The massacre in Lebanon

September 27 1982

The massacre in Lebanon

September 27 1982

The massacre in Lebanon


The rumors, dark and menacing, multiplied by the hour. Gradually, diplomats and others based in battle-scarred Beirut became convinced that a tragedy of some kind was taking place in the Palestinian refugee camps in the city’s western sector, overrun by Israeli troops last week. Their initial attempts to verify their suspicions at the Sabra and Shatila camps late last week were frustrated when they were turned away by Phalangist militiamen surrounding the sites. Then the militiamen disappeared, and the terrifying truth emerged. A massacre of major proportions had been carried out deliberately, savagely and inexplicably.

Scores of bloated bodies, some piled together, others strewn where they had been murdered, lay along walls in the camps’ narrow streets. In some areas limbs protruded from the rubble of buildings, and bulldozer tracks indicated that hasty attempts had been made to cover the bodies. CBS news correspondents on the scene called it a massacre of “staggering proportions.” And estimates of the numbers killed ranged from 100 to 1,400. Between Thursday night and early last Saturday morning—when Israeli soldiers finally intervened to stop the bloodbath—un-

identified gunmen from one or more of Lebanon’s many political or paramilitary elements had brutally murdered whole families of Palestinians, old men, women and children.

A “horrified” President Ronald Reagan and leaders from all over the world condemned the killing and vented their revulsion. Reagan recalled that Israel had explained its takeover of the city last week with the argument that the action would prevent “the kind of tragedy that has now occurred,” and he called for an immediate withdrawal of Israeli forces to their earlier positions. The president added that the United States also expects Jerusalem to begin “serious negotiations” to secure the “earliest possible disengagement” of its forces from Beirut and to help secure an overall agreement on a framework for an early pullout of all foreign forces from Lebanon.

At the same time, France and Italy joined the United States in calling for the immediate dispatch of UN observers to the “sites of human suffering.” That recommendation dripped with irony. The three countries’ troops oversaw the PLO withdrawal last month. If they had not been taken out of Lebanon at Washington’s insistence, before the

end of their 30-day tour, the murders might have been prevented.

The massacre took place at the end of a week of violence which began with the assassination of Lebanese presidentelect Bashir Gemayel. Echoes of the 10 kg bomb blast that killed him had hardly died before Israeli Defence Minister Ariel Sharon—vowing to “eliminate” 2,000 Palestinian guerrillas who, he claimed, remained in the citylaunched his troops into hitherto unoccupied areas of West Beirut. And he declared that the Israelis will leave only after the Lebanese army “purifies the areas where the Palestinians are.”

As the massacre was taking place, Israeli troops were carrying out a massive sweep in other areas of West Beirut. Lebanese police reported that hundreds of Moslem residents were herded at gunpoint onto public squares and ocean sidewalks while Israeli troops searched their homes and seized guns and ammunition. More than 1,000 people were arrested, but there was no indication of where they were being taken. At the same time, there were claims that Israeli troops had fired on demonstrators who were calling for the Lebanese army to take over the government. One person was reported killed.

The violence in Beirut had tragic repercussions outside the city. In Paris a bomb blast seriously maimed an Israeli diplomat and two relatives last Friday. About 40 others, including a number of schoolchildren, received less severe injuries. A day later in Brussels, a lone gunman sprayed a crowd outside a synagogue with machine-gun fire, wounding four people before escaping in a red Porsche.

Tragically, the stunning setbacks took place just as Lebanon seemed to be slowly recovering from the upheaval of last summer’s Israeli invasion. The election of Gemayel as president ushered in a period of deceptive calm. While there were no illusions about the depth of the bitterness between Christians and Moslems—as well as between different factions within each religious group—a consensus seemed to have been developing among the various factions that, above all, the country must be freed of foreign armies—Israeli, Syrian and Palestinian. In the southern city of Sidon the most common slogan on public walls recently has been YES TO THE LEBANESE ARMY. And while Gemayel was known to be a ruthless, brutal leader, there were signs of a willingness to seek compromises instead of confrontation. Three days before his death Gemayel met with Saeb Salam, a leading Moslem figure and former prime minister. The Phalangist leader is believed to have agreed to accept a series of strong Moslem demands. There were also indications of a rapprochement between Gemayel and some of his bitter Christian rivals.

Gemayel’s death on Sept. 14 seemed to signal an end to all hopes of a renewed spirit of national unity. At week’s end no group had claimed responsibility for the logistical feat of planting the bomb inside the heavily guarded Phalangist headquarters. But there was speculation that it was done by someone inside the building. The bomb is reported to have been placed on the floor above Gemayel’s office,directly over his desk. Italian radio reports claimed Pierre Gemayel, Bashir’s father and founder of the Phalangist movement, had accused the Israelis of killing his son. And Samira Hannael-Daher, Lebanese consul general in New York City, told Maclean's that she believed the murder was carried out by foreign forces because they would benefit most from such an action. “There are a lot of people who could gain from having Lebanon still in upheaval,” she said. “It gives foreign troops an excuse to remain there.”

Within hours of the assassination Israeli troops moved into West Beirut, straining Israel’s already tattered relations with Washington even further. Angered by the Israeli thrust, Secre-

tary of State George Shultz sent for Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Moshe Arens, and told him that the incursion violated the terms of the Aug. 20 agreement for the evacuation of the PLO.

When Israeli troops showed no signs of leaving West Beirut, the Reagan administration decided to add heft to its objections by speaking out publicly. Officials in both the White House and the state department said that the United States wanted the Israeli forces to leave the city. “There is no justification, in our view, for Israel’s continued military presence,” said White House deputy press secretary Larry Speakes. And, in unusually harsh language, state depart-

A week of violence that started with the assassination of presidentelect Gemayel ended in a massacre

ment spokesman John Hughes accused Israel of misleading the United States with previous assurances that it would not advance farther.

Israel denied that it ever gave a pledge that its troops would not enter Beirut once the PLO forces had been withdrawn. Arens said on Saturday that the Reagan administration had agreed that some preventive actions were needed to assure peace in Lebanon. “I think there is an understanding [between the United States and Israel] that precautionary measures were needed,” he declared. “There is a difference of opinion as to the extent of the pre-

cautionary measures that should be taken.”

Arens’ statement appeared to run counter to Israel’s initial insistence that it entered the Lebanese capital only to prevent “violence, bloodshed and anarchy” following Gemayel’s death. But both the Lebanese government and the Reagan administration indicated that they were not convinced. From his besieged capital, Lebanese Prime Minister Shafik al-Wazzan accused the Israelis of using Gemayel’s death as a pretext for its latest drive. At week’s end the United States took the highly unusual step of joining other members of the UN Security Council in calling for Israel’s withdrawal.

In the UN, Lebanese Ambassador Ghassan Tueni dismissed Israel’s explanations for its action as “ludicrous, intolerable and revolting.” Tueni accused Jerusalem of flouting international law,and he raised the possibility that Israel had invaded Beirut with the intention of disrupting the constitutional process of selecting a successor to Gemayel. For its part, the U.S. government also expressed skepticism about Israel’s stated motive of simply preserving stability. Contesting Jerusalem’s insistence that only its troops could enforce peace in West Beirut, Speakes said the Lebanese army had appeared to be making headway in its efforts to police its own territory.

As Israel continued to expand its reach over Beirut, world attention was again deflected from the issue of creating a Palestinian homeland, just as international support seemed to be growing. However, the PLO scored important gains on the political front. Ignoring Israeli protests that the encounter was “revolting,” Pope John

Paul II met with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, and the two men posed together for photographers afterward. Arafat also met with Italian President Sandro Pertini and Flaminio Piccoli, secretarygeneral of the conservative and influential Christian Democratic Party. There were also indications last week that support is growing for Reagan’s plan to meet Palestinians’ legitimate rights to a homeland despite the fierce objections of Israel. Jordan’s King Hussein, for one, spoke positively of the Reagan proposals.

But it was the massacre that monopolized world attention at week’s end. Reports from survivors made it clear that the brutal killings were carried out by Lebanese Christian militiamen. What was not certain, however, was which militia units—those of Maj. Had-

dad or of the Phalangists—were involved. Both wear similar Israeli-supplied uniforms.

There was still more speculation about what, if any, role Israeli forces had played while the 36-hour carnage was under way.There were no reports of direct involvement by Israeli soldiers. And in Jerusalem a senior Israeli military official claimed on Saturday that Jerusalem’s forces had intervened when they become alarmed at Phalangist reports that militiamen were involved in heavy fighting in Shatila. The Phalangists were persuaded to regroup near Beirut International Airport, the spokesman claimed, adding: “It seems our intervention was too late. But if we had not stepped in, the disaster would have been very much greater.”

However, a dramatically different version of the Israeli role was provided in a CBS television report. The network

said survivors stated that Israeli troops had surrounded the camps and refused to allow anyone to leave while the militiamen were carrying out their violent operation. Not only that, but those interviewed said that the Israelis fired flares to enable the militiamen to see what they were doing. At no time did Israeli troops intervene to stop the killing, according to the survivors quoted by CBS. A senior state department spokesman, asked whether Washington believed that the Israelis had acquiesced in the massacre, replied, “I think at this point it is probably an incorrect inference.”

As the debate continued and diplomats inspected the carnage in the camps, the Lebanese were left to grieve and reflect on the damage done to the cause of national reconciliation. A new

set of presidential elections had been scheduled for this week with Bashir Gemayel’s brother Amin, a more moderate figure and one more acceptable to the business community, strongly favored. But in the immediate aftermath of the massacre it was not certain that the vote would be held.

For their part, the Israelis, as they celebrated the Jewish New Year, could recall a statement in the Knesset last week by Yosef Sarid,an opposition member. Sarid compared Israel’s recent actions to those of a man sinking into a quagmire with “each step leading him deeper and deeper into the swamp.” The next steps that Israel takes may now be decisive for the future of the Middle East.

Sytske Looijen in Rome, William Lowther and Michael Posner in Washington, Eric Silver in Jerusalem and Robin Wright in Beirut.