Thursday, February 21, 2013

Israel's Cabinet Grapples With Sabra and Shatila

On September 16, 1982, Christian Maronite troops of the Lebanese Phalange forces entered the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut, and began massacring Palestinian civilians--hundreds of men, women and children. This was yet another chapter in the long and ghastly civil war in Lebanon, but with a twist: this time there were IDF troops in the immediate vicinity, and they had sent in the Phalangists. The horrifying thought that Israel might be involved in the atrocity, might perhaps even bear some responsibility for it was, sadly, only too natural.

Over the next six months, Israel's cabinet dedicated at least six of its meetings to the massacres and their implications. In September, there were three urgent meetings, in which the cabinet tried to formulate an effective response to the events. In the first, the ministers vehemently rejected any responsibility for the massacres. In the second, five days later, they decided to set up a limited investigation. At the third meeting, on September 28, they bowed to the force of public opinion and appointed a full-fledged official commission of inquiry, headed by Ytzhak Kahan, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

The commission sat until February 1983. On February 7, it published its findings: Israel was not directly responsible for the massacres, which it had not intended and certainly had not executed. But it did bear indirect responsibility because its leaders should have foreseen the danger of allowing the Phalangists into the camps. The commission recommended that two generals and Minister of Defense Ariel Sharon leave their jobs. It was left to the cabinet to accept and implement the commission's recommendations, or to reject them, partially or in full. This decision required three consecutive evenings of deliberation. For the half of Israeli society opposed to the government, these three days were an offensive delay, probably spent seeking a way out. For the half that supported the government, the demonstrators were traitors, or fifth columnists. The tensions between the two camps reached heights not seen for decades, and arguably not seen since, either. (The demonstrations in the 1990s which culminated in the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin were directed at his government, not at the other political camp.)

The transcripts of those six cabinet meetings, classified at the time as Top Secret, have been sealed in the archives ever since. Yet the law which prevents their publication requires thirty years of concealment. Those thirty years are now up, so we're publishing them. The process of declassification required that we not open the sections which contain security matters which are sealed for fifty years; most of the time, however, the ministers talked politics, not military secrets, so the sections we've had to keep unpublished are quite limited. The open parts cover almost 250 pages of transcripts.

The publication comes in three flavors:

1. The full file, along with a detailed historical description is here.

2. An interpretive article about the content of the file, which we've published at Tablet Magazine.

3. A series of blog posts, in which we intend to translate segments of the transcripts into English, will be published on this blog. Each time we post another section we'll also update this post, so that it may serve as the aggregator of the whole effort. Readers who are interested in the full series but lack the Hebrew to read 250 pages, or lack the time and prefer an English-language digest, are encouraged either to revisit this blog post, or, preferably, simply to follow this blog.

Update 1: Here's the translation of the Cabinet's first meeting, on Saturday night immediately after the massacres. The ministers totally misread the situation.

1 comment:

  1. The Begin quote in Tablet hits the same notes (for me) as Joseph's brothers: "A calamity befell us, a tragedy happened to us. As calamities can fall upon people so they can on governments too, and this one stalked us and found us."