The bitter legacy of Sharon’s unfinished business


On September 14, 1982, the Christian president-elect of Lebanon, Bashir Gemayel, was assassinated in a bomb attack at one of his Phalangist Party offices in Christian East Beirut. As a consequence, his allies the Israelis, who had invaded Lebanon and had effected the evacuation of the Palestine Liberation Organisation and the large bulk of its guerrillas from the Western, Muslim area of Beirut under international supervision, invaded the West of the city, in violation of American-arranged agreements. The then Israeli Minister of Defence, Ariel Sharon, ordered Phalangist militiamen into the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla, under Israeli supervision, to clean out, as he put it, any remaining terrorists. There, the militiamen carried out a massacre of some 800 people, most of them civilians, over a period of two nights and a day.

Within minutes of entering the Sabra-Shatilla camp in West Beirut twenty years ago we knew what had happened and how it had happened: the hundreds of Palestinian refugees lying murdered and mutilated in their shanty homes, alleyways and gutters, most of them civilians, many women and children, and babes in arms, were the victims of avenging Christian Lebanese militiamen acting under the protection and control of the invading Israeli Army. It was, we reported during the coming hours, either criminal negligence on the part of the Israeli commanders and their officers, or deadly connivance.

Our judgments were confirmed more than a year later when Israel’s own state inquiry into the massacre, the Kahan Judicial Commission, found that the Israeli Minister of Defence, Ariel Sharon, bore personal responsibility for the killings; and that generals under his command, including the Israeli Chief of Staff, Rafel Eitan, were to a greater or lesser degree culpable by acts of commission and omission and had derelicted their duty as officers.

To put it simply: in the late summer of 1982, towards the end of the three-month Israeli onslaught against the Palestine Liberation Organisation and its military and political infrastructure in Lebanon, wreaking havoc and death on thousands of Lebanese and Palestinian civilians, there was no-one familiar with the region with eyes to see and brains to employ who did not know that the Lebanese Christian Maronites, as represented in strength by the Phalangist Party and its military wing, the Lebanese Forces, regarded the Palestinians as vermin. They were poised for revenge and extermination if they had the chance. We all knew it and the Phalangists made no secret of it, even to Israeli officers as they made their way up Lebanon.

Six years earlier I had covered an earlier Phalangist massacre of Palestinians, of similar proportions, at the Tel al-Zaatar refugee camp, in Christian East Beirut. The hatred had not dimmed and the civil strife in Lebanon had burned on, overtaken now in 1982 by this massive Israeli incursion against the Palestinian-Muslim part of the country, with Phalangist support and collusion.

To believe that the Israelis were unaware of this visceral hatred of the Palestinians would have been to attribute to them an uncharacteristic and frankly unbelievable ignorance of the Middle East in general and Lebanon in particular. The Israeli Chief of Staff himself, General Eitan, told members of the Israeli Cabinet, on the day the Phalangists entered the Palestinian camp, that there would be “…an eruption of revenge which…I can imagine how it will begin, but not how it will end.” He added: ” I can already see in their eyes what they are waiting for.”

Yet he turned a blind eye to the murderous process. As the Phalangist force of around 150 men, under the command of their Intelligence Chief, Elie Hobeika, prepared to move into the camp on September 16, an Israeli Brigadier General, a divisional commander, Amos Yaron, warned them not to harm civilians. It was a warning he was to repeat twice that day. He must have, evidently, feared the worst—yet he too turned his face from the horror as it unfolded.

Within hours of the Christian Lebanese Forces entering the feebly defended camp, which two divisions of the Israeli Army virtually surrounded, and overlooked, at close range, often from high buildings, with their high-tech communications and observation equipment, reports started to circulate in Israeli military ranks of mayhem, of civilian slaughter. As we were to see, so vividly, scenes I shall never shake from my internal vision, it was a human culling of ghastly brutality. There was beating, rape, torture, mutilation, evisceration—I saw it: ritualised death blended with cold-blooded execution.

Already on September 17, the Friday, 24 hours into the massacre, there were Israel eye-witness reports of killings. One Phalangist, asked by an Israeli soldier why he was killing babies, said, ” “because they will grow up to be terrorists.”

That night the Israelis allowed even more Phalangists into the camp, with bulldozers, ominously ( for ploughing under corpses ). It was Saturday morning before the Israeli Army ejected them.

Having enabled this carnage, either by carelessness or with a nod and a wink, the higher ranks of the Army on the spot and their political bosses seemed incurious about the Palestinians’ fate during its long progress and all reports of it were ignored, unpursued or ended in blind alleys until I broke the news on the BBC at 5pm local time, September 18, two days after the salughter had commenced.

But much earlier than that, nearly 24 hours after the killing began, with reports of 300 dead already circulating among Israeli officers, General Eitan, said the Kahan commission, had reported to the Phalangists at their port headquarters in East Beirut that “there was a very good impression that [they] had carried out the mission they had been assigned…and there was no feeling that something irregular had occurred or was about to occur in the camps.”

The commission found that ” everyone who had anything to do with events in Lebanon should have felt apprehension about a massacre in the camps…It was well known that the Phalangists harbour deep enmity for the Palestinians, viewing them as a source of the troubles that afflicted Lebanon during the years of the civil war…[and after ] the profound shock in the wake of Bashir’s [ Gemayel’s ] death…”

The outrage that reverberated through Israel when the truth was out seemed more to reflect horror at what Israel had done to itself through its Lebanon invasion, at the dishonour and moral turpitude people perceived at the heart of their Jewish state, than sympathy for the victims themselves ( a feeling that is evident among leaders of Britain’s Jewish community now, vis a vis the intensified occupation and impasse in the Occupied Territories).

In the mid-1980s, the Israelis also had to contend with the failure of all the aims of Ariel Sharon’s Lebanon adventure—which were, to expunge Palestinian nationalism, to crush the PLO, and to set up a friendly pro-Zionist Christian regime in Lebanon, well out of the clutches of Syria and the other Arabs.

Within the decade, the PLO had recognised Israel and accepted the concept of a two-state solution. Israel had been forced, reluctantly, to sit down to negotiate with its Arab enemies, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinian movement. In 1993, it recognised the PLO—unthinkable in 1992, let alone 1982— and appeared to be beginning the process of setting up an independent Palestinian state. In 1993, the world outside the Middle East and even some of it inside the region might have been forgiven for thinking that the era of Sabra-Shatilla was a nightmare from a mercifully banished era.

But it has not proved so. Ariel Sharon effortlessly survived the mild, temporary opprobrium that followed Sabra-Shatilla, and prospered politically, staying, until now, beyond the reach of international law for his alleged war crimes. His plan , seized on with alacrity in the shadow of September 11, has been to identify Palestinian nationalism with both local and international terrorism and to act once again with all the force at his command to crush it.

Sharon’s clear, long-term aim is to expunge the whole concept of ” Palestine.” After Sabra-Shatilla, his army and agents worked assiduously in the Palestinian offices and institutions of Beirut to steal and destroy Palestinian records, data, history, identity, as they did again this year in Ramallah, Bethlehem, Nablus, Jenin and Arab East Jerusalem.

This time, however, the price has been high: Palestinian resistance has been able to induce in the Israelis a sense of their vulnerability, that the struggle now is at home, on the soil of all the Holy Land. The suicide bombs have damaged the Palestinians’ image abroad and lost them much support, brought on them from the Israelis yet greater death, destruction, division and deprivation, and fired arguments among the leadership as to the effectiveness and morality of such measures. But the difference between 1982 and 2002 is that the Palestinians have wounded their enemy; that their struggle is now inside Israel and on Palestinian land that Israel’ s governments seem unable to contemplate relinquishing, not a threat over a frontier; that a peaceful solution has been tried, and has failed.

In 1982, Ariel Sharon waited for an excuse to pursue and vanquish the PLO in its Lebanese fastness, and a fringe Palestinian group gave him his opportunity when it tried to kill the Israeli Ambassador in London in the first days of June, 1982; he took that as a casus belli; now Mr. Sharon waits to see what opportunities a war in Iraq may provide before, perhaps, trying to complete unfinished business.

WHERE THEY ARE NOW: the fates of those responsible

ARIEL SHARON, then Minister of Defence, author and leader of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon: In 1983, the Kahan judicial commission found him ” to bear personal responsibility ” for allowing the Sabra-Shatilla massacre to take place and to continue. He was, on its recommendation, fired as Defence Minister but retained his Cabinet position in Menachem Begin’s Government. During the next 16 years he attained four more ministerial posts, including that of Foreign Minister, and became Prime Minister in February, 2001. The official Israeli Prime Ministerial website does not mention Sabra-Shattila or his dismissal from office. Efforts by relatives of the massacre victims to being him to trial, in Belgium, for war crimes, are continuing.

RAFEL EITAN, Israeli Chief of Staff, who shared Sharon’s decision to send in the Phalangist militia men: Kahan came to ” grave conclusions with regard to [his] acts and omissionsé” but recommended no disciplinary action as he was near retirement from his post ( he was 55). He was elected to the Knesset ( Israel’s Parliament ) as leader of the small rightwing party, Tzomet, in 1984, was Agriculture Minister and Deputy Prime Minister in 1996 but lost his Knesset seat in the elections of 1999.

Major-General YEHOSHUA SAGUY, Army Chief of Intelligence: found to have made ” extremely serious omissions ” in handling the Sabra-Shatilla affair and fired from his post. Later became a right-wing Member of the Knesset and is now mayor of the ultra-rightist community of Bat-Yam, a little town near Tel Aviv.

Major-General AMIR DRORI, Chief of Israel’s Northern Command: found not to have done enough to stop the massacre, a ” breach of duty”. Not disciplined. Most recently was head of the Israeli Antiquities Commission.

Brigadier-General AMOS YARON, a divisional commander: found to have committed a breach of duty. Was immediately promoted Major-General and made head of Manpower in the army. Is now Director-General of the Israeli Defence Ministry.

Elie Hobeika, Phalangist and Chief of Lebanese Forces Intelligence, who master-minded the actual massacre: fell out with the Phalange in 1980s, defected to Syrians, acquired two Ministerial posts in post-civil war Lebanon Governments, was blown up and killed in car bomb attack in East Beirut last January by unidentified assassins. He had said a few days earlier that he might reveal more about the massacre and those responsible.

The many scores of Christian Lebanese killers of September, 1982, have remained unpunished.

Tim Llewellyn, a former BBC Middle East Correspondent, was the first reporter to break the news of the Sabra-Shatilla massacre.