x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

A warning from history: how a massacre is remembered

Scant attention paid to Sabra and Shatila masacre although psychological impact and moral significance are still being debated.

JERUSALEM //Thirty years ago, many Israelis expressed their outrage over the Sabra and Shatila massacre. Now, it receives scant attention outside of coffee houses and academic circles.

More than 300,000 Israelis rallied in September 1982 demanding answers about Israel's role in the mass killings in which an estimated 1,000 people were killed in Palestinian refugee camps by militiamen from a Christian–Lebanese political party and paramilitary organisation called the Phalange.

"I don't think many Israelis actively remember it today," said Didi Remez, a prominent Israeli activist who used to work for Israel's Peace Now group and who witnessed the September 25 demonstration as a 12-year-old.

The psychological impact and moral significance of Sabra and Shatila on Israel are still being debated but not its memory among the Israeli public. That, activists and journalists agree, has faded over time.

If anything, the massacre highlighted serious shortcomings with Israeli policy and undercut both its reputation and its self-proclaimed image as an underdog in the region.

The memory of Sabra and Shatila has faded in Israel, say activists and journalists, for those very reasons and it forever changed the country's identity.

"The massacre was not mentioned this week or this year, and I think people are trying to forget it," said Uri Avnery, a prominent activist and founder of the Gush Shalom peace movement who was the first Israeli to meet Yasser Arafat, then head of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). They met in Beirut in July 1982 during Israel's siege on the city.

Mr Avnery described the lack of debate in Israel as a result of the ideological blowback of Israel's expanding occupation of the Palestinian territories. That has fostered right-wing, anti-democratic sentiments that, he said, "have blunted Israeli sensibilities".

Back in 1982, the Israeli prime minister, Menachem Begin, initially rejected Israeli calls for an investigation into the killings but eventually relented after protests.

Led by the supreme court president, Yitzhak Kahan, the investigative committee bearing his name, the Kahan Commission, cast blame on Israel, but not directly.

The three-day massacre took place after Israel had invaded Lebanon and stormed Beirut's western sector at the height of the Lebanese civil war. At the time, Israeli forces controlled access to Sabra and Shatila.

The Kahan Commission concluded that Israeli leaders bore indirect responsibility for failing to heed warnings that a massacre had been taking place between September 16 and 18. Perhaps most controversially, it found that Israeli forces allowed the Phalange into the refugee camps to root out PLO fighters. Some speculate Israel did so out of weariness of sustaining more casualties. But for many, the decision was unconscionable - or, as Mr Avnery put it, like slipping a "poisonous snake into a baby's cradle".

The massacre was also sparked by the assassination of Maronite Christian leader Bashir Gemayel, elected to the Lebanese presidency in August 1982. The commission, however, personally faulted the then defence minister, Ariel Sharon, "for ignoring the danger of bloodshed and revenge" and recommended he be dismissed from his position for also "not taking appropriate measures to prevent bloodshed".

Ehud Yaari, a political commentator who examined the Israeli involvement in the massacre in his 1984 book, Israel's Lebanon War, lauded the commission for demonstrating Israel's seriousness in determining the causes of the massacre.

That helped blunt criticism over the massacre, which he described as a military error and a "stain, but not because Israel was responsible" for carrying out the killings.

Although the inquiry received praise in some circles - Henry Kissinger, a former US secretary of state, called it a "great tribute to Israeli democracy" - those singled out for blame by the inquiry faced short-lived punishment.

Rafael Eitan, the military chief of staff at the time, eventually became a parliamentarian and Mr Sharon, who was demoted to minister without portfolio, went on to become prime minister. Mr Sharon, after suffering two strokes, now needs round-the-clock care and is incapable of significant movement or communication.

What most do not question is the massacre's role in turning Israelis against their nation's costly invasion of Lebanon in June 1982.

Dubbed Operation Peace for Galilee, it was billed as a necessary response to stop cross-border attacks by PLO fighters by driving them out of southern Lebanon.

But the apparent aims of its architects, Begin and especially Mr Sharon - driving the PLO and Syrian forces out of the country and installing a friendly government in Beirut - proved unpopular.

"It took a hell of a long time, but I do believe it [the massacre] was the nail in the coffin into Israel's foray into Lebanon," said Hirsh Goodman, The Jerusalem Post's defence correspondent in Lebanon at the time.

Israel did not fully withdraw from Lebanon until 2000. A number of first-hand journalist accounts and academic examinations provide graphic reminders of the wanton cruelty of the killing and offer unflattering portrayals of Israeli officers, raising questions as to what they knew as Phalange militiamen summarily executed Palestinian and Shiite families, raped women and gunned down children.

Those accounts show how Israeli soldiers fired night flares to light the camps for Phalange militiamen.

From their elevated positions, they could not have missed the bloodletting or the digging of mass graves below, British journalist Robert Fisk concluded in his 1990 book about of Lebanon civil war, Pity the Nation.

Upon entering the Shatila camp during the killings, he wrote: "From the top of the tower block to the west … we could see [Israeli soldiers] staring at us through field-glasses, scanning back and forth across the streets of corpses, the lenses of the binoculars sometimes flashing in the sun as their gaze ranged through the camp."

He questioned the Kahan Commission's credibility for, among other things, its allusion to the camps' Palestinian residents as "terrorists".

For some in the Jewish Diaspora, the massacre undermined Israeli claims about its "purity of arms".

In his 1989 book FromBeirut to Jerusalem, Jewish-American journalist Thomas Friedman wrote: "The Israel I met on the outskirts of Beirut was not the heroic Israel I had been taught to identify with."

For Mr Remez, that sense of innocence has faded after subsequent Palestinian uprisings, a failing peace process and Israeli wars in Gaza and again in Lebanon in 2006.

Israelis had become numb to violence in the three decades since Sabra and Shatila. "When I look back on it, it seems like we were a different country back then," he said.

 

hnaylor@thenational.ae