Military Intelligence and Mossad Traded Blame Over Sabra and Chatila Massacre, Archives Reveal

Newly released portions of 1983 government meeting show that Military Intelligence bore the brunt of the blame for the massacre of Palestinians.

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One week after Israel's State Archives published part of the protocols from a February 1983 cabinet meeting related to the slaughter at the Sabra and Chatila Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut a year earlier, Israel's Military Censor on Thursday permitted additional portions of that discussion to be made public.

The protocols documented the government's discussions following the publication of findings by the Kahan commission, which was set up to investigate the 1982 massacres at Sabra and Chatila, where hundreds of Palestinians were murdered by Lebanese Christian Phalange militias.

The segments made public Thursday include military officials' remarks during the meetings and relate to the rivalry between Military Intelligence and Mossad officials. MI expressed frustration that it, and not the Mossad, was held accountable for the slaughter.

On February 19, 1983, then director of Military Intelligence Yehoshua Saguy, who resigned in the wake of the Kahan commission's findings, spoke at the government meeting.

“The system that I head is damaged today. I feel the first signs of frustration through hundreds of phone calls, letters and cables that I have received, most of them from junior officers and others in the intelligence corps,” he told Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s government.

“Their remarks emphasized the following motifs: We have been done a terrible injustice; we don’t want to serve in a defeated corps that, no matter what happens in the country, will be blamed; the path we must take is one of sit back and do nothing because we will be blamed in any case.”

Saguy also referred to another motif in his subordinates' words. "How is it that we were found culpable by the committee, when our warnings and assessments regarding the Phalanges proved true, while the Mossad, which maintained the relationship with them and includes a research and evaluation system equivalent to MI’s since the Agranat commission (after the Yom Kippur War), hasn’t been damaged at all?” Saguy stressed that his view differs from that outlook, but felt that the government should be aware intelligence officials felt that way.

Then Defense Minister Ariel Sharon also spoke about the Mossad’s responsibility for what happened at Sabra and Chatila. He opened his remarks by saying the director of the Mossad, Nahum Admoni, was not personally responsible for what happened, as he had only assumed his position shortly before the massacre.

However, Sharon said, “Not only people are being examined here; systems are being examined. Does anyone think that our conduct in Lebanon, or the chief of staff's visit to the Phalange headquarters at 3:30 A.M. on the 15th of the month, did not include officials from the highest echelon of the Mossad, who have been dealing with the issue of Lebanon for years?" Sharon went on to say, "We all admire that man [the Mossad's man in Lebanon, who cannot be named] and I'm pleased he wasn't caught by the committee, but that was an accident."

Sharon continued: "If someone from the Mossad was harmed in same way as Military Intelligence, another entire system would have been rattled. I know that Mossad man, I admire him and I have worked closely with him for a long time. Wasn’t he there with me at Phalange headquarters on the morning of the 15th, when we talked about this issue and I instructed him to coordinate the matter with the GOC Northern Command? Wasn’t he there with me in Bikfaya [the Gemayel clan’s village in Lebanon], when I told Pierre Gemayel and Amin Gemayel what we were about to do. Indeed, he translated what I said, just as he translated what the chief of staff said on the 15th of the month.”

Sharon said that the Mossad was continuously involved in the matter. "I don’t have any claims against the Mossad – it never assessed such an incident might occur. None of us surmised that this is what would happen. All the experts at MI and the Mossad, in addition to government leaders and the IDF top brass, also testified this week that they hadn’t anticipated this risk.”

Saguy resigned after the committee determined he had been “totally indifferent and did not demonstrate any interest in issues relating to his official capacity.... The picture that emerges from Maj. Gen. Saguy’s own testimony is of indifference and glaring unconcern, of closed eyes and ears.”

At the same time, the Mossad chief at the time of the massacre remained in his position for seven years after the publication of the report. However, the committee determined that he had not provided the government with “an unequivocal warning about the risk entailed in the Phalanges' entry into the camps," which he didn’t even mention in his assessment at the government meeting.

According to the committee report, the Mossad chief “did not express any reservations about the Phalange entering the camps. Precisely because of the relationship between the Mossad and the Phalange, it was his duty to address the possibility of such acts of vengeance, by analyzing all the factors connected to this action.”

A Palestinian woman screams at a Swedish United Nations officer on September 19, 1982 in the Sabra PLO Camp in Beirut, Lebanon. Credit: AP

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