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Journalist reckons with Israeli blame for 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre

15 13 26

Recollections of the final harrowing chapter of Israel’s Beirut adventure in 1982 always begin for me with the ambience of Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue on Rosh Hashanah eve.

A monumental year was coming to an end and there were major events to scroll through one’s mind during the lengthy service — the final pullout from Sinai, the traumatic dismantling of the Sinai settlement of Yamit, the invasion of Lebanon. However, hours before the start of services, disturbing reports began to arrive of a massacre in Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut by Christian militias.

I went to the Great Synagogue, where then-prime minister Menachem Begin prayed on holidays, to see if the new developments were serious enough to keep him away. He was in his place, sitting pensively near the front of the packed hall. As prayers by the cantor and choir resonated off the stained glass windows, he was still absorbing the confused reports passed on by aides.

After the two-day holiday I drove up to Beirut for The Jerusalem Post. The route had become familiar since Israel’s entry into the Christian half of the city earlier that summer.

The predominantly Muslim West Beirut, where the refugee camps were located, became accessible only after the expulsion of Yasser Arafat and his PLO fighters on August 30. Along with other journalists, I had watched from a rooftop overlooking the port as they boarded a white ferry that would take them into Tunisian exile after a UN-brokered cease fire. It was hard not to concede that then-defense minister Ariel Sharon, who initiated the incursion, had achieved a new order in Lebanon.

This would end two weeks later on September 14 with the assassination of Israel’s major Lebanese ally, Phalange leader Bashir Gemayel, who had just been elected president. It was a reminder that the march of history in Lebanon makes few detours into sunlit uplands. Just two days later, the massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps began, as the Christian Phalange sought their measure of revenge over two days.

Arriving in Christian East Beirut after Rosh Hashanah, I picked up a mandatory “escort” from the IDF spokesman’s office before driving into the Muslim stronghold of West Beirut. The escort happened to be a colleague from The Jerusalem Post on reserve duty, Ed Grossman. I also stopped by the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s liaison office, run by an old acquaintance. His briefing consisted almost entirely of a despairing shrug. He could not explain what had happened or what Israel’s role had been.

An Israeli soldier we asked directions of, a reservist, pointed the way to the refugee camps. He offered us the first insight into what Israeli troops in Beirut were thinking about the massacre. “If I see Sharon,” he volunteered, “I’ll shoot him.”

A paratroop battalion, whose positions overlooked the camps from high ground to the southwest, was headquartered in a modern school building. Several soldiers were sleeping on the floor in sleeping bags. A young lieutenant serving as duty officer responded tersely to my questions.

Units from the battalion, he acknowledged, had been deployed in the area but not inside the camps. He had heard scattered shooting the night the massacre began but it had meant nothing at the time since there was shooting every day. Every family in the camps had weapons. No, I could not enter the camps. It was too dangerous. Israeli troops had not entered them. Alright, I could go to the adjacent intersection from which the camp could be seen, but no further. He could not give me permission to interview soldiers. A group of soldiers near the intersection stopped us but let us pass when we said we only wanted to look down into the camps from a distance.

The ground sloped steeply to the refugee camps, about 500 meters (about a third of a mile) away. We could see rooftops but not the streets where bodies lay. Dominating the intersection was the handsome, seven-story Kuwaiti embassy, empty now. A swarthy caretaker sat outside talking with a Lebanese Army sergeant. With the PLO gone, Lebanese Army units had bobbed to the surface.

The two men spoke to us in a chatty manner about the massacre. The sergeant said the Christians had used knives so that the Israelis would not be alerted........

© The Times of Israel

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