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The Lost Lesson of Sabra and Shatilla

Last month’s 25th anniversary of the Sabra and Shatilla massacre passed by largely unnoticed. At the time, however, the atrocity perpetrated by Lebanese Christian Phalangists against hundreds of unarmed Palestinian civilians in the two refugee camps outside Beirut horrified the world.

Unfortunately, the Phalangists had been dispatched on their dubious mission by the Israeli military, thus bringing down an international torrent of scathing criticism on the Jewish state. From this dramatic turning point on, Israel’s incursion into Lebanon reversed from juggernaut into slow slide to disaster.

Israel’s prime minister at the time was the Polish-born Menachem Begin, a very correct gentleman in the old-school European sense of the word. But he was not always politically correct. As condemnation of Israel’s alleged role in the massacre mounted, the beleaguered politician famously complained, “Goyim kill goyim, and they blame the Jews.” Still, it was the historic protest attended by nearly 400,000 Israelis that ultimately compelled Begin to appoint an independent commission of inquiry to investigate the events at Sabra and Shatilla.

This judicial commission, which came to be known as the Kahan Commission, spent four months listening to dozens of witnesses and sifted through thousands of pages of testimony before ruling that Israel bore “indirect responsibility” for the massacre. For all the light the commission shed on the events on the ground in Lebanon on the fateful days of September 16-18, 1982, however, what is perhaps most instructive today — from the current perspective of four years into an invasion by an Israeli ally of another Middle Eastern country — is what we learned about decision-making processes in the highest echelons of power.

The report issued by the Kahan Commission began with a review of developments in Lebanon since 1975, when sectarian tensions in that country erupted into civil war. As Phalangist militias battled Palestinian and Druze irregulars, massacres of civilians perpetrated by both sides became, sadly, all too commonplace. Into this maelstrom, the commission’s report observed, stepped Israel’s intelligence agencies: The Mossad was assigned to assess the viability of Lebanon’s Christian establishment as a potential political ally; military intelligence had the job of assessing the strength and reliability of the Phalangist armed forces.

Mossad analysts had mixed feelings about the prospects of Israel’s entering into a nation-building adventure with Lebanon’s Christians. But by 1982, then-defense minister Ariel Sharon and the military’s chief of staff, Rafael Eitan, were itching for a fight.

Eitan had been frustrated by Begin’s reluctance to give the green light for a military incursion to clean out Palestine Liberation Organization terrorists who had been shelling northern Israeli towns sporadically from southern Lebanon. Begin had a good relationship with United States special envoy Philip Habib, and allowed the American to broker a cease-fire. Eitan’s feelings were expressed in his lament to the effect that “they’ve given me a billion dollar army, but won’t let me use it.”

Sharon, meanwhile, had been plotting a grand plan to create a new order in the Middle East: Israel would forcibly expel Yasser Arafat and his PLO from Lebanon; the Palestinians would move into Jordan, topple King Hussein and establish a Palestinian state there; and Israel would be free to take over the West Bank in his vision of a two-state solution.

The pretext Sharon and Eitan were waiting for arrived in June 1982: An Abu Nidal assassin shot and nearly killed Israel’s ambassador to London. Although this was not a PLO action, and it was far from the Lebanese front, the hawks in Israel’s Cabinet finally swayed Begin toward war. On June 6, the prime minister authorized Operation Peace for Galilee, a limited campaign to push the terrorists back out of rocket range, 25 miles north of the border.

As a nation, of course, Israelis rallied behind its soldiers and supported the offensive, all the more so since it started out as a tremendous success. Lebanese villagers, who had been suffering under a brutal PLO occupation, welcomed the Israeli troops as liberators, showering them with rice and candies.

The Kahan Commission report takes up the narrative from June 12, when the Israeli military took over the suburbs of Beirut and linked up with the Christian forces who controlled East Beirut. This was all the territory Sharon needed to implement the first phase of his plan: Israeli soldiers escorted Christian legislators to the Parliament, where they elected Bashir Gemayel president of Lebanon. The Palestinians holed up in West Beirut were deported, and Israeli and Lebanese negotiators began drawing up a peace treaty between the two countries.

Regime change, Middle East-style, soon put an end to Sharon’s fantasy. Gemayel was blown to pieces by a Syrian car bomb on September 14; Israeli forces moved in to exert control over West Beirut; Phalangists urged the Israelis to allow them to enter the refugee camps. The commission report notes that local Israeli commanders were divided about the wisdom of permitting this; some warned that the Christians were aching for revenge after the Gemayel assassination.

The Kahan Commission report then takes us right into the Cabinet meeting that got underway at the same time that the Israeli military facilitated the first Phalangist entry into Sabra and Shatilla. Eitan told the assembled ministers point-blank that the Phalangists “have just one thing left to do — and that is revenge; and it will be terrible.”

Eitan’s goal at the meeting was to get post facto approval for Israel’s entry into West Beirut; he barely mentioned the Phalangists, except for an offhand reference to some of them “this evening beginning to enter the area between Sabra and Fakahani.” In fact, the Cabinet approved Israel’s deployment into West Beirut precisely “in order to forestall the danger of violence, bloodshed and chaos.”

The lone reservation was voiced by David Levy, the housing and construcation minister: “[W]e could come out with no credibility when I hear that the Phalangists are already entering a certain neighborhood; I know what the meaning of revenge is for them, what kind of slaughter. Then no one will believe we went in to create order there, and we will bear the blame.” His prophetic remarks were ignored, and the last chance to avoid the inevitable catastrophe was lost.

The aftermath of the massacre was that Israel was forced to pull back to a buffer zone in southern Lebanon, but there, too, the Israeli military outstayed its welcome. As the perception of the army tilted from liberators to occupiers, insurgents began ambushing Israeli soldiers with roadside bombs. As Israeli casualties mounted, the Israeli public turned against the war.

In hindsight, this scenario — politicians with grandiose expectations so spoiling for a war that they will exaggerate excuses to start one, a powerful and perhaps overconfident army invading an Arab country plagued with sectarian violence, elections carried out in the shadow of a self-righteous occupation, failures to understand the mentality and sensibilities of the local population — seems a sure-fire recipe for a costly and tragic debacle.

So what do we call it when a government already has the benefit of this hindsight and nonetheless chooses to embark on the same path?

Bezalel (Buzzy) Gordon was the official spokesman of the Commission of Inquiry Into the Events at the Refugee Camps in Beirut and the translator and editor of its final report.

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