In April, 1974, a Phalangist military unit ambushed a busload of Palestinian civilians near Beirut, killing dozens. This atrocity sparked the Lebanese civil war. Syrian forces invaded Lebanon in 1975. From then until 1982, roughly 95,000 Christian Lebanese and 50,000 Moslems were killed and hundreds of thousands made homeless. Untold tens of thousands of innocent civilians were massacred on all sides.
This war was brought to a temporary halt by Israel’s invasion in 1982. Lebanese returned to their homes and greeted the Israeli soldiers with flowers and champagne. Then, with the complicity of the USA, Arafat snatched a political victory from the jaws of military defeat. Israel sullenly watched as its military victory was scuttled by a political turn-about that made the terrorists look like victims, and the victims look like terrorists.
Meanwhile, back in Israel, support for the war waned as Israeli military and Lebanese civilian casualties mounted. With Sharon’s questionable decision to move from the “Little Pines” to the “Big Pines” plan, Israeli soldiers and civilians began to protest. On July 3, 1982, almost 300,000 Israelis mounted an anti-war demonstration in Tel Aviv. Dozens of volunteer committees were formed all over Israel to provide money, food and clothing to refugee Lebanese. Meanwhile, Sharon pinned his hopes for a successful “Big Pines,” and peace with Lebanon, on the accession to power of Bashir Gemayel, leader of the Maronite Christians.
Those hopes died on September 14, 1982, when Gemayel was assassinated, along with dozens of innocent bystanders, by a Syrian bomb. The Syrian complicity in the assassination demonstrated that Syria had no intention of permitting a peace accord. If Israel wanted a secure northern border, it would need to support the Christian forces in their battle against the remaining PLO terrorists and the Syrian occupation.
So, on the next day, Sharon spoke directly with the commanders of the Christian Phalangist forces. He gave them explicit instructions. They were to enter the refugee camps and destroy all remaining PLO installations and belligerents. Civilians were not to be harmed. With Israel protecting their flanks against Syrian intervention, several hundred Phalangists entered two Palestinian refugee camps, where the largest concentrations of surviving PLO terrorists were believed to be hiding. Once in the camps, they were no longer visible to the Israeli soldiers in the area.
What Sharon did not take into consideration was the obvious fact that virtually every one of the Phalangists had lost family members to the PLO over the past 12 years. With tens of thousands of Christian dead, and with their leader recently assassinated, it was folly to assume that these Christian fighters would not take revenge. On September 16, they entered Sabra and Shatila.
These two camps were indeed centers of PLO activity. Countless bunkers, stocked with generous reserves of arms, ammunition and explosives, and about 200 PLO fighters, were found. But in addition to killing these terrorists, the Christian Phalangists went on to murder innocent Palestinian civilians. The Lebanese police estimated the total deaths at 460. Of these, only 35 were women and children. The rest were men: Palestinians, Lebanese, Pakistanis, Iranians, Syrians and Algerians.
Israeli intelligence put the number of dead at more like 800. Palestinian sources placed the civilian deaths at a minimum of 2,300, denying any terrorist presence in the camps.
Based on Phalangist radio conversations intercepted by the IDF, it became clear by the evening of September 16 that indiscriminate violence was occurring. General Amir Drori, commander of the Northern Front, immediately issued orders for the Phalangists to be withdrawn. Some withdrew, but others remained and continued the slaughter with secret re-enforcements. Although aware of these events on September 16th, Sharon made no mention of them to the Cabinet; nor did Yitzhak Shamir, Foreign Minister. Only on the 18th did Sharon personally visit the camps and expel the remaining Phalangists.
The Israeli body politic responded to the news of the atrocities with a fury unprecedented in Israeli history. The media demanded the resignations of all military officers involved. The Labor Party threatened to bring down the entire government. All pressed for an inquiry. On September 24, 400,000 protested in Tel Aviv. On September 28, Prime Minister Begin appointed Yitzchak Kahan, president of the Supreme Court, as chair of a special committee of inquiry. The “Kahan Commission” met for five months. In February 1983, it published its findings, reprimanding PM Begin and Foreign Minister Shamir and placing indirect responsibility for the massacres on both Defense Minister Sharon and General Raphael Eytan. Although the atrocities had been committed by the Christian Phalangists, without the knowledge and contrary to the instructions of the IDF, Sharon and Eytan had the duty “not to disregard…(the possibility)…that the Phalangists were liable to commit atrocities.”
General Eytan retired in disgrace from the IDF shortly thereafter. Defense Minister Sharon lost his Cabinet position and began an 18-year hiatus in his political prominence. Generals Yehoshua Saguy, Amir Drori, and Amos Yaron were dismissed from the IDF despite the fact that they had initially alerted their superiors to the Phalangists’ activities and had attempted to restrain them. PM Begin became something of a recluse, and after his wife’s death retired permanently from public life.
Today Sharon and Eytan are accused of war crimes, yet:
a.) From late 1970 until 1982, Arafat established PLO hegemony over southern Lebanon by intimidating and brutalizing the Lebanese, destroying dozens of villages, rendering tens of thousand homeless, kidnapping, torture and murder.
b.) The Lebanese civil war of 1974-1982 left around 150,000 dead, most of them civilians, as a result of endless atrocities and counter-atrocities.
c.) In December 1982, Druze irregulars descended on sixty isolated Maronite Christian villages in the Shouf Mountains, killing thousands.
d.) In May 1985, Moslem militia attacked the Shatila and Burj-el-Baranjeh refugee camps killing at least 635 civilians and wounding c. 2,500.
e.) Shortly thereafter, Moslem Shi’ite militia attacked Moslem PLO forces, killing around 2,000, many of them Palestinian civilians.
f.) In October 1990, Syrian forces over-ran Christian areas of Lebanon, killing 700 Christians, many of them civilians.
These endless atrocities of Moslem against Druze against Christian elicit no response; even as each side cheers its bloody victories and exalts its terrorist leaders. The media collaborates with very limited coverage of the brutal Arab-on-Arab atrocities. Yet the failure of Israel’s Defense Minister to anticipate Phalangist revenge so enraged the Jewish body politic that heads rolled and careers ended. And today, no one even mentions the Phalangists.
Bard, Mitchell. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Middle East Conflict
Idem. Myths and Facts: A Guide to the Arab-Israeli Conflict
Sachar, Howard. A History of Israel from the Rise of Zionism to our timeShlaim, Avi. The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World