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Forty years on, Sabra and Shatila massacre remain public relations disaster for Israel

Jun 15,2022 - Last updated at Jun 15,2022

Between September 14 and 16 40 years ago, fighters from the Phalange, Lebanese Forces militia and Saad Haddad's Israeli-surrogate South Lebanon Army carried out the massacre of hundreds of Palestinian civilians living in the Sabra and Shatila neighbourhoods of southern Beirut. The killings were perpetrated while the Israeli army, which had occupied Lebanon from the southern border through West Beirut, surrounded the unprotected area as Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) defenders had been evacuated from Lebanon in August.

A UN commission headed by Sean MacBride reported violations of international law, concluded Israel was responsible as occupying power, and the slaughter was a form of genocide. Israel's own commission of enquiry found that the Israeli army, aware of the massacre, failed to halt it, branded Israel indirectly responsible, and said Defence Minister Ariel Sharon bore personal responsibility for ignoring the risk of mass bloodshed posed by allowing Maronite Christian forces into the Palestinian "camps" and compelled him to resign.

What Sharon, the Israeli army, and the killer squads refused to recognise about this massacre was that it was conducted under the watchful eyes of Beirut-based Western correspondents who reported the brutal Israeli invasion as soon as Sharon's troops crossed the border into Lebanon. Indeed, this war was one of the first comprehensively covered by Western media.

While the flow of information coming out of Beirut did not match the tsunami sweeping all but Ukraine war news and commentary from the media, Sharon's invasion and occupation of Lebanon was closely documented as events unfolded. And, for a change, Israel was not portrayed as the hero. Even by Israeli officers on the ground, like Lt. Colonel Dov Yermiya who sharply criticised Israel’s cruel and destructive behaviour in Lebanon.

Sharon drew up two contingency plans for his Lebanon war: "Little Pines" and "Big Pines". The first was for a 40-kilometre offensive to drive Palestinian fighters from the Lebanese border to the Litani River. This was the plan Sharon publicised while intending to implement the second. This sent his troops north to Beirut. His ambitious war aims were to eradicate the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and its armed wing, raze Palestinian camps, drive Palestinian refugees into Syria and ensure the election of pro-Israel Lebanese President Bashir Gemayel. On the home front, Sharon sought to escalate Israeli colonisation of the West Bank and its, ultimate, annexation.

Israeli forces paused to devastate southern villages and towns before attacking and laying waste to the port cities of Tyre and Sidon and nearby Palestinian camps. The Israeli army advanced to the southern edge of Beirut and laid siege to the western sector of the capital, which was heavily bombarded until the US, which had colluded with Sharon, called a halt to the onslaught on August 12. PLO fighters and leaders were forced to relocate to Tunis and Gemayel was narrowly elected to the presidency but was assassinated on September 16th. This precipitated the Maronite massacre at Sabra and Shatila where up to 2,000 Palestinian women and children and elderly men were slain.

The massacre was the culmination of Sharon's "war of choice" which was a public relations disaster for Israel both at home and abroad. This was the first time in Israel's 34-year existence that Israelis questioned a war while it was being waged. This began promptly with Cabinet members who had not been briefed and within days had spread to the public and to serving soldiers and officers, worrying Sharon and Prime Minister Menachem Begin. To make matters worse for them, they were blamed for launching hostilities after the 1981 ceasefire between the PLO and Israel was in force. One critic slammed the war, dubbed "Peace for Galilee”, by saying "not one shot had been fired across the northern border for a year".

Opposition to the war gave rise to "Soldiers Against Silence" and "Peace Now" and thousands of Israelis attended peace rallies in Tel Aviv. To counter opposition to the war, the government carried out a campaign justifying the war and staged a massive pro-war rally in Tel Aviv. The vociferous anti-war campaign was particularly concerning for Begin and Sharon because Israelis were demanding peace talks with the Palestinians and recognition of their identity, existence and rights in the land occupied by Israel.

Although there had been Israelis previously seeking peace, the men who fought in Israel's wars had not been in the forefront. Sharon's war effected change. Israeli troops did not like being stuck in the "mud of Lebanon" and were glad when they were pulled back from Beirut to the south. There they no longer faced the PLO but an enemy entirely of their own making: Hizbollah which, along with Amal, drove the Israeli army and its Lebanese surrogates out of Lebanon in 2000 and fought Israel to a standstill in 2006.

The peace movement thrived and became the motivator, on the Israeli side, of talks with Palestinian peaceniks living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. This led to the 1993 meetings in Norway which produced the Oslo Accord that was signed on the White House lawn in front of cameras of satellite channels broadcasting to the world. The peace camps on both sides had positive expectations. This was the moment Israel might, just might have changed direction and made peace with the Palestinians on acceptable terms. That moment passed.

During a 2017 visit to Jerusalem to report on the 50th anniversary of the June war, a leading veteran of the left wing of the peace movement Michel Warshawsky told this correspondent that when his grandchildren gather, they discuss latest fashions in music and clothing rather than Israeli/Palestinian peace. He and his lawyer wife Leah Tsemel, who defends Pales tinians in Israeli courts, have long been involved in efforts to end the occupation.

Israeli peaceniks have, unfortunately, been defeated by the Zionist establishment, whether Labour, Likud or other parties — which has always dominated the Israeli political scene and has rejected down all peace plans proposed since 1982 and, instead, have poured billions of dollars into Israeli colonisation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and until 2005, Gaza, when then Prime Minister Sharon withdrew Israeli colonists and soldiers from the strip in order to focus on colonising the West Bank.

This investment has paid off. The 450,000 Israeli colonists who live in the West Bank and 220,000 in East Jerusalem now dictate government policy. Meanwhile, Israelis who dwell within the 1948 state have either grown more aggressively Zionist or retreated from confrontation with Zionists who adhere to the doctrine of the Zionist movement founded at the end of the 19th century when colonialism remained a potent force on the world scene.

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