A Historical Perspective
Published on January 8, 2006 By Larry Kuperman In Current Events
Some time ago, I wrote in an article on JoeUser that peace would not be possible in the Middle East until both Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon were gone. As I explained at that tiome it was not because of who they WERE so much as what the symbolized to the other side. Despite Ariel Sharon's efforts to cede land to the Palestinians and his recent formation of the Kadima party in Israel, I do not think that he would ever be recognized as viable negotiator for peace by the Arab world. He will always bear the stigma of being the Butcher of Beirut.



As Ariel Sharon lies near death, it seems an appropriate time to review the event that defined his early career. Ariel Sharon was the Israeli Defense Minister in 1982, when the massacre at Shatila took place. Because of his actions, and his failures to act, he was dismissed from this role as Defense Minister by Menacheim Begin and the Israeli Kahan commision said in its findings:

"We have found, as has been detailed in this report, that the Minister of Defense [Ariel Sharon] bears personal responsibility. In our opinion, it is fitting that the Minister of Defense draw the appropriate personal conclusions arising out of the defects revealed with regard to the manner in which he discharged the duties of his office - and if necessary, that the Prime Minister consider whether he should exercise his authority under Section 21-A(a) of the Basic Law: the Government, according to which "the Prime Minister may, after informing the Cabinet of his intention to do so, remove a minister from office.""

Time Magazine would later publish a story implying that Ariel Sharon was directly responsible for these massacres. An Israeli court would find that article false and defamatory.

What really happened at Shatila? What is the historical context of that dreadful day?

A long time ago, in my youth, Lebanon was the model of peaceful coexistance in the Middle East. Lebanon as a state was created by France as the homeland for Christians of French descent. Before the French left the area, Lebanon would expand its border to encompass land occupied Moslem Arabs.The Lebanese flag is the French tri-colour with a cedar tree in the foreground. Lebanon was one of the most peaceful and prosperous nations in the Middle East. All that changed in 1975 and a civil war began that would result in over 100,000 deaths.

The Lebanese Maronite Christians, led by the Phalangist party and militia, fought agains the PLO that had entered the country. Syria and Israel would both become involved in the conflict. Israeli armed forces would invade Lebanon in 1978 and again in 1982. They would ally themselves with the Phalangists. The Phalangists also pursued an alliance with Syria, who it was assumed would still be a power in the region after Israel left.

Shatila is a refugee camp outside Beirut, set up by the UN in 1949 for housing Palestinian refugees. It is adjacent to the Sabra neighborhood and often referred to as the Sabra Shatila camp. At the time of the massacre, Israel had won military victories against the PLO, but had agreed not to enter Beirut. Their invasion of Lebanon, in response to missle attacks from Southern Lebanon, had been condemned by the UN and a peace brokered under which the PLO was to withdraw and Israel not to advance further and to guarantee the safety of Palestinians in the refugee camps. Israeli forces surrounded the refugee camps on September 1st, even though this was a violation of the accord. On September 12th, Ariel Sharon claimed that 2000 PLO fighters remained in Beirut., hiding in the refugee camps. On September 14th, the President of Lebanon, Bachir Gemayel, was killed in a massive explosion that destoyed his headquarters. Gemayel had been very popular with the Maronite Christians. The next day, on September 15, the Israeli army reoccupied West Beirut. Sharon would send Israel's Phalangist allies into the Shatila camp to identify and "clean out" the PLO fighters.

It is hard for us to envision what the situation was like in Lebanon. In 1976, Christian Phalangists killed an estimated 1000 Karentina neighborhood of Lebanon. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karantina_Massacre. PLO forces responded by killing 300 Christians in the town of Damour. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Damour_massacre. Accounts include babies being shot at close range, women being raped and murdered, churches being defaced. Among those killed at Damour were the family and the fiancee of Elie Hobeika, a leader in the Phalangist movement. It was Hobeika that was in charge of the Phalangist force that entered Shatila.

A unit of 150 Phalangists was assembled at 4:00 p.m. These militiamen armed with guns, knives and hatchets entered the camps at 6:00 p.m. A Phalangist officer reported 300 killings, including civilians, to the Israeli command post at 8:00 p.m., and further reports of these killings followed through the night. Some of these reports were forwarded to the Israeli government in Jerusalem and were seen by a number of Israel's senior officials.

At one point, a militiaman's radioed question to his commander Hobeika about what to do with the women and children in the refugee camp was overheard by an Israeli officer, who heard Hobeika reply that "This is the last time you're going to ask me a question like that; you know exactly what to do". Phalangist troops could be heard laughing in the background. The Israeli officer reported this to his superior General Yaron, who warned Hobeika against hurting civilians but took no further action. Lt. Avi Grabowsky was cited by the Kahan Commission as having seen (on that Friday) the murder of five women and children. He spoke to his battalion commander about it; he replied "We know, it's not to our liking, and don't interfere." Israeli soldiers surrounding the camps turned back refugees fleeing the massacre.

Estimates of the death toll from the massacre vary from between 700 to 2000, including women and children. Many of the bodies had been mutilated. On December 16, 1982 the United Nations General Assembly condemned the massacre and declared it to have been an act of genocide.

It should be noted that no action was ever taken against Elie Hobeika. He was named head of the Lebanese forces in 1985. In 1986, he was forceably removed from this position because of his signing of the Triparte Accord with Syria. In 1990, after the civil war ended, he returned and held positions as a Minister in the Lebanese government. In 2002, Hobeika was going to testify about the Shatila Massacre, when he was assassinated by a car bomb. He had said that he had "revelations" to disclose. Various players are rumored to be behind Hobeika's assassination: Syria, Israel, Palestinian organisations, former LF members, CIA, etc.

There is no doubt that Hobeika was actually responsible for the massacre and that personal revenge played a part. Could Sharon have reasonably been expected to anticipate that the Phalangists, who had been more or less dependable allies to that point, would act in such a manner? Maybe yes and maybe no. If the intelligence that there were 2000 PLO fighters in the camp was accurate (and the Phalangists may well have provided that intelligence) why did Hobeika send in only 150 men? That the Phalangists entered the camp with knives and hatchets as well as guns, concerned some Israeli soldiers at the time.

Once the slaughter started, it became clear to those Israelis at Shatila what was going on. Accounts at the hearings afterwards support this. They saw people fleeing and turned them back to the slaughter. This is indisputable, it was caught on camera by news crews. That failure to intervene alone was criminal. Sharon, as Defense Minister, bore the ultimate responsibility and deserved to be removed from office for the failure of Israeli forces to act.

Was that the extent of Sharon's involvement? Without the testimony of Hobeika, we will probably never know more. Even had Hobeika testified, would he have told the truth? It is hard to escape the awful irony that Hobeika, the man actually responsible for the killings, received more forgiveness than the man who failed to stop him.

Welcome to the Middle East, where killing begets killing and massacre begets massacre.

As I stated in the beginning, the shadow of what happened at Shatila would always hang over Sharon's head. It seems unlikely that Sharon's health and age will ever let him resume office. Perhaps his having embraced the peace initiative towards the end of his career will do more than he could accomplish had he been able to stay on as Prime Minister.

For my sources, I primarily used Wikipedia. The facts quoted herein can be corroborated at a number of sources, but here are the links that I used primarily:

Ariel Sharon: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ariel_Sharon

Sabra-Shatila Massacre: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sabra-Shatila_massacre

Damour Massacre: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Damour_massacre

Elie Hobeika: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elie_Hobeika




Comments
on Jan 09, 2006
Excellent points Larry. I would give you an insightful, but the option is not working.
Too often, the criticism or condemnation of an Israel leader is interpreted as anti Semitism. This is NOT the case. Ariel Sharon is the Prime Minister of Israel.. he is NOT the leader of the Jewish people. To be critical of Israel or any of its policies is just that... it is not an act of anti Semitism.
As an Israeli, I feel I have the right to criticise, even condemn the actions of Ariel Sharon. Not to do so would add support to his henious crimes. The fact that he is ill at the moment, in fact, very close to death, does not change the fact that he has committed or was in a position to stop many crimes that took place while acting as Defence Minister during the early 80's.
Jews living outside of Israel too often see disagreements with Israel as acts of anti Semitsm. This is just not the case. More Jews live outside the borders of Israel than within them. Israel is a nation, not a symbol of Jewish unity.
My greatest hope is that the next leader of the State of Israel will unite the Jewish people, something that we havn't seen here in over 2000 years.
Shalom!
on Jan 09, 2006
Too often, the criticism or condemnation of an Israel leader is interpreted as anti Semitism. This is NOT the case. Ariel Sharon is the Prime Minister of Israel.. he is NOT the leader of the Jewish people. To be critical of Israel or any of its policies is just that... it is not an act of anti Semitism.
As an Israeli, I feel I have the right to criticise, even condemn the actions of Ariel Sharon. Not to do so would add support to his henious crimes. The fact that he is ill at the moment, in fact, very close to death, does not change the fact that he has committed or was in a position to stop many crimes that took place while acting as Defence Minister during the early 80's.
Jews living outside of Israel too often see disagreements with Israel as acts of anti Semitsm. This is just not the case. More Jews live outside the borders of Israel than within them. Israel is a nation, not a symbol of Jewish unity.
My greatest hope is that the next leader of the State of Israel will unite the Jewish people, something that we havn't seen here in over 2000 years.
Shalom!


I agree with what you have said that is basically what I have also been writing.

What impresses me about Sharon is the fact that at the age of 77 he undertook a radical shift in his political position. He broke with the likud and Kadima can well emerge as the centrist party in the new parliament. I also agree that Israeli leaders should not be allowed to escape accountability for their action by invoking anti semitism.
on Jan 09, 2006
I also agree that Israeli leaders should not be allowed to escape accountability for their action by invoking anti semitism.


It is not them that are doing the invoking.
on Jan 09, 2006
Fascinating (in a historical way) read!  Thank you for the education.
on Jan 09, 2006
As someone that WAS a real bad man in the truest sense of the term I have to say seeing Sharon taking an active role for peace just keeps my belief that anyone can change if they desire to.long live Sharon!
on Jan 09, 2006
Thank you all for your comments. The article was long, longer than I usually write, and despite the subject matter, I was afraid that no one would read it to it's conclusion.

The issue of anti-semitism in this case is unclear to me. It is often difficult to separate comments about a national leader from criticism of the country that the person leads. If someone writes a blog entitled "George Bush is an Imperialist Pig!" a significent number of readers might attribute anti-American sentiment to the author. I think that the same applies in this case and, due to the make up of Israel as a Jewish state, it is a short leap from anti-Israeli feelings to anti-Semitism.

As I tried to establish, the actual killers in this case were never pursued. Neither the world courts nor the media ever took Elie Hobeika to task for his acts. I said as much on Bahu's earlier post. Hobeika held Minister-level posts in Lebanon, including Minister of the Displaced, pretty ironic for a man known to have murdered refugees.

So, we must ask why a Christain was held to a different standard than a Jew? If Hobeika commited a crime, why was he not charged? If Hobeika act was "justified" because it occured in time of war and under duress, then why was Sharon guilty of war crimes for not stopping him?

I ask these questions not to provoke a specific response, but as legitimate queries. Would anyone disagree that the Christian and the Jew were held to different standards? It should further be noted that the Palestinians were never confronted for war crimes for what occured at Damour. Why is that?
on Jan 10, 2006

I ask these questions not to provoke a specific response, but as legitimate queries. Would anyone disagree that the Christian and the Jew were held to different standards? It should further be noted that the Palestinians were never confronted for war crimes for what occured at Damour. Why is that?

In the court of World Opinion, you are spot on.  That does not make it right, but since the inception of the state of Israel, most of the rest of the world has tried to hold them to a much higher standard than any other state is held to.  That is the reason for the difference, but it is not an excuse or justification for it.

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