Kahan Commission (1983)

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Israeli judicial commission that investigated the 1982 massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut.

The Israeli government established the Commission of Inquiry into the Events at the Refugee Camps in Beirut (the Kahan Commission) in response to a massive public outcry following the killing of an estimated 800 to 1,200 Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps on the outskirts of Beirut by right-wing Christian militiamen, primarily of the Lebanese Phalange Party, on 16 and 18 September 1982. The massacres occurred in territory under the control of the Israel Defense Force in the wake of Israel's June 1982 invasion of Lebanon, and the perpetrators were Israeli allies. On 24 September 1982, some 400,000 Israelis demonstrated in Tel Aviv against their country's continuing involvement in Lebanon and in favor of an official investigation into the massacres. The three-person commission was chaired by Yitzhak Kahan, president of the Supreme Court; the other members were Aharon Barak, a Supreme Court justice, and retired army general Yona Efrat.

The commission issued its report on 7 February 1983. It noted that the Phalange had secured the permission of Major General Amir Drori, of the Northern Command, to enter the camps. This was approved by Israel's chief of staff, Lieutenant General Rafael Eitan, and Minister of Defense Ariel Sharon. The commission found that Israel's leaders and commanders bore indirect responsibility for the massacre by not anticipating Phalange revenge attacks against the unprotected Palestinians and by not acting to halt the killings soon enough, once indications of the bloodletting began to emerge from the camps. The commission chastised Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, and the (unnamed) head of the Mossad for their indifference to the events at the time, but it found particular fault with Drori, Eitan, the director of military intelligence General Yehoshua Saguy, and Division Commander General Amos Yaron. Most seriously, the commission found that Ariel Sharon bore personal responsibility for the tragedy and recommended that the prime minister consider removing him from office. On 10 February 1983, the cabinet voted to remove Sharon from his position as defense minister, although he remained as minister without portfolio.

Given the dread with which most Israelis came to regard the Lebanese quagmire in which Israel remained embroiled for the next seventeen years, Sharon's election as prime minister in February 2001 constituted a remarkable case of political rehabilitation. But the disaster in Lebanon dogged his premiership when, in June 2001, a group of Sabra and Shatila survivors filed a war-crimes complaint against him in a Belgian court under a 1993 Belgian law allowing claimants to bring cases against foreigners accused of crimes against humanity, regardless of where they occurred. One year later, however, a Belgian appeals court dismissed the case on the grounds that Sharon was not domiciled in Belgium, so the case never went to trial. No Lebanese inquiry into the massacre was ever carried through to completion.

see also begin, menachem; eitan, rafael; lebanese civil war (19751990); mossad; phalange; sabra and shatila massacres; shamir, yitzhak; sharon, ariel.


The Beirut Massacre: The Complete Kahan Commission Report. Princeton, NJ: Karz-Cohl, 1983.

Schiff, Zeʾev, and Ya'ari, Ehud. Israel's Lebanon War. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984.

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updated by laurie z. eisenberg