Sabra and Shatila: New Revelations on U.S. and Israeli Complicity in Lebanese Massacre
Historians try not to audibly gasp in the reading rooms of official archives, but there are times when the written record retains a capacity to shock. In 2012, while working at the Israel State Archives in Jerusalem, I came across highly classified material from Israel’s 1982 War in Lebanon that had just been opened to researchers. This access was in line with the thirty-year rule of declassification governing the release of documents in Israel. Sifting through Foreign Ministry files, I stumbled upon the minutes of a September 17 meeting between Israeli and American officials that took place in the midst of the Sabra and Shatila massacre.
The startling verbatim exchange between Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon and US diplomat Morris Draper clearly demonstrated how the slaughter of civilians in the Palestinian refugee camps of south Beirut was prolonged by Draper’s acquiescence in the face of Sharon’s deceptive claim of “terrorists” remaining behind. This made the US unwittingly complicit in the notorious three-day massacre carried out by militiamen linked to the Phalange, a right-wing political party of Lebanese Maronite Christians that was allied with Israel.
Not long after publishing these findings, I was approached by William Quandt, a leading American expert on the Middle East who served on the National Security Council with responsibility for Arab-Israeli affairs under President Jimmy Carter. Quandt had been an expert consultant for the defense in the 1983–1984 lawsuit of Ariel Sharon v. Time Magazine, in which Sharon sued Time for libel over its coverage of his role in the massacre. In the course of preparing for the case, which was eventually settled out of court, the New York-based law firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore obtained classified material from the secret appendix of the official Israeli report into the massacre, known as the Kahan Commission. Large sections of the Hebrew original were translated into English by the law firm, and have been authenticated by several experts, including Israeli sources. Quandt was given a copy of those documents and passed them along to me for my own research.
We are publishing here for the first time these English-language excerpts from the secret Kahan Commission Appendix, in their original form and as an open source, so that researchers in Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, and farther afield can consult these primary sources directly. This appendix is another historical source that can elicit shock: a chilling set of memoranda that paints a more complete picture of Israeli and Phalange eagerness to foment violence against the Palestinians as part of a wider war to remake the Middle East.
It includes extensive minutes of meetings between Israeli and Lebanese officials around the outbreak of the 1982 War, formative discussions between the Israeli Mossad, Israeli military intelligence, and Lebanese Maronite Christian leaders over the fate of Palestinians, commission testimonies from high-ranking Israeli officials, and internal Israeli cabinet minutes about the consequences of the violence. Collectively, the evidence provides new details of Israel’s extended discussions with Lebanese allies in Beirut to “clean the city out of terrorists” as part of a broader political agenda to remake Lebanon’s demographics. In practice, this pattern of false and dehumanizing rhetoric about “terrorists” served to countenance unrelenting violence, leading to the deaths of hundreds of innocent civilians in September 1982.
(The documents consist of large sections of the secret Kahan Commission Appendix. This material is presented without annotation or comment, arranged in page order. Handwritten page numbers and markings reflect the scanned copy provided by William Quandt, who was given the documents while consulting for Time in Ariel Sharon’s 1984 lawsuit against the magazine. (Page references given in the essay refer to these handwritten numbers, but that numbering restarts in a second section after page 309; therefore references are notated as I: 1–309 and II: 1–100.) The documents can be viewed here. Also see Kahan Commission Appendix (English) by The New York Review of Books on Scribd.)
Earlier this month, during a research trip in Lebanon, I visited Bayan Nuwayhed al-Hout, the principal documentarian and historian of the Sabra and Shatila massacre. Not long after passing the suburban neighborhood of Monte-Verde, the road from Beirut to the nearby mountain village of Ras el-Matn curves around a sharp bend. Careening around that corner, my Uber driver and I stopped our conversation mid-sentence, catching our breath as the beauty of the pine-forested Lamartine Valley unfurled before us. The congestion of the seaside capital, with its endless traffic and sticky summer heat, melted away. So did the driver’s complaints about rental prices, the refugee crisis, and political corruption. It is easy to see how this lush valley, still unspoiled today, inspired the writing of the nineteenth-century French poet and Orientalist Alphonse de Lamartine, after whom it is named.
After the ascent, we reached Ras el-Matn and stopped in front of the Raed Pharmacy. Following the instructions I’d been given, I walked 200 meters down the road to the foot of some large stone steps. At the top of the stairs, an elegantly dressed woman in her early eighties greeted me warmly and led me to the shade of her stately olive tree. Bayan Nuwayhed al-Hout is a formidable scholar of Palestine, born in Jerusalem to a Lebanese family driven out during the 1948 War, known in Arabic as the Nakba, or “catastrophe.” Now retired, al-Hout spends much of her time researching and writing in this quiet mountain village, which became the Nuwayhed family home at the turn of the twentieth century.
It was not her dispossession in 1948 that I had come to talk to her about, but what had happened thirty-four years later, in 1982, when Israel invaded Lebanon and brought fighting to her doorstep once more. On Friday September 17, 1982, four Israeli soldiers in full battle dress knocked on the door of Bayan’s Beirut apartment, where she lived with her late husband, Shafiq al-Hout, who was the official representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Lebanon. Shafiq was not there but in hiding, a target of several assassination attempts because of his leadership position in the Palestinian resistance in Lebanon. The soldiers forced their way in and began questioning Bayan while searching for documents. One officer found her husband’s old Palestinian passport, from his childhood in Jaffa, where he was born and raised during the British Mandate. The soldiers were amazed as they looked through its pages.
“Your reaction is no surprise to me. I am sure you have never seen such a document,” Bayan told them. “As you can see, the text is written in all three languages: Arabic, English, and Hebrew. It comes from the time when Palestine had enough room for everyone, regardless of his religion or sect.”
The soldiers confiscated the cherished passport, despite Bayan’s attempts to get it back, as she recounted tearfully to her husband when they were reunited some days later. In his memoirs, Shafiq al-Hout recalled the incident with obvious pain, conveying a message from the story, “that the Zionists’ perpetual objective is the elimination of Palestinian national identity. Why else would they insist on continuing to eradicate all physical, spiritual, and cultural trace of our presence in Palestine?” As a refugee who had fled Israel’s creation and ended up in exile, Shafiq regarded the 1982 war against the PLO in Lebanon as another outright assault on the aspirations of his people.
Under the leadership of Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Minister of Defense Ariel Sharon, the Israeli government launched an invasion in June of that year partly on the pretext of stopping Palestinian militant rocket fire on the Galilee region of northern Israel. After the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt, Israeli leaders had also become increasingly anxious about the power of the PLO and the growing links between Palestinians inside the occupied territories and across the Arab diaspora. The main focus of their concern was on Lebanon, where the PLO had relocated its center of operations from Jordan after an armed confrontation with King Hussein’s army in 1970–1971. Israeli strategists believed that targeting the PLO in Lebanon and forcing its withdrawal would accomplish several objectives: the quashing of Palestinian national aspirations for a homeland, the expulsion of Syria’s troops from Lebanon and the elimination of Syrian influence there, and the establishment of a client Maronite Christian state as a close ally.
Instead of entrenching Israeli dominance over its northern neighbor, the Lebanon War morphed into what some have called “Israel’s Vietnam.” In the midst of an already brutal civil war, the Israeli intervention resulted in the deaths of more than 600 Israeli soldiers and at least 5,000 Lebanese and Palestinian civilians—over 19,000 by Lebanese estimates that counted combatants as well. Closely coordinated with Maronite forces, Israel’s invasion soon devolved from being a limited incursion to a summer-long siege against the PLO’s stronghold in West Beirut. Unlike the wars in 1948, 1967, or 1973, Israel was unequivocally engaged in what Begin called a “war of choice.” Combining military force with psychological operations, Israeli forces inflicted heavy casualties inside an Arab capital for the first time, bombarding Palestinian positions from land, sea, and air, while occupying Lebanon’s international airport.
President Ronald Reagan, disturbed by the images of destruction, pushed his administration to negotiate an end to the fighting and to facilitate a peaceful evacuation of PLO fighters from the city to neighboring Arab states. The PLO leader, Yasser Arafat, had signaled that he and his men were willing to withdraw provided that the PLO had the requisite American guarantees of security for Palestinian civilians and Lebanese supporters who remained behind. Sharing the draft of the withdrawal agreement with Shafiq al-Hout, Arafat sounded a wistful note about the departure:
The first contingent of PLO fighters left the city on August 21, with Arafat and leading PLO officials departing on a Greek shipping vessel to Tunisia on August 30. In all, some 10,000 fighters left Lebanon by sea and land routes, pushing the PLO into still deeper exile. Even after the heaviest fighting ended, a protracted Israeli occupation of the south of the country lasted until 2000, reshaping the politics of the region. Syrian influence over the country continued, but increasingly it was supplanted by Iranian power with the rise of Hezbollah. Far from cementing Israel’s regional hegemony, the 1982 War ultimately undercut Israeli and American influence in the Middle East, while transforming perceptions of both Zionism and Palestinian nationalism around the globe.
At the heart of this transformation was the Sabra and Shatila massacre, which began on September 16 and was still taking place on the day that Israeli soldiers raided Bayan’s apartment, September 17. After the evacuation of PLO fighters, Shafiq al-Hout had stayed behind to organize the protection of Palestinian civilians remaining in the country. Israeli troops had also remained in Beirut, with Ariel Sharon determined to forge an advantageous peace treaty with a pliant Lebanese government. The September 14 assassination of President-elect Bashir Gemayel, a close Maronite ally of Israel, upended Sharon’s plans, and he responded by ordering his troops forward into West Beirut. Despite American pressure to withdraw, the Israelis claimed that the Palestinian refugee camps still harbored “terrorists” whom they hoped to “mop up” with the help of their Christian allies. At this point, the US had pulled back its Marine forces to their ships, making any American guarantee of external protection meaningless. In that absence, the Lebanese militia linked to the Maronite Christian Phalange party, which was reeling from the assassination of their leader, was free to terrorize Palestinian civilians.
The militia fighters congregated at the Beirut airport, a major Israeli staging point; from there, they were ushered through Israeli lines into the camps, which were surrounded by Israeli forces. Under the command of Phalange leader Elie Hobeika, these men raped, killed, and dismembered hundreds of women, children, and elderly men while Israeli flares illuminated the camps’ narrow, dark alleyways. Sharon, meanwhile, briefed his cabinet colleagues on September 16 about the Phalange movements, stressing, according to cabinet minutes, that “the results will speak for themselves… let us have the number of days necessary for destroying the terrorists” (I: 287). This insistence on the presence of “terrorists” belied the actuality of who had remained after the PLO’s evacuation, yet it fit with Israel’s rhetorical strategy of deliberately blurring distinctions between Palestinian civilians and armed fighters.
As news of the massacre trickled out, Bayan Nuwayhed al-Hout began what would become a painstaking, years-long quest to document the details of each victim and corroborate accounts of what had occurred in the camps. By recording interviews with survivors and witnesses, and doggedly collecting documentary evidence (including suppressed lists of casualties, some from Lebanese humanitarian sources), she eventually published the definitive account of the massacre, Sabra and Shatila: September 1982 (2004), which also appeared in an Arabic edition. Bayan provides the verified names of at least 1,390 victims, with estimates far exceeding that number of those who were detained and disappeared during the violence.
“I wanted to prove there was a community,” Bayan recounted to me in her Ras el-Matn garden. “A community was killed, families were killed.” Another impetus for her work was the anger she felt at reading the official Israeli account of the massacre, which was issued in February 1983 as the Kahan Commission Report (and translated into Arabic in Lebanon). Facing domestic and international outrage over the atrocity, Prime Minister Begin had appointed the Chief Justice of Israel’s Supreme Court, Yitzhak Kahan, to lead an independent inquiry into the September 1982 events.
The commission focused narrowly on the Israeli role in the affair, and the report exonerated the Israeli government of immediate responsibility—though it did find certain military and intelligence leaders “indirectly responsible” for allowing the Phalangists into the camps. Ariel Sharon, in particular, was singled out for “ignoring the danger of bloodshed” and “not taking appropriate measures to prevent” the violence. As a result of the report, the Director of Military Intelligence Yehoshua Saguyand the Division Commander in charge of Beirut, Amos Yaron, were forced out of their posts and briefly removed from operational roles. The published findings avoided, however, any discussion either of the victims or of the political background of the massacre.
Bayan al-Hout described the mechanics of the massacre as having three sides. “I have only one part of the triangle,” she said, “the victim side.” The other two comprise the Phalange side—“those who committed the massacre by their hands”—and the side of those “who were leading the show.” The appendix material from the Kahan Commission Report reveals the third side of the triangle, and forces a new reckoning with the mechanics of slaughter and the moral implications of the events in 1982.
Some critics have always suspected, and hoped to uncover evidence, that Israeli officials explicitly ordered the massacre or directly colluded in its execution. These new documents don’t supply that smoking gun. What they do show is a pattern of extensive cooperation and planning between Israeli and Maronite leaders in the aims and conduct of the war that provides a more comprehensive framework for judging moral accountability. These sources suggest a line of thinking about the political and military defeat of Palestinian nationalism that built on the legacy of the Nakba itself, reaching tragic ends through the destruction wrought in Beirut.
Israeli and Maronite war plans were not limited to targeting PLO fighters, and this is also evident from statements by officials on both sides concerning Palestinian refugees. The refugees were first discussed on July 31, 1982, as the Israeli siege of Beirut was still going on, at the end of a secret meeting between the Christian leader Bashir Gemayel, chief of Lebanese Military Intelligence Johnny Abdu, and leading Israeli and Lebanese officials at Ariel Sharon’s ranch in the Negev in southern Israel. Sharon explained that he would be insisting on an Israeli peace agreement with the Lebanese government and this had to address the question of the Palestinian refugees left behind in Beirut. Bashir told the Israelis, “We’ll take care of everything and we’ll let you know soon.” Yehoshua Saguy, the Israeli intelligence chief, responded, “The time has come for Bashir’s men to prepare a plan to deal with the Palestinians. I understand you are getting ready to deal with it and you need to prepare a plan.” Sharon added a final note, anticipating squeamishness in Israel and among diaspora supporters over such blunt action: “The Jews are weird but you must agree about the issue—we don’t wish to stay there and take care of the issue” (I: 234–43).
By discussing the fate of Palestinians in that way, Sharon and the other Israeli officials invited Gemayel and the Phalange to do Israel’s bidding in the refugee camps of Beirut—and received an enthusiastic response. But amid the vague and euphemistic language of July 31, what was that bidding exactly? The understanding between the Israelis and Maronites can be traced back to a meeting earlier that month between Sharon and Bashir Gemayel at the Lebanese Forces headquarters in Beirut. According to records contained in the secret appendix, Gemayel asked the Israelis “whether we would object to him moving bulldozers into the refugee camps in the south, to remove them, so that the refugees won’t stay in the south,” referring to camps in southern Lebanon. According to the record, “the DM [Sharon] responded by saying that it was none of our business. We do not wish to handle Lebanon’s internal affairs” (I: 294–95). Sharon’s disavowal here seems unambiguous, yet such open talk of driving out Palestinians through violence and expulsion recurred in further discussions he held just before the massacre. In a crucial meeting with Gemayel on September 12, two days before the Lebanese leader’s assassination, Gemayel told Sharon that “conditions should be created which would lead the Palestinians to leave Lebanon” (I: 83; 100–102). Not all the details of what transpired at that meeting are known; no complete minutes exist in the appendix (and none may have been taken).
The excerpts from the Kahan Appendix do, however, underscore the fact that members of the Israeli military and intelligence organizations knew in advance what the Phalange was intending to do to the Palestinians—at a minimum, forced expulsion through threatened or actual deadly violence, and the subsequent razing of the refugee camps. According to the testimony of Colonel Elkana Harnof, a senior Israeli military intelligence officer, the Phalange revealed that “Sabra would become a zoo and Shatilah Beirut’s parking place.” Harnof added details about acts of brutality and massacres that had already taken place, inflicted by Maronite forces with “specific references to acts of elimination of locals ‘most likely Palestinians.’” This was relayed to Defense Minister Sharon as early as June 23, little more than two weeks after the start of the Israeli invasion (II: 78). On that day, a report was passed to Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Defense Minister Sharon that described the Christian militia’s “terminating” 500 people in the evacuation of West Beirut. The Mossad Director Nahum Admoni and others met with Bashir Gemayel and the description of the meeting contains harrowing evidence of what was planned for the Palestinians throughout Lebanon.
According to the notes of the meeting, “Bashir [Gemayel] adds it is possible that in this context they will need several ‘Dir Yassins,’” referring to a notorious massacre of Palestinians in an attack on a village by Jewish Irgun fighters during the 1948 War. But, the memorandum of the meeting records, “N.[ahum] Admoni stresses that as long as the IDF is around, the Christians will have to refrain from this type of action. Bashir explains once again that he will act at a later stage since a Christian state would not be able to survive if the demographic aspect will not be dealt with” (II: 79). As Admoni explained to the Kahan Commission, “Bashir had a very spontaneous speaking style. He was preoccupied with Lebanon’s demographic balance, and discussed it a lot. When he (Bashir) talked in terms of demographic change—it was always in terms of killing and elimination” (II: 80).
The invocation of Deir Yassin was an ominous indication of the measures those who disliked the Palestinian presence in Lebanon and wanted to see them disappear were willing to envisage. It is unclear where the Palestinian refugees were expected to go, if they survived such an onslaught. Jordan was one possible destination—and Sharon had voiced hopes of seeing the Hashemite Kingdom collapse and turn into a Palestinian state as a result of an influx of Palestinians from Lebanon, since this would, he thought, relieve pressure on Israel to withdraw from the West Bank. The father of one Phalange militia member involved in the massacre testified to a staff member of the Kahan Commission that before entering the camps, the fighters were briefed by Elie Hobeika, from which “the men understood that their mission was to liquidate young Palestinians as a way of instigating a mass flight from the camps—in accordance with Bashir’s vision of the final act of the war in West Beirut.”
Israeli officials were evidently aware of Gemayel’s dire intentions but did not want to pay a moral price for their strategic alliance with the Maronites. When pressed by Chief Justice Kahan about Phalange intentions with regard to Palestinian civilians, the Mossad chief Yitzhak Hofi explained the Israeli reply to Gemayel: “We told him we thank him very much, but that we have no intention that the solving of the Lebanese Palestinian problem would be made at the expense of the State of Israel” (II: 81–83). In the aftermath of Sabra and Shatila, Sharon’s primary defense was to blame the Phalange militiamen and exonerate the Israeli army which remained outside the camps during the massacre.
The new documents paint a more incriminating picture of wider Israeli official eagerness to invite the Phalange militia into Beirut, to help fulfill a broader diplomatic and military objective of vanquishing Palestinian demands for nationhood and the right of return. For the Lebanese, the revelations contained in the Kahan Appendix will elicit an uncomfortable reckoning with a past many would rather forget. The Maronite collusion with the Israelis before and during the invasion was known, but the additional new details provide a fuller picture of right-wing Christian agency in the Israeli intervention that wrought destruction across the country. The evidence of Maronite leaders’ planning of violence will undermine prolonged efforts to rehabilitate the wartime leaders of several political parties.
In Israel, the rehabilitation campaign reached its apogee in the case of Ariel Sharon. Initial public condemnation of Sharon’s part in the 1982 War eventually gave way to his resurrection with his election as prime minister in the early 2000s. But a focus on Sharon alone absolves others of their involvement in the violence against Palestinian refugees. Eliding Palestinian political demands did not work in the 1980s, and will not go unchallenged today. As Bayan al-Hout’s confrontation with the soldiers who took away her husband’s passport showed, Palestinians still exist even if evidence of their history is stolen.
With a taxi waiting to take me back to Beirut, Bayan walked me to the door, stopping by another large tree in her garden. She had me extend my hand into the trunk—hollowed out completely by a bomb dropped during the war. On the winding drive back down to the valley, I thought about something Bayan told me during my visit. I had asked about her methods as a historian, and my own struggle to assemble the missing pieces of the triangle that would illuminate the political origins of the violence.
“The historiography of massacres could never be done as a plan, because the massacre itself, it leads you,” Bayan explained. “It makes its own historiography. You are led by the massacre.”
This essay is adapted from Preventing Palestine: A Political History from Camp David to Oslo, published by Princeton University Press.
[Seth Anziska is the Mohamed S. Farsi-Polonsky Lecturer in Jewish-Muslim Relations at University College London. He has been a visiting fellow at the American University of Beirut and the London School of Economics. In 2016 he was awarded the Oxford University Press Dissertation Prize in International History (2016).]