[Editors’ note: this post is part of our series on the theme of archive]

By Mezna Qato

Digging through bundles of documents, newspaper clippings, brittle and dusted with flour and sugar from the UNRWA aid bags nearby, I slumped down in a huff of sweat and exhaustion. “Where is the good stuff?” I shouted down from the cellar to the grandson sitting cross-legged on an upturned Nido milk can below and blowing tight curls of smoke in the cramped space. He shrugged, “Jiddu burned them when the tanks came in.” “What?” “Sitti said he and all the neighbourhood took everything they thought the Israelis might take, and burned it next to the garbage cans.”

Up and down the West Bank, as I went in search of archival materials, the same tale was retold by the children and descendants of my research’s cast of characters. Nervous educators clamoured to gather up political leaflets, cadre lists, strategic documents, newspapers, textbooks, photographs, personnel files, anything and everything they thought might implicate them as people of interest to the invading army, and burned them in bonfires or buried them in pits in the middle of farmland. The days after the June 1967 war saw an archival ‘Naksa’, histories of political and social life collapsing into ash.

However, as with the archival spoils of war from the Nakba, there is one remaining witness – the Israeli archives.

In recent months, Israeli and Middle East Studies historians, particularly those outside Israel, have responded with indignation, frustration, and general discontent, at the Israel State Archive’s plans to restrict access to their records in the name of digitisation. Palestinian historians and archivists, however, have pointed out that this access was never afforded to Palestinians to begin with. Indeed, in a neat juxtaposition, the news of the Israeli archival closures emerged while a few hills over, the Palestinian Museum was preparing to inaugurate its new building on the outskirts of Ramallah without an opening exhibit.

What is left behind in these new conversations are the other archival survivors of the Nakba, Naksa, incessant invasions and their aftermaths: the records of several Arab states.  Understandably, attention often focuses on the materials Israel has seized from Palestinians, but Israel holds documents belonging to Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon (at least). Most of that material remains classified. We only know of it because Israeli historians working in service of the state, or as part of military research, have published studies utilising this material. It is because of historians such as Amnon Cohen, Moshe Maoz, Shaul Mishal, and Avi Plascov — all with military backgrounds — that we know Israel holds substantial materials belonging to Jordanian intelligence during its rule over the West Bank from 1948 to 1967, including material collected in refugee camps. Works by Uriel Dann on Iraq, Itamar Rabinovich on Syria, and Yagil Henkin on Egypt all use seized documents, and hint at what might or might not exist in Israel’s archival holdings.

The status of these materials under international law is unclear. As archivist Trudy Peterson notes, “every major national archival system at some point has or will have seized materials [that rightly belong to other nations].” The laws of war give states like Israel rights to seize enemy military records documents that may contribute to the war effort, as well as municipal archives that may be needed to administer occupied territory. But intermixed in all this must also be countless personal papers – think of letters from family and lovers found on the bodies of killed soldiers – that must be considered private property immune from confiscation. Arab governments – especially those that have already concluded peace treaties with Israel – should demand the return of their documents.

Historians tend to think of the preservation of records and their availability to researchers as unmitigated goods. But the debate over access to the Israeli archives largely takes for granted that “the public” here whose “right to know” is being asserted in practice excludes the millions of Palestinians in exile and Arab citizens who may justly count significant portions of the archive to be part of their national patrimony.

Some, including Israeli archivists and historians, have argued that access, and more comprehensive digitisation, would render unnecessary any demand to return archival documents. There is a certain irony to this posture of simultaneously discounting the significance of the materiality of objects while insisting on maintaining a material hold on them. Access isn’t always the highest good: whether Arab states allow their citizens to see to these materials, or to materials in their own archives for that matter, is quite beside the point. If a national archive is an assertion of state will to narrate, it is not Israel’s alone to make.

Back to the cellar: Talk of Palestinian archives often mirrors the dyad of lament and valourisation of Palestinian politics and life, the archives dispersed, decayed yet expressing ‘resilience’ and rectitude.  What the Palestinians who destroyed their papers in 1967 — and left historians like me frustratingly little to read — foretold is that sometimes resistance to colonization may require a disappearing act. As for all that remains: return, not access, is the solution to archival captivity.

Thanks to Rachel Mattson, Darryl Li, and Basim Musallam for conversations around this piece.