Israel's Prime Minister was a ruthless military commander
responsible for one of the most shocking war crimes of the 20th
century, argues Robert Fisk. President George Bush acclaims Ariel
Sharon as 'a man of peace', yet the blood that was shed at Sabra and
Chatila remains a stain on the conscience of the Zionist nation. As
Sharon lies stricken in his hospital bed, his political career over,
how will history judge him?
By Robert Fisk
Independent"" -- -- I shook hands with him once, a
brisk, no-nonsense soldier's grip from Sharon as he finished a
review of the vicious Phalangist militiamen who stood in the
barracks square at Karantina in Beirut. Who would have thought, I
asked myself then, that this same bunch of murderers - the men who
butchered their way through the Palestinian Sabra and Chatila
refugee camps only a few weeks earlier - had their origins in the
Nazi Olympics of 1936. That's when old Pierre Gemayel - still alive
and standing stiffly to attention for Sharon - watched the "order"
of Nazi Germany and proposed to bring some of this "order" to
Lebanon. That's what Gemayel told me himself. Did Sharon not
understand this. Of course, he must have done.
Back on 18 September that same year, Loren Jenkins of The Washington
Post and Karsten Tveit of Norwegian television and I had clambered
over the piled corpses of Chatila - of raped and eviscerated women
and their husbands and children and brothers - and Jenkins, knowing
that the Isrealis had sat around the camps for two nights watching
this filth, shrieked "Sharon!" in anger and rage. He was right.
Sharon it was who sent the Phalange into the camps on the night of
16 September - to hunt for "terrorists", so he claimed at the time.
The subsequent Israeli Kahan commission of enquiry into this
atrocity provided absolute proof that Israeli soldiers saw the
massacre taking place. The evidence of a Lieutenant Avi Grabovsky
was crucial. He was an Israeli deputy tank commander and reported
what he saw to his higher command. "Don't interfere," the senior
officer said. Ever afterwards, Israeli embassies around the world
would claim that the commission held Sharon only indirectly
responsible for the massacre. It was untrue. The last page of the
official Israeli report held Sharon "personally responsible". It was
years later that the Israeli-trained Phalangist commander, Elie
Hobeika, now working for the Syrians, agreed to turn state's
evidence against Sharon - now the Israeli Prime Minister - at a
Brussels court. The day after the Israeli attorney general declared
Sharon's defence a "state" matter, Hobeika was killed by a massive
car bomb in east Beirut. Israel denied responsibility. US Defence
Secretary Donald Rumsfeld traveled to Brussels and quietly
threatened to withdraw Nato headquarters from Belgium if the country
maintained its laws to punish war criminals from foreign nations.
Within months, George W Bush had declared Sharon "a man of peace".
It was all over.
In the end, Sharon got away with it, even when it was proved that he
had, the night before the Phalangists attacked the civilians of the
camp, publicly blamed the Palestinians for the murder of their
leader, President-elect Bashir Gemayel. Sharon told these ruthless
men that the Palestinians had killed their beloved "chief". Then he
sent them in among the civilian sheep - and claimed later he could
never have imagined what they would do in Chatila. Only years later
was it proved that hundreds of Palestinians who survived the
original massacre were interrogated by the Israelis and then handed
back to the murderers to be slaughtered over the coming weeks.
So it is as a war criminal that Sharon will be known forever in the
Arab world, through much of the Western world, in fact - save, of
course, for the craven men in the White House and the State
Department and the Blair Cabinet - as well as many leftist Israelis.
Sabra and Chatila was a crime against humanity. Its dead counted
more than half the fatalities of the World Trade Centre attacks of
2001. But the man who was responsible was a "man of peace". It was
he who claimed that the preposterous Yasser Arafat was a Palestinian
bin Laden. He it was who as Israeli foreign minister opposed Nato's
war in Kosovo, inveighing against "Islamic terror" in Kosovo. "The
moment that Israel expresses support...it's likely to be the next
victim. Imagine that one day Arabs in Galilee demand that the region
in which they live be recognised as an autonomous area, connected to
the Palestinian Authority..." Ah yes, Sharon as an ally of another
war criminal, Slobodan Milosevic. There must be no Albanian state in
Ever since he was elected in 2001 - and especially since his
withdrawal of settlements from the rubbish tip of Gaza last year, a
step which would, according to his spokesman, turn any plans for a
Palestinian state in the West Bank into "formaldehyde" - his
supporters have tried to turn Sharon into a pragmatist, another
Charles de Gaulle. His new party was supposed to be proof of this.
But in reality, Sharon had more in common with the putchist generals
He voted against the peace treaty with Egypt in 1979. He voted
against a withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 1985. He opposed
Israel's participation in the Madrid peace conference in 1991. He
opposed the Knesset plenum vote on the Oslo agreement in 1993. He
abstained on a vote for peace with Jordan in 1994. He voted against
the Hebron agreement in 1997. He condemned the manner of Israel's
retreat from Lebanon in 2000. By 2002, he had built 34 new Jewish
colonies on Palestinian land.
And he was a man of peace.
There was a story told to me by one of the men investigating
Sharon's responsibility for the Sabra and Chatila massacre, and the
story is that the then Israeli defence minister, before he sent his
Phalangist allies into the camps, announced that it was Palestinian
"terrorists" who had murdered their newly assassinated leader,
President-elect Gemayel. Sharon was to say later that he never
dreamed the Phalange would massacre the Palestinians.
But how could he say that if he claimed earlier that the
Palestinians killed the leader of the Phalange? In reality, no
Palestinians were involved in Gemayel's death. It might seem odd in
this new war to be dwelling about that earlier atrocity. I am
fascinated by the language. Murderers, terrorists. That's what
Sharon said then, and it's what he says now. Did he really make that
statement in 1982? I begin to work the phone from Jerusalem, calling
up Associated Press bureaus that might still have their files from
19 years ago. He would have made that speech - if indeed he used
those words - some time on 15 September 1982.
One Sunday afternoon, my phone rings in Jerusalem. It's from an
Israeli I met in Jaffa Street after the Sbarro bombing. An American
Jewish woman had been screaming abuse at me - foreign journalists
are being insulted by both sides with ever more violent language -
and this man suddenly intervenes to protect me. He's smiling and
cheerful and we exchange phone numbers. Now on the phone, he says
he's taking the El-Al night flight to New York with his wife. Would
I like to drop by for tea?
He turns out to have a luxurious apartment next to the King David
Hotel and I notice, when I read his name on the outside security
buzzer, that he's a rabbi. He's angry because a neighbour has just
let down a friend's car tyres in the underground parking lot and
he's saying how he felt like smashing the windows of the neighbour's
car. His wife, bringing me tea and feeding me cookies, says that her
husband - again, he should remain anonymous - gets angry very
quickly. There's a kind of gentleness about them both - how easy it
is to spot couples who are still in love - that is appealing. But
when the rabbi starts to talk about the Palestinians, his voice
begins to echo through the apartment. He says several times that
Sharon is a good friend of his, a fine man, who's been to visit him
in his New York office.
What we should do is go into those vermin pits and take out the
terrorists and murderers. Vermin pits, yes I said, vermin, animals.
I tell you what we should do. If one stone is lobbed from a refugee
camp, we should bring the bulldozers and tear down the first 20
houses close to the road. If there's another stone, another 20 ones.
They'd soon learn not to throw stones. Look, I tell you this. Stones
are lethal. If you throw a stone at me, I'll shoot you. I have the
right to shoot you.
Now the rabbi is a generous man. He's been in Israel to donate a
vastly important and, I have no doubt, vastly expensive medical
centre to the country. He is well-read. And I liked the fact that -
unlike too many Israelis and Palestinians who put on a
"we-only-want-peace" routine to hide more savage thoughts - he at
least spoke his mind. But this is getting out of hand.
Why should I throw a stone at the rabbi? He shouts again. "If you
throw a stone at me, I will shoot you." But if you throw a stone at
me, I say, I won't shoot you. Because I have the right not to shoot
you. He frowns. "Then I'd say you're out of your mind."
I am driving home when it suddenly hits me. The Old and New
Testaments have just collided. The rabbi's dad taught him about an
eye for an eye - or 20 homes for a stone - whereas Bill Fisk taught
me about turning the other cheek. Judaism is bumping against
Christianity. So is it any surprise that Judaism and Islam are
crashing into each other? For despite all the talk of Christians and
Jews being "people of the Book", Muslims are beginning to express
ever harsher views of Jews. The sickening Hamas references to Jews
as "the sons of pigs and monkeys" are echoed by Israelis who talk of
Palestinians as cockroaches or "vermin", who tell you - as the rabbi
told me - that Islam is a warrior religion, a religion that does not
value human life. And I recall several times a Jewish settler who
told me back in 1993 - in Gaza, just before the Oslo accords were
signed - that "we do not recognise their Koran as a valid document."
I call up Eva Stern in New York. Her talent for going through
archives convinces me she can find out what Sharon said before the
Sabra and Chatila massacre. I give her the date that is going
through my head: 15 September 1982. She comes back on the line the
same night. "Turn your fax on," Eva says. "You're going to want to
read this." The paper starts to crinkle out of the machine. An AP
report of 15 September 1982. "Defence Minister Ariel Sharon, in a
statement, tied the killing [of the Phalangist leader Gemayel] to
the PLO, saying: "It symbolises the terrorist murderousness of the
PLO terrorist organisations and their supporters."
Then, a few hours later, Sharon sent the Phalange gunmen into the
Palestinian camps. Reading that fax again and again, I feel a chill
coming over me. There are Israelis today with as much rage towards
the Palestinians as the Phalange 19 years ago. And these are the
same words I am hearing today, from the same man, about the same
In September 2000, Ariel Sharon marched to the Muslim holy places -
above the site of the Jewish Temple Mount - accompanied by about a
thousand Israeli policemen. Within 24 hours, Israeli snipers opened
fire with rifles on Palestinian protesters battling with police in
the grounds of the seventh-century Dome of the Rock. At least four
were killed and the head of the Israeli police, Yehuda Wilk, later
confirmed that snipers had fired into the crowd when Palestinians
"were felt to be endangering the lives of officers". Sixty-six
Palestinians were wounded, most of them by rubber-coated steel
bullets. The killings came almost exactly 10 years after armed
Israeli police killed 19 Palestinian demonstrators and wounded
another 140 in an incident at exactly the same spot, a slaughter
that almost lost the United States its Arab support in the prelude
to the 1991 Gulf War.
Sharon showed no remorse. "The state of Israel," he told CNN,
"cannot afford that an Israeli citizen will not be able to visit
part of his country, not to speak for the holiest for the Jewish
people all around the world." He did not, however, explain why he
should have chosen this moment - immediately after the collapse of
the "peace process" - to undertake such a provocative act.
Stone-throwing and shooting spread to the West Bank. Near Qalqiliya,
a Palestinian policeman shot dead an Israeli soldier and wounded
another - they were apparently part of a joint Israeli-Palestinian
patrol originally set up under the terms of the Oslo agreement.
"Everything was pre-planned," Sharon would claim five weeks later.
"They took advantage of my visit to the Temple Mount. This was not
the first time I've been there..."
Jerusalem is a city of illusions. Here Ariel Sharon promises his
people "security" and brings them war. On the main road to Ma'ale
Adumim, inside Israel's illegal "municipal boundaries", Israelis
drive at over 100 mph. In the old city, Israeli troops and
Palestinian civilians curse each other before the few astonished
Christian tourists. Loving Jesus doesn't help to make sense of the
Arab-Israeli conflict. Gideon Samet got it right in Ha'aretz.
"Jerusalem looks like a Bosnia about to be born. Main thoroughfares
inside the Green Line... have become mortally perilous... The
capital's suburbs are exposed as Ramat Rachel was during the war of
independence..." Samet is pushing it a bit. Life is more dangerous
for Palestinians than for Israelis. Terrorism, terrorism, terrorism.
"I suggest that we repeat to ourselves every day and throughout the
day," Sharon tells us, "that there will be no negotiations with the
Palestinians until there is a total cessation of terrorism, violence
Gaza now is a miniature Beirut. Under Israeli siege, struck by F-16s
and tank fire and gunboats, starved and often powerless - there are
now six-hour electricity cuts every day in Gaza - it's as if Arafat
and Sharon are replaying their bloody days in Lebanon. Sharon used
to call Arafat a mass murderer back then. It's important not to
become obsessed during wars. But Sharon's words were like an old,
miserable film had seen before. Every morning in Jerusalem, I would
pick up the Jerusalem Post. And there on the front page, as usual,
will be another Sharon diatribe. PLO murderers. Palestinian
Authority terror. Murderous terrorists.
Within hours of the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States,
Ariel Sharon turned Israel into America's ally in the "war on
terror", immediately realigning Yasser Arafat as the Palestinian
version of bin Laden and the Palestinian suicide bombers as blood
brothers of the 19 Arabs - none of them Palestinian - who hijacked
the four American airliners. In the new and vengeful spirit that
President Bush encouraged among Americans, Israel's supporters in
the United States now felt free to promote punishments for Israel's
opponents that came close to the advocacy of war crimes. Nathan
Lewin, a prominent Washington attorney and Jewish communal leader -
and an often-mentioned candidate for a federal judgeship - called
for the execution of family members of suicide bombers. "If
executing some suicide bombers' families saves the lives of even an
equal number of potential civilian victims, the exchange is, I
believe, ethically permissible," he wrote in the journal Sh'ma.
When Sharon began his operation "Defensive Shield", the UN Security
Council, with the active participation and support of the United
States, demanded an immediate end to Israel's reoccupation of the
West Bank. President George W Bush insisted that Sharon should
follow the advice of "Israel's American friends" and - for Tony
Blair was with Bush at the time - "Israel's British friends", and
withdraw. "When I say withdraw, I mean it," Bush snapped three days
later. But he meant nothing of the kind. Instead, he sent secretary
of state Colin Powell off on an "urgent" mission of peace, a journey
to Israel and the West Bank that would take an incredible eight days
- just enough time, Bush presumably thought, to allow his "friend"
Sharon to finish his latest bloody adventure in the West Bank.
Supposedly unaware that Israel's chief of staff, Shoal Mofaz, had
told Sharon that he needed at least eight weeks to "finish the job"
of crushing the Palestinians, Powell wandered off around the
Mediterranean, dawdling in Morocco, Spain, Egypt and Jordan before
finally fetching up in Israel. If Washington firefighters took that
long to reach a blaze, the American capital would long ago have
turned to ashes. But of course, the purpose of Powell's idleness was
to allow enough time for Jenin to be turned to ashes. Mission, I
Sharon's ability to scorn the Americans was always humiliating for
Washington. Before the massacres of 1982, Philip Habib was President
Reagan's special representative, his envoy to Beirut increasingly
horrified by the ferocity of Sharon's assault on the city. Not long
before he died, I asked Habib why he didn't stop the bloodshed. "I
could see it," he said. "I told the Israelis they were destroying
the city, that they were firing non-stop. They just said they
weren't. They said they werent doing that. I called Sharon on the
phone. He said it wasnt true. That damned man said to me on the
phone that what I saw happening wasn't happening. So I held the
telephone out of the window so he could hear the explosions. Then he
said to me: 'What kind of conversation is this where you hold a
telephone out of a window?'"
Sharon's involvement in the 1982 Sabra and Chatila massacres
continues to fester around the man who, according to Israel's 1993
Kahan commission report, bore "personal responsibility" for the
Phalangist slaughter. So fearful were the Israeli authorities that
their leaders would be charged with war crimes that they drew up a
list of countries where they might have to stand trial - and which
they should henceforth avoid - now that European nations were
expanding their laws to include foreign nationals who had committed
crimes abroad. Belgian judges were already considering a complaint
by survivors of Sabra and Chatila - one of them a female rape victim
- while a campaign had been mounted abroad against other Israeli
figures associated with the atrocities. Eva Stern was one of those
who tried to prevent Brigadier General Amos Yaron being appointed
Israeli defence attaché in Washington because he had allowed the
Lebanese Phalange militia to enter the camps on 16 September 1982,
and knew - according to the Kahan commission report - that women and
children were being murdered. He only ended the killings two days
later. Canada declined to accept Yaron as defence attaché. Stern,
who compiled a legal file on Yaron, later vainly campaigned with
human rights groups to annul his appointment - by Prime Minister
Ehud Barak - as director general of the Israeli defence ministry.
The Belgian government changed their law - and dropped potential
charges against Sharon - after a visit to Brussels by US defence
secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the man who famously referred on 6 August
2002 to Israelis' control over "the so-called occupied territory"
which was "the result of a war, which they won".
Rumsfeld had threatened that NATO headquarters might be withdrawn
from Belgian soil if the Belgians didn't drop the charges against
Yet all the while, we were supposed to believe that it was the
corrupt, Parkinson's-haunted Yasser Arafat who was to blame for the
new war. He was chastised by George Bush while the Palestinian
people continued to be bestialised by the Israeli leadership. Rafael
Eytan, the former Israeli chief of staff, had referred to
Palestinians as "cockroaches in a glass jar". Menachem Begin called
them "two-legged beasts". The Shas party leader who suggested that
God should send the Palestinian "ants" to hell, also called them
In August 2000, Barak called them crocodiles. Israeli chief of staff
Moshe Yalon described the Palestinians as a "cancerous
manifestation" and equated the military action in the occupied
territories with "chemotherapy". In March 2001, the Israeli tourism
minister, Rehavem Zeevi, called Arafat a "scorpion". Sharon
repeatedly called Arafat a "murderer" and compared him to bin Laden.
He contributed to the image of Palestinian inhumanity in an
interview in 1995, when he stated that Fatah sometimes punished
Palestinians by "chopping off limbs of seven- and eight-year-old
children in front of their parents as a form of punishment". However
brutal Fatah may be, there is no record of any such atrocity being
committed by them. But if enough people can be persuaded to believe
this nonsense, then the use of Israeli death squads against such
Palestinians becomes natural rather than illegal.
Sharon was forever, like his Prime Minister Menachem Begin, evoking
the Second World War in spurious parallels with the Arab-Israeli
conflict. When in the late winter of 1988 the US State Department
opened talks with the PLO in Tunis after Arafat renounced
"terrorism", Sharon stated in an interview with the Wall Street
Journal that this was worse than the British and French appeasement
before the Second World War when "the world, to prevent war,
sacrificed one of the democracies". Arafat was "like Hitler who
wanted so much to negotiate with the Allies in the second half of
the second world war...and the Allies said 'No'. They said there are
enemies with whom you don't talk. They pushed him to the bunker in
Berlin where he found his death, and Arafat is the same kind of
enemy, that with whom you don't talk. He's got too much blood on his
Thus within his lifetime Sharon was able to bestialise Yasser Arafat
as both Hitler and bin Laden. The thrust of Sharon's argument in
those days was that the creation of a Palestinian state would mean a
war in which "the terrorists will be acting from behind a cordon of
UN forces and observers". By the time he was on his apparent death
bed yesterday that Palestinian "state", far from being protected by
the UN, was non-existent, its territory still being carved up in the
West Bank by growing Jewish settlements, road blocks and a concrete
Largely forgotten amid Sharon's hatred for "terrorism" was his
outspoken criticism of Nato's war against Serbia in 1999, when he
was Israeli foreign minister. Eleven years earlier he had
sympathised with the political objective of Slobodan Milosevic: to
prevent the establishment of an Albanian state in Kosovo. This, he
said, would lead to "Greater Albania" and provide a haven for -
readers must here hold their breath - "Islamic terror". In a
Belgrade newspaper interview, Sharon said that "we stand together
with you against the Islamic terror". Once Nato's bombing of Serbia
was under way, however, Sharon's real reason for supporting the
Serbs became apparent. "It's wrong for Israel to provide legitimacy
to this forceful sort of intervention which the Nato countries are
deploying... in an attempt to impose a solution on regional
disputes," he said. "The moment Israel expresses support for the
sort of model of action we're seeing in Kosovo, it's likely to be
the next victim. Imagine that one day Arabs in Galilee demand that
the region in which they live be recognised as an autonomous area,
connected to the Palestinian Authority..."
NATO's bombing, Sharon said, was "brutal interventionism". The
Israeli journalist Uri Avnery, who seized on this extraordinary
piece of duplicity, said that "Islamic terror" in Kosovo could only
exist in "Sharon's racist imagination". Avnery was far bolder in
translating what lay behind Sharon's antipathy towards Nato action
than Sharon himself. "If the Americans and the Europeans interfere
today in the matter of Kosovo, what is to prevent them from doing
the same tomorrow in the matter of Palestine?
"Sharon has made it crystal-clear to the world that there is a
similarity and perhaps even identity between Milosevic's attitude
towards Kosovo and the attitude of Netanyahu and Sharon towards the
Palestinians." Besides, for a man whose own "brutal interventionism"
in Lebanon in 1982 led to a Middle East bloodbath of unprecedented
proportions, Sharon's remarks were, to say the least, hypocritical.
As Sharon sent an armoured column to reinvade Nablus, still ignoring
Bush's demand to withdraw his troops from the West Bank, Colin
Powell turned on Arafat, warning him that it was his "last chance"
to show his leadership. There was no mention of the illegal Jewish
settlements. There was to be no "last chance" threat for Sharon. The
Americans even allowed him to refuse a UN fact-finding team in the
occupied territories. Sharon was meeting with President George W
Bush in Washington when a suicide bomber killed at least 15 Israeli
civilians in a Tel Aviv nightclub; he broke off his visit and
returned at once to Israel. Prominent American Jewish leaders,
including Elie Wiesel and Alan Dershowitz, immediately called upon
the White House not to put pressure on Sharon to join new Middle
East peace talks. "This is a tough time," Wiesel announced. "This is
not a time to pressure Israel. Any prime minister would do what
Sharon is doing. He is doing his best. They should trust him."
Wiesel need hardly have worried.
Only a month earlier, the Americans rolled out their first S-70A-55
troopcarrying Black Hawk helicopter to be sold to the Israelis.
Israel had purchased 24 of the new machines, costing $211m - most of
which would be paid for by the United States - even though it had 24
earlier-model Black Hawks. The log book of the first of the new
helicopters was ceremonially handed over to the director general of
the Israeli defence ministry, the notorious Amos Yaron, by none
other than Alexander Haig - the man who gave Begin the green light
to invade Lebanon in 1982.
Perhaps the only man who now had the time to work out the logic of
this appalling conflict was the Palestinian leader sitting now in
his surrounded, broken, ill-lit and unhealthy office block in
Ramallah. The one characteristic Arafat shared with Sharon - apart
from old age and decrepitude - was his refusal to plan ahead. What
he said, what he did, what he proposed, was decided only at the
moment he was forced to act. This was partly his old guerrilla
training, a characteristic shared by Saddam. If you don't know what
you are going to do tomorrow, you can be sure that your enemies
don't know either. Sharon took the same view.
The most terrible incident - praised by Sharon at the time as a
"great success" - was the attack by Israel on Salah Shehada, a Hamas
leader, which slaughtered nine children along with eight adults.
Their names gave a frightful reality to this child carnage:
18-month-old Ayman Matar, three-year-old Mohamed Matar,
five-year-old Diana Matar, four-year-old Sobhi Hweiti, six-year-old
Mohamed Hweiti, 10-year-old Ala Matar, 15-year-old Iman Shehada,
17-year-old Maryam Matar. And Dina Matar. She was two months old. An
Israeli air force pilot dropped a one-ton bomb on their homes from
an American-made F-16 aircraft on 22 July 2002.
What war did Sharon think he was fighting? And what was he fighting
for? Sharon regarded the attack as a victory against "terror".
Al-Wazzir, now an economic analyst in Gaza, believed that people who
did not believe themselves to be targets were now finding themselves
under attack. "There's a network of Israeli army and air force
intelligence and Mossad and Shin Bet that works together, feeding
each other information. They can cross the lines between Area C and
Area B in the occupied territories. Usually they carry out
operations when IDF morale is low. When they killed my father, the
IDF was in very low spirits because of the first intifada. So they
go for a 'spectacular' to show what great 'warriors' they are. Now
the IDF morale is low again because of the second intifada."
Palestinian security officers in Gaza were intrigued by the logic
behind the Israeli killings. "Our guys meet their guys and we know
their officers and operatives," one of the Palestinian officials
tells me. "I tell you this frankly - they are as corrupt and
indisciplined as we are. And as ruthless. After they targeted
Mohamed Dahlan's convoy when he was coming back from security talks,
Dahlan talked to foreign minister Peres. "Look what you guys are
doing to us," Dahlan told Peres. "Don't you realise it was me who
took Sharon's son to meet Arafat?" Al-Wazzir understands some of the
death squad logic. "It has some effect because we are a
paternalistic society. We believe in the idea of a father figure.
But when they assassinated my dad, the intifada didn't stop. It was
affected, but all the political objectives failed. Rather than
demoralising the Palestinians, it fuelled the intifada. They say
there's now a hundred Palestinians on the murder list. No, I don't
think the Palestinians will adopt the same type of killings against
"An army is an institution, a system; murdering an officer just
results in him the great war for civilisation 573 being replaced..."
The murder of political or military opponents was a practice the
Israelis honed in Lebanon where Lebanese guerrilla leaders were
regularly blown up by hidden bombs or shot in the back by Shin Bet
execution squads, often - as in the case of an Amal leader in the
village of Bidias - after interrogation. And all in the name of
Throughout the latest bloodletting, the one distinctive feature of
the conflict - the illegal and continuing colonisation of occupied
Arab land - was yet again a taboo subject, to be ignored, or
mentioned in passing only when Jewish settlers were killed. That
this was the world's last colonial conflict, in which the colonisers
were supported by the United States, was undiscussable, a prohibited
subject, something quite outside the brutality between Palestinians
and Israelis which was, so we had to remember, now part of America's
"war on terror". This is what Sharon had dishonestly claimed since
11 September 2001. The truth, however, became clear in a revealing
interview Sharon gave to a French magazine in December of that year,
in which he recalled a telephone conversation with Jacques Chirac.
Sharon said he told the French president that: "I was at that time
reading a terrible book about the Algerian war. It's a book whose
title reads in Hebrew: The Savage War of Peace. I know that
President Chirac fought as an officer during this conflict and that
he had himself been decorated for his courage. So, in a very
friendly way, I told him: 'Mr. President, you have to understand us,
here, it's as if we are in Algeria. We have no place to go. And
besides, we have no intention of leaving.'"
Sana Sersawi speaks carefully, loudly but slowly, as she recalls the
chaotic, dangerous, desperately tragic events that overwhelmed her
almost exactly 19 years ago, on 18 September 1982. As one of the
survivors prepared to testify against the Israeli Prime Minister
Ariel Sharon - who was then Israel's defence minister - she stops to
search her memory when she confronts the most terrible moments of
her life. "The Lebanese Forces militia had taken us from our homes
and marched us up to the entrance to the camp where a large hole had
been dug in the earth. The men were told to get into it. Then the
militiamen shot a Palestinian. The women and children had climbed
over bodies to reach this spot, but we were truly shocked by seeing
this man killed in front of us and there was a roar of shouting and
screams from the women. That's when we heard the Israelis on
loudspeakers shouting, "Give us the men, give us the men." We
thought: "Thank God, they will save us." It was to prove a cruelly
Mrs Sersawi, three months pregnant, saw her 30-year-old husband
Hassan, and her Egyptian brother-in-law Faraj el-Sayed Ahmed
standing in the crowd of men. "We were all told to walk up the road
towards the Kuwaiti embassy, the women and children in front, the
men behind. We had been separated. There were Phalangist militiamen
and Israeli soldiers walking alongside us. I could still see Hassan
and Faraj. It was like a parade. There were several hundred of us.
When we got to the Cité Sportive, the Israelis put us women in a big
concrete room and the men were taken to another side of the stadium.
There were a lot of men from the camp and I could no longer see my
husband. The Israelis went round saying "Sit, sit." It was 11
o'clock. An hour later, we were told to leave. But we stood around
outside amid the Israeli soldiers, waiting for our men."
Sana Sersawi waited in the bright, sweltering sun for Hassan and
Faraj to emerge. "Some men came out, none of them younger than 40,
and they told us to be patient, that hundreds of men were still
inside. Then about four in the afternoon, an Israeli officer came
out. He was wearing dark glasses and said in Arabic: "What are you
all waiting for?" He said there was nobody left, that everyone had
gone. There were Israeli trucks moving out with tarpaulin over them.
We couldn't see inside. And there were Jeeps and tanks and a
bulldozer making a lot of noise. We stayed there as it got dark and
the Israelis appeared to be leaving and we were very nervous.
"But then when the Israelis had moved away, we went inside. And
there was no one there. Nobody. I had been only three years married.
I never saw my husband again."
The smashed Camille Chamoun Sports Stadium was a natural "holding
centre" for prisoners. Only two miles from Beirut airport, it had
been an ammunition dump for Yasser Arafat's PLO and repeatedly
bombed by Israeli jets during the 1982 siege of Beirut so that its
giant, smashed exterior looked like a nightmare denture. The
Palestinians had earlier mined its cavernous interior, but its vast,
underground storage space and athletics changing-rooms remained
It was a familiar landmark to all of us who lived in Beirut. At
mid-morning on 18 September 1982 - around the time Sana Sersawi says
she was brought to the stadium - I saw hundreds of Palestinian and
Lebanese prisoners, perhaps well over 1,000 in all, sitting in its
gloomy, cavernous interior, squatting in the dust, watched over by
Israeli soldiers and plainclothes Shin Beth agents and a group of
men who I suspected, correctly, were Lebanese collaborators. The men
sat in silence, obviously in fear.
From time to time, I noted, a few were taken away. They were put
into Israeli army trucks or jeeps or Phalangist vehicles - for
further "interrogation". Nor did I doubt this. A few hundred metres
away, up to 600 massacre victims of the Sabra and Chatila
Palestinian refugee camps rotted in the sun, the stench of
decomposition drifting over the prisoners and their captors alike.
It was suffocatingly hot. Loren Jenkins of The Washington Post, Paul
Eedle of Reuters and I had only got into the cells because the
Israelis assumed - given our Western appearance - that we must have
been members of Shin Beth. Many of the prisoners had their heads
Arab prisoners usually adopted this pose of humiliation. But
Israel's militiamen had been withdrawn from the camps, their
slaughter over, and at least the Israeli army was now in charge. So
what did these men have to fear?
Looking back - and listening to Sana Sersawi today - I shudder now
at our innocence. My notes of the time contain some ominous clues.
We found a Lebanese employee of Reuters, Abdullah Mattar, among the
prisoners and obtained his release, Paul leading him away with his
arm around the man's shoulders. "They take us away, one by one, for
interrogation," one of the prisoners muttered to me. "They are
Haddad militiamen. Usually they bring the people back after
interrogation, but not always. Sometimes the people do not return."
Then an Israeli officer ordered me to leave. Why couldn't the
prisoners talk to me? I asked. "They can talk if they want," he
replied. "But they have nothing to say."
All the Israelis knew what had happened inside the camps. The smell
of the corpses was now overpowering. Outside, a Phalangist Jeep with
the words "Military Police" painted on it - if so exotic an
institution could be associated with this gang of murderers - drove
by. A few television crews had turned up. One filmed the Lebanese
Christian militiamen outside the Cité Sportive. He also filmed a
woman pleading to an Israeli army colonel called "Yahya" for the
release of her husband. The colonel has now been positively
identified by The Independent. Today, he is a general in the Israeli
Along the main road opposite the stadium there was a line of Israeli
Merkava tanks, their crews sitting on the turrets, smoking, watching
the men being led from the stadium in ones or twos, some being set
free, others being led away by Shin Beth men or by Lebanese men in
drab khaki overalls. All these soldiers knew what had happened
inside the camps. One, Lt Avi Grabovsky - he was later to testify to
the Israeli Kahan commission - had even witnessed the murder of
several civilians the previous day and had been told not to
And in the days that followed, strange reports reached us. A girl
had been dragged from a car in Damour by Phalangist militiamen and
taken away, despite her appeals to a nearby Israeli soldier. Then
the cleaning lady of a Lebanese woman who worked for a US television
chain complained bitterly that Israelis had arrested her husband. He
was never seen again.
There were other vague rumours of "disappeared" people. I wrote in
my notes at the time that "even after Chatila, Israel's 'terrorist'
enemies were being liquidated in West Beirut." But I had not
directly associated this dark conviction with the Cité Sportive. I
had not even reflected on the fearful precedents of a sports stadium
in time of war. Hadn't there been a sports stadium in Santiago a few
years before, packed with prisoners after Pinochet's coup d'état, a
stadium from which many prisoners never returned?
Among the testimonies gathered by lawyers seeking to indict Ariel
Sharon for war crimes is that of Wadha al-Sabeq. On Friday 17
September 1982, she said, while the massacre was still - unknown to
her - under way inside Sabra and Chatila, she was in her home with
her family in Bir Hassan, just opposite the camps. "Neighbours came
and said the Israelis wanted to stamp our ID cards, so we went
downstairs and we saw both Israelis and Lebanese forces on the road.
The men were separated from the women." This separation - with its
awful shadow of similar separations at Srebrenica during the Bosnian
war - was a common feature of these mass arrests. "We were told to
go to the Cité Sportive. The men stayed put." Among the men were
Wadha's two sons, 19-year-old Mohamed and 16-year-old Ali and her
brother Mohamed. "We went to the Cité Sportive, as the Israelis told
us," she says. "I never saw my sons or brother again."
The survivors tell distressingly similar stories. Bahija Zrein says
she was ordered by an Israeli patrol to go to the Cité Sportive and
the men with her, including her 22-year-old brother, were taken
away. Some militiamen - watched by the Israelis - loaded him into a
car, blindfolded, she says.
"That's how he disappeared," she says in her official testimony,
"and I have never seen him again since." It was only a few days
afterwards that we journalists began to notice a discrepancy in the
figures of dead. While up to 600 bodies had been found inside Sabra
and Chatila, 1,800 civilians had been reported as "missing". We
assumed - how easy assumptions are in war --that they had been
killed in the three days between 16 September 1982 and the
withdrawal of the Phalangist killers on 18 September, and that their
corpses had been secretly buried outside the camp. Beneath the golf
course, we suspected. The idea that many of these young people had
been murdered outside the camps or after 18 September, that the
killings were still going on while we walked through the camps,
never occurred to us.
Why did we journalists at the time not think of this? The following
year, the Israeli Kahan commission published its report, condemning
Sharon but ending its own inquiry of the atrocity on 18 September,
with just a one-line hint - unexplained - that several hundred
people may have "disappeared around the same time". The commission
interviewed no Palestinian survivors but it was allowed to become
the narrative of history.
The idea that the Israelis went on handing over prisoners to their
bloodthirsty militia allies never occurred to us. The Palestinians
of Sabra and Chatila are now giving evidence that this is exactly
what happened. One man, Abdel Nasser Alameh, believes his brother
Ali was handed to the Phalange on the morning of 18 September. A
Palestinian Christian woman called Milaneh Boutros has recorded how,
in a truck-load of women and children, she was taken from the camps
to the Christian town of Bikfaya, the home of the newly assassinated
Christian President-elect Bashir Gemayel, where a grief-stricken
Christian woman ordered the execution of a 13-year-old boy in the
truck. He was shot. The truck must have passed at least four Israeli
checkpoints on its way to Bikfaya. And heaven spare me, I had even
met the woman who ordered the boy's execution.
Even before the slaughter inside the camps had ended, Shahira Abu
Rudeina says she was taken to the Cité Sportive where, in one of the
underground "holding centres", she saw a retarded man, watched by
Israeli soldiers, burying bodies in a pit. Her evidence might be
rejected were it not for the fact that she also expressed her
gratitude for an Israeli soldier - inside the Chatila camp, against
all the evidence given by the Israelis - who prevented the murder of
her daughters by the Phalange.
Long after the war, the ruins of the Cité Sportive were torn down
and a brand new marble stadium was built in its place, partly by the
British. Pavarotti has sung there. But the testimony of what may lie
beneath its foundations - and its frightful implications - will give
Ariel Sharon further reason to fear an indictment.
I had been in the Sabra and Chatila camps when these crimes took
place. I had returned to the camps, year after year, to try to
discover what happened to the missing thousand men. Karsten Tveit of
Norwegian television had been with me in 1982 and he had returned to
Beirut many times with the same purpose. Lawyers weren't the only
people investigating these crimes against humanity. In 2001, Tveit
arrived in Lebanon with the original 1982 tapes of those women
pleading for their menfolk at the gates of the Cité Sportive. He
visited the poky little video shops in the present-day camp and
showed and reshowed the tapes until local Palestinians identified
them; then Tveit set off to find the women - 19 years older now -
who were on the tape, who had asked for their sons and brothers and
fathers and husbands outside the Cité Sportive. He traced them all.
None had ever seen their loved ones again.
Extracted from The Great War For Civilisation: The Conquest of the
Middle East, by Robert Fisk.
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