• U.S.

Crisis of Conscience

20 minute read
William E. Smith

“My God, I was awake all night crying and despairing. What will become of us? What is happening to us?” That plaintive question could easily have come from a Palestinian woman grieving for her lost family following the massacre of Arab men, women and children in the Palestinian refugee camps south of Beirut. In fact, the anguished speaker was an Israeli woman in Jerusalem who the night before had watched the television pictures of the aftermath of the killings by the Israeli-backed Lebanese Christian militiamen. In Lebanon, even as Amin Gemayel was inaugurated as the new President in the place of his slain brother Bashir, the counting of the corpses in the camps continued. In Israel, the slayings and the Israeli government’s complicity in those dreadful events produced a reaction of shock and soul searching unparalleled in the nation’s 34-year history. Suddenly many Israelis were wondering if their country had lost the sense of righteousness that David Ben-Gurion, the first Prime Minister of the nation, had said must distinguish its actions and its role in the world.

Israel’s newspapers reflected the mood. For the Jerusalem Post, this year’s Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) would be remembered as “the Rosh Hashanah of shame,” for “we have all been made accomplices to the horrible massacre in West Beirut.” The conservative Ma’ariv observed: “By our presence [in West Beirut] we have become indirectly responsible for the awful pogrom committed there.” As the left-wing Al Hamishmar saw it, “This slaughter has made the war in Lebanon the greatest disaster to befall the Jewish people since the Holocaust.”

The war, which brought images of bombings and suffering to television audiences everywhere, had stunningly served to portray Israel as the aggressor in its dealings with its Arab neighbors. The massacre involved more than 300 known deaths, and by the weekend it was believed the final total could reach the 700-to-800 range. The number was not large when viewed in the context of Lebanon’s savage seven-year civil war, but the killings may well have marked a watershed in the history of Israel and the surrounding region. Most immediately, the massacre made negotiations for the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Lebanon more difficult, and the Arab nations, which link Israel with the U.S., may now be far less likely to respond to the broad peace initiative launched by President Reagan on Sept. 1. The massacre aroused sympathy and support for the cause of the Palestine Liberation Organization that the P.L.O., which itself attained power through terrorism, could not have hoped to achieve otherwise. American Jewish leaders lamented Israel’s role, however indirect, in the killings. Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater and North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms had the same sardonic, if inaccurate, comment on the situation: “Begin makes Arafat look like a Boy Scout.”

But the man who was most vehemently attacked over the question of Israel’s culpability for the massacre was not the Prime Minister, although he received his share of censure, but Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, 54, who had directed his country’s forces as they cooperated in the attack on the refugee camps. A former combat general, the tough and aggressive Sharon had long wanted to sweep every vestige of the P.L.O. out of Lebanon. He was the driving force in Menachem Begin’s Cabinet behind the invasion of Lebanon, often acting on his own without the approval of his colleagues. Last week, angrily defending his record, the massive figure of Sharon was at the very center of the controversy that could lead to the fall of the government he served.

One immediate consequence of Sharon’s Lebanon adventure was a perceptible change in U.S.-Israeli relations (see following story). In Washington, Ronald Reagan, by instinct a warm supporter of Israel, reflected that in the public perception, Israel had been transformed from the “David” to the “Goliath” of the Middle East. Reagan was already angry that the Israelis had moved into West Beirut two weeks ago, thereby breaking a promise they had made to the U.S., and he was horrified that, having occupied the Muslim sector of the Lebanese capital, the Israelis had not only failed to protect the lives of the Palestinian civilians within their jurisdiction but were deeply implicated in the events that led to the mass murders. Two days after the scope of what had happened was fully understood, Reagan took to national television to restate his determination to get the Israelis out of Lebanon, and announced he was sending the U.S. Marines back to Beirut, along with French and Italian troop contingents, to try for the second time in five weeks to maintain the peace there.

The anti-Israeli reaction was worldwide. France became the first government to condemn Israel for its role in the massacre. In Italy, dock workers refused to load Israeli vessels, and airport workers announced a boycott of all flights between Israel and Italy, forcing passengers to clamber down from the planes and carry their own baggage to the terminal. In Britain, Foreign Secretary Francis Pym said that when Israel allowed the Christian militia to go into the camps, “you would expect horrifying results. So at best it was incompetent. But I suspect it was worse than that.”

As the storm rose, Begin did not back off an inch. Scarcely two hours after the Rosh Hashanah observances ended Sunday evening, he called a Cabinet meeting that issued a statement briefly expressing “grief and regret” concerning the killings, but mainly trying to refute accusations of Israeli guilt. The statement declared that Israel was the victim of a “blood libel” and that “malicious and evil” allegations were being made against the nation. The Israeli government took out a full-page ad in several U.S. papers, including the New York Times and the Washington Post, to stress Israel’s innocence. In an effort to absolve the Israeli forces of guilt, the ad claimed that they had prevented a “much greater loss of life” from taking place. As Jews around the world called for a commission of inquiry that would probe the massacre and attempt to fix the blame for what happened, Begin refused to budge. To conduct an inquiry, he argued, would be tantamount to a confession of guilt.

One reason for Begin’s truculent behavior may have been a sense that events were careening out of his control. On Monday, Israel’s President Yitzhak Navon, whose office is essentially nonpolitical, took the unusual step of summoning Begin to his office for a one-hour accounting of Israel’s role in the massacre. Afterward, Navon went on television to call for a “credible and independent inquiry.”

The pressures mounted by the hour. The Egyptian government recalled its Ambassador to Israel, Sa’ad Mortada. Rioting by Palestinians broke out in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Leaders of Israel’s 650,000-member Arab community declared a one-day strike. More than 100 top Israeli generals met privately and protested Sharon’s actions. Even Sharon passed the word that he had asked the Prime Minister for some kind of probe.

Backing party loyalty against the national interest, the Knesset, dominated by Begin’s Likud coalition, twice supported the Prime Minister last week: it refused to condemn the Israeli invasion of West Beirut, and it refused to call for a formal commission of inquiry. Only after days of rising protest did Begin agree to ask Supreme Court Chief Justice Yitzhak Kahan to conduct an investigation. If he undertakes the assignment, Kahan will probably not have the power to subpoena witnesses, which will surely hamper his probe. By appointing Kahan to the task, Begin quieted some of his foes and bought himself a little time. But his government was in deep trouble, and his rhetoric last week suggested that he knew it.

When the Knesset met Wednesday in special session, onstage, front and center, was Ariel Sharon, who had uttered not a word in public since the news of the massacre broke in Israel four days earlier. Head bowed, he lumbered slowly into the dining room and quietly looked over his speech. Later, as Begin entered the Knesset chamber, he carefully averted his eyes from his Defense Minister.

No one approached Sharon, no one spoke to him. Sharon sat impassively as Opposition Leader Shimon Peres bitterly attacked the government (see box), addressing many of his remarks directly to Begin and Sharon.

The Defense Minister’s rotund body swayed as he approached the podium to answer. “It is a dark day for all of us,” he said. A Communist Party member shouted, “Who sent the murderers? Who sent the murderers?” In a 90-minute speech, during which he was frequently interrupted by hecklers, Sharon insisted that leaders of the government did not imagine “in our blackest dreams that hundreds of innocents would be massacred in Beirut.” But he admitted that the Israeli army had helped the Christian forces to plan the operation and had allowed them to enter the refugee camps in order to clean out any remaining Palestinian guerrilla resistance there. The Christian forces were given permission to enter, said Sharon, after pledging “not to harm civilians, especially old people, women and children,” a pledge no Middle East authority would have accepted.

Although the Knesset supported the government by refusing to call for an investigation, the 48-to-42 vote did not accurately reflect the sense of anguish that prevailed in the country. Protest meetings were held all week, starting with a demonstration at the Prime Minister’s residence in Jerusalem and ending with a mass rally attended by 350,000 people in Tel Aviv. Energy Minister Yitzhak Berman resigned because of Begin’s failure to appoint a full-scale commission of inquiry. So did Menachem Milson, the civil administrator of the West Bank who had been appointed by Sharon. And so did Yoav Gelber, a historian who had been serving on a commission to investigate the 1933 murder of a Zionist leader in Palestine. Said Gelber: “I feel it is impossible to investigate a murder that happened 49 years ago at a time when an investigation into the horrors of the present in Beirut is being refused.”

The Jerusalem Post called for Begin’s resignation, likening him to Richard Nixon at the height of the Watergate crisis: “He refuses to recognize the reality around him. He denounces his critics for giving comfort to Israel’s enemies and being driven solely by partisan political motives. Meanwhile, the outrage in the country multiplies, the divisiveness deepens, the moral authority of the government and its capacity to govern deteriorate.”

All Israel, and indeed the world, wanted to know the chain of events that had led to the massacre and to what degree the Begin government was culpable. In the welter of contradictory reports, certain facts were incontrovertible. Top Israeli officers planned many months ago to enlist the Lebanese Forces, made up of the combined Christian militias then headed by Bashir Gemayel, to enter the Palestinian refugee camps once an Israeli encirclement of West Beirut had been completed. This plan was prepared at a time when the camps were still used as bases by the Palestine Liberation Organization. On several occasions, Gemayel told Israeli officials he would like to raze the camps and flatten them into tennis courts. Gemayel’s offer of support fitted in well with Israeli thinking. The Israelis feared there might be bloody house-to-house fighting in West Beirut, ending in the P.L.O. strongholds in the camps. Using the Christian militias to enter the camps would serve a double purpose: it would minimize Israeli casualties, and it would keep Israeli hands unsoiled.

By Sharon’s own admission, the Israelis planned two weeks ago to have the Lebanese Forces enter the camps. The decision was made despite the Forces’ deep hatred of the P.L.O. and its supporters, and despite the fact that Gemayel, by then President-elect, had just been murdered. Israeli critics rightly argue that for Sharon to claim that no one imagined what would happen when the Phalangists entered the camps was an affront to common sense and to the consistently high quality of Israeli military intelligence. But in their planning, the Israelis failed to take into account the changes in Lebanon in the past month. More than 11,000 P.L.O. fighters had been evacuated from Lebanon, leaving only a remnant in West Beirut. On Sept. 17, the Israeli high command estimated that 2,000 P.L.O. fighters were still holding out in West Beirut. That claim was used to justify in part the Israelis’ takeover of West Beirut. But the 2,000 fighters never materialized.

TIME Correspondent Roberto Suro visited the camps after the Israeli siege of West Beirut had been lifted, and found no signs of military activity. Thousands of Palestinians who had taken refuge elsewhere during the siege had moved back, and the marketplace near the Shatila mosque was jammed and thriving. There thus appeared to be no need for the Israelis to have sent a strong armed force into the camps to search them thoroughly, much less a Christian force that might want to wreak vengeance on Palestinian civilians.

In the end, the Israelis fell victim to their obsession with the supposed presence of the P.L.O. in West Beirut. Said a senior Western diplomat: “The Israelis terrorized themselves by thinking the camps were a great fortress manned by hundreds of determined fighters.” But the population was hardly warlike. As a Lebanese resident who lost three relatives in the ensuing massacre told Suro, “We believed that if we did not shoot at the Israelis, they would not shoot at us.”

Accounts still vary widely about the identity of the Christian fighters who committed the murders. Gemayel had initially planned to use his troops in West Beirut; earlier this year, he sent 500 of them to Israel for special training. But diplomatic sources in Lebanon maintain that the political leadership of the Phalangists did not order the assault, and that Amin Gemayel, who has since become President of Lebanon, was unaware of the plans for the attacks on the camps. Yet certainly Lebanese Forces soldiers were involved. In addition, there were reports that witnesses had seen some soldiers of Major Sa’ad Haddad’s Free Lebanon militia, which is based in southern Lebanon, closely aligned with the Israelis and armed by them. Major Haddad denied any involvement.

The Christian militia forces that were known to have gone into the camps, according to both Israeli and Lebanese sources, had been trained by the Israelis. One of the units thought to have been involved was the “Damur Battalion,” made up of several hundred Phalangist militiamen as well as supporters of former President Camille Chamoun.

The town of Damur, twelve miles south of Beirut, symbolizes the hatred between Christians and Palestinians that flared during the civil war. The town, once a Chamounist stronghold, had been taken over by Palestinians who, in 1976, had survived a 52-day siege and subsequent massacre by Christian militias at the Tel Zaatar refugee camp in Beirut. The Christians of Damur had been rudely displaced to make way for the Palestinian refugees, and resented it deeply. During the Israeli invasion, the Palestinians were driven from Damur, and the town was returned to Christian control. The Damur Battalion, whose ranks include members of the displaced families, was anxious to take revenge against the Palestinians, and is believed to have been first to enter the camps.

The crucial Christian-Israeli planning session, reports TIME Correspondent David Halevy, took place at noon Thursday, Sept. 16, at the Israeli command post in Beirut Port. Present was Israeli Major General Amir Drori, head of the Northern Command, and at least three other top Israeli officers. Also present was Fady Frem, the Lebanese Forces Chief of Staff. Frem was accompanied by Elias Hobeika, the Forces’ intelligence chief, who had attended the Staff and Command College in Israel. He was to be the main leader of the groups that went into the camps.

A man who always carries a pistol, a knife and a hand grenade on his belt, Hobeika was the most feared Phalangist in Lebanon. He had taken part in the Tel Zaatar massacre and in attacks on the rivals of Bashir Gemayel. The Israelis knew Hobeika and his followers as ruthless, brutal security men, and knew they did not constitute a disciplined military force.

The Israelis also knew that Hobeika wanted to embarrass Amin Gemayel, whom he hated, and that he was involved in a bitter power struggle within the Lebanese Forces. As the man charged with protecting Bashir Gemayel, Hobeika was blamed for the leader’s death and thus was anxious to take out his frustrations on someone. The Palestinians, who had fought Gemayel in the past, would turn out to be the victims.

At the meeting with the Israelis on Sept. 16, Fady Frem said Hobeika would take his men into the Shatila camp, and both men said there would be a kasach (in Arabic, a chopping or slicing operation). General Drori ignored the evident implications of this remark and the go-ahead was given. Later Drori telephoned Sharon in Tel Aviv: “Our friends are moving into the camps. I coordinated their entrance with their top men.” Replied Sharon: “Congratulations . . . The friends’ operation is authorized.” The Israeli Cabinet and Begin, who were getting only the information that Sharon wanted to pass on, then approved the move.

At about 5 p.m. Thursday, Hobeika’s force assembled at the Beirut International Aiport and moved into the Shatila camp soon afterward. Israeli artillery assisted them with flares and later with tank and mortar fire. There was scattered resistance, and Hobeika’s men asked for more flares, more tank fire and later for first-aid assistance in evacuating their own casualties. At dawn Friday, Hobeika received Israeli permission to bring two additional battalions into the camps. As it turned out, only one battalion was used. Throughout the day and all that night, the murderous operation continued. On Friday, Israeli Chief of Staff Lieut. General Rafael Eitan arrived and was told by his officers that whatever was going on inside the camps was not a military action but a kasach.

Israeli newspapers reported last week that the Israeli military knew as early as 11 p.m. Thursday that a massacre was taking place and did nothing to stop it. Hirsh Goodman, the defense correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, wrote that the Phalange commander in the Shatila camp informed the I.D.F. commander in Beirut at that hour that “until now 300 civilians and terrorists have been killed.”

There is other evidence as well showing the Israelis knew of the terror in the camps. On Thursday evening, women ran out of the camp crying hysterically. They told Israeli soldiers that their children were being murdered. An Israeli soldier told Ha’aretz that when an Israeli officer was informed, he said, “It’s all right. Don’t worry.”

The Israelis had set up observation posts atop several seven-story buildings at the Kuwaiti-embassy traffic circle, not far from the Shatila camp. Last week TIME’S Suro visited the roof of one of these buildings where Israeli troops had been seen. He found discarded food cans, Israeli newspapers and an unobstructed and panoramic view of the area in the Shatila camp where most of the killings had taken place.

Despite all evidence to the contrary, Sharon told the Knesset that it was not until Friday morning that senior Israeli officers first became suspicious about what was happening in the camps. The Defense Minister said that Major General Drori ordered an immediate stop to the action. Sharon thus claimed that he had not learned of possible trouble until the morning after the Thursday-night report cited by the Jerusalem Post’s Goodman. But, as Sharon said, the militias did not leave the camps until Saturday morning; during the interim, the killings were continuing. On Friday afternoon, a group of at least 400 people seeking refuge in downtown West Beirut and carrying a white flag approached Israeli soldiers. The civilians said a massacre was taking place; they were turned back to the camps at gunpoint.

The revelation of the massacre left the Middle East once again in turmoil. The U.S. Marines were heading back to Lebanon, along with the French and Italian troop contingents, on another peacekeeping assignment. Under international pressure, the Israeli forces were slowly leaving West Beirut. Next must come intensive negotiations to get P.L.O., Syrian and Israeli forces out of Lebanon entirely. The stakes are high. As a ranking British official observed acidly last week, “The bitterness of the Arab moderates as well as hard-liners is so great that unless the U.S. can pressure the Israelis into a complete withdrawal from Lebanon within a few weeks, the Reagan peace proposals will surely die. Which was perhaps the Israeli intention all along.”

Arab anger had been slow to rise, but at week’s end Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd vowed that the massacre in the refugee camps would somehow be avenged. Said he: “We, as Muslims, are for peace, but when honor is undermined there must be retaliation. I cannot say when, but there will be.”

In Beirut, traffic was moving freely for the first time in six years, no longer hindered by checkpoints between East and West. Behind the scenes, the new government was preoccupied with its investigation of the murder of Bashir Gemayel, who was killed in an explosion scarcely a week before he would have become Lebanon’s new President. TIME has learned that the Phalange has arrested 800 of its own members in connection with the assassination. Wanted specifically for interrogation was Samir Geagea, a Phalangist who had been at odds with the Gemayels ever since Bashir defeated him for leadership of the Phalange militia in 1976.

Somewhat late, the Lebanese finally got around to organizing their own investigation of the refugee camp murders. But the delay was not lost on the Israelis. Concerned as they were about the implications of the massacre, some Israelis noted that the world should condemn the bloodthirsty Lebanese Christians and the Palestinians, into whose savage feuds the Israelis had intruded.

Most Israelis were more preoccupied, however, with the effect of the Beirut massacre on themselves and their country. They were impatient for the facts; they wanted culpability assigned. Former Foreign Minister Abba Eban, describing the invasion of Beirut as “the most deadly failure in Israel’s modern history,” joined the demand for a full accounting. “The call for objective inquiry is irresistible,” he wrote, “and it is going to prevail.”

How the question of culpability is decided will do more than influence the fate of the Begin government, or the career of Ariel Sharon, around whom the storm swirled last week. The decision will also affect how Israel views itself, its code of morality and its essential character as a nation—whether or not it is still driven by the spirit of righteousness that Prime Minister Ben-Gurion spoke of years ago. —By William E. Smith. Reported by Robert Slater/Jerusalem and William Stewart/Beirut

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