Reporting amid controversy

A personal account of the events surrounding the Sabra and Shatilla massacre – and how Israelis were not indifferent to the deaths of innocents.

Ariel Sharon (photo credit: Jerusalem Post archives)
Ariel Sharon
(photo credit: Jerusalem Post archives)
It was the body language of the paratroop lieutenant in Beirut 30 years ago that flashed across my mind with the recent publication of the protocol of the Cabinet meeting at which Ariel Sharon was dismissed as defense minister. The Kahan Commission had found him indirectly responsible for the massacre in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps perpetrated by the Christian Phalange militia. Sharon angrily defended himself at the Cabinet meeting against the finding that he had ignored the likelihood that the militiamen, inserted by him into the camps, would wreak revenge on the Palestinian inhabitants. The militiamen had behaved “appropriately” since the war started, he argued, and neither the Mossad nor Military Intelligence nor any expert advisers had warned against their use.
Two days after the massacre I reached a paratroop forward command post a few hundred yards from the Shatilla camp. With me was a colleague from The Jerusalem Post, Ed Grossman.The building taken over by the unit appeared to be a school. Soldiers who had come off duty lay in sleeping bags in the corridor. In a booklined office, two lieutenants were talking. One came forward to ask who we were.
He was a 21-year-old kibbutznik from Ashdot Ya’acov.
From an intersection 100 yards away, he said, there was a road leading down to the camps. We could go as far as the intersection, where soldiers were posted, but it was too dangerous for Israeli civilians to go further. It was forbidden to enter the camps. It was forbidden for soldiers, including himself, to talk to journalists. Yes, he had heard a bit of shooting from the camps from his position after the Phalangists entered, but nothing suggesting a massacre. His odd body language would not register with me until that evening.
From the intersection nothing could be seen of the camp except some rooftops. The soldiers posted at the intersection let us pass when we said we wanted to get a better view. The Kuwait embassy, a handsome building, stood at the far corner. Outside it a custodian was chatting with a Lebanese Army sergeant. They spoke to us of the massacre in a detached manner, as if it were neighborhood gossip. The Phalangists had used knives on their victims so that the Israelis wouldn’t hear shooting, the sergeant said. I asked the custodian if we could climb to the embassy roof. He had a better idea. “Why don’t you go into the camps?” The Israeli soldiers at the intersection were no longer looking at us and we started down the steep road leading to the camp entrance, 500 meters away. Armored Lebanese Army vehicles were stationed outside but no one paid attention as we entered. The street ahead of us was lined with houses that had been blown up or bulldozed.
An arm stuck out of the rubble here, a leg there.
Alongside a massive, lime-sprinkled pit, scores of bodies lay in neat rows awaiting burial. Young Palestinians, their faces masked against the stench, dug new pits furiously as Red Cross representatives supervised the operation.
There was a sense of barely controlled hysteria. We did not linger.
It was in the hotel in Christian East Beirut that night that I thought about the lieutenant. He had stood a step or two beyond normal conversational distance as we spoke and was half turned away from us for much of the time. He said he could not talk to the press, but he did not walk away. He pretended to be scanning the books on the shelves but what he was actually doing was waiting for the next question.
It struck me that what his posture was saying was: “There’s a story here. I can’t lead you to it because it’s against orders. But keep asking, keep pushing, and you’ll find it.” He may even have been saying, “For God’s sake, find it.” I decided to return the next morning.
I WAS alone this time as my car reached the line dividing the city. An Israeli sentry, spotting the yellow license plate through the mud deliberately caking it, flagged me down. “We have orders not to let Israeli journalists in.” I parked around the nearest corner and five minutes later I was in the back seat of a taxi, my head averted, as we passed the soldier and entered Muslim West Beirut.
The lieutenant at the command post greeted me warmly.
“You recorded me yesterday, didn’t you?” I had indeed had a mini-recorder inside my shirt pocket but had activated it only as I walked away from the building to record the high points of the conversation. Either he or his men had seen me. He also knew that I had gone into the camp. But he didn’t seem to mind. The other lieutenant and some soldiers with whom I had spoken the day before joined us. The conversation was light, even jovial, all of us waiting for someone to come to the point.
Finally, someone did. “You’ll find the men you want at the intersection.” Someone else said: “The mortar platoon.”
We shook hands and wished each other well.
The platoon was no longer at the intersection but a soldier pointed to a villa down the street. Three soldiers were sitting outside. I asked to speak to their officer and one of them entered the building. A young man wearing a black turtleneck shirt over army fatigues emerged. I said I would like to talk to him and his men about what happened the night the Phalangists arrived. He himself had not been there during the massacre, he said, and he had no authority to let me speak to the men. I said I had been directed to him by battalion headquarters. It was a claim easy to ignore – no one had communicated with him – but he didn’t need much convincing. After a sharp glance in which he seemed to be studying himself more than me he said to a soldier, “Take him to the men.”
We walked around the building, passing beneath a sergeant manning a sandbagged machine-gun position on a balcony. “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 for a moment, then nodded and sat back down.
Four soldiers were playing basketball in the rear yard.
My escort called one of them over and left us. We sat on a staircase in the shade. The soldier was from Yeroham.
His was a Nahal unit destined for a kibbutz. Many of the men in it were from development towns, he said. He told his tale simply and without any visible emotion but with a certain puzzlement.
The chief of staff, Gen. Rafael Eitan, had declared on the radio that the Phalangists had entered the camps from the east, without the knowledge of the Israeli troops who were on the western perimeter. The soldier said otherwise. The Phalangists had openly passed through the Israeli lines at the intersection and he had personally spoken with some of them. He knew that they were entering the camps to deal with PLO fighters left behind by Yasser Arafat after he sailed for Tunis.
From the intersection, the platoon had fired flares over the camp for much of the night at the Phalangists’ request. The Israelis presumed there was a battle going on. They themselves had come under fire from the camp before the Phalangists arrived. At dawn the platoon fired several mortar shells into the camp, presumably at points of resistance. No one imagined that a massacre was going on.
The other three basketball players had joined us. One of them said a Phalangist had come up from the camp during the night to request a stretcher. Although almost no shooting had been heard, the Phalangist 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 say they’ve killed 250 and there’s been almost no shooting. We laughed about it when he left. Then someone said ‘They must be counting civilians.’ We stopped laughing.”
The notion that they had been providing illumination for mass murder, however inadvertently, weighed on them. The soldiers expressed their disgust at the Phalangists.
“They can see it in the way we look at them,” said one. The sergeant on the balcony called down. “He wants to see you,” said one of the soldiers.
Like the rest of the unit’s cadre, the sergeant was a kibbutznik, a year or two older than the conscripts. He was from Kabri, not far from the Lebanese border. He was taut with anger and welcomed the opportunity he suddenly had to talk to the press.
“It’s infuriating to hear how they’re trying to shake off responsibility,” he said of Sharon and Eitan. He had known beforehand from the army’s radio net that the Phalangists would be passing through the Israeli lines to enter the camp. No one had imagined a massacre, he added, but massacre or not it was corrupting for the army to remain in Lebanon as conquerors. If withdrawal meant that his kibbutz would be subject to terrorist attacks, it was a price he was willing to pay, he said.
As I was leaving, I met the sentry from the side gate coming off duty. He asked if he could talk to me. He too expressed his revulsion at the Phalangists and warned of the corruption of occupation. “We’ve got to get out of Lebanon.”
Israeli military intelligence would estimate that some 800 persons were murdered in the camps, including women, elderly and infants. It was clear that neither Sharon nor any of the senior officers involved in the insertion of the Phalangists had wanted to see civilians killed. The international wrath that would fall on Israel’s head in such a case was self-evident. But there had been growing irritation in Israel that the Phalangists, nominally Israel’s allies and with most to gain from Israel’s incursion into Lebanon, had been sitting on the sidelines for most of the war while Israeli troops were doing the fighting and dying. A sweep through the Palestinian camps in West Beirut would be the last major operation of the war and the task – weeding out PLO operatives from a civilian population in a densely built-up area – was one that Lebanese soldiers were better suited for than Israelis.
Efforts had been made to get the Lebanese Army, which had been sitting on the sidelines, to undertake the job but it preferred to stay out of the fight. The Kahan Commission would fault the Israeli military command not for inserting the Phalangists but for failing to have put in place an effective system to closely monitor the Christian militia in the camps and a mechanism to bring their activities to an immediate halt if deviations were detected. From their positions the Israelis could not see into the camps and the only reports they were getting were from the Phalangists themselves.
BACK AT the crossroads, I flagged down the first of two army jeeps to ask for a lift to a main road where I could get a taxi. There was no room but an officer in the second jeep called out to me to get in the back of his jeep. I recognized him as Maj.-Gen. Avraham Tamir, head of the General Staff’s planning division. He declined to discuss the implications of the massacre – “I’m just here as a sightseer” – but it must have been evident to him that any hope for a new order in Lebanon lay buried in the rubble of Sabra and Shatilla.
I returned that night to an Israel stunned and depressed. There had been repeated horrendous massacres in the Lebanese civil war and there would be again, but this time Israel had been an enabler, however unintentionally. But I had also witnessed something else that changed the emotional equation. The Israeli soldiers had not been indifferent to what had happened. They did not express satisfaction at the calamity that had befallen their Palestinian enemy. They had not turned away with a callous wisecrack. They had been appalled.
The younger soldiers focused their anger on the Phalangists, the more politically sophisticated on the Israeli decision makers. All wanted the story to come out and would tolerate no cover-up. Their reaction reflected a decency and moral courage any nation might envy. The writer is author of The Yom Kippur War and of the eBook The Battle for Jerusalem: An Unintended Conquest.
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