‘Nothing will happen. Maybe some more terrorists will be killed’

Declassified documents from meetings held before and during the Sabra and Shatila massacre in 1982 reveal Ariel Sharon’s contempt for Palestinian lives. Published last week by the New York Times, the documents demonstrate the arrogance of Sharon and a young Benjamin Netanyahu in their dealing with American diplomats and officials, who expressed justified concerns over the fate of Palestinians in areas conquered by Israel.

'Nothing will happen. Maybe some more terrorists will be killed'
Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Minister Ariel Sharon (photo: Saar Yaacov, Government Press Office / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashana) also marked the 30th anniversary of the massacre in the Sabra and Shatilla Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. At least 800 people, including many women and children, were killed by the Phalange militia, which was armed by Israel and at times operated by it.

The massacre wasn’t planned or executed by Israel, but the Phalange, whose leader Bashir Gemayel had been assassinated a couple of days earlier, were ordered by Israel into the camps. Furthermore, soldiers stationed around the camp witnessed the executions of women and children and reported them to their commanding officers. By the second day of the massacre, news had reached higher ranks in the army and several cabinet ministers, including then Defense Minister Ariel Sharon – but that same night, the IDF fired flares into the sky to help the Phalange in their “fight.” Only on the third day did the IDF order the Phalange out, and the massacre ended.

Last weekend, The New York Times published three recently declassified top secret documents (see the bottom of this text) detailing meetings between Israeli and American officials at the beginning of the massacre, during it, and right after it. Three of the Israeli names in those documents later became prime ministers: Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, and the deputy chief of the Israeli mission in Washington, Benjamin Netanyahu. The conversations are telling, and they draw lessons that are still relevant, especially on the ways Israeli officials dealt with American diplomats and officials.

The first couple of documents demonstrate Israeli disdain – bordering contempt – for the Reagan administration’s pleas to move the IDF out of Beirut. Israel also demands that the United States not publicly link the situation of the Palestinians in South Lebanon to those in the West Bank. (At the time, the Begin government was gradually retreating from its commitment in the Camp David treaty with Egypt to grant autonomy to the Palestinians in the occupied territories.) Researcher Seth Anziska from Columbia University, who uncovered the documents, has a very good piece in the Times detailing how American diplomats were bullied and manipulated by the Likud cabinet members, especially Defense Minister Sharon.

The cover letter for the first document, concerning a meeting in Washington with Under Secretary of State Laurence Eagleburger (who made it known he was speaking on behalf of President Reagan), is written and signed by Netanyahu, summarizing Israel’s problems with the American position objecting to the Israeli invasion of Beirut, which took place a couple of days earlier:

The ambassador [to Washington, Moshe Arens] vigorously rejected the claim that Israel misled the United States and that it violated the agreement. He also rejected the assumption that the IDF’s operation is not desirable, and emphasized its importance at this time.

At a certain moment in the first meeting (which took place on September 16, on the first day of the massacre), following Under Secretary Eagleburger’s intention to publish a statement by the State Department about Israeli actions being “contrary to assurances,” the young Netanyahu, only a deputy envoy, doesn’t hesitate to reply:

… I suggest you delete this […] Otherwise you will give us no choice but to defend our credibility by setting the record straight. We’ll end up in a shooting war with each other, and that’s not good for either of us.

As they were speaking, the Phalange, thirsty for revenge over the death of their leader, were entering the refugee camps. The Americans would soon learn that their concerns were well-founded.

What did Sharon know?

From an Israeli perspective there is no way to avoid the conclusion that had the Likud ministers listened or respected the U.S. diplomats, the Phalange invasion of the camps could have been avoided without any damage to Israeli national security, despite all the angry rhetoric Sharon threw at the Americans.

The second conversation is the most interesting. It took place at 12:30 PM on the September 17, the second day of the massacre. The most senior American official present was Mideast envoy Morris Draper. It’s not clear whether Ariel Sharon had any knowledge of the events in the Palestinian camps when he spoke to the Americans; though he knew that the Phalange were ordered to enter the camps.

Towards the end of the conversation, the American envoy demands that the Israelis began the evacuation of their forces on the same day (the 17th). The Israelis refuse:

Sharon: Nothing will happen. Maybe some more terrorists will be killed. That will be to the benefit of all of us, for the benefit of all of us.

Shamir: Let us hope that there will be quiet.

Sharon: For every peace-loving man in the world, just to reduce a little bit this threat of these international syndicated terrorists.

It’s worth noting that by September ’82, the PLO had already left Lebanon. Sharon must have known that most of the people in the camps would be poor, innocent refugees. Yet the view of every Palestinian as potential terrorist is already evident in his thinking.

Later, Mr. Draper warns Sharon of the exact same things that was taking place as they spoke, should the IDF stay in West Beirut and the Phalange operate in the refugee camps. Citing possible critiques of Israel, he says:

The hostile people [critics of Israel – NS] will say sure, the IDF is going to stay in West Beirut and they will let the Lebanese go and kill the Palestinians in the camps.”

To which Sharon replies:

So, we’ll kill them. They will not be left there. You are not going to save them. You are not going to save these groups of the international terrorism.

Sharon should have known what having the Phalange “conquer” the refugee camps would mean. In a Northern Command meeting three months earlier, he told the IDF generals:

“[We] should stop asking them [the Phalange] to take part in military action… leave them alone. They’ll do nothing. Maybe, later, when everything won’t exist and it will be possible to loot, to murder, to rape, yes. Then they will rape, loot and murder.”

(This document was revealed by Amir Oren on Haaretz in 2008. Oren also mentions a report from this era on the arrests and murder of no less than 500 people in checkpoints established by the Phalange, prior to the Sabra and Shatila massacre. This information was the obtained by the Mossad, who managed the contacts with Israel’s Christians allies in Lebanon before and during the invasion.)

By the night following the conversation between Shamir, Sharon and the U.S. envoy, there was concrete news of the massacre. At night, Israeli journalist Ron Ben Yishai, stationed in Beirut, called Sharon at his home to tell him of the numerous reports he had received, urging him “to do something.” Sharon thanked him and went back to bed.

The third and final document published by the Times is a conversation between Secretary of State Shultz and Israel Ambassador Arens once the news of the massacre had been made public. You can view the three documents here:


U.S.-Israel meetings on Sabra and Shatila