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Sharon's war crime
The horror of Sabra and Shatila

September 20, 2002 | Pages 6 and 7

ALSO IN THIS ARTICLE:
Naseer Aruri: "It redrew the political map"
Sharon's partners in crime
Behind the war on Palestinians

THE ELECTION of Ariel Sharon as prime minister of Israel in February 2001 horrified people the world over.

For decades, Sharon had set himself apart by showing unequaled ruthlessness and brutality when it came to attacking Palestinians. His war crimes spanned several decades, beginning with atrocities in the 1950s that he oversaw as the commander of Israel's Unit 101--notorious for its "efficient and brutal performance," in the words of Israeli historian Benny Morris.

But above all else, Sharon was known for his role in the massacre of Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps--committed 20 years ago this week--during Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon. ERIC RUDER looks back at Sabra and Shatila.

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THE HORROR began on September 16, 1982. "They killed everyone they found, but the point is the way they killed them," said Jamal, a 28-year-old Palestinian, who led what resistance could be mustered. "They found a mother holding a 5-year-old. They took the child and pretended they were about to kill him, not just once, but two or three times. Then they killed him and told her he would have been a [terrorist] one day. They said, 'We don't need to kill you--you'll die with this memory.'

"There was the daughter of Abu Diab, who was 15. They tied her hands and legs and did everything that men can to her. Then they drove an iron bar up her and killed her."

There was little that Jamal and the few Palestinians who were prepared to resist could do. Israel's invasion of Lebanon began in June and had already driven the leadership and fighters of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) out of southern Lebanon and the capital city of Beirut, forcing them to retreat to Tunisia. The Palestinians who remained were unarmed men, women and children, concentrated in several refugee camps.

On September 14, Lebanon's President-elect Bashir Gemayel--the head of the far-right Christian Phalange party and an ally of Israel in its war on Palestinians--was assassinated. When soldiers from the Phalangist militias descended on the refugee camps to take revenge, Ariel Sharon--then Israel's defense minister--moved quickly to take advantage.

Israeli troops--already in control of southern Lebanon and eastern Beirut--seized West Beirut, too--supposedly for the purpose of protecting the Palestinian camps from the "bloodthirsty" Phalange, Sharon said. In reality, Sharon used the Phalange to "clear out the terrorist nests"--and achieve Israel's long-term objective of driving Palestinians out of Lebanon for good.

Elie Hobeika, a leader of the Phalange, explained that the militias employed the same terror methods used by Israel in 1948 to drive Palestinians from Palestine. "Shoot them against the pink and blue walls; slaughter them in the half-light of the evening," he declared. "The only way you will find out how many Palestinians we killed is if they ever build a subway under Beirut...A good massacre or two will drive the Palestinians out of Beirut and Lebanon once and for all."

With Israeli soldiers stationed just outside the camps, the killings didn't stop for two days and nights. In fact, when darkness fell, Israeli troops fired flares, lighting the camps with a bright and eerie glow to make the militia's work easier. At least 700 people were confirmed killed, but 1,300 to 1,600 more people "disappeared" and were never seen again.

The world was shocked by the corpses piled up in alleys and heaped in doorways. British journalist Robert Fisk was one of the first to set foot inside the camps after the slaughter. "There were women lying in houses with their skirts torn up to their waists and their legs wide apart, children with their throats cut, rows of young men shot in the back after being lined up at an execution wall," wrote Fisk.

"There were babies--blackened babies because they had been slaughtered more than 24 hours earlier and their small bodies were already in a state of decomposition--tossed into rubbish heaps alongside discarded U.S. army ration tins, Israeli army equipment and empty bottles of whiskey."

"If the Israelis had not taken part in the killings, they had certainly sent militia into the camp. They had trained them, given them uniforms, handed them U.S. army rations and Israeli medical equipment. Then they had watched the murderers in the camps."

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"It redrew the political map"

NASEER ARURI has written and edited numerous books about the Palestinian struggle, the latest being Palestinian Refugees: The Right of Return. He spoke to Socialist Worker about the significance of the Sabra and Shatila massacre after 20 years.

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WHAT DID Sharon hope to accomplish with the Sabra and Shatila massacre?

SHARON WANTED to undermine the PLO. The three major objectives of the Israeli invasion were to redraw the political map of Lebanon, to undermine the Syrian presence there, and, most importantly, to try to preempt a Palestinian state in waiting.

The institutional infrastructure of the Palestinians was in Lebanon--that's where they had their hospitals, their media and educational institutions.

Because of the massacre, there was an uproar in Israel protesting the entire operation engineered by Sharon and Begin--both of whom are indicted terrorists, I should mention. This forced Sharon's resignation and the disgrace of Begin's government.

Now, Sharon is back, and this isn't the first time since then, either. In the government of Benjamin Netanyahu in 1998, he was foreign minister. Now he's prime minister and is committing more massacres in 2002--in Jenin, in Ramallah and elsewhere.

So what he did in 1982 is being done again 20 years later. His career began with criminality, and it's continuing in that way. And yet, George W. Bush calls him "a man of peace."

WHAT ROLE did the U.S. play?

IN DEALING with the U.S. role, the question to ask is what was the U.S. strategy?

Today--and even at the time--we have sufficient evidence that the U.S. gave Israel the green light for the invasion of Lebanon, which cost the Lebanese and the Palestinians 17,500 casualties, most of whom were civilians. The war was fought with American weaponry.

The second thing to mention is that by the time Israel went into Beirut, an agreement was made under the auspices of the U.S. that provided for the exit of the PLO forces from Lebanon to Tunis. The agreement was known as the Habib agreement--Philip Habib was President Reagan's envoy to Lebanon to arrange this with Yasser Arafat.

One of the important stipulations made after the agreement was that the U.S. would guarantee the safety of the families of the departed Palestinian fighters. That promise was not kept.

In other words, when the Phalange committed the massacre under the protection of Sharon and his forces, the U.S. was clearly responsible, because it had guaranteed the safety of those who were left behind. So the U.S. was really responsible then--as it's responsible now for the massacres committed in Jenin and Ramallah.

Without American support for Israel, I think we would have seen some sort of commission of inquiry this year. There was no commission of inquiry in 1982, and no commission of inquiry in 2002, and the U.S. played a very important role both times--as the accomplice and the protector of the perpetrators.

WHAT KIND of setback did the defeat in Lebanon deal to the Palestinian resistance?

THE WHOLE Lebanese episode--and not just the massacre--brought about a new situation where the infrastructure of the Palestinian state in waiting was removed.

What happened that was really significant was a shift in the Palestinian struggle from the outside to the inside. Instead of struggling from Lebanon to try to get back to Palestine, now the center of gravity of the struggle shifted to the people on the ground in the West Bank.

Hence, the first Palestinian uprising, or Intifada, of 1987. That Intifada is partly rooted in what happened in Lebanon--in addition, of course, to what was going on in the West Bank.

WHAT HAS been the longer-term fallout of this episode?

BY THE beginning of 1983, the U.S. took control of Lebanon from the Israelis. It's rather ironic that in this case, the U.S. became the Israeli surrogate, rather than the other way around.

So the U.S. arranged for the departure of Palestinian forces, and especially by the time of the suicide bombing that killed 291 U.S. Marines in their barracks, the U.S. was in control.

They had taken over from the Israelis--who were under internal pressure to withdraw--in order to clean up.

I think the U.S. realized that it had given a green light to a maniac who had grandiose ambitions. The U.S. shared some of Israel's long-term objectives, but it didn't realize how grandiose Sharon's ambitions were.

I think that what happened in Lebanon in 1982 delayed, if not preempted, Palestinian statehood. As a result, instead of being able to declare a Palestinian state through the United Nations, now the Palestinians had to embark on a new struggle internally that was terminated by the Oslo arrangements.

Arafat--who had been weakened by the Lebanon events--played the Intifada card to get the Oslo agreement with Israel in 1993. Oslo gave us seven years in which the Israelis basically bought more time and built more colonial settlements.

By the time the Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams met with Bill Clinton at Camp David in 2000, the Palestinian leadership was realizing that Oslo was a farce. That produced the second Intifada, which the Israelis, with American support, have put down ruthlessly and begun to develop a new idea for dealing with the Palestinians.

The terms of this are really far different from what prevailed in 1982. The global consensus in 1982 was that there should be a Palestinian state that would emerge through the UN.

Now in 2002, Sharon and the U.S. have undermined that consensus to the extent that we find them talking about a temporary state, about building a wall, about expulsions.

All in all, the events in Lebanon inflicted serious damage on the Palestinian cause.

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Sharon's partners in crime

THE GREAT myth about the Sabra and Shatila massacre is that Ariel Sharon acted alone. True, Israel's defense minister might have been indirectly responsible for the tragedy, goes the story, but he didn't have the blessing of other officials.

The reality is different. In the first place, the Kahan Commission--a panel set up to investigate the massacre and headed by Israeli Supreme Court President Yitzhak Kahan--found that Sharon bore "personal responsibility" and recommended his resignation. This was the least that could be concluded, given that Sharon had given the order for the Phalange to be let into the camps.

But the Kahan Commission went further, attributing "a certain degree of responsibility" to Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir for failing to act when they received a report on the massacre on September 17.

In fact, Begin, Shamir and the rest of the cabinet knew exactly what was happening. News that the Phalange had entered the camp reached the cabinet at 9 p.m. on September 16.

"When I hear that the Phalangists have already gone into certain neighborhoods--and I know what vengeance means to them, the kind of slaughter," said Deputy Prime Minister David Levy, upon hearing the news, "No one is going to believe that we were there to maintain order, and we'll bear the blame."

But Begin, Sharon and a string of witnesses before the Kahan Commission simply lied. "It did not even occur to me, honored judge, to think that the Phalangists…would commit such atrocities," Begin declared.

That the Kahan Commission admitted Sharon's responsibility is a testament to the worldwide shock and horror at the atrocity. In Israel itself, 400,000 people poured into the streets in the largest political rally in the country's history to call for the government to resign.

On the other hand, "the Commission could go no further than it did," wrote Lenni Brenner. "To have said that the two leading figures in Israel's government wanted and expected a massacre--even if not of the full magnitude of the one that did in fact occur--would have been tantamount to their declaring that Zionism had degenerated into a monstrosity, and members of such establishments never willingly admit that."

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Behind the war on Palestinians

ARIEL SHARON may be responsible for the massacre at Sabra and Shatila. But this horror is only one chapter in a long history of violence against the Palestinian people.

This half-century of oppression is the inevitable consequence of the Zionist project of creating and defending a Jewish-only state on land stolen from Palestinians.

The movement to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine began more than a century ago. The leaders of the Zionist movement understood that to acquire the necessary military might to drive the Palestinians out, they would need to appeal to the world's main imperialist powers.

Theodor Herzl, the father of Zionism, made his case to Europe and the U.S. by promising that the Jewish state would be part of "the rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism."

When the Middle East emerged as the world's biggest source of oil in the 1930s, the race to dominate the region intensified. For its part, the U.S. backed dictators and despots throughout the Arab world, sponsoring coups to bring pro-Western leaders like the Shah of Iran to power.

Israel--formed in 1948 after Zionist militias carried out a reign of terror to expel Palestinians from their land--emerged victorious in its 1967 war against neighboring Arab regimes. The U.S. stepped up its support dramatically--and has continued ever since as Israel's main backer.

While U.S. support for Arab regimes has the potential of provoking anger from the mass of the population of these countries, Israel's population is uniformly pro-U.S. As a result, U.S. support doesn't risk destabilizing Israel internally.

Israeli officials are keen to claim that the U.S. supports Israel because it is "the only democracy in the Middle East." This is absurd. For the 3.3 million Palestinians crammed into the Occupied Territories, life is characterized by poverty, siege and the constant risk of death or injury at the hands of Israeli forces.

For the roughly 1 million Palestinians living inside Israel, life is scarcely better. Palestinians are second-class citizens, their land subject to expropriation and their communities underfunded in every respect--from education to social services to water. Their conditions are essentially the same as those experienced by Black South Africans under apartheid.

Yet the U.S.--as part of its drive to control Middle East oil--continues to fund Israel's war against Palestinians to the tune of $5 billion a year. The struggle for justice for Palestinians, therefore, requires a fight against U.S. imperialism--the force that props up and benefits from Israel's terror.

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