The Cabinet decided unanimously today to establish a judicial commission to conduct a full, formal inquiry into the circumstances of the massacre of Palestinian civilians in the Shatila and Sabra refugee camps in west Beirut September 16-17.
The statement read to reporters by Cabinet secretary Dan Meridor said: “The matter which will be suggested to inquiry is all the facts and persons connected with the atrocity which was carried out by a unit of the Lebanese forces against the civilian population in the Shatila and Sabra camps.”
The Cabinet explained in its statement that it was taking this step “in order to put an end to the false libels to the effect that the Israeli government has something to hide in this matter or that it would like to avoid its full clarification.”
The decision in fact culminated a stormy 10-day period in which it was widely perceived at home and abroad that Premier Menachem Begin was seeking such avoidance. But according to today’s statement, Begin himself proposed the judicial commission and it was then unanimously approved.
COMMISSION’S TERMS OF REFERENCE
The Cabinet is required by law to establish the commission’s terms of reference. Meridor said it did so in very broad terms when it said the commission would be asked to inquire into “all facts and factors (i.e. institutions and individuals) related to the atrocity.” Most observers agreed.
Meridor said the commission itself was implicitly empowered to decide what or who was “related” to the massacre and whether to investigate it or them. It was considered “probable and reasonable” that the commission would include within its ambit the Cabinet meeting of Thursday night, September 16, when the Ministers were informed that units of Israel’s allied Christian Phalangists were about to enter the refugee camps.
NO TIME LIMIT ON THE INQUIRY
The Cabinet placed no time limit on the inquiry and there was no estimate today as to how long it might take. Observers believe that given the limited and specific nature of the episode, the commission should not need more than a few weeks to sift through the material.
The Cabinet also left it up to the commission to decide whether to deliberate in secret or otherwise. This obviously was to indicate that the government does not seek to have the sessions concealed from the public.
It is expected here that the commission will decide to hold most of its meetings behind closed doors because the material under investigation is by its nature security sensitive. But the conclusions and recommendations are expected to be made public, though not necessarily all of the findings.
The Cabinet’s action today represented the second reversal by the government on the issue of an inquiry in little more than a week. On September 21 the Cabinet refused to take any action despite mounting calls in Israel and abroad for a judicial inquiry. Begin was adamantly opposed on grounds that to launch a full dress probe would be tantamount to admitting Israeli responsibility for the massacre. On the following day, the Knesset voted 48-42 against a Labor motion for an official inquiry.
But Begin relented somewhat last Friday when he asked the President of the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Yitzhak Kahan, to head an inquiry into the Beirut massacre. Kahan demurred, explaining that he could not act while there were two applications before the Supreme Court — from outside the government — to appoint a State commission of inquiry. Those applications were for a formal investigation under the 1968 Commissions of Inquiry Law under which the Agranat Committee was established following the Yom Kippur War.
Such statutory commissions have full power to subpoena witnesses and documents, hear testimony under oath and protect witnesses from libel actions. The inquiry proposed by Begin last Friday would not have had those powers.
Protests against the government escalated, particularly after Defense Minister Ariel Sharon’s Knesset speech September 22 in which he admitted that units of Israel’s Christian Phalangist allies were asked by Israel to enter the refugee camps, ostensibly to root out 2,000 armed Palestine Liberation Organization terrorists alleged to be hiding there after the main body of the PLO left west Beirut last month.
Last Friday, the Commander of the Israel Army Staff College, Brig. Gen. Amram Mitzna, asked to be relieved of his duties because of what an army spokesman termed “recent events in Beirut.” Today however, the army spokesman said that Mitzna had withdrawn his request. His withdrawal is understood to have followed the Cabinet decision to establish a commission of inquiry. On Saturday night, an estimated 400,000 people held a rally in Tel Aviv. (See separate story.)
CABINET STATEMENT SUMMARIZES EVENTS IN BEIRUT
The Cabinet’s statement today summarized the government’s version of events. It said: “On Tuesday, September 21, the Cabinet resolved to hold a discussion on an appropriate method of examining the acts regarding the atrocities carried out by a unit from the Lebanese forces in Beirut and to report on its decisions.
“The Minister of Justice announced in the Knesset in the name of the government that the decision would be adopted in the very near future.
“On Friday, September 24, the Cabinet unanimously resolved to ask the President of the Supreme Court to examine the facts connected with the above mentioned atrocity. The Cabinet is convinced that by employing this authority it took the appropriate way to examine the tragic incident as swiftly as possible and with complete objectivity.
“The President of the Supreme Court explained to the Minister of Justice that he could not consider the Cabinet’s request because the Supreme Court, sitting a: the High Court of Justice, has before it two appeals submitted on this issue which renders the matter sub judice. The judicial qualification of the appeals as stated would take a number of weeks at least. In order to put an end to the false libels to the effect that the Israeli government has something to hide in this matter or that it would like to avoid its full clarification, the Cabinet has decided, at the Prime Minister’s suggestion, to revise its previous decision.
“The Cabinet resolved to establish a commission of inquiry according to the Law of Commissions of Inquiry, 1968. The matter which will be suggested to inquiry is all the facts and persons connected with the atrocity which was carried our by a unit of the Lebanese forces against the civilian population in the Shatila and Sabra camps. The Prime Minister will inform the President of the Supreme Court tomorrow of the establishment of a commission of inquiry.”
EXTRAORDINARY KNESSET SESSION WEDNESDAY
The Knesset, meanwhile, will convene in extraordinary session tomorrow to discuss recent comment by Sharon in the Knesset and in media interviews. Amnon Rubinstein, leader of the Shinui Party, will bring up Sharon’s remark that a certain reserve brigade was not called into action in Lebanon because of the “anti-government” atmosphere among its soldiers. According to Rubinstein, this was disclosure of a military secret by the Minister of Defense and he will demand Sharon’s resignation.
Former Premier Yitzhak Rabin, of the Labor Alignment, is expected to attack Sharon’s attempt in his Knesset speech last week, to draw a parallel between the Shatila and Sabra camps massacre and the role of Israel in a similar massacre of Palestinians by Lebanese Christians at the Tel Za Atar refugee camp in Beirut in 1976–when a Labor government was in power.
THE AGRANAT COMMISSION RECALLED
The decision to appoint a statutory commission to investigate the west Beirut massacre recalled to many Israelis the Agranat Commission, setup in 1973 to determine responsibility for Israel’s lack of preparedness at the outset of the Yom Kippur War. Golda Meir was Premier at the time.
The late Yigal Allon, then Deputy Premier, explained in a radio broadcast the distinction the Agranat Commission drew between direct blame and ministerial responsibility. The Agranat panel did not consider it an inquiry commission’s role to comment on ministerial responsibility which, it said, was within the purview of the democratic parliamentary political process. An inquiry commission’s purpose was to make findings and recommendations, strictly in connection with direct blame, the Agranat commission stared.
The panel found the then Defense Minister Moshe Dayan was not directly to blame for Israel’s military shortcomings but declined to comment on the extent of his ministerial responsibility. In the ensuing political crisis, he was forced to resign.
By the same token, Labor opposition leaders made it clear today that they do not intend to relent in their attacks on Begin and Sharon — particularly the latter — and to demand that both resign because of their ministerial responsibility for what occurred in west Beirut.
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