In my childhood I have suffered fear, hunger and humiliation when I passed from the Warsaw Ghetto, through labour camps, to Buchenwald. Today, as a citizen of Israel, I cannot accept the systematic destruction of cities, towns and refugee camps. I cannot accept the technocratic cruelty of the bombing, destroying and killing of human beings.
I hear too many familiar sounds today, sounds which are being amplified by the war. I hear “dirty Arabs” and I remember “dirty Jews”. I hear about “closed areas” and I remember ghettos and camps. I hear “two-legged beasts” and I remember “Untermenschen” (subhumans). I hear about tightening the siege, clearing the area, pounding the city into submission and I remember suffering, destruction, death, blood and murder ... Too many things in Israel remind me of too many things from my childhood.
These words are from a letter written by Dr Shlomo Shmelzman, a survivor of the Holocaust, to the press in Israel announcing his courageous hunger strike at the height of the bombing of West Beirut in Lebanon in August 1982. 
The bombing of unarmed civilians and killing and maiming of children in response to alleged acts of “terrorism” has deep roots in the history of the Israeli state. Here is an entry dated 1 January 1948 from the Independence War Diary of David Ben-Gurion, one of the most famous of the founding-fathers of Zionism and a one-time prime minister of Israel:
There is no question as to whether a reaction is necessary or not ... Blowing up a house is not enough. What is necessary is cruel and strong reactions. We need precision in time, place and casualties. If we know the family, strike mercilessly, women and children included. Otherwise the reaction is inefficient. At the place of action there is no need to distinguish between guilty and innocent. Where there was no attack – we should not strike. 
“Cruel and strong reaction” reached new and ever more bloody heights in the summer of 1982. Israel bombed the living daylights out of West Beirut after launching a full-scale military invasion of Lebanon, slaughtering tens of thousands of Palestinians and Lebanese. The climax to this came in the chilling and systematic murder, one by one, of unarmed Palestinian men, women and children at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. This “cruel and strong reaction” was in response to the attempted assassination of Shlomo Argov, the Israeli ambassador to London.
In fact this invasion had long been anticipated in Israel. Three months earlier, in March 1982, the Israeli paper Ha’aretz had written:
Behind the official excuse of we shall not tolerate shelling or terrorist reactions’ lies a strategic view which holds that the physical annihilation of the PLO [Palestinian Liberation Organisation] has to be achieved. That is, not only must its fingers and hands in the West Bank be amputated (as is now being done with an iron fist), but its heart and head in Beirut must be dealt with. As Israel does not want the PLO as a partner for talks or as an interlocutor for any solution in the West Bank, the supporters of confrontation with the PLO hold that the logical continuation of the struggle with the PLO in the territories is in Lebanon. With the loss of its physical strength, in their opinion, the PLO will lose not only its hold over the territories but also its growing international status. 
The US government backed Israel to the hilt. Immediately before the invasion, General Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Defence Minister and the man most responsible for the prosecution of the war in Lebanon, visited Washington where he informed US Defence Secretary Casper Weinberger that Israel must act in Lebanon. Pentagon figures reveal a massive surges of military supplies from the United States to Israel in the first three months of 1982. Delivery of military goods was almost 50 per cent greater than in the preceding year.
These deliveries continued through June, and included “smart bombs” which were used with devastating effect in Beirut. One such bomb caused the instant destruction of an entire building, killing 100 people in an apparent effort to kill PLO leader Yasser Arafat, who was thought to be there.
(This has an uncanny similarity with the futile but nevertheless bloody US attempt in 1986 to bomb the building in Tripoli where allegedly Libyan leader Colonel Gadaffi was sheltering. The bomb succeeded only in killing one of his children and maiming others.)
The invasion of Lebanon had one other very useful side-effect for Israel too. While the bombing of Beirut was at its height, the Israeli military industries (Ta’as) came out with an extensive publicity campaign in the international press (Aviation Week etc) to extend the scope of sales of its bombs. The main feature was a display showing a jetplane dropping bombs with the heading: “Bombs you can count on to do what they’re supposed to do.” 
The first target of the invasion was the Palestinian camp of Rashidiyeh, south of Tyre, much of which was in rubble by the second day of the invasion. There was ineffectual resistance, but as an officer of the United Nations peacekeeping force, which was swept aside in the Israeli invasion, later remarked: “It was like shooting sparrows with cannon.” The nine thousand people of the camp either fled or were herded to the beach by the Israeli forces, where they could watch the destruction of much of what remained. All the teenage and adult males were blindfolded and bound, and taken to internment camps. 
This is typical of what happened throughout Southern Lebanon. The Palestinian camps were demolished, largely bulldozed to the ground if not destroyed by bombardment; the population was dispersed; its men imprisoned. Reporters were barred but there were occasional accounts. David Shipler of the New York Times asked an Israeli army officer why bulldozers knocked down houses in the camps where women and children were still living. “They’re all terrorists,” he was informed. 
Tom Segev of Ha’aretz “toured Lebanon after the conquest” in mid-June. He saw “refugees wandering amidst swarms of flies, dressed in rags, their faces expressing terror and their eyes bewilderment ... the women wailing and the children sobbing”. Here and there people were walking “as in a nightmare”. “A terrible smell filled the air” – of decomposing bodies, he learned ... “This is what the cities of Germany looked like at the end of the Second World War.” He saw “mounds of ruins”, tens of thousands of people at the shore where they remained for days, women driven away by soldiers when they attempted to flee.
The Lebanese government casualty figures are based on police records, which in turn are based on actual counts in hospitals, clinics and civil defence centres. These figures do “not include people buried in mass graves in areas where Lebanese authorities were not informed.”  The figures, including the figure 19,000 dead and over 30,000 wounded, hence underestimate the real degree of bloodletting.
In the first bombing of Beirut in June, a children’s hospital in the Sabra refugee camp was hit and the Gaza Hospital near the camps was reported hit.  “There is nothing unusual” in the story told by an operating room assistant who lost both hands in the attack. “That the target of the air strike was a hospital, whether by design or accident, is not unique either,” reported William Branigan in the Washington Post.  The Acre Hospital was again hit on 24 June, along with the Gaza Hospital and the Islamic Home for Invalids where “the corridors were streaked with blood”.
By mid-August, the Islamic Home had been repeatedly shelled, only 15 of 200 staff members remained and “several retarded children died of starvation for lack of someone to feed them properly.”  Most of this was before the bombing escalated in August. By 4 August eight out of nine Homes of Orphans had been destroyed, attacked by cluster and phosphorous bombs. When Beirut mental hospital was hit, “800 patients varying in condition from senile dementia to violent schizophrenia were released into the streets of Beirut.” 
Chris Giannou was a Canadian surgeon working in Lebanon at the time of the Israeli invasion. His testimony later to the United States Congress makes grim reading.
He reported that “he was witness to four prisoners who were beaten to death.” That he witnessed “the total devastation of residential areas and the blind, savage, indiscriminate destruction of refugee camps by simultaneous shelling and carpet bombing from aircraft, gunboats, tanks and artillery,” leaving only “large blackened craters filled with rubble and debris, broken concrete slabs and twisted iron bars and corpses”; “hospitals being shelled”, one shell killing 40-50 people ... He saw “the entire male staff” of the hospital being taken into custody, leaving patients unattended, and “savage and indiscriminate beatings” of prisoners with fists, sticks, ropes with nuts and bolts tied to them. He saw a Palestinian doctor hung by his hands from a tree and beaten and an Iraqi surgeon “beaten by several guards viciously, and left to lie in the sun with his face buried in the sand” – all in the presence of an Israeli Colonel who did nothing about it. He watched prisoners “being rehearsed by an Israeli officer to shout ‘Long Live Begin’.” 
A Norwegian doctor and social worker confirmed this story, saying that they had seen at least ten people beaten to death, including an old man who was crazed by lack of water and intense heat as the prisoners were forced to sit for hours in the sun; he was beaten by four or five soldiers who then tied him with his wrists to his ankles and let him lie in the sun until he died. 
The sustained eleven-hour bombing of Beirut on 12 August finally evoked world-wide condemnation, even from the US, and the direct attack was halted:
To many people, in fact, the siege of Beirut seemed gratuitous brutality ... The arsenal of weapons, unleashed in a way that has not been seen since the Vietnam War, clearly horrified those who saw the results first hand and through film and news reports from a distance. The use of cluster bombs and white phosphorus shells, a vicious weapon, was widespread.
In the end ... Israel created in West Beirut a whole set of facts that no amount of packaging could disguise. In the last hours of the last air attack on Beirut, Israeli planes carpet-bombed Borj el Brajne (a Palestinian refugee camp). There were no fighting men left, only the damaged homes of Palestinian families, who once again would have to leave and find another place to live. All of West Beirut, finally, was living in wreckage and garbage and loss.
But the PLO was leaving. Somewhere the taste of victory must have been sweet. 
As the battering of Beirut reached new heights of savagery, the popularity of Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin soared to record heights. A mid- August poll showed that 80 per cent of Israelis supported the invasion of Lebanon (it was supported by the Labour opposition in the Israeli parliament) and 64 per cent approved the decision to go beyond the 25-mile zone – at which the early propaganda had said the Israelis would stop.
Of course there were brave souls in Israel who opposed the invasion of Lebanon and who even tried to protest about it, like Dr Shmelzman quoted at the start of this chapter. But it was the giant pro-government demonstration that caught the attention of the foreign press, with its ominous sign standing out from the others in red letters and in many copies: “One people, one Army, one Government”. A Hebrew-speaking journalist from a German television company “immediately translated it to her friends, pointing out its similarity to the Nazi slogan: ‘Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer’.” 
The Israeli opposition Labour Party did nothing to stop the invasion of Lebanon. With just two exceptions, Labour voted with the ruling Likud party to support the invasion. This fitted exactly the mood of Labour supporters, 91 per cent of whom backed the war.  As the scale of killing became known, the “Peace Now” movement, reluctantly supported by the Labour opposition, did call a large 400,000-strong demonstration. But this was very much a one-off affair.
Despite the apparent “victory” by the Israelis in forcing the expulsion of the PLO from Beirut, the bloodletting was by no means finished. On Thursday 16 September, truckloads of Christian Lebanese Phalange and Haddad troops, the Christian militia, armed to the teeth by the Israelis, entered the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps. The camps had been “sealed off” by the Israeli Defence Forces so that “no one could move in or out.” They were under direct observation from nearby command posts. 
The massacre, which would shock the entire world, was about to commence. Noam Chomsky writes:
Throughout Thursday night Israeli flares lighted the camps while the militias went about their work, methodically slaughtering the inhabitants. The massacre continued until Saturday, under the observation of the Israeli military a few hundred yards away. Bulldozers were used to scoop up bodies and cart them away or bury them under the rubble.
Israeli troops “stationed less than a hundred yards away, had not responded to the sound of constant gunfire or the sight of truckloads of bodies being taken away from the camps.” (Los Angeles Times, 20 September.)
On Friday afternoon Chief of Staff Eitan and Generals Drori and Yaron met with the Phalangist command. Eitan congratulated them on having carried out good work, offered them a bulldozer with IDF [Israeli Defence Forces] markers removed and authorised them to remain in the camps for another 12 hours. The killing continued. At 5 a.m. Saturday morning the murderers began to leave the camps and, after 36 hours, the slaughter ended. 
The Israeli government at first tried to claim it knew nothing about the massacre. But the journalists knew. They reported the massacre as it was happening:
As rifle fire cracked inside the camp, James Pringle of Newsweek asked one of Haddad’s men what was going on. “We’re slaughtering them,” the militiaman replied cheerfully. 
Loren Jenkins of the Washington Post stood over a mass grave looking up at the Israeli army main observation post,
a place where before their own advance into the city, they had set up giant telescopes for spotting snipers. And as I stood there Saturday morning looking up, there were six Israelis looking straight down at me. They stood and watched throughout this whole horrible tragedy as people were brought here, shot, dumped in this grave and packed up. This was basically an undefended civilian camp. 
What was the scale of the massacre? The Israeli army said that between 700 and 800 had been killed. The Lebanese government said that 762 bodies were actually recovered and that 1,200 more were buried privately by relatives. Most of the Palestinians who were killed (at least a quarter were Lebanese Shiite Moslems) had come as refugees from Israel’s Upper Galilee and Jaffa in 1948.
The Israeli government was up to its neck in the massacre. But how much did the US government know? The US stood alone with Israel at the United Nations in refusing to condemn the massacre. But US perfidy went deeper.
In the period immediately following the bombing of Beirut on 12 August, the United States government became heavily involved in the arrangements concerning the evacuation of the PLO from the city. An American peacekeeping force was sent in with the dual responsibility of overseeing the departure of the PLO and safeguarding the remaining civilian Palestinian population.
The Governments of Lebanon and the United States will provide appropriate guarantees of safety ... of law-abiding Palestinian non-combatants left in Beirut, including the families of those who departed. 
These are the words of the agreement.
But the peace-keeping force withdrew after the PLO fighters had gone, two weeks before its original mandate ran out, effectively ending the multinational commitment to protect Palestinian civilians. Shortly after this, the Israeli Defence Forces moved into Beirut and the massacre of Sabra and Shatila began ... The American government, like Begin and Sharon, did not actually have their fingers on the triggers of the guns, but their complicity cannot be in doubt. As the Israeli writer Amos Elon put it:
A man who puts a snake into a child’s bed and says: “I’m sorry, I told the snake not to bite. I didn’t know snakes were so dangerous.” It’s impossible to understand. This man’s a war criminal. 
1. Chomsky, p.257.
2. Chomsky, p.182 fn.
3. Yoel Marcus, The war is inevitable, in Ha’aretz, 26 March 1982.
4. Cited in the Israeli publication Ma’ariv, 20 August 1982.
5. Ingela Bendt and James Dowling, We shall return. Bendt and Dowling are freelance journalists who spent several months at the camp talking to refugees. There is ample independent verification cited in Chomsky, p.217. This chapter draws heavily on Chomsky’s book.
6. New York Times, 3 July 1982.
7. Police spokesman quoted in The Times, 13 July 1982.
8. Boston Globe, 5 June 1982.
9. Washington Post, 27 June 1982.
10. Christian Science Monitor, 13 August 1982.
11. Financial Times, 9 July 1982.
12. Chomsky, pages 229-230.
13. The Guardian, 24 June 1982.
14. Charles Powers, reporting in the Los Angeles Times, 29 August 1982.
15. Reported in Davar, 19 July 1982.
16. Survey cited by Chomsky.
17. T.L. Friedman, New York Times, 26 September 1982.
18. Chomsky, pages 364-S.
19. Newsweek, 27 September 1982.
20. Washington Post, quoted in Chomsky, p.367.
21. Chomsky, p.389.
22. Quoted in Chomsky, p.392.
Last updated on 4.8.2001