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 background material. As such, Israel avoided a truly comprehensive investigation of the real tragedy: the prodigious diplomatic and military missteps that led it to embark on the war and the failure to attain the majority of its goals, even as it sacrificed hundreds of soldiers. In fact, it can be asserted that the focus on Sabra and Chatila, alongside the ongoing bloodletting in the Lebanese quagmire in which Israel continued to be immersed, prevented a thorough arrival at the roots of the Israeli folly that was on full display in the 1982 Lebanon war. That constituted a truly astonishing, virtual reprise of how the Agranat Commission of Inquiry missed an opportunity of its own about a decade earlier. Adhering to its limited mandate, that panel, established in the wake of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, focused on pre-war intelligence blunders and on the military’s failures during the war’s first three days. It did not consider at all the question of the diplomatic opportunity that, had it been exploited, might have prevented the war, or the chain of strategic and tactical failures revealed in the deployment of the military forces – alongside heroism, achievements and successes on the battlefield – until the very end of the war. The Lebanese folly, to put it concisely, consists of three main layers: the diplomatic madness, the military failures, and the question of the relations between the political decision makers and the military. The latter has actually been subjected to some serious analysis, whether in the trenchant 1984 book by Ze’ev Schiff and Ehud Yaari, “Israel’s Lebanon War,” or Yigal Kipnis’ “1982, Lebanon – The Road to War” (Hebrew, 2022). It’s worth probing the diplomatic delusion of a “new order” that Israel was ostensibly going to impose on its weak, conflicted, multi-ethnic neighbor, which in 1982 was already subject to significant Syrian involvement and influence. We know now that the big plan did not actually end with the expelling the PLO from Lebanon and installing a president from the Christian minority. Rather, the plan imagined that achievement of those goals would be followed by a continuation until the signing of a peace treaty between Lebanon and Israel. Also, the terrorist organizations would return to Jordan, from which they had been expelled and where, together with that country’s Palestinian majority, the longed-for Palestinian state would be established. A military debacle toppled this house of cards. The ground forces did not function properly or achieve their goals. The intelligence organizations were caught in their cluenessness regarding the Lebanese reality. The Syrian army in Lebanon was not vanquished despite opening conditions that were clearly to its disadvantage. The armed Palestinian groups inflicted significant losses on the Israeli army. Only the air force excelled, primarily in the rapid and total destruction of Syria’s surface-to-air missiles. The defense establishment heads deferred and fudged discussion of the thorough analysis of the failure and its roots that was carried out by Dr. Emmanuel Wald on the army’s orders. The truth is that Israel, through its government and its army, refused to investigate honestly and courageously the disaster it brought upon itself in Lebanon. Moreover, that sort of soul-searching cannot be placed exclusively on the shoulders of commissions of inquiry, neither in the Lebanon war of 1982 nor that of 2006. Nor when it comes to the Mount Meron disaster of Lag Ba’omer 2021. Dedicated to my relative Rami Pesach, may his memory be a blessing, who was killed shortly before his 40th birthday as a reserve soldier at an encampment near Sidon, and like the rest of his comrades-in-arms who fell, died in vain in a failed and pointless war of choice.