Why Israel Did Not Foresee 1982 Refugee Massacre — A Theory

Israeli and UN commissions blamed Israel in part for the 1982 Sabra and Shatila refugee camp massacres. Dov Weissglas asserts that the mass killings were done at the behest of one man, a Lebanese commander under orders from Syrian intelligence.

al-monitor Palestinian women carry portraits of relatives who were killed during the Sabra and Shatila massacre in 1982, during a march in Beirut, Sept. 16, 2011.  Photo by REUTERS/ Sharif Karim.

Topics covered

phalangists, palestinian, maronites, lebanon, israel

Sep 19, 2012

Thirty years ago, on the night between the 16th and 17th of September [1982], shortly after the assassination of the Lebanese President Bachir Gemayel, soldiers from the “Lebanese Forces,” (aka “The Phalanges” [a right-wing Maronite party in Lebanon founded in 1936 by Bachir's father, Pierre Gemayel (1905-84)]), indiscriminately slew the residents of the Sabra and Shatila [Palestinian] refugee camps. Harrowing photos were disseminated throughout the world the next day. A public outcry, both in Israel and around the world, resulted in the establishment of a government-appointed commission of inquiry, known as the “Kahan Commission.”

Its findings suggested that the Lebanese Forces had operated in concert with IDF forces. According to intelligence material that was culled [prior to the event], it turned out that many terrorists had fled into the refugee camps — namely those that had not left Beirut in accordance with the agreement. They had to be apprehended. Then Chief of Staff, Rafael Eitan, urged the Lebanese Forces to do whatever is necessary, since he was afraid, and rightly so, for the [lives] of Israeli soldiers. And so it came to pass.

The main finding of the commission was that Prime Minister Menachem Begin, the Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, the Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan, as well as other interrogees, had “not anticipated” — as might have been expected of them — the possibility that the Lebanese Forces would unleash their revenge on the residents of the refugee camps in the wake of Gemayel’s assassination. As a result, they are to be held “vicariously” accountable for the massacre.

As an attorney before the commission, I thought that that pronouncement could not be substantiated on the basis of the material that had been presented to the commission; quite the contrary. The prime minister and his ministers, the director of Mossad and other officials, high-ranking commanders, intelligence officers and rank-and-file soldiers and commanders — each and every one of them, in their own words, explained why they had not entertained the thought of revenge once the plan for the operation had been presented to them.

In light of the fact that the ties between the state of Israel and the Lebanese forces were within the purview of the Mossad, the key witness was the organization’s director at that time, Nahum Admoni. The latter attended the government meeting at which the initial report about the incursion of the Lebanese Forces into the camps had been delivered. Similarly to the rest of the participants, he did not react. In his testimony, Admoni was asked whether during the reporting to the government he saw no ‘red flags,’ to which he replied in the negative.

Admoni cited three arguments. The first one is that one day after the assassination of Gemayel, the assassin — a Lebanese operating for Syria, and not a Palestinian — had already been rounded up. Why assume then that the rage of the Lebanese Forces would be directed at the Palestinians? The second is that the brother of the assassinated president, Amine Gemayel, had already been enthroned as the “successor.” Unlike Bachir, who was hostile to the Palestinians, Amine saw himself as the “president of all the Lebanese people,” including the Palestinians, with whom he had fostered good relationships. It is unlikely to assume that under his command the Lebanese Forces would hurt the Palestinians. The third one is that based on the experience from the joint activity between the Lebanese Forces and the IDF, the Lebanese acted (more or less) in accordance with the same IDF rules of engagement and warfare.

When asked for an explanation post factum, Admoni replied: “This is a conundrum that will never be resolved”.

Yet it appears that the conundrum had finally been resolved. In 1999, a book — "From Israel to Damascus" — was published in Paris by Robert Hatem ("Cobra"), Elie Hobeika’s confidant. Hobeika [a Phalangist leader and Lebanese Forces commander] served as the operations officer of the Lebanese Forces as well as the commander of the operation in Sabra and Shatila. In his book, Hatem contends that the operations officer had been actually recruited by Syrian intelligence in 1975 and had initiated the massacre in the camps at the order of his operators in order to topple the [Israeli] Likud government and undermine its relationships with the Christians in Lebanon. [Hobeika was assassinated in January 2002.]

When I first heard of the book, I quickly called Admoni. Roughly twenty years after his testimony, I asked him if he recalled saying that “the massacre is a conundrum that will never be resolved.” “Of course, I do,” he said. I told him of the story about Hobeika. Admoni calmly replied: “I am not surprised. That was also my belief, but I had no proof. This makes sense. There’s no other logical explanation.”

Most probably, this is the secret underlying the massacre. Hence the Kahan Commission’s main conclusion is utterly erroneous. Israeli decision-makers could not have possibly anticipated a deliberate, premeditated event perpetrated by a treacherous agent.

Dov Weissglas is an Israeli lawyer and businessman who has been closely linked with the Middle East peace process, particularly under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

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