Remembering a genocide

Print edition : October 19, 2012

Thirty years after the Sabra and Shatila killings in Lebanon, the U.S. complicity in the act comes in the open.

SEPTEMBER 16, 2012, was the 30th anniversary of the massacre in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in Beirut, Lebanon. At least 3,000 non-combatants, most of them women, the elderly and children, were massacred in an orgy of killing that lasted over three days. Most of the dead were impoverished Palestinian refugees. The actual killings were carried out by a right-wing Lebanese Phalangist militia aligned with Israel. Israel had invaded Lebanon in June 1982 to drive out the Palestinian resistance forces from the country and install a puppet regime in Beirut.

Israeli troops had surrounded the camps as the Phalangistsa Christian right-wing group armed and trained by Israelwent on systematically executing the residents. Many of the bodies were found in badly mutilated conditions. Eyewitnesses reported that women had been subjected to multiple rapes and then killed, and children literally torn apart.

Israeli troops had surrounded the camps and subjected the hapless inhabitants to heavy shelling. Then the Phalangists were let in, with the Israeli army lighting flares in the night to facilitate the massacre. There are eyewitness reports that some Israeli troops also participated in the killings.

An Israeli investigative commission had concluded soon after that the Israeli government was indirectly responsible for the killings and that Ariel Sharon, who was the Defence Minister and the architect of the 1982 invasion, bore personal responsibility for failing to prevent them.

It is another matter that no action was taken against Sharon, who went on to become Prime Minister and played a key role in the undermining of the Oslo peace accords and in the continuation of Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. As Noam Chomsky has noted, the official Israeli inquiry was not intended for people who have a prejudice in favour of truth and honesty.

An international commission of inquiry led by the Irish statesman Sean MacBride in 1982 concluded that Israel was directly responsible as the camps were under its direct jurisdiction as an occupying power. Despite the United Nations describing the massacres of Sabra and Shatila as a criminal massacre and declaring them to be acts of genocide, Israel went scot-free.

NEW EVIDENCE OF ISRAEL'S DUPLICITY

Now evidence has come to light that the United States government was aware of the activities of the Israeli forces and their local allies on the fateful days from September 16 to 18, when the massacre was going on. The New York Times, in a long report published on September 17, said that the government of Israel had duped Washington into believing that thousands of terrorists were holed up in the two camps and that military action was being taken to neutralise them. Seth Anziska, a doctoral student at Colombia University, who is the author of the article, cites official documents to show that the Israeli authorities deliberately misled the Americans into believing the spurious claims that thousands of Palestinian fightersterrorists in Israeli lingowere holed up in the ramshackle refugee settlements of Sabra and Shatila. Anziska based his research on recently declassified Israeli documents which he accessed from the government archive. Most troubling, when the U.S. was in a position to exert strong diplomatic pressure on Israel that could have ended the atrocities, it failed to do so, the article added.

The killings took place after Palestinian fighters had evacuated from West Beirut following the American guarantee that civilians would be protected. The U.S. had deployed its marines as part of a multinational force in Lebanon in the wake of the departure of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) forces from Lebanon. West Beirut had been under the control of the PLO forces for many years. But within ten days of their departure, the U.S. marines, who were supposed to help keep peace, left Beirut. The field was left open for the Israeli army and its right-wing Christian allies.

The Israeli Prime Minister at the time, Menachem Begin, had told the special U.S. envoy to the region, Morris Draper, on September 15 that Israeli troops were moving into West Beirut to prevent a pogrom. The previous day, the pro-Israeli President of Lebanon, Basher Gemayel, newly installed in office, had been assassinated. By September 16, the first day of the massacre, the Israeli army was fully in control of West Beirut, which included the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. Washington by then had seen through the game plan of the Israelis.

AT THE SHATILA CAMP after the massacre in 1982.-ALAIN MINGAM/GAMMA

Lawrence Eagleburger, the U.S. Under Secretary of State, told the Israeli Ambassador, Moshe Arens, that we appear to some as a victim of a deliberate deception by Israel. Eagleburger demanded that Israeli forces immediately withdraw from West Beirut. But Israel refused to budge. Defence Minister Sharon told Draper that there were 2,000-3,000 terrorists who remained in Sabra and Shatila. The New York Times article describes Draper as being horrified when he was told that Sharon was planning to send the bloodthirsty Phalangist militia into the area. The Israeli militarys chief of staff, Rafael Eitan, told the Americans that he feared a relentless slaughter once the Phalangists were let into West Beirut.

As predicted, the massacre started under the noses of the Israeli forces, with the Americans reduced to playing the role of bystanders. Quoting from documents, The New York Times report said that the U.S. officials were not told at a high-level meeting Draper had with Israeli Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, Sharon and Israeli intelligence chiefs on September 17 that the killings had started. When Draper demanded that the Israeli forces vacate West Beirut immediately, he was browbeaten into submission by Sharon, according to the newly unearthed transcripts. Sharon angrily told Draper: I just dont understand, what are you looking for? Do you want the terrorists to stay? Are you afraid that somebody will think that you are in collusion with us? Deny it. We denied it.

Drapers insistence on Israeli withdrawal was met with further stonewalling by Sharon, who was by then well aware that the massacre in Sabra and Shatila had begun. Sharon assured Draper that nothing drastically untoward would happen. Nothing will happen. Maybe a few more terrorists will be killed. That will be to the benefit of us all, Sharon told the American envoy. As history has shown, the Americans let Sharon and the Israeli government have the last word. The Phalangists and the Israeli army were allowed to go on with the mayhem in Sabra and Shatila unimpeded for three days and nights.

President Ronald Reagan waited until September 18 to issue a statement expressing revulsion and outrage over the murders in Sabra and Shatila. He said that the U.S. had opposed the Israeli occupation of West Beirut believing that it was wrong in principle and for fear that it would provoke further fighting. His Secretary of State George P. Schultz said that the U.S. had partial responsibility for the killings because we took the Israelis and the Lebanese at their word. U.S. administrations since then have been even more gullible when it comes to commitments and promises made by Israel.

A PALESTINIAN GIRL NEAR THE IRON GATE marking the entry to the mass grave of the victims, in January 2006. The picture displayed there shows aid workers standing among mutilated corpses.-HUSSEIN MALLA/AP

Israel has committed many more atrocities since then. The last major one was during the Gaza invasion, when over 1,400 people were killed. Now the Barack Obama administration is being arm-twisted by the powerful Jewish lobby in the U.S. to declare war on Iran on behalf of Israel. Washington recently announced that negotiations with Tehran have failed and will not be resumed. Many observers and analysts feel that this is a prelude to war. Israel seems to have once again succeeded in steering American foreign policy to its benefit. A war with Iran will plunge the entire region into further chaos and bloodshed.

Very few Western media outlets bothered even to remember the 30th anniversary of the Sabra and Shatila massacre.

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