As the vast majority of Americans watch Muslim mobs and organized militia rampage against their Middle Eastern embassies this month, they take comfort in repeating to themselves that the root cause is that “Islamic masses hate our way of life.”
This is a comforting mantra for several reasons. First, it suggests that no action is necessary or possible by Americans to reconcile the conflict. Second, it is a no-guilt / no responsibility explanation for both America and its ally, Israel. The media savvy, always on-message Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, reinforced this message to the American people during his Sept. 16 interview on NBC’s Meet The Press. He concluded with a statement to the American people that he has used in the past – “We are you, and you are us.”
The truth is not so simple, and the path forward requires us not to forget the past. On Sept. 16, The New York Times undertook such a teaching moment by commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Massacre at Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps with a nearly full page essay, “A preventable massacre.”
The essay includes recently declassified transcripts of meetings between senior U.S. and Israeli officials during the incident. It concludes that both Israel and the U.S. carry responsibility for this horror.
In 1982, Lebanon was a hotbed. As is still the case today, it hosted camps for Palestinian families whose land in Israel were confiscated during the 1948 Israeli War of Independence, and for whom Israel has since denied the right of return. The 1975 – 1990 Lebanese Civil War was raging, and the Palestinian Liberation Organization practically created a state-within-a-state. The PLO used Lebanon as a base to pursue its objectives of an independent state, while at the same time protecting the Palestinian refugee camps from Lebanese Christian militia, which were allied with and supported by Israel.
In June, 1982, taking advantage of the chaos, Israel invaded Lebanon and besieged the PLO and the refugee camps. In response to massive civilian casualties inflicted by the Israeli army, President Ronald Reagan told the Israeli prime minister that the bombings “had to stop or our entire future relationship is endangered.” The U.S. subsequently mediated a deal in which it would evacuate the PLO, disbursing it to various countries such as Tunisia. The deal included U.S. written guarantees to the PLO that it would protect Palestinian civilians in the refugee camps. The PLO evacuation was completed on September 1st, leaving behind the women, young children and old men under U.S. Marine protection.
But, the Marines withdrew ten days later. On September 16th, in violation of the U.S. brokered agreement, the Israeli army filled the void, taking control of West Beirut, including the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. Within hours, U.S. Under Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger told the Israeli Ambassador that “Israeli’s credibility has been severely damaged” and demanded immediate Israeli withdrawal. Instead, later the same day, the Israeli army, under the direction of Ariel Sharon, escorted its Christian militia allies into the defenseless Palestinian refugee camps. The slaughter began immediately, and news of it reached Washington within hours.
The transcripts of the September 17 meeting between U.S. Middle East envoy Morris Draper and Israeli Defense Minister Sharon are as shocking as the slaughter itself. At one point, as Draper voiced his objections to what the Christian militia was doing in the camps, Sharon declared “So, we’ll kill them. They will not be left there…If you don’t want the Lebanese to kill them, we will kill them.” The meeting ended with U.S. acceptance of Israel’s promise to withdraw, but only after another 48 hours. On September 18, American diplomat Ryan C. Crocker visited the scene and reported back to Washington; over 800 civilians were killed, almost all women, children and elderly men, many raped and dismembered.
As a footnote, the following year gave rise to Hezbollah, when it forced the U.S. to exist Lebanon after a suicide bombing killed 220 Marines. Hezbollah went on to drive Israel from Lebanon, and continues to enjoy strong grass roots support, not withstanding its designation by U.S. and Israel as a terrorist organization. Sharon went on to be Prime Minister of Israel from 2001 to 2006. Nobody involved was ever brought to justice for war crimes or crimes against humanity. There were never any reparations made to the Palestinian victims’ families.
The U.S. and Israel are not well served to sweep this historic incident under the carpet. Both have a strong tradition of commemorating atrocities. The Palestinians and the larger Islamic community certainly remember. And for at least this incident, they have good reason to agree with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s “We are you and you are us” claim.