Looking for humanity

As Israelis again address the massacre in Sabra and Shatilla, our writer recollects walking in camps.

October 2, 2008 14:55
Looking for humanity

Ariel Sharon lebanon 88 224. (photo credit: Defense Ministry)

It was the officer's body language that came back to me that evening. The way the young lieutenant stood had not registered as unusual when we spoke, nor had his words, but as the turmoil of post-massacre Beirut receded somewhat during the day, the encounter that took place that morning resurfaced and struck me as distinctly odd. I had driven back up to Beirut from Jerusalem the day after Rosh Hashana 1982, in the wake of reports of a massacre in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla. The radio account noted that IDF positions overlooked the camps where hundreds of Palestinian civilians, including women and children, had been murdered by Christian Phalangist militiamen. The reports gave the impression that Israeli soldiers had witnessed the massacre. Unspoken but tangible was the question of IDF complicity. West Beirut, where the refugee camps were located, had been occupied by the IDF only two weeks before, after Yasser Arafat accepted safe passage for him and his PLO fighters from the beleaguered city and departed by ship for Tunis. Before heading for the camps, I stopped in at the Israeli Foreign Ministry's liaison office in East Beirut. The briefing by the official in charge, a longtime acquaintance, consisted almost entirely of a despairing shrug. To cross into Muslim West Beirut from Christian-dominated East Beirut reporters had to be accompanied by an escort officer supplied by the IDF Spokesman's Office. Mine turned out to be a colleague from The Jerusalem Post, Ed Grossman, on reserve duty. We drove through the blasted fringes of West Beirut, stopping once for directions from a group of Israeli reservists. Asked what had happened, one of them said: "If I see [defense minister Ariel] Sharon, I'll shoot him." It was a response that assumed at least a passive Israeli role in the massacre. Reaching a scattering of buildings abutting a major intersection, we halted. According to our map, the refugee camps lay just beyond. IDF vehicles were parked outside a school which had been taken over by a paratroop force as a command post. Inside, several soldiers lay curled up in sleeping bags. In a wood-paneled, book-lined room that seemed to be the principal's office two lieutenants were lounging. One came out to us. He was about 21, tall, sandy-haired, with the fresh-faced look of a kibbutznik. He confirmed he was one, from Ashdot Ya'acov. No, he said, he had not been on the periphery of the refugee camps during the massacre. Yes, some soldiers from his battalion had been, but he did not know where they were now. Yes, he had heard some shooting from the camps from his own position, but not much. There were armed Palestinians in the camps and there had been shooting from there for days. The Israelis had been shooting too. No, it was too dangerous for us to cross the intersection and enter the camps. It was forbidden. In fact, it was forbidden for soldiers to talk to the press. All right, we could go as far as the intersection, about 100 meters distant, from where we would be able to see something of the camps. But no further. A KNOT OF IDF soldiers stood at the near side of the intersection. Soldiers from the Lebanese army, which had kept out of the fight between Israel and the PLO, were on the far side. The IDF soldiers let us pass when we said we only wanted to look at the camps from afar. The ground sloped steeply for about 500 meters to the entrance of Shatilla, where armored Lebanese army vehicles were posted. All we could see of the camps themselves were a jumble of rooftops. The streets where the massacre had been carried out could not be seen from the high ground. At a corner of the intersection was a handsome building which a plaque identified as the Kuwait embassy. A dark-skinned custodian chatted outside with a Lebanese army sergeant. They spoke with us about the massacre in a detached manner, as if passing on gossip about unruly neighbors down the street. The sergeant said the Phalangists had used knives on their victims so that the Israelis would not hear shooting. This was the first suggestion we had from a Lebanese source that the Israelis had not been complicit in the massacre. I asked the custodian if we could climb to the embassy roof to get a better view. The sergeant had a better idea. Gesturing conspiratorially down the hill with his head, he asked "Why don't you go into the camps?" The IDF soldiers at the intersection were no longer taking any interest in us and the Lebanese soldiers were no longer in view. I looked at Ed. He was wearing civilian clothing instead of his uniform for this foray into West Beirut. He had no objection to setting aside his role as my minder and we started down. Immediately upon entering the camp we saw dozens of bodies covered with blankets lying in neat rows. The burial of those killed three days before was only now getting under way. Limbs of dead men and women projected from the ruins of demolished buildings. Young Palestinians with shovels dug pits which they sprinkled with lime under the supervision of Red Cross workers, who wore white masks against the stench. Hundreds of Palestinians milled about as the Red Cross officials marked off more areas for graves. The shock prevailing in the camp rendered us invisible, but we did not linger long. It was in my hotel room that night that I thought again of the conversation with the lieutenant. I remembered the way he stood half turned away from me much of the time, seemingly scanning the books on the shelves. He had stood a couple of steps further back than normal conversational distance. I couldn't decide what this body language implied. His verbal attitude was also unusual, now that I thought about it. He was saying that it was forbidden for soldiers to talk to the press, yet he did not tell me to leave, nor did he retreat to the other room. As long as I asked questions he remained and answered them. In fact, he seemed to be waiting for the questions. Then it came to me. What he was saying was, "There's a story here for you. I can't lead you to it because of my orders, which is why I am keeping my distance. But keep pushing and you'll find it. I want you to find it. That's why I don't ask you to leave." I even imagined him saying, "For God's sake, find it." I DECIDED to return to the intersection the next morning. I went alone this time but as my car approached the West Beirut crossing an IDF soldier peered at the yellow license plate and flagged me down. "I'm sorry, but we have orders not to let Israeli journalists in." I made a U-turn and parked around the corner. Five minutes later, sitting in the rear of a local taxi, I passed the soldier, my head averted. The lieutenant greeted me when I entered the school as if he had been expecting me. He quickly demonstrated that he was not as innocent as he looked. "You recorded me yesterday, didn't you?" I had indeed had a tape recorder inside my shirt pocket but used it only as I walked away from the school to record my recollection of the conversation. He or his men had evidently seen me. "You went into the camps, didn't you?" He didn't seem upset that I had ignored his order. The other lieutenant and some soldiers I had spoken with the day before joined us as we stood in a corridor. The wariness of the previous day's conversation had given way to a friendly chat but all of us seemed to be waiting for the penny to drop. Finally, someone - I no longer recall who - said: "You'll find the men you want at the intersection." I had not said I was looking for anyone. Someone else said: "The mortar platoon." We shook hands and wished each other well. A solitary sentry sat in a chair at the intersection, the chair casually tilted back. He seemed amused at the appearance of a journalist at this particular Middle East crossroad, bereft of any movement. The mortar platoon had just left, he said. It was bivouacked in one of the buildings down the street, an abandoned villa. He pointed the way. A young sentry sat behind a machine gun emplacement at the side entrance to the villa compound. He acknowledged that he was with the mortar platoon. I asked to speak to an officer and a soldier nearby entered the building. A young man wearing a black turtleneck sweater over army trousers and no sign of rank emerged. He had not been there during the massacre, he said, and he had no authority to permit me to speak to the troops. I said I had been directed to the unit by battalion headquarters, which was, in a manner of speaking, true. It was the sort of statement easy to ignore - "Well, they haven't notified me"- but the officer chose not to be difficult. After a sharp glance in which he seemed to be gauging his own attitude more than measuring me, he said to one of the soldiers, "Take him to the men." We passed beneath a terrace on which a sergeant sat in a sandbagged position. "Who is he?" he called down. My escort didn't hear him and the sergeant rose. "Who is he?" he repeated in a firm voice. I introduced myself. The sergeant thought about it a moment, then nodded and sat back down. FOUR SOLDIERS were playing basketball in the courtyard. My escort called one of them over and left us. The soldier was from Yeroham. He told his story simply and without any visible emotion beyond a certain puzzlement. What he said totally refuted what the chief of General Staff, Lt.-Gen. Rafael Eitan, had told the nation and the world two nights before. Eitan said the Phalangists had entered the camps in the darkness from the east without the knowledge of IDF troops who were posted on the western approaches. The soldier from the mortar platoon said the Phalangists had approached from the west and openly passed through the Israeli lines at dusk. His platoon was posted at the intersection and he had talked to the Christian militiamen. The platoon fired flares over the camps all night in support of the Phalangists and at first light had fired several rounds of high explosives at coordinates given them, presumably at pockets of resistance. The IDF soldiers believed a battle was going on. They themselves had come under fire from the camps earlier. No one imagined a massacre, the soldier said. His story was amplified by other platoon members who joined us. One told of a Phalangist coming up from the refugee camp to the intersection during the night to request a stretcher. Very little shooting had been heard but the militiaman said they had already killed 250 terrorists. The Israelis thought it 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 hardly been shooting. We laughed among ourselves when he left. Someone said 'They must be counting civilians.' We stopped laughing." The soldiers expressed disgust at the massacre - "The Phalangists see it in the way we look at them," said one. The soldiers were aware that they had let murderers through their lines and provided light for their deeds, but it had been done unknowingly. Some looked uneasy but none felt connected enough to the event to feel the need to be defensive. The sergeant on the veranda called down to one of his men. "He wants to see you," the soldier said to me. Like the rest of the Nahal unit's cadre, the sergeant was a kibbutznik, a year or two older than the privates. He was not puzzled about what had happened in the camps. He was taut with anger and he wanted to speak for publication. "It's really infuriating to hear how they're trying to shake off responsibility," he said of Lt.-Gen. Eitan and defense minister Sharon. The Phalangist entry into the camps had been carried out in coordination with the IDF, said the sergeant. He himself had known from the army's radio net that they would be coming. The sergeant did not suggest that the army command expected that the entry of the Christians to the camps would lead to massacre. But it was corrupting and debilitating for the IDF to remain in Lebanon as conquerors, he said. If a pullout meant that his kibbutz, Kabri, near the Lebanese border, would be subject to terrorist attacks, it was a price he was willing to pay, he said. The idea of sending Phalangists into the camps to weed out armed Palestinians who remained behind after Arafat's departure had seemed unexceptional beforehand. The Christians, who had the most to gain from the Israeli incursion, had been cheering the Israelis on for months, leaving the IDF to take the casualties without participating in the fighting themselves. Now, with the war almost over, it seemed appropriate to have the militiamen assume some of the burden. As locals, they were well suited for discerning militants among the general population in the camps. Two days before their entry, however, the Phalange leader, president-elect Bashir Gemayel, had been assassinated and the militiamen were not interested in a policing operation. They wanted vengeance. A postwar Israeli inquiry commission would force Sharon's ouster as defense minister for having failed to anticipate this Phalange reaction and "for not ordering appropriate measures for preventing or reducing the chances of a massacre as a condition for the Phalangists' entry into the camps." It absolved him, however, of complicity in the killings. As I descended from the veranda, the sentry from the side gate, coming off duty, asked if he could talk to me. He too expressed revulsion at the Phalangists and spoke of the corruption of occupation. "We've got to get out of Lebanon," he said. BACK AT THE intersection, I flagged down two IDF jeeps filled with soldiers and asked for a lift to the nearest road artery where I could find a taxi. The driver of the first jeep said there was no room, but an officer in the second jeep called out to me to find a place among the tools piled in the back of his vehicle rather than wander the back streets of West Beirut. I recognized him as Maj.-Gen. Avraham Tamir, head of the army's planning division and one of the top strategic advisers to the government. He declined to talk about the implications of the massacre - "I'm just here as a sightseer" - but it must have been evident to him that the scenario for a new order in Lebanon that he had a hand in drawing up lay buried behind him in the bloody rubble of Sabra and Shatilla. That evening, I drove back across the Israeli border. The neatly ordered fields south of Rosh Hanikra and the first traffic light in Nahariya proclaimed another world. In Lebanon, cars stopped only at military roadblocks. Israel was still stunned by by the massacre and the implications of Israeli involvement. But I realized as I waited for the traffic light to change that I no longer shared that depression. The soldiers I had spoken to had not been indifferent to what happened. They did not attempt to dismiss the massacre as "Arabs killing Arabs." They did not express glee at the calamity that had befallen their Palestinian enemy. They had not turned away with a callous wisecrack or even a nervous laugh. They were appalled. The younger soldiers focused their anger on the Phalangists; the more politically sophisticated focused on the Israeli decision-makers. All wanted the story revealed, not covered up. In the midst of war and slaughter, they had retained their humanity. The folly of the Israeli leadership in letting the Phalangists into the camps without ensuring restraint had yet to be explained, but the reaction of the Israeli troops at the scene reflected a decency and moral courage any nation could envy. n The writer is author of The Yom Kippur War. [email protected]

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