, which also requires interrogating notions of “the public” that have framed much of the debate so far.
Today, Haneen Naamneh shows how contests over the archive are not merely of importance to historians. The archive, especially documents concerning the Nakba, is a crucial resource for litigation in very active struggles for control over and access to land and other resources in Israel/Palestine. Not only in the narrow sense of providing evidence in cases, but also in providing a basis for what Naamneh describes as a “legal counter-archive” that can help articulate a new Palestinian relationship to the past and present.
Shira Robinson reflects on her experiences conducting research in the ISA on the military regime that ruled over Palestinian citizens of Israel before 1966. Robinson shows how the state’s perverse attempts to disappear documents that have already been made public is not new, but has been ongoing for years. She also reminds us that the state may keep documents from the public but also enlists the aid of some institutions, especially Israeli universities, which have awarded degrees for classified dissertations written on the basis of restricted archival materials.
Mezna Qato reminds us that a considerable portion of the State of Israel’s archives is spoils of war — property taken from Palestinians and Arabs. Qato’s intervention casts the question of “who owns history” in a concrete and more urgent light.