When Israel Actually Probed Its Mistakes – but Didn't Dig Deep Enough

The 400,000-strong protest against the 1982 massacre at Sabra and Chatila and the state inquiry that followed were moral high points for Israel. The nation was jolted by mass killings its forces hadn't actually committed. And yet what followed seems in retrospect a missed opportunity

A Palestinian woman wailing, as a Swedish U.N. officer stands by, at the Sabra refugee camp, in Beirut, 40 years ago.Credit: Bill Foley / AP

The massacre in the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps in Beirut was perpetrated 40 years ago, in the wake of the assassination of Lebanon’s president-elect, Bashir Gemayel. Forces of the Christian Phalangists, in coordination with and with the approval of the Israel Defense Forces, entered the camps with the ostensible aim of clearing out fighters from the Palestine Liberation Organization. The killing of civilians lasted for three days, from September 16 to 18, 1982. Estimates of the number of victims range from many hundreds to 2,000. In the wake of the massacre, public protest in Israel against the first Lebanon war escalated sharply. In Tel Aviv’s Kikar Malchei Yisrael (now Rabin Square), a huge event was held on September 26 that came to be known as the “demonstration of the 400,000”; the media were in an uproar; and the political opposition to the government of Menachem Begin was gaining strength. On September 28, the government decided to establish a state commission of inquiry, which became known as the Kahan Commission. Justice Yitzhak Kahan, the Supreme Court president, presided. Revisiting the commission and the work it did gives rise now to mixed feelings: a potent impression, together with the sense of a major opportunity squandered. Kahan was joined on the panel by Supreme Court Justice (and former attorney general) Aharon Barak and Maj. Gen. (res.) Yona Efrat. Jurists Dorit Beinisch and Edna Arbel, both of whom went on to become state prosecutors and Supreme Court justices, and Israel Police Commander Alex Ish Shalom were entrusted with collecting material for the case. The commission took testimony from about 200 witnesses, visited Lebanon and displayed noteworthy efficiency. Its conclusions were published in February 1983, less than four months after the panel had been created, under the title “The Commission of Inquiry into the Events at the Refugee Camps in Beirut, 1983 – Final Report.” The report stated that no direct proof had been found of Israel’s involvement in the massacre, but noted that there were persons in the Israeli military who were cognizant of what was going on in real time and did not act with the requisite resoluteness to stop it. The commission’s conclusions had a dramatic effect on the public arena. Its recommendation to remove Defense Minister Ariel Sharon from office was accepted; for his part, he refused to resign from the government and was appointed minister without portfolio. During a demonstration held in Jerusalem by Peace Now calling for Sharon to be fired, Emil Grunzweig, an activist within the left-wing organization, was murdered.

The director of Military Intelligence, Yehoshua Sagi, who did in fact warn more than once about the consequences of the Phalange entry into the camps, resigned after the commission held him also accountable for the incidents. Prime Minister Begin resigned half a year after publication of the report – which was critical of him – for reasons he described as personal, which were manifested in his apparent depression and reclusiveness. Still, Begin can be seen as an exception. The others admonished by the panel continued on their road, onward and upward. Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir went on to serve a total of seven years as prime minister. Sharon fulfilled the prophecy of his confidant, journalist Uri Dan (“Those who didn’t want Arik in the Defense Ministry will receive him as prime minister”) by assuming the lofty post in 2001. Army Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan became head of a political party, Tzomet, and a cabinet minister. Sagi was elected mayor of Bat Yam. Brig. Gen. Amos Yaron, commander of the Beirut sector during the war, rose to the rank of major general and later, in civilian life, served as director general of the Defense Ministry and chairman of the Eilat Ashkelon Pipeline Company. Still, from a distance of decades, the establishment of the Kahan Commission can be seen as a kind of moral summit, which today sounds as if it came from the realm of science-fiction. It constituted a national, judicial and political jolt in the wake of the indiscriminate killing of Palestinian civilians during a war against the Palestinian enemy, a massacre that was not perpetrated by Israel and did not occur on its soil. What would be defined afterward bitterly and cynically by Sharon as “general hysteria after Christian Arabs slaughtered Muslim Arabs,” can actually be tagged as a peak in Israeli discourse concerning combat morality and the sacredness of human life. Yitzhak Shamir testifies before the Kahan Commission in 1982.Credit: Moshe Milner / GPOFrom that point on, of course, a steep and continuous decline ensued. Still, it’s a reasonable assumption that the protest against the events of Sabra and Chatila also served, in large measure, as a channel for expression of the tremendous frustration and pain that were accumulating in light of the events of the war and the burgeoning price it was exacting on the Israeli side. From that standpoint, the Kahan Commission can also be seen today as a major missed opportunity, stemming directly from the diminished mandate granted it from the outset. Within the realm under the commission’s scrutiny were the events of the massacre, the circumstances that led to it and the ability to predict and prevent it. In its hearings, the panel did in fact compile considerable material regarding the developments that led to the war’s eruption in the first place. However, that served only as backgr