JERUSALEM (Sep. 21)
The Cabinet, contrary to expectations, refrained today from taking any decision to investigate the massacre of Palestinian civilians in Israel-occupied west Beirut Friday by Lebanese Christian armed forces allied with Israel.
Its failure to act on the matter, during a 5 1/2 hour meeting came as a surprise in light of President Yitzhak Navon’s unprecedented and explicit call last night for an “early and thorough investigation by credible and independent people into what happened in this awful affair.” Navon said Israel owed an inquiry to itself and to its image “among those civilized countries of which we see ourselves a part.”
The opposition Labor Alignment had also called for the early creation of a judicial commission of inquiry to determine the facts of the tragedy Premier Menachem Begin’s government has been hit by a storm of criticism at home and abroad over the episode, including allegations of army indifference if not complicity in the slaughter of at least 300 Palestinian men, women and children in the Shatila and Sobra refugee camps.
Begin’s personal position toward an inquiry was uncertain. Although he angrily condemned all criticism of Israel as “blood libel”, sources close to the Premier said he had considered the idea of an official inquiry and even raised the matter at Sunday night’s Cabinet meeting. But the Prime Minister’s Office issued a statement last night denying that Begin had agreed to an inquiry.
ELEMENTS FAVORING INQUIRY
Two elements of Begin’s coalition government, the National Religious Party and the ultra-nationalist Tehiya, appeared to favor the idea of an inquiry. The NRP leadership met with Begin yesterday afternoon and suggested that he take the initiative in that direction. Tehiya issued a statement today supporting an investigation.
Another coalition faction, Tami, was also believed to favor such a move. Its Cabinet minister, Aharon Uzzan, had been expected to propose it at today’s meeting.
President Navon’s proposal drew strong editorial support from the Israeli press and from the academic community. Within hours after the President spoke, a group of leading professors and intellectuals issued a manifesto supporting an official inquiry.
Their spokesman, Prof. Elimelech Uhrbach, a Hebrew University Talmudical scholar, went on television last night to demand a “thorough and impartial investigation.” He warned that the west Beirut massacre could gravely erode Israel’s moral image and democratic institutions.
Uhrbach blasted Begin for failing to address the nation and the world when the gory details of the Beirut massacre became known, to give expression to Israel’s shock and sorrow. He said Chief of Staff Gen. Rafael Eitan’s version of events, presented on a television interview Sunday, was “utterly confused.” Uhrbach carries unique moral force in Israel. Although in 1972 he was the Likud-NRP candidate for President, his non-partisan credentials are impeccable.
Former President Ephraim Katzir, who defeated Uhrbach in the 1972 Presidential ballot, joined him yesterday in demanding an inquiry as did other academicians, Profs. Shmuel Eisenstadt, Shmuel Sambursky, Yehoshua Prower and Nathan Rothenstreich.
Sources close to Begin who said he initially favored an inquiry indicated that he had in mind an investigation “not only of the massacre but the events that preceded it and the events that followed it.” That was taken to include what the Cabinet called a “blood libel” against Israel abroad and “incitement” against the government by opposition circles at home.
KNESSET UNIT SNUBBED BY THE MILITARY
Meanwhile, the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Security Committee was furious today over an apparent snub by the military. Eitan and Gen. Amir Drori, commander of Israeli forces in Lebanon, were scheduled to appear before the committee today to explain the circumstances of the massacre. They failed to show up and the meeting had to be cancelled.
Likud MK Elichu Ben-Elissar, chairman of the committee, said he had been trying since Friday to summon Defense Minister Ariel Sharon to discuss the events in west Beirut, but without success.
According to Ben-Elissor, it was Sharon’s office which had suggested that Eitan appear before the committee. It was their “privilege and also duty” to brief the committee but Eitan and Sharon “did not use their privilege and did not fulfill their duty,” Ben-Elissar said. Their failure to appear showed “lack of respect for the committee and the Knesset,” he said.
INCIDENTS OF UNREST
In a related development, unrest flared in Galilee, on the West Bank and East Jerusalem where Palestinian youths demonstrated against the massacre. Many stone-throwing incidents were reported. Two Israeli border policemen were injured in East Jerusalem today where six Arab youths were arrested.
In Sakhnin village, east of Acre, police forcibly dispersed a large group of youngsters and women demonstrating on the main road. The youths later marched through the village carrying Palestinian flags, portraits of PLO chief Yasir Arafat and black flags signifying mourning for the dead in the Beirut refugee camps.
At the nearby predominantly Christian village of Kufer Yassif, high school students went on a mourning march. A police vehicle was set afire, other Israeli vehicles were stoned and Palestinian flags were raised. In Nazareth, the largest Arab city in Israel, hundreds of students left their classrooms but returned shortly afterwards. Palestinian nationalist slogans were smeared overnight on walls in Haifa.
Disturbances were reported in several West Bank towns. Arab mayors called for a general strike tomorrow to protest the Beirut massacre. Shops in East Jerusalem remained closed today.
Binyamin Gur-Arye, the Prime Minister’s advisor on Arab affairs, said he understood the feelings of Israel’s Arabs, many of whom had relatives in the Beirut refugee camps. But he insisted that order be maintained. He said if Arab strikes and demonstrations were conducted peacefully, Israeli authorities would not interfere.