'Israel Misled U.S. Diplomats During Sabra and Shatila Massacre'

American researcher uncovers recently declassified transcripts of conversations between Israeli and American officials during First Lebanon War.

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Israel deceived the United States and hindered the country’s efforts to prevent the massacre by Christians of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps during the First Lebanon War, according to a U.S. researcher.

In a New York Times op-ed, Seth Anziska, a researcher and doctoral candidate in international history at Columbia University, argues that Israel misled the Americans about events in Beirut, also leading them to think that “thousands of terrorists” were housed in the camps, when in fact the camp residents were civilians. Hundreds of the residents were murdered by Phalange Christians between September 16 and 18, 1982, while Israel Defense Forces soldiers were positioned around the camps.

Anziska makes his claims based on research he conducted this past summer at the State Archives, where he found recently declassified documents that chronicle key conversations between American and Israeli officials before and during the massacre.

“Working with only partial knowledge of the reality on the ground, the United States feebly yielded to false arguments and stalling tactics that allowed a massacre in progress to proceed,” writes Anziska.

“The lesson of the Sabra and Shatila tragedy is clear. Sometimes close allies act contrary to American interests and values. Failing to exert American power to uphold those interests and values can have disastrous consequences: for our allies, for our moral standing and most important, for the innocent people who pay the highest price of all,” he writes.

The IDF invaded Beirut in the summer of 1982, in an effort to remove Palestinian terror groups from the city. Members of the Christian Phalange militias cooperated with the IDF when it entered Lebanon. This support helped the Phalanges increase their political power, and in August of that year, Bashir Gemayel, a former Phalange commander, was elected president of Lebanon.
After he was assassinated on September 14, the IDF allowed the Phalange militia into West Beirut, where the two refugee camps were located, and gave them permission to enter the camps and root out Palestinian fighters. Instead, the Phalange gunmen committed indiscriminate revenge, murdering hundreds – some say thousands – of the camps’ residents.

On September 15, then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin told U.S. envoy Morris Draper that the reason the IDF had entered West Beirut was to keep the peace there. “Otherwise, there could be pogroms,” Begin said. But upon hearing that Defense Minister Ariel Sharon was considering allowing the Phalange militia into West Beirut, even Chief of General Staff Rafael Eitan acknowledged that he feared “a relentless slaughter,” according to Anziska.

Another Israeli official who feared a massacre was Deputy Prime Minister David Levy. On September 16, during a cabinet meeting at which the ministers learned that the Phalange had been allowed into the camps, he said, “I know what the meaning of revenge is for them, what kind of slaughter. Then no one will believe we went in to create order there, and we will bear the blame,” according to the documents Anziska found.

But Sharon told the Americans that the conquest of West Beirut was justified because there were “2,000 to 3,000 terrorists who remained there.”
At a meeting on September 17 that included Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, Sharon, several Israeli intelligence officials and Draper, Shamir did not mention the slaughter that had occurred in the camps the previous day, according to Anziska.

A transcript of the meeting reveals that the Americans were browbeaten by Sharon’s false insistence that “terrorists” needed “mopping up,” Anziska writes.
According to the researcher, Mr. Draper opened the meeting by demanding that the IDF pull out of Beirut right away. Mr. Sharon exploded, “I just don’t understand, what are you looking for? Do you want the terrorists to stay? Are you afraid that somebody will think that you were in collusion with us? Deny it. We denied it.”
Later on in the meeting Sharon added, “Nothing will happen. Maybe some more terrorists will be killed. That will be to the benefit of all of us.

After Draper argued that Israel will be blamed for letting the Lebanese kill the Palestinians in the camps, Sharon replied, “So, we’ll kill them. They will not be left there. You are not going to save them. You are not going to save these groups of the international terrorismIf you don’t want the Lebanese to kill them, we will kill them.”

When Draper reminded Sharon that the United States had helped the PLO leave Beirut so that Israel wouldn’t have to enter the city, Sharon replied, “When it comes to our security, we have never asked. We will never ask. When it comes to existence and security, it is our own responsibility and we will never give it to anybody to decide for us.”

According to Anziska, the documents show that Shamir and Sharon finally agreed to gradually withdraw from Beirut once the Lebanese Army started entering the city — but they insisted on until the end of Rosh Hashana, which started that evening.

“By allowing the argument to proceed on Mr. Sharon’s terms, Mr. Draper effectively gave Israel cover to let the Phalange fighters remain in the camps,” Anziska writes.

Based on the conclusions of the Kahan Commission, which investigated the massacres at Sabra and Chatila, Sharon was dismissed as defense minister. Twenty years later he was elected prime minister.

According to Anziska, Draper, in an oral history he recorded a few years before he died in 2005, he recalled telling Sharon, “You should be ashamed. The situation is absolutely appalling. They’re killing children! You have the field completely under your control and are therefore responsible for that area.”

Even so, the U.S. ambassador to Israel during that period, Samuel Lewis, told Anziska that it would have been difficult to prevent the massacre during that period, “unless Reagan had picked up the phone and called Begin and read him the riot act.” And even then, said Lewis, “Sharon would have found some other way” for the militiamen to take 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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