The massacre at Sabra and Shatila camps was an episode that immediately transcended the brutal war it was part of. The Israeli commission of inquiry seems almost a distraction from the obvious responsibility of the Begin government in this affair. Many of Begin’s critics regard the massacre as an inexcusable error of criminal proportions, but its implications are more ominous than this. It was a piece of a larger campaign, beginning in the south of Lebanon in early June, that killed more than 17,000 people. The carpet bombing of the camps in the south, the artillery pounding Beirut — all this the Palestinians survived and the world tolerated. For those Lebanese and Israelis determined to eliminate the Palestinian presence, the massacre was a purposeful application of concentrated terror.
From the tenth day of the war, when the Israelis first reached the gates of Beirut, Gen. Ariel Sharon had been pressing Bashir Gemayel to send his forces into the city to “finish off” the Palestinian fighters and their Lebanese allies. Gemayel knew better what his knives could and could not do: Their specialty was murder, not battle. Gemayel’s assassination set the stage for his troops to enter the camps under Israeli protection. One leader of the massacre was Elias Hobeika, Phalangist chief of security and intelligence, and chief liaison with the Israeli secret service, Mossad, and the Central Intelligence Agency. Another was Joseph Edde, Phalangist commander in the south. These were the militia leaders with the closest ties to Israel. They personally embodied the linkage between Israel and Lebanon’s fascists. The 2,000 men under their control were not breakaway elements, but the best-trained core of the Phalangist militia.
A commission of inquiry may be more useful here in the United States, to examine this country’s role in the invasion and occupation. Unlike in Israel, where the facts of the matter are more or less apparent, US responsibility has been obscured by Washington’s physical distance from events and by President Ronald Reagan’s pervasive dissembling. The media here have produced some remarkable coverage of the Lebanon war, but offer only the most perfunctory attention to US policy In this whole affair. We can give little credence to the reported personal revulsion of a president whose administration equips, finances and otherwise encourages the methodical killing of innocents in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, as well as Lebanon. Constructing such a commission would be difficult, but should be fully explored.
The Syrian state has been critical to the destruction of Lebanon. The Asad regime functioned in that country as the agent of the Arab governments. Its crimes there expose like little else the bankruptcy of official Arab condemnation of Israel’s role. Syria intervened militarily in 1976 to prevent the victory of the Lebanese progressive forces under Kamal Jumblatt’s leadership. This intervention was the most crucial blow to the possibility of a democratic solution to Lebanon’s political and social crisis. Syria is widely believed responsible for the assassination of Jumblatt in March 1977, a blow from which the Lebanese National Movement never recovered.
When it comes to massacres, the Syrian regime’s hands are among the bloodiest. An unforgettable instance was their support for the Phalangist siege of Tall al-Za‘tar camp outside Beirut in 1976. When the camp was finally overrun, some 3,000 were killed in cold blood. (Israeli support for the Phalange goes back to this pre-Begin period. Colonel Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, then chief IDF liaison with the Phalange, was one of three Israeli officers in the Phalange observation post over Tall al-Za‘tar during a critical part of the siege.) Syria’s role in crushing the Lebanese National Movement and the PLO in Lebanon has never been adequately addressed by the left. Clearly, the stock condemnation of “Arab reaction” does not sufficiently differentiate among the manifestations of state barbarism in the Middle East, or comprehend the full magnitude of the political crisis in the region.
Syria is probably most notorious today for its suppression of political dissidence and popular rebellion within its own borders — in Hama, Aleppo and elsewhere — at a frightful cost in human life. The regime of Hafiz and Rif‘at al-Asad has been as contemptuous of democratic rights as any in the region. The state of emergency declared by the first Baath regime in 1963 is still in place. Amnesty International reports numerous instances of torture and the “disappearance” of political prisoners. Opponents of the left and right are targets for assassination even in exile. Damascus continues to support the operations of Abu Nidal, the renegade Palestinian faction leader responsible for numerous attacks against the PLO.
The articles in this issue explore some of the social and political forces behind Syria’s political dynamic.