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Sharon feared genocide charge over Sabra and Shatila

Then defence minister Ariel Sharon implored the Israeli cabinet to reject a 1983 commission's findings into the slaughter of civilians at two Palestinians camps in Beirut after it found Israel to be "indirectly responsible" for the massacres, newly released documents reveal.

RAMALLAH // The Israeli defence minister Ariel Sharon warned his cabinet in 1983 that accepting the findings of a commission examining Israel's role in massacres at two refugee camps could have resulted in genocide charges against Israel, newly released documents show.

For three days in 1982, Lebanese-Christian militiamen scoured the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian camps in Beirut and systematically slaughtered refugees trapped by an Israeli military cordon.

Recently made public by Israel's State Archives, official documents from a cabinet meeting reveal the anxiety experienced by Mr Sharon and fellow ministers in the government of prime minister Menachem Begin over the recommendations that had just been laid out by the Kahan Commission.

Led by Yitzhak Kahan, then president of Israel's supreme court, the commission had found Israeli leaders to be indirectly responsible for the massacres carried out during the height of Lebanon's civil war.

The archives portray a defiant Mr Sharon urging fellow cabinet ministers to reject the commission's findings.

"People wishing us ill, and I've already heard this, will say that what occurred in those camps was genocide," Mr Sharon, then the defence minister, is quoted as saying during the February 1983 cabinet meeting.

The commission's conclusions were particularly damning of Mr Sharon. He was found to have borne personal responsibility "for ignoring the danger of bloodshed and revenge" when Lebanese-Christian militiamen slaughtered some 1,000 Palestinians as their Israeli-soldier allies sealed off the two camps and lit them up by firing flares.

Mr Sharon was forced to resign from his defence ministry position because of the commission's findings.

But during the 1983 cabinet discussion over the findings, he vehemently rejected accusations that he could have anticipated the mass killing of men, women and children when Israeli soldiers allowed the Lebanese militiamen into the camps to snuff out fighters linked to Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organisation. Sectarian tension had been high because of the assassination in August 1982 of Lebanon's Christian president, which the Phalangist militiamen, also Christian, blamed on the camp's largely Muslim-Palestinian residents.

"I reject the conclusion that there was a constant threat of bloodshed wherever the Phalangists were present," he is quoted as saying in the documents, which were reported by Israel's Haaretz newspaper on Thursday.

He described the militiamen as having "behaved appropriately" during previous joint operations with Israel's military. Israel had invaded Lebanon earlier that year.

Mr Sharon warned during the meeting that the commission's recommendations, which the Israeli government ultimately adopted, compared Israel "to indirect supporters of pogroms, who committed atrocities".

"I am revolted by any hint of such an accusation," he added.

Mr Sharon became Israeli prime minister in 2001 before suffering two strokes and falling into a coma in which he remains.

hnaylor@thenational.ae