On the night of September 16, 1982, my younger brother and I were baffled as we watched dozens of Israeli flares floating down in complete silence over the southern reaches of Beirut, for what seemed like an eternity. We knew that the Israeli army had rapidly occupied the western part of the city two days earlier. But flares are used by armies to illuminate a battlefield, and with all the PLO fighters who had resisted the Israeli army during the months-long siege of the city already evacuated from Beirut, we went to bed perplexed, wondering what enemy was left for the occupying army to hunt.
This was a little more than a month after the August 12 cease-fire that had supposedly ended the war, and was followed by the departure of the PLO’s military forces, cadres, and leadership from the city. The trigger for Israel’s occupation of West Beirut was the assassination on September 14 of Israel’s close ally and Lebanese President-elect Bashir Gemayel, head of the Lebanese Front militia and a top leader of the fascist-modeled Phalangist party.
What we had seen the night before became clear when we met two American journalists on September 17. They had just visited the scene of ongoing massacres in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, home to tens of thousands of displaced Palestinians as well as many Lebanese. They had taken with them into the camps a young American diplomat, Ryan Crocker, who was the first US government official to file a report on what they had seen. We found out from them that the Israeli army had used flares the previous night in order to light the way for the right-wing Lebanese militias whom the Israelis sent into Sabra and Shatila. From September 16 to 18, according to historian Bayan al-Hout’s authoritative account of this event, these militiamen slaughtered over 1,300 Palestinian and Lebanese civilians (for more on these and related events, see the revised 2014 edition of my book Under Siege: PLO Decisionmaking During the 1982 War).
Recently declassified documents from the Israel State Archives tell us that the US government was uncomfortable about what the Israelis and their allies might be up to. Special envoy Morris Draper, instructed to obtain a withdrawal of the Israeli army from West Beirut, met with Israeli officials in Jerusalem on September 17. There, Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir claimed that 2,000 armed “terrorists” remained in West Beirut. Defense Minister Ariel Sharon thereupon characteristically escalated things. “There are thousands of terrorists in Beirut,” he told the US envoy, challenging his demand that Israeli forces withdraw: “Is it your interest that they will stay there?” Draper, according to transcripts, failed to counter Sharon’s false assertion about the presence of thousands of “terrorists,” but when he mildly disputed another of his claims, the defense minister was even blunter, stating: “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 [sic].” Again, Draper did not demur at these chilling words based on a falsehood.