The Sabra and Shatila Massacre—New Revelations

The New York Times, not known for being a fountain of truth when it comes to Middle East reporting, has stepped out of character and published an op-ed piece on the 30th anniversary of the Sabra and Shatila massacre that contains some striking revelations. The massacre in the two Palestinian refugee camps took place in 1982 over a three-day period from September 16-18. Those killed were mainly women, children and elderly men. The slaughter was carried out by Phalangist militia though under the auspices of the Israeli military, which not only controlled the area but even lit up the night sky with flares as the murderers went about their task. Details about the massacre itself is available here.

But the new, never-before-released material concerns conversations between Israeli and American officials that were occurring quite literally as the massacre was in progress*. What the author of the piece, Seth Anziska, informs us is that American diplomats, both in Washington and Tel Aviv, called for a halt to the atrocities but that they were “browbeaten” by the Israelis. Of particular interest is a meeting in Israel on September 17 between Israeli officials, including Ariel Sharon, and US Envoy to the Middle East Morris Draper. I’m only going to provide excerpts, but you can access the full article here. (Hat tip to our friend msa.)

Mr. Draper opened the meeting by demanding that the I.D.F. pull back right away. Mr. Sharon exploded, “I just don’t understand, what are you looking for? Do you want the terrorists to stay? Are you afraid that somebody will think that you were in collusion with us? Deny it. We denied it.” Mr. Draper, unmoved, kept pushing for definitive signs of a withdrawal. Mr. Sharon, who knew Phalange forces had already entered the camps, cynically told him, “Nothing will happen. Maybe some more terrorists will be killed. That will be to the benefit of all of us.” Mr. Shamir and Mr. Sharon finally agreed to gradually withdraw once the Lebanese Army started entering the city — but they insisted on waiting 48 hours (until the end of Rosh Hashana, which started that evening).

Excerpt from transcript of meeting of Sept. 17, 1982

The story goes on about what seems to have been a rather heated exchange between Draper and Sharon, with the latter proclaiming at one point, “So, we’ll kill them. They will not be left there. You are not going to save them. You are not going to save these groups of the international terrorism.” The position of the Israelis was that the camps were overrun with terrorists, which was nonsense—and the Americans knew it was nonsense—since PLO forces under Yasser Arafat had been evacuated out of Lebanon, mainly in August. What remained by September 16 was an unarmed, and extremely vulnerable, civilian population. Anziska goes on to comment:

By allowing the argument to proceed on Mr. Sharon’s terms, Mr. Draper effectively gave Israel cover to let the Phalange fighters remain in the camps. Fuller details of the massacre began to emerge on Sept. 18, when a young American diplomat, Ryan C. Crocker, visited the gruesome scene and reported back to Washington.

Years later, Mr. Draper called the massacre “obscene.” And in an oral history recorded a few years before his death in 2005, he remembered telling Mr. Sharon: “You should be ashamed. The situation is absolutely appalling. They’re killing children! You have the field completely under your control and are therefore responsible for that area.”

On September 18, as news of the massacre was first coming out in the media, President Ronald Reagan expressed his “outrage and revulsion over the murders.” But as Anziska comments, “the belated expression of shock and dismay belies the Americans’ failed diplomatic effort during the massacre. The transcript of Mr. Draper’s meeting with the Israelis demonstrates how the United States was unwittingly complicit in the tragedy of Sabra and Shatila.”

Israeli colonel takes pot-shot at US soldier—excerpt from secret talking points memo drawn up by Undersecretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger regarding meeting with Israeli Ambassador Moshe Arens on Sept. 16, 1982

In a way, it was the beginning of the plummeting of America’s prestige and moral influence in the world, and particularly in the Middle East. On April 18, 1983, the US embassy in Beirut was bombed, and on October 23 that same year the US Marine barracks in Beirut were bombed, with 241 Marines killed. Anziska comments:

The archival record reveals the magnitude of a deception that undermined American efforts to avoid bloodshed. Working with only partial knowledge of the reality on the ground, the United States feebly yielded to false arguments and stalling tactics that allowed a massacre in progress to proceed.

The lesson of the Sabra and Shatila tragedy is clear. Sometimes close allies act contrary to American interests and values. Failing to exert American power to uphold those interests and values can have disastrous consequences: for our allies, for our moral standing and most important, for the innocent people who pay the highest price of all.

The only part of Anziska’s article I would take issue is his comment about Israel being a “close ally” of America. Israel is not our ally. Israel is our mortal enemy, and the sooner Americans wake up and realize this the better.

Also see:
Reflections on the Sabra and Shatila massacre, by Franklin Lamb, whose wife, Janet Stevens, died in the attack upon the US embassy in Beirut.