Legislative restrictions controlling public access to information have always existed in Israel. Like other nation states, Israel has a vested interest in managing the narration of its past and constructing the terms of public discourse. Still, for researchers concentrating on the history and politics of Israel/Palestine, Israeli archives are an invaluable source. This is particularly true for the Israel State Archives (ISA) in Jerusalem, which is a main repository for official records dating back to the Ottoman era.
The reason ISA has long functioned as an important research institution is because of the lived inequalities between Israelis and Palestinians, which, in turn, has created unequal historical power. As a colonized population denied equality/statehood, Palestinians lack the ability to create and store materials, without exposing themselves to Israeli state violence. Indeed, Israel has repeatedly looted and destroyed Palestinian private papers, research centers, and personal libraries since 1948.
At the same time, public access to ISA materials was long determined by a semi-autonomous de-classification system. While different government institutions deposit materials to ISA, for decades, archivists played a significant role in determining whether materials would be made accessible, based on Israel’s Archives’ law (1955). As a result of this system, ISA has been a relatively open state archive and thus, a crucial witness to the past.
Over the years, however, it has become increasingly difficult to access historical records. Israeli archives began re-classifying politically compromising materials in the late 1990s, particularly those dating to the 1947-1949 war that were opened to the public over the previous decade. More recently, in the spring of 2016, ISA announced it would begin digitizing records, in order to make them available online. It also announced that its reading room would be closed, thereby ending access to physical documents that may take anywhere between several weeks to twenty years to digitally upload.
Most importantly, Israel’s Military Censor was simultaneously granted greater jurisdiction over the de-classification process. As a result, an increasing number of files have now been blocked, including records whose (legal) restricted access date has long since expired.
Making matters worse, in July 2017, the Israeli Attorney General issued a directive requiring that access to ISA records be dependent upon permission given by the original depositor of the requested materials. Since then, service at ISA has all but shut down. Depositors do not have the manpower to keep up with access requests. Even if they did, removing archivists from this process puts government entities in a greater position to abuse their power and arbitrarily deny access to damning records.
In response to these developments, civil liberties groups have been calling for greater transparency. Towards this end, an Israeli non-governmental organization called Akevot released a data sheet last week detailing the current “scope of access to materials kept in government archives,” namely ISA and the Israeli Defense Establishment Archives (IDEA).
The data sheet shows that, as a result of developments since 2016, only 1.29% of files stored in ISA and IDEA are currently open to the public. What is more, 94% of the material is uncatalogued, meaning that researchers have index lists covering only 6% of records that are technically available. At ISA in particular, because of the (slow) digitization program initiated in 2016, only 64% of already reviewed/de-classified materials are accessible.
Even if current restrictions are reversed, Israel, as the primary archivist on Israel/Palestine, would still hold the power to shape how the past is narrated, undoubtedly at the expense of Palestinians. Still, calls for transparency and access are important. History is fundamental to the movement towards decolonization in Israel/Palestine, because it informs and supports rights claims as well as advocacy strategies. While history does not begin and end in the Israeli archives, its materials are crucial to exposing that which has been obscured by colonial historiographies.