A criminal investigation into Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon´s role in the massacre of civilians in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla should be launched, Human Rights Watch urged.
The call by Human Rights Watch came as Prime Minister Sharon begins a visit to the United States. The Israeli leader´s visit here comes as controversy mounts in Europe over his responsibility for the 1982 killings.
“There is abundant evidence that war crimes and crimes against humanity were committed on a wide scale in the Sabra and Shatilla massacre, but to date, not a single individual has been brought to justice,” said Hanny Megally, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch. “President Bush should urge Prime Minister Sharon to cooperate with any investigation.”
As Defense Minister, Ariel Sharon had overall responsibility over the Israeli Defense Forces and allowed Phalangist militias to enter the camps where they terrorized the residents for three days.
Human Rights Watch said that the United States had a substantial interest in the case because the Israeli occupation of West Beirut followed written U.S. assurances that Palestinians remaining there would be safe, as part of an arrangement that saw the evacuation of Palestine Liberation Organization forces.
The debate in Europe erupted following a BBC documentary on the Sabra and Shatilla massacre, which was aired in the United Kingdom on June 17. The day after, survivors of the massacre lodged a complaint against Sharon in a Belgian court.
During the BBC program, Morris Draper, the U.S. Special Envoy to the Middle East at the time, said that U.S. officials were horrified when told Sharon had allowed Phalange militias into West Beirut and the camps “because it would be a massacre.” He told the BBC that after the killings began he cabled Defense Minister Sharon, telling him, “You must stop the slaughter…. The situation is absolutely appalling. They are killing children. You have the field completely under your control and are therefore responsible for that area.”
The Kahan Commission (named after the President of the Israeli Supreme Court) that investigated the massacre in 1983 concluded that “Minister of Defense [Sharon] bears personal responsibility” and should “draw the appropriate personal conclusions arising out of the defects revealed with regard to the manner in which he discharged the duties of his office.” The commission recommended that Prime Minister Menachem Begin remove Sharon from office if he did not resign. Sharon did resign as minister of defense, though he subsequently assumed other cabinet positions. Annexes of the commission report have not yet been made public, and it is not known if they contain additional information specific to Sharon´s involvement.
Human Rights Watch said that the findings and conclusions of the Kahan Commission, however authoritative in terms of investigation and documentation of the facts surrounding the massacre, could not substitute for proceedings in a criminal court in Israel or elsewhere that would bring to justice those responsible for the killing of hundreds of innocent civilians. Human Rights Watch recognizes that Sharon, in his capacity as Prime Minister, may invoke temporary immunity; however, that should not preclude an active criminal investigation into his conduct whether in Israel, or elsewhere.
“Criminal investigations and prosecutions must include militia leaders like Elie Hobeika in Lebanon who carried out these atrocities,” Megally said. “But the Israeli government also has a responsibility to conduct an investigation into the actions of its own high officials who knew – and, in any case, certainly should have known -- that atrocities were likely to occur and did not act promptly to stop them once they knew the killing had started.”
Details of the massacre: The massacre at the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps occurred between September 16 and 18, 1982, after Israel Defense Forces (“IDF”) then occupying Beirut and under Ariel Sharon´s overall command as Israeli Defense Minister permitted members of the Phalange militia into the camps. The precise civilian death toll most likely will never be known. Israeli military intelligence estimated that between 700 and 800 people were killed in Sabra and Shatilla during the sixty-two-hour rampage, while Palestinian and other sources have claimed that the dead numbered up to several thousand. The victims included infants, children, women (including pregnant women), and the elderly, some of whom were mutilated or disemboweled before or after they were killed. Journalists who arrived on the scene immediately after the massacre also saw evidence of the summary execution of young men. To cite only one contemporaneous account, that of Thomas Friedman of the New York Times: “[M]ostly I saw groups of young men in their twenties and thirties who had been lined up against walls, tied by their hands and feet, and then mowed down gangland-style with fusillades of machine-gun fire.”
By all accounts, the perpetrators of this indiscriminate slaughter were members of the Phalange (or Kata´eb, in Arabic) militia, a Lebanese force that was armed by and closely allied to Israel since the outbreak of Lebanon´s civil war in 1975. It must be noted, however, that the killings were carried out in an area under IDF control. An IDF forward command post was situated on the roof of a multi-story building located some 200 meters southwest of the Shatilla camp.
Findings of the Kahan Commission:
In February 1983, the three-member Israeli official independent commission of inquiry charged with investigating the events known as the Kahan Commission named former Defense Minister Sharon as one of the individuals who "bears personal responsibility" for the Sabra and Shatilla massacre.
Former Defense Minister Sharon´s decision to allow the Phalange into the camps: The Kahan Commission report detailed the direct role of former Defense Minister Sharon in allowing the Phalangists into the Sabra and Shatilla camps. For instance, then-Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Rafael Eitan testified that the entry of the Phalangists into the refugee camps was agreed upon between former Defense Minister Sharon and himself. Thereafter, former Defense Minister Sharon went to Phalangist headquarters and met with, among others, a number of Phalangist commanders. A document issued by former Defense Minister Sharon´s office containing “The Defense Minister´s Summary of 15 September 1982” states: “For the operation in the camps the Phalangists should be sent in.” That document also stated that “the I.D.F. shall command the forces in the area.”
Former Defense Minister Sharon´s disregard of the consequences of that decision: As to former Defense Minister Sharon´s testimony that “no one had imagined the Phalangists would carry out a massacre in the camps,” the Kahan Commission concluded that “it is impossible to justify [Sharon´s] disregard of the danger of a massacre” because “no prophetic powers were required to know that a concrete danger of acts of slaughter existed when the Phalangists were moved into the camps without the I.D.F.´s being with them.” In fact, the Commission found: “In our view, everyone who had anything to do with events in Lebanon should have felt apprehension about a massacre in the camps, if armed Phalangist forces were to be moved into them without the I.D.F. exercising concrete and effective supervision and scrutiny of them…. To this backdrop of the Phalangists´ [enmity] toward the Palestinians [in the camps] were added the profound shock [of Bashir Jemayel´s recent death]….”
The Kahan Commission further found that:
If in fact the Defense Minister, when he decided that the Phalangists would enter the camps without the I.D.F. taking part in the operation, did not think that that decision could bring about the very disaster that in fact occurred, the only possible explanation for this is that he disregarded any apprehensions about what was to be expected because the advantages . . . to be gained from the Phalangists´ entry into the camps distracted him from the proper consideration in this instance.
The Commission explained that “if the decision were taken with the awareness that the risk of harm to the inhabitants existed, the obligation existed to adopt measures which would ensure effective and ongoing supervision by the I.D.F. over the actions of the Phalangists at the site, in such a manner as to prevent the danger or at least reduce it considerably. The Defense Minister issued no order regarding the adoption of such measures.”
The Commission concluded: “In our view, the Minister of Defense made a grave mistake when he ignored the danger of acts of revenge and bloodshed by the Phalangists against the population in the refugee camps.”
As its ultimate recommendation, the Kahan Commission recommended that Sharon be discharged from serving as Minister of Defense, and that, if necessary, the then-Prime Minister should consider removing him from office.
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Human Rights Watch takes the position that what happened at the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity, and that all those responsible need to be brought to justice. Enough questions are raised by the Kahan Commission report to warrant a criminal investigation by Israel into whether former Defense Minister Sharon and other Israeli military officials—including some who knew the massacre was occurring but took no actions to stop it—bear criminal responsibility. The findings and conclusions of the Kahan Commission, however authoritative in terms of investigation and documentation of the facts surrounding the massacre, cannot substitute for proceedings in a criminal court in Israel or elsewhere that will bring to justice those responsible for the killing of hundreds of innocent civilians. The Lebanese government should institute a similar investigation into the Sabra and Shatilla massacre.