This Week In History: Masses protest Sabra, Shatila

The Philangist massacre in Israeli-controlled Palestinian refugee camps brought 400,000 protesters to the streets.

Sabra, Shatila (R370) (photo credit:  REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir)
Sabra, Shatila (R370)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir)
On September 25, 1982 the left-wing Peace Now movement drew masses of demonstrators to the streets of Tel Aviv, in the wake of the massacre in the Israeli-controlled Palestinian refugee camps Sabra and Shatila in Beirut at the hands of the Lebanese Christian Philangist militia a week earlier. The massacre on September 16, resulted in the slaughter of between 762 and 3,500 people. Many of the dead were women, children and elderly men.
After the previous assassination of then-president Bashir Gemaya, who Israel had hoped would turn Lebanon into a Christian-ruled ally and neighbor, Israel quickly occupied West Beirut in the last phase of the First Lebanon War. The move was in order to keep the peace, then-prime minister Menachem Begin said, "otherwise there could be pogroms."
The Christian forces and the state of Israel enjoyed close relations, which began shortly after the start of the civil war, and grew stronger both politically and militarily with time. Israel promised the Christian forces that they would come to their aid if their existence was endangered, and supplied them with arms, uniforms and training. Numerous meetings were held between the Philangists and Israelis.
At the time of the massacre, Israel was fully in control of West Beirut. Therefore, when news of the horrifying three-day massacre reached the Israeli public, they wanted answers. They knew that Israel had not carried out the massacre themselves, however as the occupier, the government bore responsibility for the course of events; the people demanded an investigation into just how large that degree of responsibility was.
Peace Now was the driving force behind the frenzy of public outrage that gathered momentum by September 25. The then-four-year-old organization had been protesting all week, holding meetings at the movement's headquarters in Jerusalem, and demonstrating outside the Prime Minister's Residence. "It was still Rosh Hashana, and I remember my husband joined me after synagogue," Peace Now co-founder Professor Galia Golan recalled in a telephone conversation with The Jerusalem Post. The group met with opposition leaders of the Labor-Mapam Alignment, and they discussed the idea of organizing a demonstration in Tel Aviv. A flurry of newspaper advertisements followed over the next few days, as various groups from a range of political leanings as well as reservists and soldiers, rallied behind the event. The turnout that day at Kikar Malchei Israel was, in Golan's words, "extraordinary."
"We had been demonstrating ever since 1978. If police had called previous demonstrations 100,000, this was indeed four times that," she asserted, in reference to challengers of the widely quoted number of 400,000, who claim it to be an exaggeration. The rally later became known as "the march of 400,000," a staggering number bearing in mind that this constituted 10% of the population at the time, and was utterly unprecedented. Indeed, with the exception of last summer's social justice protests, there hasn't been anything on that scale since, Golan noted. 
The Left had been demonstrating all summer long against the Lebanon War, but this protest drew people from all ends of the political spectrum, including the Likud and the National Religious Party. This was because its goal was one very specific demand: the creation of a government commission to investigate Israel's role in the massacre. "From that point of view it was great that Peace Now existed; because we had the capability to bring various groups together. It was clearly a moral issue, and people responded," Golan said.
Speaking at the rally, then-leader of the opposition Labor party, Shimon Peres, told the crowd, ''There is another Israel, living on its conscience not only on its sword, a country of constructiveness and human dignity.''
The historical demonstration succeeded in bringing about the establishment of the Kahan Commission on 28 September of that year, whose findings were released to the public four months later on 8 February, 1983. The commission concluded that a Phalangist unit carried out and was directly responsible for the Sabra and Shatila massacre, and that no Israeli was directly responsible for the events. However, the Commission asserted that Israel had indirect responsibility for the massacre since the IDF held the area.  The IDF allowed the Philangists access into the camps, and also provided them with some illumination in the camps at night.
Begin was found responsible "for not exercising greater involvement and awareness in the matter of introducing the Phalangists into the camps." On his part, Sharon was found responsible "for ignoring the danger of bloodshed and revenge when he approved the entry of the Phalangists into the camps as well as not taking appropriate measures to prevent bloodshed." The report further stated that "Mr. [Foreign Minister Yitzhak] Shamir erred by not taking action after being alerted by Communications [Mordechai] Minister Zippori" and "Chief of Staff Eitan [Rafael] did not give the appropriate orders to prevent the massacre."
The commission recommended that the defense minister resign, that the director of Military Intelligence not continue in his post and other senior officers be removed.
Sharon initially refused to resign and Begin to fire him, however, another peace rally that ended tragically, influenced his subsequent actions. On the same day as the report was released, Peace Now held a demonstration calling on the government to implement the commission's recommendations.  Right-wing activist Yona Avrushmi threw a hand grenade into the crowd, killing Peace Now activist Emil Grunzweig, and wounding many others. The death of Grunzweig caused public outrage, and by outcome of public pressure, Sharon agreed to give up his post as defense minister. He remained in the government, however, as a minister without portfolio.
Peace Now wasn't entirely satisfied with the results of the commission, particularly since it did not demand that Sharon should leave the government completely. "We didn’t feel it was thorough enough, clear enough," particularly in terms of "pointing a finger at the political echelon, specifically Sharon," Golan said. However, the organization was pleased that the government conceded to the demands of the people, particularly since at the time, commissions weren't created as frequently as they are today. 
Just last week, on the 30th anniversary of the Sabra and Shatila massacre, recently declassified documents were published in a New York Times op-ed by Seth Anziska, a researcher and doctoral candidate in international history at Columbia University. The documents reveal key conversations between Israeli and US officials around the time of the massacre. 
"It's even worse than what we thought at the time," commented Golan, who was already familiar with the documents, held at the Israel State Archives. The transcripts show that Sharon justified the occupation of West Beirut through his insistence that the terrorists needed "mopping up." Sharon claimed that there were between “2,000 to 3,000 terrorists who remained there,” numbers largely disputed by American envoy to the Middle East, Morris Draper who coordinated the August evacuation, according to the Times report.
The documents also show that Israeli officials were aware of what the Philangists might do should they be given access to the refugee camps. Even Eitan acknowledged that he feared “a relentless slaughter,” according to Anziska. But Sharon persisted in his justification that many terrorists were left in the camps. “Nothing will happen. Maybe some more terrorists will be killed. That will be to the benefit of all of us,” he told Draper. “If you don’t want the Lebanese to kill them, we will kill them.”
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. "As a result, Phalange militiamen were able to murder Palestinian civilians, whom America had pledged to protect just weeks earlier," he says.
While the world's largest superpower seemingly failed to convince its ally to withdraw from West Beirut immediately and forestall the slippery slope of events, a four-year-old grass roots organization emerged as an influential force on the heels of the massacre. On September 25, 1982 Peace Now demonstrated the potential sway that non-governmental bodies can have on the government, ensuring that at least some degree of justice be served, in an event that shocked the nation.