Declassified Minutes Reveal |

Ariel Sharon Feared Genocide Charges Over Israel's Role in Sabra and Shatila

Notes from 1983 cabinet meeting show former defense minister was concerned that the entire government, including Prime Minister Menachem Begin, would be accused of genocide in the massacres at Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon if the Kahan commission's findings were accepted.

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Ariel Sharon feared charges of genocide and demands for compensation following the first Lebanon War, state archives have revealed.

The State Archives has just released the protocol of the cabinet meeting in February 1983, in which the commission’s findings were discussed. The protocol reveals some fascinating quotations from the former prime minister, who served as defense minister during that invasion and would return and lead the country two decades later.

Sharon worried that if the government were to accept some of the conclusions of the Kahan commission of inquiry set up to investigate the 1982 massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, it would expose itself to charges of war crimes.

Arriving late at the cabinet meeting, held on February 10, 1983, Sharon launched into a speech outlining his response to the commission’s report. “I’ve had a chance to read it thoroughly, and there are definitely some parts of it which we should embrace. However, there are sections in it that we cannot accept,” he said in his opening comments. “I’ve concluded that some sections must be emphatically rejected by the cabinet. There are portions in the report that we, as Jews and citizens of Israel, as ministers of the Israeli government, cannot accept.”

Sharon lashed out in particular at the commission’s determination that the country’s civilian and military leaders had ignored the risks of such a massacre taking place. “This goes well beyond the personal issue on everyone’s mind, of whether I stay or go,” added Sharon. “The report’s words ‘ignored’ imply that this was done knowingly. That includes all of us sitting around this table who appeared before the commission, including you, Prime Minister [Menachem Begin]. The commission has specifically said that not only was there a risk of a massacre, but that all of us knew this yet ignored it.”

Sharon raised the concern that if the cabinet accepted that they knew of the risk, it would thus set into motion demands for reparations based on acts of genocide.

“People wishing us ill, and I’ve already heard this, will say that what occurred in those camps was genocide. I’ve heard this from Rashad al-Shawa, the former mayor of Gaza. He stated that such claims are appropriate, linking the massacres to genocide,” Sharon warned.

Sharon read out to the cabinet the 1950 statute against genocide, and warned that in his interpretation they could all be considered accomplices to the massacre, according to the letter of the law. To illustrate this, he elaborated on the roles of accomplices.

“We all urged this, we all enabled it, by asking them (the Phalangist Christian militias) to enter the camps. We were present, we lit up the area and we evacuated casualties. It is common knowledge that we were in the area to keep the opposition away, and we did not isolate it from other areas. We kept forces in the area to ensure the mission was carried out, and in case they ran into trouble and needed help getting out.”

Based on this interpretation, Sharon asked the cabinet to reject this portion of the report. “Shouldn’t this section shock us? The commission did not hesitate to compare Israel to indirect supporters of pogroms, who committed atrocities against our people. I am revolted by any hint of such an accusation,” he said.

“I reject the conclusion that there was a constant threat of bloodshed wherever the Phalangists were present. It was accepted among us that during the earlier Peace for Galilee operation, in which they operated alongside our forces, they had behaved appropriately."

Sharon stressed that nobody could have foreseen how drastically things would deteriorate.

“I take no issue with the Mossad or with Military Intelligence. Their assessments included no such eventuality. All their experts, as well as civilian and army top brass, swore under oath that they had not foreseen such a risk."

Referring to the commission’s arguments against him personally, Sharon said that he saw no error in his decision to protect the lives of Israel Defense Forces soldiers.

“I want to say something about my alleged errors," he says in the report. "The most serious allegation was that I did not anticipate what would happen when the militias went in. The commission tried to put themselves into my shoes and understand my actions. They explained that by considering saving IDF lives by letting the militias in, I was distracted and disregarded the possible consequences. Honorable Prime Minister, I don’t consider taking action to save our soldiers’ lives a mistake. This should be our primary consideration. I cannot accept that this could ever not be so. I would repeat this again to each one of you individually, before you chop my head off.”

Sharon called on the cabinet to fire him if that was their decision, but said he would not willingly resign. “You can cut off my head any way you choose. You won’t hear a peep from me, but do you wish to force me to do it myself?”

Sharon closed with some firm and caustic words. “I’m willing to volunteer, if necessary, to go and fight to defend Jews anywhere in the world, but don’t ask me to commit suicide. You can chop my head off, and continue to enjoy the spinach and cheese bourekas on this table tomorrow as well. It’s great to sit around this table. You’ll still be here next week, but I’ll be working on my farm. It’s high time people worked in this country, instead of busying themselves with the stock market.”

The cabinet ultimately adopted the Kahan commission’s report against Sharon’s recommendation, and he was ousted from his position as minister of defense. Two decades later, he returned as prime minister.

During the meeting, the ministers could clearly hear the vocal protest demonstration held outside the Prime Minister’s Office by the Peace Now movement, which was calling for Ariel Sharon to be fired.

The real drama occurred when the Prime Minister’s military aide, Lt. Col. Azriel Nevo, interrupted the meeting to announce that an explosive device had gone off amid the demonstrators and had caused injuries. He later added that a hand grenade had been thrown and that there was a lot of commotion, but the police were taking control of the situation.

Sharon said that demonstrators were trying to break through the gate, but were being rebuffed. Chief of Staff Refael Eitan pointed out that there were enough policemen to handle the situation.

Subsequently, Begin again interrupted the discussion, yelling, “Someone is dead! A dead Jew! Azriel, how could this have happened? Is one camp lobbing grenades at the other?"

Nevo replied that this was the assumption, but nothing was confirmed yet.

The cabinet discussion continued. Minister Yosef Burg spoke, not knowing that his son Avrum was among the injured. Nevo interrupted again, saying that a grenade had been thrown, killing one demonstrator and injuring three others. Two policemen were also injured.

The fatality was Emil Grunzweig, a teacher and peace activist. This week marked the 30th anniversary of his death.

Ariel Sharon, center, Rafael Eitan and Amir Drori in the First Lebanon War, 1982.
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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