Two Palestinian women weep as they sit on the curb in the Sabra Palestinian refugee camp in West Beirut, Lebanon, September 19, 1982, after they found bodies of relatives. (AP Photo/Bill Foley)
Two Palestinian women weep as they sit on the curb in the Sabra Palestinian refugee camp in West Beirut, Lebanon, September 19, 1982, after they found bodies of relatives. (AP Photo/Bill Foley)
First personEstimates of the dead would range from 800 to 3,000

Journalist reckons with Israeli blame for Sabra and Shatila

38 years ago, hours before the Jewish new year, word arrived of bloodshed by an Israeli ally in Beirut. A reporter set off to Lebanon to seek out the truth

Recollections of the final harrowing chapter of Israel’s Beirut adventure in 1982 always begin for me with the ambience of Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue on Rosh Hashanah eve.

A monumental year was coming to an end and there were major events to scroll through one’s mind during the lengthy service — the final pullout from Sinai, the traumatic dismantling of the Sinai settlement of Yamit, the invasion of Lebanon. However, hours before the start of services, disturbing reports began to arrive of a massacre in Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut by Christian militias.

I went to the Great Synagogue, where then-prime minister Menachem Begin prayed on holidays, to see if the new developments were serious enough to keep him away. He was in his place, sitting pensively near the front of the packed hall. As prayers by the cantor and choir resonated off the stained glass windows, he was still absorbing the confused reports passed on by aides.

After the two-day holiday I drove up to Beirut for The Jerusalem Post. The route had become familiar since Israel’s entry into the Christian half of the city earlier that summer.

Abraham Rabinovich makes notes at the rear of a roof in Beirut overlooking the port from which Yasser Arafat and PLO fighters would sail into exile in August 1982. (Courtesy of Rabinovich/ photo by Richard Lobell)

The predominantly Muslim West Beirut, where the refugee camps were located, became accessible only after the expulsion of Yasser Arafat and his PLO fighters on August 30. Along with other journalists, I had watched from a rooftop overlooking the port as they boarded a white ferry that would take them into Tunisian exile after a UN-brokered cease fire. It was hard not to concede that then-defense minister Ariel Sharon, who initiated the incursion, had achieved a new order in Lebanon.

This would end two weeks later on September 14 with the assassination of Israel’s major Lebanese ally, Phalange leader Bashir Gemayel, who had just been elected president. It was a reminder that the march of history in Lebanon makes few detours into sunlit uplands. Just two days later, the massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps began, as the Christian Phalange sought their measure of revenge over two days.

Yasser Arafat, foreground center, inspects the bomb damage in the Arab University area of West Beirut August 2, 1982, following the heavy bombardment by Israel the day before. (AP Photo/Mourad Raouf)

Arriving in Christian East Beirut after Rosh Hashanah, I picked up a mandatory “escort” from the IDF spokesman’s office before driving into the Muslim stronghold of West Beirut. The escort happened to be a colleague from The Jerusalem Post on reserve duty, Ed Grossman. I also stopped by the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s liaison office, run by an old acquaintance. His briefing consisted almost entirely of a despairing shrug. He could not explain what had happened or what Israel’s role had been.

An Israeli soldier we asked directions of, a reservist, pointed the way to the refugee camps. He offered us the first insight into what Israeli troops in Beirut were thinking about the massacre. “If I see Sharon,” he volunteered, “I’ll shoot him.”

Then-Israeli defense minister Ariel Sharon, foreground, rides an armored personnel carrier on a tour of Israeli units advancing to the outskirts of Beirut, Lebanon, June 15, 1982. (AP Photo)

A paratroop battalion, whose positions overlooked the camps from high ground to the southwest, was headquartered in a modern school building. Several soldiers were sleeping on the floor in sleeping bags. A young lieutenant serving as duty officer responded tersely to my questions.

Units from the battalion, he acknowledged, had been deployed in the area but not inside the camps. He had heard scattered shooting the night the massacre began but it had meant nothing at the time since there was shooting every day. Every family in the camps had weapons. No, I could not enter the camps. It was too dangerous. Israeli troops had not entered them. Alright, I could go to the adjacent intersection from which the camp could be seen, but no further. He could not give me permission to interview soldiers. A group of soldiers near the intersection stopped us but let us pass when we said we only wanted to look down into the camps from a distance.

Illustrative: Israeli soldiers rest on a rooftop overlooking the Lebanese president’s home on the outskirts of Beirut, June 16, 1982. (Israeli GPO/ Yoel Kantor)

The ground sloped steeply to the refugee camps, about 500 meters (about a third of a mile) away. We could see rooftops but not the streets where bodies lay. Dominating the intersection was the handsome, seven-story Kuwaiti embassy, empty now. A swarthy caretaker sat outside talking with a Lebanese Army sergeant. With the PLO gone, Lebanese Army units had bobbed to the surface.

The two men spoke to us in a chatty manner about the massacre. The sergeant said the Christians had used knives so that the Israelis would not be alerted by the sound of gunfire. When I asked the embassy custodian if I could climb to the roof to see into the camps, the sergeant offered another suggestion. “Why don’t you go down into them?”

Illustrative: Italian armored personnel carriers drive through the Sam’an Gallery passage in East Beirut, which is guarded by Lebanese soldiers but still bears the Hebrew signage commanding drivers, ‘Stop, border ahead,’ August 26, 1982. (Israeli GPO/ Dalia Yankovitz)

The Israeli soldiers near the intersection were no longer taking notice of us. Grossman, who was wearing civilian clothes, agreed to join me. We strolled down the road, passed Lebanese Army armored cars, and entered the camp. Even though the massacre had started three days before, bodies were still scattered all about the streets and alleys. Estimates of the dead would range from 800 to 3,000. Dozens of bodies, covered by blankets, lay near the camp entrance.

Red Crescent workers and other volunteers carried them down on stretchers into freshly dug burial pits sprinkled with lime and laid them in rows. Young Palestinians, wearing white masks against the stench, were frantically digging more pits as hundreds of civilians milled about. Here and there an arm or leg projected from the rubble of bulldozed houses, held aloft by rigor mortis. The atmosphere of barely restrained hysteria rendered the pair of us invisible as we walked through the area. But we did not linger.

Red Cross workers looking at a body, covered with a blanket, shortly after bulldozers started cleaning up the area in Sabra Lebanese refugee camp, on September 20, 1982. (AP Photo/Nash)

‘For God’s sake, find the story’

In my hotel in the Christian sector that night, I ran through the events of the day, particularly the conversation with the lieutenant, which seemed odder the more I thought about it. He had said he was forbidden to talk to reporters but he kept standing there, a couple of paces beyond normal conversational distance, his body half turned away, ostensibly scanning adjacent book shelves. He hardly looked at me but it seemed that he was waiting for more questions. He neither ushered me out or walked away himself. It seemed, upon reflection, that he was conflicted between his orders and his instincts.

I concluded that his body language was in fact quite clear – “there’s a story here that needs telling but I’m an officer and I have orders not to tell it. But keep pushing and you’ll find it. I want you to find it.” Maybe even “For God’s sake, find it.” For Israelis, the most troublesome aspect of the story, beyond the grisly killings, was whether there had been Israeli collusion.

Two female Phalangist soldiers, Lebanese Christian Militia, talking with two Israeli soldiers in a street in Jounieh, on August 3, 1982. (AP Photo/Nash)

I started back to West Beirut in the morning alone. This time an Israeli guard, looking at my license plate, stopped my car at the crossing point and said there were now orders to keep Israeli journalists out of West Beirut. Making a U-turn, I parked a block away. Five minutes later, sitting in the rear of a local taxi, I passed the soldier, my head averted.

The paratroop lieutenant greeted me warmly when I walked into battalion headquarters.

“You went into the camps yesterday, didn’t you?” He did not seem at all miffed that his order had been ignored. “You recorded me, didn’t you?” I had a tape recorder in my shirt pocket, I said, but used it only to tape my memory of the conversation after I left the building.

We were joined by several soldiers and officers whom I had seen there the day before. The conversation this time was relaxed and friendly but still inconclusive — all of us, it seemed, were waiting for someone to produce the thread that would lead the story forward. Finally, an officer said to me, “You’ll find the men you want at the intersection.”

“The mortar platoon,” said someone else.

The mortar platoon was no longer at the intersection but I was directed to a villa a block away. A few soldiers were sitting near a sandbagged machine gun emplacement at the entrance. They said I would have to speak first to their commander.

A Lebanese civilian bicyclist rides through the Palestinian Camp at Sabra, in West Beirut on September 18, 1982. (AP Photo)

A young man wearing a black turtleneck sweater and army pants was summoned, apparently from a nap. He himself had not been there during the massacre, he said. Others in the unit had been but he was not authorized to let me speak to them.

I said I had been directed to him from battalion headquarters, a statement which was sort of true; headquarters would surely have notified the unit by radio if it was official — but he did not need much convincing. He looked at me sharply for a moment, taking his own measure, it seemed, more than taking mine, and then said to one of the soldiers, “Take him to the men.”

In the courtyard, several soldiers were playing basketball. As we entered, a sergeant at a sandbagged machine gun position on a terrace rose and called down to my escort: “Who is he?” The soldier did not hear the question and the sergeant repeated it, this time forcefully. I introduced myself. He dwelt for a moment on the response before slowly sitting down.

My escort called over one of the basketball players and left us after telling him that their officer had said he could talk to me. The soldier was an open-faced youth from Yeruham, a provincial town in southern Israel. He told his story without any visible emotion. It was a tale that completely refuted what the army chief of staff, Gen. Rafael Eitan, had told the world the day before. Eitan said the Phalangists had entered the camps in darkness from the east without the knowledge of Israel, whose forces were deployed west of the camps.

Illustrative: Recruits in the Phalange Party militia go through training procedures at the Christina Militia Security Garrison in Beirut, on January 3, 1977. (AP Photo)

The soldier from Yeruham said his unit had indeed been posted at the intersection west of the camps. But the paratroopers knew the Phalangists were to enter the refugee camps in order to weed out PLO fighters who had been left behind by Arafat. Since crossing into Lebanon in June, Israeli troops had been doing all the fighting and dying without any help on the ground from their Lebanese Christian ally. The Israeli public and media — and now, the High Command — felt it was time for them to do their share.

The Phalangists passed through the unit’s lines uneventfully; the soldier from Yeruham said. He himself had spoken to some of them. All through that night, his unit fired flares over the camp at the Phalangists’ request. At dawn, the platoon fired a few mortar shells at coordinates provided by the Christian militia. The sounds of battle were few but the Israelis themselves had come under RPG and small arms fire at the beginning of the operation, the soldier said.

No one imagined that a massacre was going on, he said.

Victims’ bodies lie in the grounds of Sabra Refugee Camp, a Palestinian refugee camp near Beirut, September 24, 1982. (AP Photo/Bill Foley)

His story was amplified by others from the unit. One said a Phalangist had returned to the intersection during the night to request a stretcher. They had already killed 250 “terrorists,” the militiaman said. The Israelis thought this absurd.

“We know how much firepower we have to use before we kill a handful and here they’re claiming to have killed 250 and there had been almost no shooting.” The Israeli soldiers had not been thinking about knives and bulldozers. “We laughed among ourselves when he left until someone said ‘They must be counting civilians.’ Then we stopped laughing.”

Israeli armored personnel carriers roll down a lane near Beirut’s main museum, September 8, 1982. (Israel GPO/ Ya’acov Sa’ar)

The soldiers expressed disgust at the Phalangists in the wake of the massacre. “They see it in the way we look at them,” said the soldier from Yeruham.

The sergeant manning the gun emplacement on the veranda asked to talk to the journalist. He was a year or two older than the others and like most of the cadre was a kibbutznik. He was taut with anger. “It’s really infuriating to hear how they’re trying to shake off responsibility,” he said of Generals Eitan and Sharon.

The Phalangists’ entry into the camps had been carried out in full coordination with the IDF, he said. He had heard on the army’s radio net that they were coming. That this could lead to massacre had not crossed his mind, but the stay in Lebanon as occupiers was corrupting, he said. Every ethnic group had longstanding blood grievances against the others and it was a never ending roundalay. He himself was from Kabri, near the Lebanese border. If withdrawal from Lebanon meant renewal of attacks on his kibbutz, he said, it was a price he was willing to pay.

The sentry who had been at the front gate was coming off duty as I was leaving and he too spoke of his revulsion at the Phalangists and of the corruption of occupation. “We’ve got to get out,” he said.

Two Palestinian women weep as they sit on the curb in the Sabra Palestinian refugee camp in West Beirut, Lebanon, September 19, 1982, after they found bodies of relatives. (AP Photo/Bill Foley)

I returned to Israel oddly immunized against the depression afflicting the nation in the wake of the massacre. Although I had actually seen what the massacre had wrought (although not the numerous rape victims, shot dead, and small children murdered), I drew solace from the reaction of the Israeli soldiers. All soldiers felt sullied by what had been done to their avowed enemies by their supposed allies. Sullied, too, by Israel’s role, sending the Phalangists into the camps, lighting up the killing ground for them.

All soldiers felt sullied by what had been done to their avowed enemies by their supposed allies. Sullied, too, by Israel’s role, sending the Phalangists into the camps, lighting up the killing ground for them

None contended that Sharon or Eitan had known there would be a massacre. But they should have known. There had been massacres aplenty in the past. The soldiers believed that Israel bore moral responsibility because it had let the killers in through the front door and had not taken steps to prevent what happened. None sought to exonerate Israel by saying it was only a matter of “goyim killing goyim” — in this case Christians killing Muslims — and Jews being blamed for it. Amidst the shame and anger, the young soldiers displayed the moral awareness any nation could be proud of.

Ten days after the massacre, the Israeli government appointed a commission of inquiry consisting of the chief justice of the Supreme Court Yitzhak Kahan, Judge Aharon Barak and General Yona Efrat. After a four-month investigation, the commission concluded that entry into the camps “was taken without consideration of the danger which [the decision makers] were obligated to foresee as probable.”

Failure to protect the civilian population of Beirut, which had come under Israeli control, amounted to “non-fulfillment of a duty with which the defense minister was charged.” The commission recommended Sharon’s dismissal. After initially balking, he resigned the defense portfolio but remained in the cabinet.

Similar findings were made regarding Gen. Eitan and several intelligence officers. Noting that Eitan was due to retire in a few months, the commission declared that “it is sufficient to determine responsibility without making any further recommendation.”

‘If they were after the Palestinians, why did they bomb us?’

What was surprising for Israelis seeing Beirut for the first time in 1982 was that after years of bitter civil war and three months of aerial and artillery pounding by Israel it was still a beautiful and vital city.

Meandering alone through West Beirut just after the expulsion of the PLO, I spotted the street-level offices of a local, French-language newspaper. I introduced myself to the woman editor running the news room and asked if I could speak with her. I did not say what country I was from but she seemed to guess. She kept me sitting in a corner for 10 minutes as she dealt with copy editors and telephones while trying to determine, it seemed, how to deal with me if I turned out to be Israeli. She had an intelligent face which she finally turned to me. “Yes. How can I help you?” To soften the impact, I said that I wrote for The Toronto Globe and Mail (which I did occasionally). “Also the Jerusalem Post.”

“I will speak to the Toronto newspaper,” she said.

An Israeli tank near Beirut’s museum area, August 8, 1982. (Israel GPO/ Ya’acov Sa’ar)

They had just experienced three months of horror (the Israeli incursion), said the editor. “Now the nightmare is finished. We will rebuild a nation, not a country. If we don’t then it will be hopeless. I think we will.” She did not sound confident. She spoke angrily about the Palestinians and the humiliation they had caused. “Lebanon has paid an awful bill for them. We have had eight years of war. This is the last episode and perhaps the worst one. This was the worst war in the world.”

What did she think about Israel? Her answer surprised me “I admire Israel. They are a people who have suffered and made a country from nothing. But now I have bitterness. This bombing was exaggerated. If they were after the Palestinians, why did they bomb us?”

Opinion among Lebanese was evenly divided, she said, between those who said that only Israel could have gotten the PLO out of Lebanon and those who said Israel had gone beyond what was humanely permissible. “I myself am divided,” she said.

What she feared was that Israel would demand a peace treaty with Lebanon as its price for driving out the PLO. “We are surrounded by 100 million Arabs and are economically dependent on them. We can’t afford a break.” That prospect had been effectively nullified by Gemayel’s assassination.

As I left, she escorted me to the door and shook hands. “It’s alright,” she said with a smile. “You can say mazal tov.”

The writer is author of “The Yom Kippur War,” “The Boats of Cherbourg,” “The Battle for Jerusalem,” and “Jerusalem on Earth.”

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