On the night of Sept. 16, 1982, the Israeli military allowed a right-wing Lebanese militia to enter twoÂ PalestinianÂ refugee camps in Beirut. In the ensuing three-day rampage, the militia, linked to the Maronite Christian Phalange Party, raped, killed and dismembered at least 800 civilians, while Israeli flares illuminated the campsâ narrow and darkened alleyways. Nearly all of the dead were women, children and elderly men.
Thirty years later, the massacre at the Sabra and Shatila camps is remembered as a notorious chapter in modern Middle Eastern history, clouding the tortured relationships amongÂ Israel, the United States,Â LebanonÂ and the Palestinians. In 1983, an Israeli investigative commission concluded that Israeli leaders were âindirectly responsibleâ for the killings and thatÂ Ariel Sharon, then the defense minister and later prime minister, bore âpersonal responsibilityâ for failing to prevent them.
While Israelâs role in the massacre has been closely examined, Americaâs actions have never been fully understood. This summer, at the Israel State Archives, I found recently declassified documents that chronicle key conversations between American and Israeli officials before and during the 1982 massacre. The verbatim transcripts reveal that the Israelis misled American diplomats about events in Beirut and bullied them into accepting the spurious claim that thousands of âterroristsâ were in the camps. Most troubling, when the United States was in a position to exert strong diplomatic pressure on Israel that could have ended the atrocities, it failed to do so. As a result, Phalange militiamen were able to murder Palestinian civilians, whom America had pledged to protect just weeks earlier.
Israelâs involvement in the Lebanese civil war began in June 1982, when it invaded its northern neighbor. Its goal was to root out the Palestine Liberation Organization, which had set up a state within a state, and to transform Lebanon into a Christian-ruled ally. The Israel Defense Forces soon besieged P.L.O.-controlled areas in the western part of Beirut. Intense Israeli bombardments led to heavy civilian casualties and tested even PresidentÂ Ronald Reagan, who initially backed Israel. In mid-August, as America was negotiating the P.L.O.âs withdrawal from Lebanon, Reagan told Prime Minister Menachem Begin that the bombings âhad to stop or our entire future relationship was endangered,â Reagan wrote in his diaries.
The United States agreed to deploy Marines to Lebanon as part of a multinational force to supervise the P.L.O.âs departure, and by Sept. 1, thousands of its fighters â including Yasir Arafat â had left Beirut for various Arab countries. After America negotiated a cease-fire that included written guarantees to protect the Palestinian civilians remaining in the camps from vengeful Lebanese Christians, the Marines departed Beirut, on Sept. 10.
Israel hoped that Lebanonâs newly elected president, Bashir Gemayel, a Maronite, would support an Israeli-Christian alliance. But on Sept. 14, Gemayel was assassinated. Israel reacted by violating the cease-fire agreement. It quickly occupied West Beirut â ostensibly to prevent militia attacks against the Palestinian civilians. âThe main order of the day is to keep the peace,â Begin told the American envoy to the Middle East, Morris Draper, on Sept. 15. âOtherwise, there could be pogroms.â
By Sept. 16, the I.D.F. was fully in control of West Beirut, including Sabra and Shatila. In Washington that same day, Under Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger told the Israeli ambassador, Moshe Arens, that âIsraelâs credibility has been severely damagedâ and that âwe appear to some to be the victim of deliberate deception by Israel.â He demanded that Israel withdraw from West Beirut immediately.
In Tel Aviv, Mr. Draper and the American ambassador, Samuel W. Lewis, met with top Israeli officials. Contrary to Prime Minister Beginâs earlier assurances, Defense Minister Sharon said the occupation of West Beirut was justified because there were â2,000 to 3,000 terrorists who remained there.â Mr. Draper disputed this claim; having coordinated the August evacuation, he knew the number was minuscule. Mr. Draper said he was horrified to hear that Mr. Sharon was considering allowing the Phalange militia into West Beirut. Even the I.D.F. chief of staff, Rafael Eitan, acknowledged to the Americans that he feared âa relentless slaughter.â
On the evening of Sept. 16, the Israeli cabinet met and was informed that Phalange fighters were entering the Palestinian camps. Deputy Prime Minister David Levy worried aloud: âI know what the meaning of revenge is for them, what kind of slaughter. Then no one will believe we went in to create order there, and we will bear the blame.â That evening, word of civilian deaths began to filter out to Israeli military officials, politicians and journalists.
At 12:30 p.m. on Sept. 17, Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir hosted a meeting with Mr. Draper, Mr. Sharon and several Israeli intelligence chiefs. Mr. Shamir, having reportedly heard of a âslaughterâ in the camps that morning, did not mention it.
The transcript of the Sept. 17 meeting reveals that the Americans were browbeaten by Mr. Sharonâs false insistence that âterroristsâ needed âmopping up.â It also shows how Israelâs refusal to relinquish areas under its control, and its delays in coordinating with the Lebanese National Army, which the Americans wanted to step in, prolonged the slaughter.
Mr. Draper opened the meeting by demanding that the I.D.F. pull back right away. Mr. Sharon exploded, âI just donât understand, what are you looking for? Do you want the terrorists to stay? Are you afraid that somebody will think that you were in collusion with us? Deny it. We denied it.â Mr. Draper, unmoved, kept pushing for definitive signs of a withdrawal. Mr. Sharon, who knew Phalange forces had already entered the camps, cynically told him, âNothing will happen. Maybe some more terrorists will be killed. That will be to the benefit of all of us.â Mr. Shamir and Mr. Sharon finally agreed to gradually withdraw once the Lebanese Army started entering the city â but they insisted on waiting 48 hours (until the end of Rosh Hashana, which started that evening).
Continuing his plea for some sign of an Israeli withdrawal, Mr. Draper warned that critics would say, âSure, the I.D.F. is going to stay in West Beirut and they will let the Lebanese go and kill the Palestinians in the camps.â
Mr. Sharon replied: âSo, weâll 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.â
Mr. Draper responded: âWe are not interested in saving any of these people.â Mr. Sharon declared: âIf you donât want the Lebanese to kill them, we will kill them.â
Mr. Draper then caught himself, and backtracked. He reminded the Israelis that the United States had painstakingly facilitated the P.L.O. exit from Beirut âso it wouldnât be necessary for you to come in.â He added, âYou should have stayed out.â
Mr. Sharon exploded again: âWhen it comes to our security, we have never asked. We will never ask. When it comes to existence and security, it is our own responsibility and we will never give it to anybody to decide for us.â The meeting ended with an agreement to coordinate withdrawal plans after Rosh Hashana.
By allowing the argument to proceed on Mr. Sharonâs terms, Mr. Draper effectively gave Israel cover to let the Phalange fighters remain in the camps. Fuller details of the massacre began to emerge on Sept. 18, when a young American diplomat, Ryan C. Crocker, visited the gruesome scene and reported back to Washington.
Years later, Mr. Draper called the massacre âobscene.â And in an oral history recorded a few years before his death in 2005, he remembered telling Mr. Sharon: âYou should be ashamed. The situation is absolutely appalling. Theyâre killing children! You have the field completely under your control and are therefore responsible for that area.â
On Sept. 18, Reagan pronounced his âoutrage and revulsion over the murders.â He said the United States had opposed Israelâs invasion of Beirut, both because âwe believed it wrong in principleÂ and for fear that it would provoke further fighting.â Secretary of State George P. Shultz later admitted that âwe are partially responsibleâ because âwe took the Israelis and the Lebanese at their word.â He summoned Ambassador Arens. âWhen you take military control over a city, youâre responsible for what happens,â he told him. âNow we have a massacre.â
But the belated expression of shock and dismay belies the Americansâ failed diplomatic effort during the massacre. The transcript of Mr. Draperâs meeting with the Israelis demonstrates how the United States was unwittingly complicit in the tragedy of Sabra and Shatila.
Ambassador Lewis, now retired, told me that the massacre would have been hard to prevent âunless Reagan had picked up the phone and called Begin and read him the riot act even more clearly than he already did in August â that might have stopped it temporarily.â But âSharon would have found some other wayâ for the militiamen to take action, Mr. Lewis added.
Nicholas A. Veliotes, then the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, agreed. âVintage Sharon,â he said, after I read the transcript to him. âIt is his way or the highway.â
The Sabra and Shatila massacre severely undercut Americaâs influence in the Middle East, and its moral authority plummeted. In the aftermath of the massacre, the United States felt compelled by âguiltâ to redeploy the Marines, who ended up without a clear mission, in the midst of a brutal civil war.
On Oct. 23, 1983, the Marine barracks in Beirut were bombed and 241 Marines were killed. The attack led to open warfare with Syrian-backed forces and, soon after, the rapid withdrawal of the Marines to their ships. As Mr. Lewis told me, America left Lebanon âwith our tail between our legs.â
The archival record reveals the magnitude of a deception that undermined American efforts to avoid bloodshed. Working with only partial knowledge of the reality on the ground, the United States feebly yielded to false arguments and stalling tactics that allowed a massacre in progress to proceed.
The lesson of the Sabra and Shatila tragedy is clear. Sometimes close allies act contrary to American interests and values. Failing to exert American power to uphold those interests and values can have disastrous consequences: for our allies, for our moral standing and most important, for the innocent people who pay the highest price of all.
Seth Anziska is a doctoral candidate in international history at Columbia University.