JERUSALEM (Oct. 25)
It was assumed that when Israel sent the Christian Phalangist force into the Sabra and Shatila camps in west Beirut that there would be civilian deaths, Defense Minister Ariel Sharon told the judicial commission of inquiry this morning.
“No one thought they (the Phalangists) would behave as we behave,” he said. “But is a very far cry from that assumption to the anticipation of a bloody massacre …None of us, myself included, ever for one moment in our worst dreams anticipated or feared a horror like that.”
This distinction between anticipation of some civilian casualties and anticipation of a massacre was one of the key themes in the public testimony of Sharon before the commission of inquiry. He gave evidence in open court for more than two hours before chairman Justice Yitzhak Kahon ruled that the rest of his evidence would be held behind closed doors.
The Defense Minister said that no one in Israel, at any level of decision-making, raised the thought of a potential massacre in prior consultations concerning the entry of the Phalangists into the camps. This statement, he said, included Deputy Premier David Levy’s remark at the September 16 Cabinet meeting referring to a possible massacre. Sharon said Levy had “not opposed” the decision to send the Phalangists in.
BACKGROUND OF THE MASSACRE
Sharon said Israel’s purpose in sending the Phalangists into the two camps — they were also slated to enter a third Beirut camp, Kafahani — had been to spare Israel Defense Force lives. He recalled a long-standing Cabinet policy decision from the second week of the Lebanon war to involve the Christian forces in the fighting and said the decision to send them into the camps was the “military implementation” of that political decision.
He noted in response to tough questioning from commission members that Phalangist participation in prior actions during the war had been satisfactory from the standpoint of their behavior — “very reasonable” was how he described it.
Sharon conceded, however, that in the years of civil war before the IDF’s entry into Lebanon there had been instances of Christian massacres of Palestinians, citing Tel El-Zaatar (1976) as an example. He remarked in an aside that Amin Gemayel, now Lebanon’s President, had been actively involved in that episode.
Sharon said the aim of the IDF’s entry into west Beirut itself in the wake of President-elect Bashir Gemayel’s assassination was “to crush” the remaining (2,000) PLO terrorists there and prevent them regrouping, with the help of sympathetic leftwing militias, and retaking key areas of the city.
“We did all that was humanly possible to prevent civilian casualties,” Sharon said of this IDF action that had been decided on by himself, Premier Menachem Begin and Chief of Staff Gen. Rafael Eitan at midnight September 14, several hours after the bomb blast that killed Bashir Gemayel.
Regarding the massacre on the night of September 16 and September 17 and 18, Sharon said he first heard of it from Eitan, who phoned him at his home on September 17 at 9 p.m. Eitan reported he had just returned from Beirut where he had given orders at noon that day that the Phalangists be removed from the two camps by 5 a.m. the following morning (September 18) and that additional Phalangist forces be prevented from reaching the camps.
Eitan had told him that civilians had been killed “beyond what had been expected,” Sharon recalled. Eitan had used the term “they overdid it,” he told the commission.
Pressed by Justice Aharon Barak why, having learned of the killings, he permitted the Phalangists to stay on till the next morning, Sharon said that it is hard for an armed unit to withdraw fast from a built-up area where fighting is in progress. This was especially the case with the Phalangist forces who lacked communications equipment.
A subsequent phone call to him at 11:30 p.m., on September 17, from Israel TV correspondent Ron Ben-Yishai, with second-hand reports from soldiers of killings in the camps, had added nothing Sharon said. It simply corroborated Eitan’s information — and he (Sharon) was satisfied with the actions taken by Eitan and reported to him earlier.
The Defense Minister said he had tried to phone Begin during the morning of September 18, but the Premier was in synagogue as it was Rosh Hashanah, There were discussions that morning with Eitan and with Foreign Ministry Director General David Kimche-and Sharon stressed the IDF had been ordered “to stop it, to prevent further (Phalangist) forces getting in and to drive those in, out.” After the story hit the news media later that day, Sharon recalled, he had ordered a full-scale report to be submitted to him by the army.
MEDIA ATTENTION RIVETED ON SHARON
Sharon spoke in a small lecture hall at the Hebrew University west Jerusalem campus, with 45 selected pool reporters from local and foreign media intently noting his every word. His wife Lily and close aide Uri Dan attended the session, too.
Before the evidence began, the commission allowed a five-minute photo opportunity for scores of cameramen who were later ushered out to make way for reporters. No ordinary members of the public were allowed in.
The Defense Minister had prepared a set speech, beginning with a defense of the Lebanon war and the wide-ranging assault on the PLO. He read this out and it was plain he expected the commission then to adjourn the proceedings to behind closed doors.
(He had insisted on the right to appear in open court — saying he had “nothing to hide,” but in his speech he noted that he had much to say of a secret nature.)
Commission chairman Kahon and Justice Barak were plainly not prepared to fall in with Sharon’s strategy — and they began presenting him with tough, detailed questions about Christian-Palestinian relations in Lebanon, Israel’s anticipations, and more. Repeatedly, Sharon said he would prefer to answer behind closed doors — and repeatedly the commission insisted on an answer, even if incomplete, in open court.