Rejecting the recommendations of an investigative report into the Sabra and Shatila massacre, defense minister Ariel Sharon told prime minister Menachem Begin in February 1983 that Israel “could be accused of genocide” were the report to be accepted. Six months earlier, Israeli forces in Lebanon had let members of the Christian Phalange fighters into the Palestinian refugee camps, where they killed hundreds of people.
Thirty years later, on Thursday, the state archives released protocols from the six cabinet meetings that dealt with the massacre and the possible implications of the ensuing investigation, led by Judge Yitzhak Kahan. Though some of the material is still classified, dozens of pages were uploaded and made visible to the public.
In light of heavy public pressure to look into the September ’82 massacre, Kahan, then the president of the Supreme Court, was appointed chair of a special investigative commission. In its conclusions, the commission recommended the removal of Sharon and two IDF generals from their posts, but did not lay direct blame for the massacre on Israel’s doorstep. After hours of debate, the cabinet approved the findings and Sharon was forced out of office.
The massacre took place three months after IDF soldiers entered Lebanon in an attack against the PLO bases that marked the beginning of what came to be known as the First Lebanon War. During its military occupation of south Lebanon, Israel cooperated with local Christians, some of whom harbored a deep-seated animosity toward their Muslim neighbors and who carried out the Sabra and Shatila killings.
The protocols released Thursday show that the government was split regarding the implementation of the Kahan commission’s recommendations.
Minister Mordechai Ben-Porat said the entire cabinet should resign, while health minister Eliezer Shostak voiced his objection to the course of action suggested by the report. Begin and the other ministers had different views, more nuanced than the “all or nothing” debate.
One of the most vocal people during the discussions was Sharon, the only cabinet member singled out by the commission.
“I’m not dealing zealously with personal conclusions and searching for victims,” Sharon told the ministers during the government’s fourth and main session on the issue. Parts of the report were worth accepting and should be accepted, the defense minister said, “but I’ve found in it sections that in my opinion can’t be accepted.”
The recommendations were much more than a personal question about his leaving or staying, Sharon stated. “The chapter dealing with indirect responsibility – that, to me, is the key point. This report determines that the State of Israel, and not just the government or the IDF, carries responsibility [for the massacre],” he explained. According to the report, Sharon stressed, the elected government “was aware of and ignored” the danger of a massacre.
“That means knowingly. It includes all of us; it includes you, Mr. Prime Minister; each and everyone one of us,” Sharon stated. “I repeat, we ‘ignored,’ which means it was a conscious decision. That includes us all,” he stressed, noting that he was repeating things on purpose so that they’d appear in the protocols numerous times.
Following his analysis of the report, Sharon warned the other cabinet members: “If we accept the report, those who want to do us ill could charge that what happened in the [refugee] camps was genocide.”
Since the Kahan committee “didn’t hesitate to draw a line between Israel and those indirectly involved in committing pogroms… there are parts that in my opinion can’t be accepted, if we don’t want this burden, this mark of Cain, to be on our foreheads for generations,” Sharon said.
The defense minister also explained why he wouldn’t step down and resign as the commission recommended. All the government members made a mistake, he said. “We were all wrong, from the prime minister down, with no exception.”
Quoting from the commission’s findings that there was no conspiracy between the political level and high-ranking officers, Begin replied to Sharon’s implicit criticism of his conduct, stressing that each minister was responsible for his office more than the rest were.
“I’m not a legal expert, though I did study law,” Begin said before dismissing as having “no foundation” Sharon’s thesis that Israel would be blamed for “genocide or assisting genocide.”
“Someone [Sharon] raised an idea that isn’t realistic based on the report. The report has things so clear they can’t be doubted,” Begin stated.
Following the prime minister’s clear-cut stance, which said the findings of an official commission couldn’t be ignored and must be adopted, 16 ministers voted in favor of adopting the recommendations of the Kahan Report. Sharon was the sole cabinet member to vote against.