JERUSALEM (Nov. 8)
Premier Menachem Begin told the commission of inquiry into the Beirut massacre today that he did not know in advance that the Christian Phalangist forces were to be admitted to the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps as part of the Israel Defense Force’s operation to seize west Beirut following the assassination of President-elect Bashir Gemayel on Tuesday, September 14.
Begin told the three-member panel that he only learned of this, along with the rest of the Cabinet, at a Cabinet meeting on Thursday evening, September 16, several hours after the Phalangists entered the ‘camps. He conceded that there had been fears of revenge-killings by Christians of Moslems in the woke of Gemayel’s assassination. But he insisted repeatedly that “none of us ever imagined” that the Phalangists would perpetrate a massacre. “It never crossed our minds,” the Premier said.
He said no “red warning lights” had been kindled in his own mind, or in the minds of other minister, when both Deputy Premier David Levy and Chief of Staff Gen. Rafoel Eitan warned, during that Thursday evening Cabinet session, that the Phalangists might commit killings among the Palestinians. Therefore, there was no move by the Cabinet to withdraw the Phalangists from the camps Begin said. On the contrary, the Cabinet in effect endorsed retroactively the decision to send them in.
The inquiry commission consists of Chief Justice Yitzhak Kahan, President of the Supreme Court; Supreme Court Justice Aharon Barak; and Gen. (res.) Yonoh Efrat. Begin was the top ranking Israeli who has appeared before the panel since it began hearing testimony last month. Its first major witness was Defense Minister Ariel Sharon.
LEARNED OF MASSACRE FROM BBC
Begin told the panel that he personally learned of the massacre from BBC radio broadcasts during the afternoon of Saturday, September 18 whereupon he telephoned the Chief of Staff for detailed inform ation. He said he could not recall having conversed with Eitan on the subject on Friday morning. The commission said they had one piece of evidence to the effect that there had been such a conversation.
Begin gave evidence in open court for only 45 minutes, much less than had been expected. His testimony was broadcast live on Israel Radio. Local and foreign newsmen crowded into the hearings room at the Hebrew University campus to watch him and, in an adjoining room, to listen to a simultaneous English translation.
Begin was flanked by his longtime top aide, Yehiel Kadishai, and Cabinet secretary Dan Meridor. He spoke in measured tones, sometimes hesitating before answering. It appeared that he had not made extensive preparations for his appearance before the commission. At one point, when part of the key Thursday night, September 16, Cabinet minutes were read out, he seemed plainly unfamiliar with it.
EITAN WARNED OF REVENGE-KILLINGS
The section in question cited Eitan’s prediction of an “outburst of revenge” on the part of the Phalangists for Gemayel’s assassination. The Phalangists had already killed several Druze that day, Eitan told the Cabinet.
According to the minutes of the Cabinet meeting, Eiton said: “I see it in their eyes … what they’re waiting for … Amin (Gemayel Bashir’s brother, who is now President of Lebanon) has already spoken of revenge and all of them are sharpening their blades …” Begin asked the inquiry commission members where this was said and by whom. It was the first time those remarks by Eitan were made public.
Begin confirmed that he, Sharon and Eitan had decided late Tuesday night, September 14, once Bashir Gemayel’s death was ascertained, to order the IDF to seize “key crossing points in Beirut.” The Premier said he and Sharon were empowered to take such operative decisions in cases where there was no time to convene the full Cabinet. The IDF began moving into west Beirut before down on Wednesday, September 15.
The Premier stressed that the purpose of their entry had been to avoid a rampage of revenge by the Christians. Under close questioning he conceded that by “Christians” he included in this consideration the Phalangists.
This purpose, to avoid mayhem in west Beirut, had been publicly avowed by the IDF spokesman at the time as Israel’s chief consideration. Sharon, in his testimony to the commission two weeks ago, maintained, however, that the chief motive had been to prevent residual Palestine Liberation Organization and leftist forces in west Beirut from seizing strongpoints in the confusion following Bashir’s assassination, and establishing are again off-limit areas in the city.
BEGIN SAYS HE WAS NOT INFORMED
Begin was asked repeatedly whether the proposed role of the Phalangists in the IDF operation had been discussed with him between Tuesday night, September 14, when the original decision to seize west Beirut key points had been taken, and Thursday night, September 16, when the full cabinet learned of the entire operation, including the Phalangists’ entry into the camps, and endorsed it.
Repeatedly Begin insisted that he had not been informed of the plans for the Phalangists to enter the camps. According to earlier testimony by Sharon and others these plans were made early Wednesday, September 15. “Nothing was said to me about the Phalangists. Nothing was said to me about the camps, “Begin declared at one point in his testimony
IT DID NOT CROSS OUR MINDS…’
Begin: “We heard of it at the Cabinet on Thursday evening …”
Barak: “You did not ask about (the Phalangists ‘ role) in your many conversations with Sharon and Eitan?”
Begin: “No. It did not come up – therefore I did not ask.”
At that point, and repeatedly during his testimony, Begin insisted that “no one of us imagined … it did not cross our maids, that the Phalangists would commit a slaughter … We regarded them as disciplined fighting units.”
Kahan, at that point, cited the minutes of a conversation between Begin and U.S. special envoy Morris Draper on Wednesday, September 15, in which Begin spoke of the danger of Christian revenge and bloodshed. Begin conceded that by “Christian” he had meant the Phalangists. He was asked by Barak whether in light of this “there was not room to wonder whether the Phalangists should be in the camps,” during the Cabinet meeting on Thursday night, September 16.
Begin replied:” I can only repeat that no one thought the Phalangists in the camp would do any thing other than fight the terrorists, which was their assignment. That was our assumption.”
The three commission members returned constantly to the theme: had Begin known in advance that the Phalangists were being sent into the camps and why, once he did know, he did not stop them?
At one point Begin seemed almost ready to agree that he had known in advance. Kahan and Barak reminded him of a telephone conversation he had with Sharon, who was in Beirut, on Wednesday morning, September 15.
Barak: “Did (Sharon) say anything about the role of the Phalangists?”
Begin:”Their role was clear: to fight terrorists …”
Barak: “According to what you are saying now, you knew on the Wednesday morning that the Phalangists were to fight?”
Begin: “If the Defense Minister told me — then I definitely knew.”
Barak: “No, he (Sharon) doesn’t say he told you.”
Begin: “Well, if he didn’t tell me, then I didn’t know.”
The Premier said Sharon had been within his rights to omit informing the Premier of the plan involving the Phalangists because “He could rely” on a Cabinet decision, taken unanimously on June 15, resolving that Israel would urge both the official Lebanese army and the Lebanese Forces (Phalangists) to fight against the PLO in Beirut and unite their own capital. The Israeli Cabinet did not want IDF soldiers to lose life and limb in that battle.
CABINET DECISION SCRUTINIZED
Efrat pointed out, at length, that the June 15 Cabinet decision’s basic thrust had been that the IDF would not enter west Beirut; instead the Lebanese Forces would be encouraged to do so.
Now, however, Efrat went on, in the wake of Bashir’s killing, the situation had radically altered. Israel had decided to send its army into west Beirut after all, and there were fears — which Begin himself conceded did exist — of a revenge-rampage by the Phalangists. Was there not therefore a “different context?” Efrat asked.
No, Begin replied. The context was west Beirut. The same consideration applied on September 16 as on June 15; To avoid loss of Israeli lives in the fight against the PLO ensconced in the west Beirut camps. Even in September, at the time of the IDF and Phalangist operation after the evacuation of the bulk of PLO forces from west Beirut — there were still some 2,000 armed terrorists in the Sabra, Shatila and Fakahani refugee camps, Begin said, and they had to be ousted and disarmed.
HAD NOT REALLY PAID ATTENTION
The Premier recalled that Deputy Premier David Levy had expressed “very serious fears” of Phalangist violence at the September 16 Cabinet meeting. But, Begin noted, neither Levy nor anyone else proposed that Levy’s remarks be the subject of a Cabinet debate or vote, or that the Cabinet consider withdrawing the Phalangist forces from the refugee camps.
Questioned later by Kahan as to whether Levy’s words had “generated particular attention on your part,” the Premier said he had not really paid attention as he had been “preoccupied with the drafting of the Cabinet communique at that moment.”
To Barak, the Premier stated firmly that neither the Mossad nor the Shin Bet, the two Israeli intelligence services that are directly subordinate to the Prime Minister, had ever warned him of the dangers inherent in using Phalangist forces against the Palestinians.
He sidestepped Barak’s question as to whether he now thought that they “should have warned you.” “I don’t want to pass judgements about such serious matters …” Begin said. He indicated that such matters are usually brought to his attention at the initiative of the intelligence agencies rather than as a response to his own initiatives.
He also carefully declined to fault Sharon or anyone else for not reporting or consulting with him between September 14 and September 16 on the plan to send the Phalangists into the camps. He repeated that Sharon was within his rights under the June 15 Cabinet decision.