Recently declassified documents discovered by doctoral candidate Seth Anziska at the Israel State Archives reveal key conversations between US and Israeli officials at the time of the 1982 IDF occupation of West Beirut, according to documents published by the The New York Times on Wednesday.
Thirty years later, Anziska has discovered transcripts that reveal American diplomats felt they were misled by Israel about events in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war, and convinced them to accept the claim that thousands of terrorists were in the camps.
The massacres by Lebanese Christian Phalangist militias on September 16,
1982 at Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla in Beirut led
to the slaughter of between 762 and 3,500 people. Nearly all of the dead
were women, children and elderly men.
After the assassination of then-president Bashir Gemayal, a Maronite, Israel reacted by quickly occupying West Beirut — ostensibly to prevent militia attacks against the Palestinian civilians. Israel had initially hoped that Gemayal would turn Lebanon into a Christian-ruled ally and neighbor, but with the growing militant presence of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, Israel sought to intervene.
The documents convey heated discussions and repeated miscommunication between Israeli and US officials.
One such transcript between then-US Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger and Israeli Moshe Arens, ambassador to the US at the time of the massacres, shows a heated discussion over Israeli policy in Beirut.
Eagleburger stated: "We got the impression your action would be of limited nature. Now we find you are across West Beirut. You know we objected to you going in."
Eagleburger continued, “Israel’s credibility has been severely damaged” and “we appear to some to be the victim of deliberate deception by Israel.”
Israel invaded it's northern neighbor in June in order to weed out the Palestinian Liberation Organization. The withdrawal of the PLO was negotiated by then president Ronald Reagan, who agreed to deploy Marine forces to supervise their departure. By early September, around 15,000 Palestinian fighters, including PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, had left Beirut.
Contrary to American objections, then-defense minister Ariel Sharon said the occupation of West Beirut was justified because there were “2,000 to 3,000 terrorists who remained there.”
In the same meeting, US Middle East envoy Morris Draper and Sharon debated the issue, with Draper stating: "We want you to stay out. We spent three months trying to get as many of the terrorists out as possible - safely. That was the arrangement. So it wouldn't be necessary for you to come in."
Mr. Draper disputed Sharon's claim about the number of terrorists, having coordinated the August evacuation, he knew the actual number of militias in the camp.
On the eve of the massacre, the Israeli cabinet met and was informed that Phalange fighters were entering the Palestinian camps. The newly declassified documents chronicle a conversation between the US secretary of state, George P. Shultz, and Moshe Arens after US officials were informed of the massacre.
Shultz stated: "When you take military control over a city, you're responsible for what happens. I didn't say you wanted this. But what happened rests in your hands."
He continued: "Against everybody's advise, you've taken military control of the city. Now we have a massacre. So we urge you as soon as possible to hand over control to the Lebanese, and to leave West Beirut as soon as possible."
Anziska concludes from the documents that the United States was in a position to exert strong diplomatic pressure on Israel that could have ended the atrocities, yet failed to do so.
The declassified documents also reveal steadfastness and determination on the Israeli side to act unilaterally, in spite of US verbal protests to the contrary.
Sharon stated to Draper in one meeting: "When it comes to our security, we have never asked [permission]. We will never ask. When it comes to our existence and security, it is our responsibility and we will never give it to anybody to decide for us."