A lawyer for the Mossad told the High Court of Justice on Monday that the agency is having difficulty locating historic documents in its archives relating to ties between the agency and Lebanese Christian militias that carried out massacres at two Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon in 1982.
The lawyer for the intelligence agency, Omri Epstein, made the claim at a hearing on a petition filed by dozens of human rights advocates who have been seeking the disclosure of documents demonstrating Mossad’s links in the 1970s and 1980s to Lebanese Christian militias that committed the massacres at the Sabra and Chatila camps.
Supreme Court President Esther Hayut, who heads the panel hearing the case, called the Mossad’s claim “strange.”
At the hearing, Epstein said that the agency’s current ability to locate the documents “in the way in which they are stored, as well as the capability to locate documents for such an inclusive request spanning eight years, is limited and difficult.”
Hayut noted that the intelligence agency is legally required to preserve the documents, which are to be opened to the public after 90 years. “The assumption is that until the 90 years have elapsed, you need to preserve the material – so what does it mean that it’s difficult for you to locate them?” she asked.
Epstein responded that behind closed doors and on an ex parte basis – meaning without the presence of the representatives of the human rights advocates – he would be able to explain at further length “how the material is maintained in the Mossad archives.”
In his petition, Eitay Mack, the lawyer representing the petitioners, alleged that about 40 years had so far elapsed “since the Mossad was responsible for the State of Israel’s support for murderous militias that committed atrocities in the civil war in Lebanon. Nevertheless, the Mossad still believes that it is its right to conceal the information relating to them from the public.” Mack alleged that the 1982 massacre at the two camps “was just one of a series of massacres, executions, abductions, disappearances, dismemberment and abuse of bodies that the Christian militias carried out.”
“This secret case needs to come to light,” the petition alleges, “to also permit a public discussion and learn the lessons that might prevent continued support by the Mossad and the State of Israel for security forces and militias around the world that are perpetrating atrocities.”
Delay in disclosing documents
The nondisclosure of historic documents was the subject of another High Court case that was decided about two months ago ,involving a request by researchers from the Taub Center for Israel Studies at New York University to review documents in the state archives related to the establishment of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.
The petition claimed that the disclosure of the documents was being delayed in violation of the law, in part due to the involvement of the military censor in deciding which documents can or cannot be disclosed.The law does not address the censor’s involvement.
In the course of that case, it emerged that the minutes of meetings in 1968 that should have been made public in 1999 – after 30 years – have still not been disclosed, 22 years later. Representatives from the State Archives claimed that it would take them at least another three years to do so.
Deputy Supreme Court President Neal Hendel accepted the archives’ acknowledgement that it was many years behind in disclosing material that is no longer confidential and that it was not meeting the pace of disclosure provided by the law.
“The facts show that the manpower at the disposal of the State Archives is insufficient to deal with the major burden in the work [involved in]examination and disclosure so that it cannot comply with the provisions of the regulations,” Hendel wrote. “This fact violates the public’s right to access to the information deposited in the State Archives and does harm to the academic research based on the material disclosed by the archives.”
But he added that even if the deadline for disclosure has elapsed, archival material should not be disclosed before it is examined, “since the disclosure of some types of restricted material, even if the period of restriction has ended, could harm state security, which the limitation period was designed to protect in the first place.”
To make the process more efficient, Hendel recommended that consideration be given to making changes that would either “adapt the reality to the regulations or alternatively to adapt the regulations to the reality,” as he put it.
Hendel also addressed the issue of the involvement of the office of the military censor and approved the censor’s involvement due to what he described as “the possible risk to national security as a result of the disclosure of archival documents on the internet.”
Foreign intelligence officials, he wrote, could misuse information from the archives. “As a result of the large quantity of information published on the internet and in the shadow of technological capabilities in the big data field, a foreign intelligence official could copy the material, meld the information and conduct searches of it based on the subjects that interest him, and in the process gain insights that have the potential to harm state security,” he wrote.
“In light of the censor’s expertise, professional experience, tools and abilities and the potential for substantial harm to state security as a result of the disclosure of sensitive security-related material on the internet, consulting the censor is [at minimum]a reasonable exercise of the authority given to the archivist to disclose archival material,” Hendel concluded.