by Jean Shaoul
22 February 2002
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Below we publish the first in a three-part series examining Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s role in the war crimes committed during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, culminating in the massacre of Palestinian refugees at Sabra and Shatilla.
An attempt by Palestinians to bring Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon before a Belgian court on charges of war crimes appears to have been thwarted. On February 14, the International Court of Justice in The Hague ruled that past and present government leaders cannot be tried for war crimes by a foreign state because of their diplomatic immunity and can only be held to account in their own country.
Under a 1993 law, Belgium gave itself the right to try war crimes committed by anyone anywhere at any time. A Belgian judge was due to rule on March 6 whether a case against Sharon should go to trial, but a legal adviser to the Belgian government, Jan Devadder, said that the International Court of Justice “has clearly ruled government leaders and heads of state enjoy total immunity from prosecution. The Sharon case, in my opinion, is closed.”
The court determined that a former or serving government official could not be tried in a foreign court because “throughout the duration of his or her office [the minister], when abroad, enjoys full immunity from criminal jurisdiction”. This was so whether or not the accused was abroad on official business or in a private capacity.
The court stressed that the judgement does not have any bearing on the trial of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, as he is being tried by an international body, the United Nations, and not by a foreign government. But this legal technicality aside, the International Court of Justice has made clear that it wishes to see only those deemed to be acting contrary to the interests of the imperialist powers facing prosecution and not their political allies such as Sharon.
At this point Sharon still faces charges relating to the brutal massacre of 2,000 Palestinians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla, Beirut, in September 1982. The prosecution, working on behalf of the relatives of some of his victims, alleges that Sharon bore responsibility in his capacity as minister of defence of the occupying power, which under international law was in charge of the overall safety of the population and was party to an agreement to protect the Palestinians. It also holds Sharon responsible for the direct role the Israeli army played both in the massacre and the subsequent internment, torture and disappearance of many of the camps’ inhabitants.
Sharon’s responsibility for Sabra and Shatilla is well known. Following an international and domestic uproar, the Israeli government was forced to hold an inquiry. The resulting Kahan Commission laid direct responsibility on Elie Hobeika, the leader of Lebanon’s fascist Phalange militia that carried out the bloodbath, but said that Sharon bore “personal responsibility”. He was forced to resign from his post in 1983 although he remained in the cabinet.
Sharon has vigorously opposed the attempt to prosecute him and all the main political parties in Israel have rallied to his defence. Israel has put pressure on Belgium to change its laws and levelled accusations of anti-Semitism in an attempt to prevent the case against its prime minister from proceeding.
There are also accusations that Israeli forces carried out the assassination of Hobeika a few weeks ago in order to eliminate a key witness to the events of September 16-18, 1982. With the approval of the Israeli Defence Force (IDF), Hobeika and Major Saad Haddad, of the Southern Lebanon Army, had entered the refugee camp and gone on the rampage for 40 hours. They butchered an estimated 2,000 men, women and children, as the IDF, having sealed off the exits, looked on. Hobeika was blown up just a few days after announcing that he would testify against Sharon.
The case came at a particularly sensitive time. The indictment and trial of a serving Israeli prime minister would transform the status of the Zionist state itself in the eyes of world opinion and severely embarrass Sharon’s main backers, the Bush administration in the United States. The fact that the case has got as far as it has is indicative of the growing divergence between Europe and the US in the Middle East in general and the Israel-Palestinian conflict in particular.
There has been growing frustration within Europe’s capitals over Bush’s ever more open support for Sharon’s war mongering, which is threatening to ignite social tensions throughout the Middle East and destabilise the Arab regimes upon whom they depend to police their financial interests. But none of Europe’s governments, including Belgium, were genuinely desirous of parading Sharon before a court and The Hague decision will have come as a relief.
Regardless of what now happens in Belgium, however, anyone wishing to understand the nature of the Zionist regime and the underlying motives of the Likud-Labour government’s renewed military offensive against the Palestinians would do well to examine the events leading up to the Sabra and Shatilla massacre and Sharon’s criminal role in them.
Israel, Lebanon and Zionist expansionism
While public attention has focused on the atrocities at Sabra and Shatilla, the record shows that these were the culmination of 15 years of military action by Israel in Lebanon, much of which constituted war crimes. Israel’s aim was to disperse the Palestinian refugees created by the establishment of the Zionist state and the 1948-9, 1967 and 1973 wars. To this end, Sharon sought to destroy the Palestinians’ emerging political and military organisations, sow divisions between the Palestinians and those countries in which they sought sanctuary, and prevent the unification of the Arab working classes and oppressed masses against Israel and its imperialist backers.
Israel presented its military action in Lebanon and its subsequent invasion in 1982 that led to the bombing and siege of Beirut, the expulsion of the PLO and the atrocities at Sabra and Shatilla, as a defensive reaction to Palestinian raids on her northern towns. But as the historical record shows, in reality, its “Operation Peace for Galilee” flowed inexorably from the logic of Zionist expansionism.
The Israeli invasion of the Lebanon in June 1982 was prepared through numerous provocations against the Palestinians and Lebanon designed to torpedo the 1981 Fahd Peace plan (named after the then Crown Prince and now King of Saudi Arabia). This plan recognised Israel’s right to exist and called for a Palestinian state in the territories occupied by Israel since the 1967 war. Such a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cut across Israel’s plans, only partially implemented in the June 1967 war, to expand its borders.
The Zionists had long had an interest in Lebanon, one of four small states carved out of the Syrian province of the Ottoman Empire by French imperialism in the aftermath of World War I. In 1938, Ben Gurion, who was to become Israel’s first prime minister in 1948, envisaged a state of Israel that would include Southern Lebanon as far as the Litani River—an essential water supply. His perspective included an alliance with Lebanon’s Christian Maronites, one of the many sectional groups encouraged by the French colonial regime to keep the region divided—despite the fact that many supported fascist Germany—as a bulwark against the Muslim Arab masses and Arab nationalism.
In the mid-1950s, the Israeli government considered the break-up of Lebanon, the establishment of a Christian state and the annexation of Southern Lebanon. Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan, foreshadowing what was to happen in the late 1970s, argued that this could be achieved by winning over or bribing a military officer who would put himself at the head of the Maronites and provide the pretext for an Israeli invasion.
Israel shelved these plans in deference to France, the power broker in Lebanon, when the two countries joined with Britain in 1956 to invade Egypt and depose President Abdul Nasser, who had nationalised the Suez Canal and other interests belonging to the imperialist powers. Dayan’s plans were to some extent realised in 1979 when Israel, in defiance of the UN, handed over Southern Lebanon, which it had captured after its invasion in 1978, to Major Saad Haddad, a deserter from the Lebanese army.
The June 1967 war was a turning point in Israel’s history. The Zionist entity, one of four small states carved out of the former Syrian province of the Ottoman Empire and surrounded by hostile Arab neighbours, was unviable within its existing boundaries. Though the Labour government never openly declared this as its strategy, it seized the opportunity of a crisis provoked by Egypt to put into practice the armed forces’ long held plans to extend Israel’s borders throughout all of what was once British Mandate Palestine and part of Syria. Such “natural” boundaries would be easier to defend and gave Israel access to the river Jordan and its headwaters.
This “Greater Israel” policy spawned a new social layer—particularly among the Jewish settlers within the Occupied Territories—committed to this expansionist policy both ideologically and materially. For this layer, for whom General Ariel Sharon was later to become the spokesman, Lebanon was unfinished business.
At the same time, the war also created a new generation of Palestinian refugees who fled or were driven out by the IDF. Many went to Lebanon where there were already refugee camps dating back to 1948. Their numbers were further swelled after King Hussein of Jordan’s murderous war against the Palestinians in 1970-71.
The June 1967 war also led to the establishment of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), under the leadership of Yasser Arafat, as a mass movement committed to armed struggle in pursuit of a Palestinian state.
After the expulsion of the PLO leadership from Jordan in 1970, Beirut became not only the political, social and cultural heartland of the Palestinian movement, but also the PLO’s military headquarters. Thus, Beirut also became an enemy stronghold, as far as Israel was concerned.
Israel’s scorched earth policy in Lebanon
While Israel made much of the terrorist attacks on its own population, there was little reporting of its own scorched earth campaign between 1968 and 1974 against Lebanon. This was justified in terms of the need to defend Israel’s northern settlements against Palestinian raids.
To cite but one example, the Palestinian terrorist attack at Ma’alot in May 1974 where 20 teenage youth were killed, was preceded by weeks of sustained Israeli phosphorous and napalm bombing of Palestinian refugee camps in southern Lebanon resulting in the deaths of more than 300 people. Just two days before Ma’alot, an Israeli air attack on the village of El-Kfeir in Lebanon had killed four civilians.
Israel’s campaign was also aimed at undermining popular support for the Palestinians, sowing divisions between the Palestinians and Lebanese, and forcing the Lebanese government to suppress the PLO. Abba Eban, Israel’s foreign minister from 1966 to 1974, said the government’s policy was predicated upon the “ rational prospect, ultimately fulfilled, that affected populations would exert pressure for the cessation of hostilities” (emphasis added).
The Lebanese army recorded over 3,000 violations of Lebanese territory by Israeli armed forces between 1968 and 1974, an average rate of 1.4 incidents per day. In 1974-75, this increased to seven incidents per day. During 1968-74, 880 Lebanese and Palestinians were killed in Israeli attacks. According to UN officials, 3,500 were killed in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan in Israeli air raids. While no separate figures exist for Palestinians, it was assumed that these must be at least twice as high as for the Lebanese.
By 1975, Israel had killed about 10 times as many Palestinians and Lebanese in cross border attacks as the total number of Israelis killed in Palestinian commando raids by 1982. Thousands of Palestinians were wounded and tens of thousands were forced to flee their homes in south Lebanon and move to the relative safety of Beirut and other cities. By the late 1970s, this figure had reached 250,000. The aim was to create a demilitarised zone in the south. To this end, 150 Palestinian camps and villages were virtually razed to the ground and olive groves and crops destroyed.
By the mid-1970s, Arafat’s Fatah party, the dominant faction in the PLO, had adopted a “two state solution”, advocating a mini-Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza that it hoped could be achieved by negotiations with Israel, and began to turn away from terrorist raids within Israel. This did not stop Israeli attacks on Lebanon, which actually increased. After 30 warplanes bombed and strafed Palestinian refugee camps and nearby villages, killing 57 people in December 1975, Israeli officials claimed their aim had been preventative, not punitive.
These attacks were aimed at torpedoing any attempt at reaching a solution to the long-running conflict that included a Palestinian state. Just two days earlier, despite angry objections by Israel, the UN Security Council had devoted a session to discussing an Arab initiative for a two-state settlement, thus paving the way for the PLO’s participation in talks. The US vetoed the proposal. Far from preventing terrorism, the Israeli attacks were aimed at provoking a retaliatory response from the Palestinians and preventing any possibility of the UN agreeing to a Palestinian state.
The outbreak of the first phase (1975-76) of the Lebanese civil war expressed the unviability of the truncated state, riven as it was with divisions sown and encouraged by French imperialism as a means of preserving its influence and interests. In what was essentially a class war between the Palestinians and their Muslim allies against the reactionary Maronite Christian ruling elite, the Israeli government backed the various rival Christian Maronite militias—the perpetrators of the Tel al Zaatar and Khiyam massacres to name but two—as their proxies against the PLO and their Muslim allies. When it appeared that the Palestinian and Muslim forces might prevail, the Syrian army intervened to preserve the Lebanese state and the Maronite establishment.
In May 1977, Menachem Begin’s right-wing Likud party came to power, ending nearly 30 years in which the Labour Party had dominated Israeli political life. Quite explicitly committed to a “Greater Israel” policy, Begin expanded the Israeli relationship with the Maronites, backing Pierre and Bashir Gamayel’s Phalangists against rival parties.
Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service, provided the Phalange with canons, mortar, tanks, communications equipment, mines and explosives. Mossad officers were placed within the Christian command, ostensibly to provide help with Israeli weaponry but in reality to provide intelligence about the civil war and launch attacks against Palestinian strongholds in Lebanon. Later operations were to be extended against the Lebanese Shiites in southern Lebanon, who were then allied with the Palestinians. For the next five years, as the civil war waxed and waned in Lebanon with constantly shifting alliances, Israel continued to support the fascist Christian militia, to the tune of $100 million a year.
In 1977, the Palestinians surrendered their heavy armaments under the first phase of the Shtaura agreement whereby the Lebanese government, Syria and the PLO imposed a freeze on cross-border raids by the Palestinians and attempted to resolve the civil war. The Israelis responded to this peace initiative by mounting a provocative and intensive bombing campaign in which 70 people, nearly all Lebanese, were killed. In addition, the Israeli-controlled Haddad militia in southern Lebanon launched an offensive with Israeli support aimed at disrupting the Lebanese government’s plans to deploy its army in the south.
In March 1978, Israel invaded Lebanon in retaliation for a terrorist attack by Palestinian commandos, who had reached Israel by sea from Beirut and killed 34 Israelis. The bloody invasion led to the death of more than 2,000 people and drove more than 250,000 people from their homes in the south.
Israeli bombardment continued in 1979. The Lebanese government compiled a list showing the scale of Lebanese casualties alone. Nearly 100 Lebanese were killed or wounded in just one day in April, while nearly 1,000 were killed and 224 wounded between April and August.
Sharon becomes minister of defence
The unexpected re-election of a Likud government with an increased majority in June 1981 brought a change in Prime Minister Begin’s cabinet. General Ariel Sharon became minister of defence. As a young man Sharon had been in the Gadna, a paramilitary youth battalion, prior to joining the Haganah, the underground Jewish Defence Force and forerunner of the IDF.
After the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, Sharon led commando units that specialised in “behind the line” raids forcing Palestinians to flee their homes. His Unit 101 had attacked and killed 50 refugees in the El-Bureig refugee camp south of Gaza, then under Egyptian rule. Sharon first achieved notoriety in 1953 when, as commander of Unit 101, he invaded Jordan and blew up at least 45 homes in the West Bank village of Qibya, then under Jordanian rule. Unit 101 killed 69 people, half of them women and children.
Sharon led other vicious attacks in Jordan in Gaza, which was then ruled by Egypt, and in Syria. In the early 1970s as head of the army’s southern command he was responsible for the brutal crackdown on Palestinian resistance in the Gaza Strip.
In the 1973 war Sharon led the Israeli forces that eventually crossed the Suez Canal and defeated the Egyptian army, in a campaign that won him as many enemies as friends, as he disobeyed orders and cease-fire agreements.
In Begin’s first Likud government, Sharon served as minister of agriculture, during which he championed the settlers’ cause. “Grab more hills,” he insisted. “Whatever is seized will be ours. Whatever isn’t seized will end up in their hands”. His goal was to create “facts on the ground” that would make it impossible to reach an accommodation with the Palestinians. Sharon had long espoused an expansionist policy that included Lebanon and his elevation to the cabinet clearly signified that Israel was about to step up the military campaign in Lebanon.
Sharon’s priority, as he was later to explain, was “to solve the problem of Lebanon once and for all”. He wanted Arafat and the PLO out of Lebanon, not just out of the south from where they were shelling Israeli settlements, but also out of Beirut. He also wanted the Syrians out of Lebanon. They had been invited into Lebanon in 1976, with the tacit agreement of Israel, to support the right-wing Phalangists and stop the break-up of the country. This was a major error of judgement as far as Sharon was concerned, as it had allowed the Syrians to take control of Lebanon and thus prevent Israel from moving on Damascus via Lebanon. Lastly, he wanted a peace treaty between Israel and Lebanon.
According to Uri Avineri, the liberal Israeli journalist, Sharon had told him eight months before the invasion of Lebanon in June 1982 that he wanted to destroy the PLO in Lebanon, put the Phalangists in power, making Lebanon a kind of Christian protectorate, and get the Syrians out of Lebanon. He wanted to push the Palestinians into Syria in the hope that the Syrians would drive them down to Jordan, which would then be turned into a Palestinian state.
By Jean Shaoul
23 February 2002
Below we publish the second article in a three-part series examining Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s role in the war crimes committed during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, culminating in the massacre of Palestinian refugees at Sabra and Shatilla.
Within weeks of becoming minister of defence, Sharon renewed military action in Lebanon after two years of peace. He struck at targets in southern Lebanon, eliciting the retaliation that provided the excuse for extensive Israeli bombing and ultimately the terror bombing of Beirut and other civilian targets on July 17-18, 1981 that left hundreds dead. While the US’s special envoy Philip Habib negotiated a cease-fire, it was clearly only a matter of time before Israel found a pretext to invade Lebanon.
Sharon began his preparations. In November, he brought military rule in the West Bank and Gaza to an end. Far from improving conditions, however, he banned Palestinian political groups and established a new and more brutal regime under his own direction and that of Menachem Milson, the new civilian administrator. In effect, the West Bank and Gaza were being incorporated into a “Greater Israel”. In December, the Golan Heights were also annexed.
The government’s mission was to settle so many Israeli Jews in the West Bank and Gaza that the Occupied Territories could not be given back to the Palestinians. It planned to develop the territories and create an infrastructure for factories, particularly sophisticated scientific industries, in the new settlements.
The key to the integration of the Occupied Territories into Greater Israel was the destruction of the Palestinian leadership, the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). Sharon’s goal, which was supported by both the Likud and the Labour parties, was to avoid a political settlement with the PLO at all costs. From Begin and Sharon’s perspective Arafat’s success in isolating those PLO factions and states such as Iraq and Libya that advocated Israel’s destruction was a setback. It meant that the PLO would have to be included in any negotiations for the settlement of the long-running Arab-Israeli conflict, leading to the establishment of a Palestinian state as proposed under the 1981 Fahd Peace Plan.
The 1978 Camp David Accords paved the way for bilateral peace agreements with Israel’s Arab neighbours. It also provided Israel with the opportunity to annex the Occupied Territories and prepare for the invasion of Lebanon. To this end, Israel had already made peace with Egypt and was in the process of withdrawing from Sinai, as agreed at Camp David in 1978, thereby ensuring the neutrality of the most important Arab country should Israel attack any of her other neighbours.
Between August 1981 and May 1982, the Israel Defence Force (IDF), with Sharon’s authorisation, violated Lebanese airspace 2,125 times and its territorial waters 652 times. Arafat, anxious to gain US support for a deal with Israel, maintained the Habib brokered cease-fire and did not retaliate.
In December 1981, Sharon warned Philip Habib, President Reagan’s special envoy, and Morris Draper, the US special ambassador, that PLO shelling of Israeli settlements was intolerable and that if it continued, he planned to wipe the PLO out completely. The US was concerned at the political repercussions of such a development and Habib made it quite clear that Sharon had no justification for war, saying, “The PLO isn’t carrying out many raids. There is no need for such an Israeli reaction. We are living in the twentieth century.... You can’t just invade a country like that”. Nevertheless, the Pentagon, in the full knowledge of Sharon’s plans to invade, stepped up its supply of military goods to Israel in the first few months of 1982. Deliveries were 50 percent up on the previous year and continued throughout June, the first month of the war.
In January 1982, Sharon flew secretly to Beirut to meet Pierre Gemayel and his son, Bashir, who had murdered all their Christian opponents in order to secure the leadership of the Christian groups. Bashir was seeking to become president of Lebanon in the forthcoming elections. Sharon revealed that Israel intended to invade Lebanon, up to Beirut. He demanded that the Phalangists join the Israelis in the battle to drive the PLO out of Beirut and Lebanon and sign a peace treaty with Israel.
Pierre Gemayel turned down both of these requests. However much he may have wanted the Israelis’ help he could not be seen to be openly collaborating with them.
In May 1982 Sharon he flew to Washington to enlist President Reagan’s support. After Sharon’s meeting with the president, Secretary of State Alexander Haig took Sharon on one side and, as one ex-general to another, gave him a friendly word of advice. He warned him that he needed a casus belli. “Ariel,” he said, “I am telling you this is unsatisfactory.... Nothing should be done in Lebanon without an internationally recognised provocation, and the Israeli reaction should be proportionate to that provocation.” While Sharon questioned what constituted a clear provocation, this was good enough as far as he was concerned. He had told his US paymasters about his plans and they hadn’t objected to their content. Now all he needed was a suitable pretext.
Later Haig tried to deny that he had given the go-ahead for the invasion, but he qualified this by explaining: “The Israelis had made it very clear that their limit of toleration had been exceeded, and that at the next provocation they were going to react. They told us that. The president knew that.” The State Department, when pressed, could not cite a single official statement opposing the invasion apart from the support, quickly withdrawn, for the first UN resolution calling on Israel to terminate its aggression.
Two weeks later, there was a botched attempt on the life of the Israeli ambassador, Shlomo Argov, in London. It was carried out by the Abu Nidal group, which was hostile to Arafat and the PLO and operated out of Iraq with no office in Beirut. This was ignored by Prime Minister Begin, as was the PLO’s insistence that it had nothing to do with the assassination attempt or Abu Nidal. As far as Begin was concerned: “They are all PLO”. In other words, Arafat, as leader of the PLO, was responsible for all the activities of all the Palestinian groups and all Palestinians should be regarded as terrorists to be eliminated. The cabinet gave instructions for Israeli planes to attack PLO positions in and around Beirut. As the meeting dispersed, Begin said, “We should be prepared for the maximum. We will strike and see what happens.”
Israel carried out heavy bombardment of PLO targets including the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla and a hospital. More than 200 people were killed. With Arafat away from Beirut in Amman, Jordan, the Palestinians responded by shelling Israeli settlements in Galilee. Sharon seized on this to announce to the cabinet a few days later that there would be a short operation lasting one or two days called “Operation Peace for Galilee”. It was to be limited to pushing the Palestinians back 40-45 kilometres so that they could not shell northern Israel. Israel would not attack the Syrians in Lebanon unless they took action against Israeli forces. When asked about Beirut, Sharon said, “Beirut is out of the picture. This operation is not designed to capture Beirut”. Every word was a lie.
While some cabinet members were subsequently to claim that Sharon had deceived them, this was disingenuous to say the least. Two months before the war, Begin had told Shimon Peres and the Labour Party about his plans and the rhetoric with which the invasion was to be sold to the public. As veteran military correspondent Ze’ev Schiff, who has close connections with the Israeli military establishment, wrote in Ha’aretz a few weeks before the invasion, “It is not true as we tell the Americans that we do not want to invade Lebanon. There are influential forces, led by the defence minister, which with intelligence and cunning are taking well considered steps to reach a situation that will leave Israel with no choice but to invade Lebanon even if it were to involve a war with Syria.”
Israeli invasion of Lebanon in June 1982
No sooner had Sharon waived his troops over the border into Lebanon on June 6 than they headed north towards Beirut demolishing the Palestinian camps, driving the people north into largely Muslim West Beirut and incarcerating many of the adult male population along the way. Israel used its complete air superiority and firepower to blast everything before it, albeit sometimes dropping leaflets warning inhabitants to leave before the attacks began. It then sent in its ground forces to clean up afterwards. As the Jerusalem Post explained, “With deadly accuracy, the big guns laid waste whole rows of houses and apartment blocks believed to be PLO positions. The fields were pitted with craters.... Israel’s strategy at that point was obvious—to clean away a no-man’s land through which Israeli tanks could advance and prevent any PLO breakout.”
In keeping with Sharon’s larger plan of driving Syria out of Lebanon, on June 9 the IDF made an unprovoked attack on the Syrian forces in the Beka’a valley. After Israel knocked out more than 60 aircraft in one day, Syria avoided any further military confrontation with Israel. Thus, Israel had effectively neutralised Syria for the rest of the campaign.
By the end of June, southern Lebanon was devastated. Ten thousand people had been killed, 350,000-400,000 Palestinians had been dispersed, the Israeli army had taken 15,000 prisoners, and little was left standing. According to one Israeli journalist, “The shocking scenes of the destroyed camps proves that the destruction was systematic”. Many people have never been unaccounted for. Those who remained were left to the tender mercies of the Phalange militia and Haddad’s forces, Israel’s proxy in southern Lebanon.
The bombing and siege of Beirut
On June 13, the eighth day of the war, Begin told the Knesset that the fighting would stop once the army reached the 40-kilometre line. At that very moment, Sharon was with his troops, which had encircled West Beirut, in Ba’abda, overlooking the city that was now home to 500,000 people. The siege that was to follow would last 70 days.
During that time, the city was bombed extensively using both cluster and phosphorous bombs. This was an effort not only to destroy the PLO and its military installations, but also its entire social base and welfare network: its health and educational services, political and social organisations and, above all, the squalid shantytowns that had become the Palestinians’ home in Lebanon.
Not even the hospitals were spared, although they were clearly marked. By August 6, there were 30 beds available in West Beirut out of a previous total of 1,400, according to the Red Cross. The refugee camps were continuously bombarded, causing more than half of the 125,000 inhabitants of Sabra and Shatilla to flee in the first few weeks of the war, even though no heavy artillery or well-fortified positions were found. Palestinians who tried to leave West Beirut were stopped from doing so by the Israeli forces that patrolled the city.
The UN estimated that 13,500 homes had been severely damaged in West Beirut alone and many thousands more elsewhere, excluding the Palestinian camps. Electricity and water supplies were continually interrupted and food and medicines cut off. The international relief agencies were denied access.
The Lebanese police estimated that more than 19,000 people had been killed and 30,000 wounded between the beginning of June and the end of December. Some 6,775 of these were killed in Beirut and 84 percent were civilians. “But this excluded those who were buried in mass graves where the Lebanese authorities were not informed,” they said. In contrast, 340 IDF soldiers had been killed between June and early September and a further 146 by late November. Of these, 117 were killed in the fighting for Beirut.
The purpose of the siege of Beirut and the accompanying brutality was to put maximum pressure on the Lebanese government to force Arafat and the PLO to leave the country. To this effect, Israel had seized control of the capital city of another country, broken every rule in the war crimes book, and was holding half the people of Beirut (all those in West Beirut) hostage.
The US role in the evacuation of the PLO
The US, far from acting as an honest broker, intervened to organise the evacuation of the PLO on Israel’s behalf. It offered guarantees to protect Palestinian civilians that were absolutely crucial to the PLO’s agreement to leave Beirut. The evidence shows it never honoured these guarantees.
The US sent Habib back to the Middle East to meet Sharon and ascertain his terms for ending the fighting. Habib asked, “Who is to leave Beirut? All the 10,000 [PLO fighters] or just their leaders?” Sharon replied, “All the terrorists. They must all leave. If they refuse, they will be destroyed... Tell them to leave.” When Habib countered, saying, “I think it will be impossible to do what you ask”, Sharon sent in dozens of fighter jets that unloaded hundreds of tons of high explosives onto Sabra and Shatilla and anti-tank cluster bombs on apartment blocks in West Beirut.
With that, Habib pulled out all the stops to get the Lebanese government to put pressure on Arafat to agree to Sharon’s terms. Knowing that Sharon would not accept promises, he even got Arafat to provide a signed guarantee that he would leave with all his fighters.
Habib now had to find Arab states willing to take the Palestinians, but there were few takers. The Arab leaders had all stood by while Lebanon was invaded, even those most verbally vociferous in their opposition to Israel. Few were willing to accept the PLO fighters whom they regarded as troublemakers. Jordan’s King Hussein even demanded that if the armed guerrillas went to Syria, they had to be placed far from the border with Jordan. He did allow some Palestinians with Jordanian passports to enter Jordan. Egypt and Syria refused all PLO fighters, while Tunis, Yemen, Sudan, Iraq and Algeria agreed to take some.
Even after agreement on the PLO evacuation, bombings continued, including the carpet-bombing of Bourj al Barajneh refugee camp. On Saturday, August 21, the first contingent of 12,000 PLO fighters left Beirut by ship. Arafat himself was the last to go on August 30, 1982. The US had arranged with President Bourguiba that he go to Tunis. A further 10,000 PLO fighters remained in eastern and northern Lebanon, in areas under Syrian control.
The protection of Palestinian civilians left behind in Beirut had been central to the agreement under which the PLO had agreed to evacuate the city. A multinational force of US, French and Italians troops in Beirut were to supervise the evacuation and guarantee their safety. In addition, there were bilateral agreements between both the US and Lebanese governments and the PLO and an Israeli promise not to enter Beirut.
According to the text of the agreement, “The US will provide its guarantees on the basis of assurances received from the Government of Israel and the leaders of certain Lebanese groups with which it has been in contact.” Habib later confirmed that he had personally signed the agreement guaranteeing protection to the Palestinians. “I got specific guarantees on this from Bashir and from the Israelis—from Sharon,” he said. Habib personally wrote to the Lebanese prime minister saying, “My government will do its utmost to ensure that these assurances [on the part of Israel] are scrupulously observed”.
Almost immediately, Israel broke its promises. The Lebanese army was supposed to have participated in the security operation, but was prevented from doing so by the Israeli armed forces, in clear breach of their agreement to withdraw from Beirut. This was only the first of many such breaches that the US was to sanction. The Israeli armed forces had Arafat within their sights. They could easily have killed him, but the US had extracted a promise from Sharon that he would guarantee Arafat’s safe exit and passage to Tunis: a promise he has recently bitterly and publicly regretted.
As part of the Habib brokered agreement, the Lebanese national police took control of West Beirut and collected weapons and ammunition from the PLO depots, although some were also handed over to the Mourabitoun Muslim militia.
On August 23, in the middle of the evacuation of the PLO, Israel’s man, Bashir Gemayel, who had the largest private army in Lebanon, won the presidential elections. Israel’s control of much of the country gave protection to the key Assembly delegates with the power to choose the president, and provided helicopters to bring them to vote in East Beirut. Gemayel became president of Lebanon on September 23.
Israel had won the war for the Phalange without the latter having lifted a finger. Indeed, the Phalange had refused to fight, having earlier lost some soldiers when fighting against the Palestinians. While the Israeli government rejoiced at the success of its campaign, the Palestinians and the Lebanese Muslims in Beirut, now left defenceless, were terrified. They were at the mercy of the Phalange, Haddad’s armed militia in southern Lebanon and anyone else whom the Israelis chose to back.
Journalist Robert Fisk commented prophetically in the London Times: “The civilians of West Beirut will have only the Lebanese army to protect them. It is not the sort of army upon which people of the Muslim sector of the city are likely to place much reliance.” In his book Pity the Nation, which provides an eyewitness account of the atrocities in Beirut, Fisk admits that even he did not realise the implications of his own words, or the scale of the carnage that was to follow.
By Jean Shaoul
25 February 2002
Below we publish the third and final instalment of a series examining Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s role in the war crimes committed during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, culminating in the massacre of Palestinian refugees at Sabra and Shatilla.
No sooner had Arafat and the last of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) fighters departed Lebanon than Israel’s relations with both its patron and vassal became strained, as their interests diverged.
Firstly, the Americans, with a view to mollifying the Arab regimes anxious about the impact of the war on their own domestic stability launched a new peace initiative, known as the Reagan Plan. This plan explicitly ruled out Israeli annexation, sovereignty or permanent domination of the Occupied Territories. It called for a freeze on expanding existing settlements or building new ones and “self government by the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza in association with Jordan”, otherwise known as the confederation solution. Neither self-government nor the boundaries of such an entity were defined and the PLO was to be excluded, but despite its incoherence and inconsistencies, the plan was more favourable to the Palestinians than anything previously on offer.
However much Israel was reliant on the US, it was not going to accept this and said so quite openly and defiantly. Sharon said, “Not only will Israel not accept it, it will not discuss it.... The United States should have saved itself a lot of embarrassment and frustration” by not proposing it. Israel immediately announced the establishment of new settlements in the West Bank and the Golan Heights.
It should be noted that while conflicts between the US and Israel mounted over the next 12 months, Reagan nevertheless increased military aid to Israel in 1983, and proposed that it be maintained at that level for 1984, while Congress increased aid even further.
Relations with Lebanese President-Elect Bashir Gemayel, upon whom Israel was more dependent after the announcement of the Reagan plan, also turned sour. As far as Begin was concerned, it was now pay-back time. He summoned Gemayel to a meeting in Israel and demanded that he sign a peace treaty on September 15.
However much he needed Israeli help, Gemayel was above all a Lebanese nationalist. To retain control of a united Lebanon meant that he had to cut a deal with the Muslim leaders. Signing a deal with Israel, now almost universally perceived as the enemy, would have precipitated the division of Lebanon.
Begin also demanded that Gemayel move into Sabra and Shatilla and clear out the remaining “terrorists”, claiming that Arafat had left behind 2,000 PLO fighters. This was another proposal that Gemayel could not implement directly without destabilising Lebanese political relations. He was also outraged by Begin’s proposal to establish a military presence in a 45-kilometre area in southern Lebanon under the control of another Israeli stooge, Major Saad Haddad.
Israel had served notice that Gemayel would rule Lebanon only at Israel’s behest. At one point in the meeting, Gemayel held out his arms and said to Begin, “Put the hand cuffs on”, before adding, “I am not your vassal.” He threatened to charge Haddad with desertion and flatly refused to sign any treaty or to authorise any move against the camps. In truth, the Phalangists were hopelessly split. Some of the Phalange were hostile to Israel and were now collaborating with the Syrians, who were opposed to Gemayel’s relations with Israel. Gemayel had to balance between them and the myriad of different factional groups within Lebanon.
On September 3, Israel deployed its armed forces beyond the ceasefire line previously set in agreement with Habib. Sabra and Shatilla on the outskirts of Beirut had become refugee camps for many Palestinians who fled their homes. They were the main areas of the PLO’s popular support. The Israeli forces cleared landmines there and established observation posts overlooking the camps. Despite the fact that it was in clear breach of the US ceasefire agreement, neither the US nor any other contingent of the international force appears to have demanded that the Israeli armed forces withdraw.
Israel demanded that the Mourabitoun, the largest Muslim paramilitary organisation and the PLO’s staunchest ally in Lebanon, leave Beirut. On September 11, the US pulled out the last of its forces sent in to guarantee the safety of the Palestinians under the Habib agreement, two weeks before its 30-day mandate expired. The US withdrawal triggered the departure of the other international forces. The net result was that the so-called international protectors of the Palestinians had presided over the disarming of the Palestinians and their allies and delivered them into the hands of those they most feared: the Israelis and the Christian militia.
The Sabra and Shatilla massacre
On September 14, Gemayel was assassinated in a massive explosion that demolished the central Phalangist headquarters in Beirut. The Palestinian and Muslim leaders denied any responsibility.
Given that this was the most heavily guarded building in Beirut, the attack must have had insider support. It was never clear which of Gemayel’s enemies had killed him.
As soon as Begin heard about Gemayel’s assassination, he ignored his promise to the US and ordered the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) to enter West Beirut. He justified his action to Habib’s deputy, Morris Draper, as necessary “to prevent acts of revenge by the Christians against the Palestinians” and to maintain order and stability after Gemayel’s assassination. A few days later, Sharon let the cat out of the bag. “Our entry into West Beirut was in order to make war against the infrastructure left by the terrorists,” he told the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. By this he meant the Palestinian civilians and their Muslim allies.
Sharon ordered Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan, later to form the ultra-right-wing party, Tehiya, to let the Phalange militia enter the camps in order to “clean out” the terrorists. The IDF were not to carry the operation. Their proxies could do their dirty work for them. New York Times correspondent David Shipler explained why. He said that as early as mid-June, “Israeli officials were speaking privately of a plan, being considered by Defence Minister Ariel Sharon, to allow the Phalangists to go into West Beirut and the camps against the PLO. The calculation was that the Phalangists, with old scores to settle and detailed information on the Palestinian fighters, would be more ruthless than the Israelis and probably more effective”.
Eitan issued Order Number Six stating that the “refugee camps [Sabra and Shatilla] are not to be entered. Searching and mopping up the camps will be done by the Phalangists and the Lebanese army.” He contacted Elie Hobeika, the murderous Phalangist commander of the Damouri Brigade, and told him what he wanted his men to do.
On September 15, the IDF re-entered Beirut and took control, killing 88 people and wounding 254. It soon surrounded and sealed off Sabra and Shatilla, having attacked smaller camps along the way. At 11:20 a.m. on September 16, Israel admitted that it controlled the camps. An Israeli press statement announced: “The IDF is in control of all the key points in Beirut. Refugee camps harbouring terrorist concentrations remained encircled and enclosed”.
That same day, about 50 Haddad troops that were virtually integrated into the Israeli army and operated entirely under its command were brought to Beirut. Together with about 100 Phalange militia they entered Sabra and Shatilla—a ridiculously small force if there really had been arsenals of weaponry and 2,000 armed guerrillas in the camps, as Sharon had alleged.
There are several journalists, including Robert Fisk, who have written books on the harrowing events in Beirut based upon their own and other eyewitness accounts and on-the-spot interviews with survivors. Other aspects of the story have been pieced together from evidence produced by the Kahan Commission, the Israeli official inquiry into the massacre. But two points need to be stressed: no one ever discovered any arms in the camps and the entry of the Christian militia did not follow any fighting. In other words, the events that followed were a premeditated massacre of innocent civilians. In the next 36 hours, Israel’s proxies, the Christian militia groups, went on a rampage, raping and killing people indiscriminately with knives and guns. People were tortured, including pregnant women, and the bodies of many of the victims were mutilated.
Eyewitnesses attributed most of the killings to Haddad’s forces, but the Phalangists under the command of Elie Hobeika were no less bloodthirsty. A Phalangist asked Hobeika over the radio what should be done with 50 Palestinian women and children. He replied, “This is the last time you are going to ask me a question like that. You know exactly what to do.” The soldier laughed in response.
There were numerous reports that hundreds of men were rounded up during and after the massacre and taken to Israeli detention camps in southern Lebanon. Many of them were never seen again. While the exact number of those killed and injured is not known, Israel estimates suggest that about 800 were killed, although the Palestinian Red Crescent put the number at over 2,000. At least a quarter of these were Lebanese Shiite Muslims.
The atrocities were carried out in full view of the Israeli troops manning observation posts overlooking the camps. By the evening, Lebanese soldiers were already telling the International Red Crescent of atrocities reported to them by Palestinian women in the camps. On the morning of September 17, Ha’aretz journalist Ze’ev Schiff found out what was happening and reported it to the Israeli government, although he did not make it public, despite the fact that foreign journalists were beginning to report the atrocities. Israeli Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who later became prime minister, claimed he did not understand the message. But even before then, a Phalange commander had radioed General Yaron to tell him “300 civilians and terrorists had been killed”.
Later that day, Chief of Staff Eitan, Generals Drori and Yaron met the Phalangist command and congratulated them on “having carried out good work” and authorised them to bring in fresh forces and complete their work. By the afternoon, at least 45 Israeli soldiers knew what was going on. The Palestinians were pleading with them to stop the bloodbath. They refused.
US intelligence had also learned of the killings. Morris Draper, the US special envoy, was in no doubt about Israel’s role. On September 17, he demanded of Israel: “You must stop the massacres. They are obscene. I have an officer in the camp counting the bodies. You ought to be ashamed. The situation is rotten and terrible. They are killing children. You are in absolute control of the area and therefore responsible for that area” (emphasis added).
Draper’s words provide confirmation, if any is needed, of Israel’s responsibility in international law and under the terms of the Habib-brokered agreement for the safety of the civilian population in Beirut. He had already warned on the previous evening (September 16) when the massacre was already in full swing of the “horrible results” that would follow if the militia were allowed into the camps. But it was only on September 18, 36 hours after the carnage had begun, that the Israelis ordered the militia out of the camps. General Yaron later testified that they did so not for humanitarian reasons but because of pressure from the Americans, an admission that only serves to highlight the US’s criminal refusal to rein in its client throughout the whole period.
The record shows that by any objective reckoning, Sharon is a war criminal whose history of murderous activities and violations of the rules of war in pursuit of Zionism’s political and economic objectives stretch back for half a century.
The record also shows that not only was the massacre backed by the Israelis, it was only made possible because the US flouted its explicit guarantee upon which the agreement on the PLO evacuation depended. The US never formally lodged a protest about either the invasion of Beirut or what happened at Sabra and Shatilla. Once again, whatever the public show of anger or displeasure, in private Israel got the nod to proceed.
The Kahan Commission
While not one of the Arab regimes lifted a finger to help the Palestinians, it was the Israeli working class that said it was not prepared for its government to organise the elimination of the Palestinians, and called a halt to the pogrom. Sabra and Shatilla provoked sustained worldwide outrage, but more importantly, within Israel itself 400,000 people, one in ten of the population, demonstrated on the streets of Tel Aviv in opposition to the Begin government and demanded an inquiry.
The Kahan Commission was established in an attempt to deflate public anger. Its 1983 report was limited in scope and something of a whitewash. Nevertheless, the evidence it produced confirmed the broad outline of events on September 16-18 and Israel’s role in them. Its conclusions, however, did not flow from the evidence presented.
It limited its remit to the immediate circumstances and ignored the context and the subsequent “disappearance” of Palestinians at the hands of the IDF and its proxies in southern Lebanon. The report’s title ignored any mention of the Palestinians. It excluded any consideration of Israel’s legal responsibilities under international law and its obligations under the agreement to which it was a party by the simple expedient of failing to define Beirut as under the control of an occupying power. It concluded that Israel’s armed forces were not participants in the slaughter, a claim that had never seriously been made. The Commission accepted the government and armed forces’ justification for sending in the Christian militia and concluded that the IDF did not know what was going on in the camps, despite eyewitness accounts to the contrary.
While it rejected the accusation that the IDF had “prior knowledge” of the consequences, it did not accept Begin’s contention that the Israeli government had not expected or foreseen the tragic consequences of sending the Christian militia into the camps. The Commission noted that during secret meetings held between Bashir Gemayel and Mossad agents, Israeli officials “heard things from [Bashir] that left no room for doubt that the intention of the Phalange leader was to eliminate the Palestinian problem in Lebanon when he came to power—even if it meant resorting to aberrant methods against the Palestinians.” Furthermore, Israeli generals admitted that they used the Phalange militia because they could give them orders that they could not give to the Lebanese army.
Interestingly, the Commission heaped all the blame for the atrocities on the Phalange led by Hobeika, and denied the “rumours” that Haddad and his forces played any role in the slaughter or were even present, even though numerous eyewitnesses testified to their murderous activities. Yet the Phalange had been closer political allies than Haddad: they had been trained by the Israelis, armed with the same weapons and performed the same services for Israel in Beirut, the Chouf and the Metn regions as Haddad did in the south.
This willingness to point the finger at the Phalange can only be understood in the context of Israel’s plans for the future. As far as the Israelis were concerned, after Gemayel’s assassination the Phalangists had outlived their political shelf life, although they still had their military uses. This meant that Israel was even more reliant on Haddad’s forces to play the key role as its policeman in southern Lebanon. It also explains why Hobeika’s evidence to the Belgian court was expected to be so prejudicial to Sharon. He was prepared to spill the beans, claiming he had video recordings and other evidence that would confirm Sharon’s role in the affair.
The Commission did assign some limited “indirect responsibility” for the massacre on Israel. It condemned Begin, Sharon and the generals with varying degrees of harshness, concluding that Sharon bore “personal responsibility” for what happened in the camps and recommending his removal from office. While Sharon was removed from his post as defence minister, he retained his seat in the cabinet as minister without portfolio.
The Commission made no recommendation about Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan—the man who had expected the massacre, allowed fresh troops in to replace those who had done such a good job, and lied about the IDF’s role—as he was due to retire soon. Eitan went on to become a Knesset member as the founder of an ultra-right-wing party.
General Yaron, who knew about the killings the very first evening and did nothing, was to be suspended for three years. Shortly afterwards he was put in charge of army manpower and training and in 1986 was rewarded with the plum job of military attaché in Washington. The Commission recommended that the director of military intelligence be fired and placed considerable blame on General Drori “without recourse to any further recommendation”.
It has taken nearly 20 years for Ariel Sharon, the man who in 1983 was not fit to be minister of defence, to be deemed fit for the highest office of prime minister. Sabra and Shatilla earned him impeccable credentials as far as the right wing is concerned. The Palestinian policy he has embodied for decades—either genocide or ethnic cleansing—has supplanted the promise of a two state solution embodied in the 1993 Oslo Accords. Now the far right is baying openly for a “population transfer” from the West Bank, an end to “restraint” and the reoccupation of territories seized in the 1967 war, measures that demand a bloodbath that would dwarf Sabra and Shatilla in their savagery.
R. Brynon, Security and Survival: The PLO in Lebanon, Westview Press, 1990.
N. Chomsky, The Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel and the Palestinians, Pluto Press, 1999.
R. Fisk, Pity the Nation, Oxford University Press, 1990
T. Friedman, From Beirut to Jerusalem, HarperCollins, 1989.
Z. Schiff and E. Ya’ari, Israel’s Lebanon War, 1985.