Fergal Keane‘s programme entitledThe programme entitled “The Accused” broadcast last Sunday by the BBC’s Panorama was a courageous effort to tell the truth about what happened in the Palestinian camps of Sabra and Shatila between Sept. 16 and 18, 1982. Experts interviewed by Keane said that the then Israeli Defence Minister Ariel Sharon should be indicted for the slaughter of at least 800 [according to latest estimates 2,800] civilians during 38 horrific hours of torture, rapine and murder.
In the view of South African Justice Richard Goldstone, who served on international war crimes tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, “… justice requires that people should be brought to book” for war crimes committed at times they exercise “command responsibility”, as did Sharon once his forces had taken control of West Beirut. Professor Richard Falk, who teaches international law at Princeton University, elaborated: “… Sharon’s specific command responsibility arises from the fact that it was he [who] gave the directions and orders that resulted in the Falange entering the camp…”
To Sharon’s claim that he could not predict what Falange militiamen would do once they entered the camps, Morris Draper, the then US special envoy involved in brokering an end to the fighting in Beirut, replied: “Complete and utter nonsense.” Sharon knew precisely what the Falangists would do because they had committed hideous massacres on previous occasions, like, for example, in 1976, at the poor Shiite neighbourhoods of Qarantina and Maslakh and at the Palestinian camp of Tel Zaatar. Indeed, footage of Falangist militiamen wearing a large cross standing over the bodies of their victims, one strumming a looted guitar, was spliced into the Panorama programme. That picture went round the world within hours of the Qarantina massacre and is resurrected from time to time, as it was by Panorama. Draper dismissed Sharon’s feeble claim by saying that a person who had just “come down from the moon might not have known” about Falangist propensities.
The timing of the Panorama broadcast could not have been better. This week, Suad Srour, a victim of the Sabra-Shatilla massacre, lodged a complaint on behalf of 28 survivors and witnesses. She presented 52 pages of testimony to an examining magistrate in Belgium who will decide whether it is admissible under a 1993 law which allows the country’s courts to prosecute foreign officials for human rights crimes committed outside Belgium.
Panorama described how Israel deployed Falange militiamen in the Sabra-Shatilla Palestinian refugee camps on Sept. 16, 1982. This took place after the Israeli army had occupied West Beirut, in flagrant breach of an understanding reached with Draper on behalf of the US. Panorama showed how Israeli troops held the perimeter of the camps and assisted the Falange in their task of “cleansing” them. The Israelis fired flares throughout two nights to light the streets while the Falangists went about torturing, killing and mutilating defenceless civilians, old men, women and children. Suad Srour, then 14, was sexually assaulted, shot and struck on the head by the militiamen who murdered her family. Left for dead in a heap of bodies, she survived, handicapped by a bullet lodged in her spine.
The killing began on the evening of the 16th and continued into the morning of the 18th. Israeli forces not only prevented Palestinians from fleeing the killing ground but provided the Falange with a bulldozer to bury evidence of their excesses. Furthermore, the Israelis allowed Falangists to load large numbers of Palestinians onto lorries and take them away. None have been seen again.
As soon as the killing started, Israeli officers and soldiers at the scene knew what was taking place. Some transmitted their concern to the defence ministry in Tel Aviv. At 11.10 on the night of the 16th, the ministry was told that 300 people had been killed. But nothing was done to halt the slaughter. Twelve hours later Communications Minister Mordechai Zipori received a call from Ze’ev Schiff, Israel’s most respected military correspondent, who said that a massacre was taking place. In spite of these warnings, the Falangists were ordered to stay in the camps until 5:00am on the morning of the 18th. They pulled out three hours later. Ron Ben Yishai, an Israeli journalist, told Panorama that he rang Sharon at home at 11.30 at night on the 17th and told him about the slaughter. But Sharon did nothing. The killing was halted only after the US intervened on the morning of the 18th.
The plan for occupying West Beirut and the camps, code-named “Moah Barzel” or “Iron Brain”, was part and parcel of Sharon’s operation “Peace for Galilee”. Sharon began planning this offensive in July 1981 in spite of the fact that a US-brokered PLO-Israel ceasefire was in place along the Lebanese border. Time magazine, which did an in depth investigation of the massacre, reported that Israel had planned for “many months” to use the Falange to purge the camps.
This information counters Israel’s claim that its forces only moved into Beirut, in violation of the written understanding reached with Draper on behalf of the US, to “protect” civilians after Falange chief Bashir Gemayel, elected president of Lebanon under duress, had been assassinated.
The declared purpose of the Falangist deployment was to flush out and capture “2,000 terrorists” who Israel claimed were hiding in the camps. This claim is extremely flawed. If, indeed, there had been so many “terrorists”, the Israelis would not have sent in so few Falangists.
The authoritative Israeli daily Haaretz reported on Sept. 28, 1982, that Israeli intelligence had concluded the massacre “was not the result of an explosion of anger and a desire for vengeance [for the killing of Bashir] by the Falange, as claimed by the Israeli authorities”. Instead, the objective was the “expulsion of the whole Palestinian population of Lebanon, beginning with Beirut. [The aim was] to create panic, to provoke an exodus, en masse, of Palestinians towards Syria and to convince all Palestinians in Lebanon that they were no longer safe in that country.”
According to Jonathan Frankel, an associate professor at the Hebrew university, writing in the Jerusalem Post on June 27, 1982, “Ariel Sharon, after all, has never sought to keep secret his grand strategy, his three-pronged programme. Lebanon should be cleared of foreign forces [the PLO and the Syrians] and reestablished as a Christian-dominated state. The PLO should be effectively destroyed; the occupied territories [West Bank and Gaza] annexed to Israel; the Arab population there granted a highly limited form of internal autonomy; and Jewish settlements vastly expanded. Finally, the Palestinians should be encouraged to overthrow the Hashemite Kingdom and convert Jordan into their own national state”. Ultimately Israel would push the Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza across the river in Jordan where they would become the majority and take power.
The main weakness of the Panorama programme was that it did not firmly place the Sabra-Shatilla massacre within the context of Sharon’s “Peace for Galilee” operation. The details of this campaign are spelled out in the rush of books inspired by this horrendous series of events, including my `Battle of Beirut: Why Israel Invaded Lebanon’, the first to be published. Sabra-Shatilla was the logical climax of Sharon’s all-out assault on Lebanon, involving invasion by armoured ground forces and bombardment of the country’s cities, towns and refugee camps from land, sea and air.
From June 4 until Aug. 12, Sharon besieged Beirut and laid waste to Palestinian camps in the south and centre of Lebanon. An estimated 30,000 civilians died, the majority of them Lebanese, already devastated by seven long years of civil war precipitated by Israel’s Falangist ally. Sharon should not be prosecuted only for Sabra and Shatilla but for all the war crimes committed by his forces when they waged “Peace for Galilee”. And Sharon should be prosecuted for the crimes his forces have committed since he became prime minister of Israel in February.