Why Is Israel Still Covering Up Extrajudicial Executions Committed by a Jewish terrorist Militia in ’48?
Seven decades after a report documented executions by Israel’s pre-state army of Poles and Arabs – as well as incidents of torture and looting – the authorities are still censoring the documents
Seventy years ago, on the eve of Israel’s establishment, six Polish Christians were executed without trial in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem by the Haganah, the pre-independence army of Palestine’s Jews. Despite the decades that have passed, the investigative report on these killings, which was submitted to David Ben-Gurion, has never been made public. The state archivist, Dr. Yaacov Lozowick, has recommended that the report documenting these unrelated cases be made available to the public, but the military censors are trying to block this for reasons known only to them.
Even seven decades later, the report – a detailed summary of which is being made public here for the first time – is difficult reading. The following, for example, comes from the description of the first case: “Three weeks ago, a Polish Christian was arrested in Tel Aviv and taken to Yona base [the Haganah base in Independence Park]. He was not interrogated. His guard shot and killed him. The body was taken and thrown into Hadassah Garden” – the site of today’s Gan Ha’ir mall in central Tel Aviv.
According to one version of this story, as recounted in the report, the Polish detainee attacked the guard, who shot him in response. “The prisoner, after the shots, was dying. Accordingly, after considerations, it was decided to liquidate him and remove him from the base,” the report states.
A later a case involved a “Polish Christian who was arrested in Tel Aviv on KKL Boulevard” (today Ben-Gurion Boulevard). His interrogation, which was conducted “with torture,” revealed him to be an underworld figure involved in robberies from an early age, and “it was clarified that he had ties with the Germans abroad.” As the report puts it, “There was a suspicion that he was not sane. Executed.”
Two more Poles were killed in similar circumstances after being arrested near Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station because “they could not explain the purpose of their presence there.” The report cites different accounts regarding the circumstances of their death. According to one version, their interrogation did not lead to charges against them, but nevertheless, “they were executed.” In another account, “suspicion arose that they were spying on the preparations for the convoys leaving for Tel Aviv.” It also was claimed that “a letter recommending him as a German Nazi” was found among the effects of one of them, though it’s not clear what was meant by this.
Yet another Pole, also arrested in Jerusalem, is described as an “instructor of gangs” and a “well-known thief” who, “according to rumors,” worked for the British criminal investigation department. But his execution had nothing to do with these allegations. According to the report, he was put to death mainly because it was feared that he would be able to reveal to others the address of the site where he was interrogated by the Haganah.
“Since he was arrested with another two [people], who were released following a brief interrogation, and the danger existed that the police would search for him, he was moved hastily to another place and wasn’t blindfolded,” the report states. “For reasons related to the danger of revelations by him if he were released, and also on the basis of the material we noted it was decided to liquidate him.”
The circumstances of the death of the sixth Pole mentioned in the report are not cited.
Who were the victims?
Who were these Poles, why were they in the country on the eve of Israel’s founding, and why were they killed in quick succession? The 18-page report does not answer these questions fully. It was written on March 1, 1948, by Yaakov Riftin, a member of the so-called Security Committee, which approved security-policy decisions before Israel’s establishment in May 1948. Riftin presented the results of an examination he carried out at the request of Ben-Gurion, the committee’s head, concerning a series of sensitive events.
Unlike the report, Riftin’s letter of appointment has been published in several venues over the years.
“Serious complaints and accusations have reached me about disorder and lawlessness among several members of the organization [the Haganah] and the Palmach [the Haganah’s elite strike force],” Ben-Gurion wrote, providing a list: “robbery of Arabs, murder of Poles and Arabs without cause or with insufficient cause, and in any case without trial, improper actions toward Jews as well, cases of theft, embezzlement of funds, torture of Arabs during interrogation and the like.”
The then-future prime minister added, “These deeds, if they occurred, constitute a political and moral danger to the organization and to the Yishuv [the Jewish community of Mandatory Palestine], and the most stringent measures must be taken to uproot them.”
Attached to the letter of appointment was a list of incidents that had been provided to Ben-Gurion by the head of Haganah intelligence, David Shaltiel, and which Riftin was requested to examine. In the report, Riftin sets forth his findings and adds a list of 15 other events that he had heard about but did not examine.
“When the fighting started, before the [establishment of the] state, I was a one-person committee of inquiry,” Riftin said in 1957 in testimony that’s now in the Ben-Gurion Archives. “I was asked by Ben-Gurion to investigate the complaints, which came from different sides, about people being killed without trial. He asked me to investigate several cases involving the Arabs and not only about Arabs but also people who were suspected of espionage. There were cases of this sort, which caused concern. I was given the powers of a committee of inquiry, and a secretary – Nehemiah Argov.”
The conclusions of the Riftin report on the killings have also been published in several venues; historians have quoted from the report, even if it has never been made public in full. Its very existence was hitherto known only among experts on the history of the Israel Defense Forces and the state’s creation.
The report should have been declassified and made accessible to the public in 1998, on the 50th anniversary of its compilation. But two state archivists requested that it remain sealed and received the consent of a rarely convened ministerial committee that deals with permission to view classified archival material.
Four years ago Lozowick, now the outgoing state archivist, asked the cabinet secretary at the time, Avichai Mendelblit, for permission to let the public peruse the Riftin report. “There is a demand from the public” for the document to be made available, he wrote Mendelblit, adding that, contrary to his predecessors, he recommended that the report be fully declassified. That approach was opposed by Ilana Alon, the director of the IDF and Defense Establishment Archives. But while Alon explained her objections in a classified letter, Lozowick’s opinion is open to everyone and represents an extremely liberal approach rare in the Israeli archival world.
“There is no justification for continuing to close the file,” Lozowick wrote. “Wars are the most extreme form of policy that a government can pursue. As such, it is most important for the documentation of wars to be open to the public. The period of closure having passed, it is obligatory to open the documentation. Longer closure on the documentation of war is justified only if it contains very special content. In this file, there is none.”
He added: “A democratic society is obliged to allow a free discussion of its wars. The discussion is a guarantee of democratic resilience. This file perhaps contains material for such a discussion, but that is a reason to open it, not close it.”
Lozowick stressed that the file contained nothing of current operational significance. “Concealment of historical documentation after so many years shows that the state has something to hide. If after the passage of more than half a century, and after repeated examinations by officials and discussion by cabinet members, the state is still concealing certain files from the public, it is only because they contain particularly dark secrets – that is what the reasonable individual understands,” he wrote. “But there are none. There are no secrets at all [in the report]. The State of Israel is strong, Israeli society is strong, and there is no reason not to allow its citizens free research of the documentation of its wars now remote.”
The relevant ministerial committee, consisting of Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz and Culture Minister Miri Regev, rejected that argument and blocked the report from being made available to the public. The reasons were not published, though the committee did not order restrictions on the perusal of the document in several Israeli archives where copies exist.
The result, not for the first time, is an absurd situation in which the most senior decision-making body concerning the fate of archival documents orders their censorship, but anyone who knows about their existence in the archives can view them.
Enter the Akevot Institute for Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Research, which catalogs information about the conflict and works to promote human rights. Two years ago it located the Riftin report – open and accessible to everyone – in the Yad Tabenkin Archives of the United Kibbutz Movement. But at the end of last year, when Akevot asked the military censor for authorization to publish the report, it encountered a delay. After a two-month wait, Akevot received a copy of the report but with each page circled and the word “Restricted” stamped on it.
In other words, publication was banned until a final decision by the military censor. Since then, despite repeated requests, the censor has yet to decide whether to let Akevot publish the 70-year-old document.
“Because it’s a document from the pre-state period, we assumed that no delay was to be expected,” says Lior Yavne, Akevot’s executive director. “But for the past eight months we’ve been trying unsuccessfully to get an answer from them.”
Poles were not the only ones executed without due process by the Haganah on the eve of Israel’s creation. The Riftin report also refers to a Sudanese man who was arrested in Tel Aviv, interrogated and executed without being charged. The report also mentions a number of Arabs who were executed by Jews. One of them, the report states, was a taxi driver from Tiberias, who “was kidnapped by a Palmach unit together with his car. Put to death.” His car was later used by the organization’s undercover unit that impersonated Arabs, the mistaravim.
The report contains several versions of this case. “The mistaravim unit hired an Arab taxi [driver] from Tiberias in order to hijack his car for their operational needs,” the document states. “Their intention was to bind his hands and feet, leave him by the side of the road and make off with the car.”
According to one account, during the journey, when the driver thought that his passengers were ordinary Arabs, he boasted to them that he was active in the “gangs,” as the report puts it. Hearing this, the mistaravim wanted “to take him prisoner for interrogation – but he resisted forcefully, opened the door and wanted to jump out, and our people were forced to liquidate him.”
According to a different account, “They kidnapped a taxi driver in Tiberias with his car. On the way they injected him with morphine, but the injections didn’t work . They put him in the trunk but he started pounding, and then they were forced, at the top of the hill, to shoot him three times.”
Another brutal case occurred at Kibbutz Nir Am in the Negev. “A case of the interrogation of an Arab by unauthorized persons, with cruel torture, and his execution amid abuse,” the report states. “He was tortured there was harsh torture (his genital organ was clasped with pliers) . His head was smashed against a wall . The Arab lay in a pit, was shot and covered over.”
The report also cites complaints about looting – of goods from both Arabs and Jews – by Haganah people. “Items of food being transported to settlements in the Negev are gorged by people escorting the convoys,” it says. In other cases, “money is stolen from Arabs” and there are “complaints of theft of Arab property in fields, orchards and warehouses.”
Beyond these specific accounts, the Riftin report is important because it was a factor in the decision to establish the military advocate general’s unit. The report’s conclusions include a recommendation to improve the legal system and a ban on executions (other than in cases of rulings by authorized courts).
“It is therefore essential to create immediately the position of general prosecutor of the organization, who will be responsible for implementing the investigative mechanism and bringing matters to trial,” the report states.
One can only wonder why the military censor is preventing Akevot from publishing this document. To begin with, it’s not clear how state security could be compromised by the publication of a document dating from the pre-state period. Second, given that the report exists in a number of archives and is available to anyone who searches for it – what is gained by preventing publication?
Also, a summary of the document’s most interesting sections was published in 2010 in a Ph.D. thesis filed at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. It is accessible to everyone.
Much has been written about this chaos in which, for example, in some cases a document is censored by an entity such as the state archives and is accessible elsewhere, such as on the website of the IDF and Defense Establishment Archives.
In addition, the censors (at both the state and the military archives) are too prone to blue-pencil documents or sections of them only because they might embarrass the state or show it in a negative light. Akevot’s people say the story of the Riftin report is part of a larger effort to prevent the publication of archival material about harm inflicted by Israelis on innocent people from 1948 to the present day.
Currently, for example, a military court is considering the request by historian Adam Raz to publish classified documents on the massacre of residents of the Israeli-Arab village of Kafr Qasem by the Border Police in 1956. In the past, the public was also denied access to documents pertaining to the Deir Yassin massacre of 1948.
In all these and other cases, even though the information has been made public in the media and in historical literature, the state strives to block the publication of archival material about various incidents, citing security reasons and damage to Israel’s foreign relations.
“The result is the falsification of history and the prevention of a fact- and document-based discussion of our recent history,” says Yavne, the Akevot director. By concealing such documents or preventing their publication, he notes, the state is blocking a discussion on serious events in the history of the Israeli state and society, including “war crimes perpetrated by IDF soldiers and defense officials over the course of years, including in the pre-state period.”
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