Kahan Commission

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KAHAN COMMISSION , commission set up by the Israeli government on Sept. 28, 1982, to investigate "the atrocities committed by a unit of Lebanon forces against the civilian population in the Sabra and Shatilla camps" adjacent to Beirut between Sept. 16 and 18. The members were Justice Yitzhak Kahan, president of the Supreme Court; and General (reserve) Yona Efrat.

The commission held 60 meetings and examined 58 witnesses. It also had available a number of official documents provided by the relevant government departments. The public at large, both in Israel and abroad, were invited to appear and present evidence. The commission was assisted in its work by a specially appointed professional unit. For reasons of security, many sessions were held in camera and part of the evidence was withheld from publication. Nine individuals (including the Israeli prime minister, the foreign minister, the defense minister, the chief of General Staff, and other military commanders) were specifically notified of their right to appear and be heard because of the harm that might accrue to them, and they all took the opportunity to do so.

The commission spent considerable time investigating the events preceding the killings, the intense divisions and hostilities – religious, ethnic and political – in the Lebanese population, the military and political relations existing between Israel and the Christian Phalange forces (as well as, in the south, with the Free Lebanese Army under Major Saad Haddad), and the differing evaluations made by the two intelligence arms, the Mossad and Army Intelligence, of the stability and battle behavior of these forces.

The commission found that the premature departure of the Multinational Force from Beirut induced the Israeli army to enter the city and rid it of terrorists, in the course of which it was decided to allow the Phalange to enter the camps, a step intended to involve them more closely in clearing the area. The forward Israeli army observation post close to the camps was, however, so sited that it was difficult or impossible to observe what was happening inside the camps. Israeli units advancing on the camps were halted by heavy gunfire and suffered considerable casualties.

The commission examined in depth the information available to the Israeli authorities, military and political, the meetings held with the Phalange commanders, and the warnings given not to harm the civilian population. Much of what transpired was not apparently recorded or minuted, and the faulty recollection of the persons involved led, in the view of the commission, to inconsistencies in the evidence. In addition, radio communication between the Phalange in the camps and their liaison officer in the forward post, which were overheard by the Israelis there and should have aroused concern about what was taking place, were either dismissed or ignored and certainly not reported to the upper military and political levels. The Israeli cabinet's attention was drawn to events only after a journalist had reported to a minister information he had heard from an Israeli officer or officers at the forward post. The minister informed the foreign minister, but recollection of the parties was confused. Equally disputed were the oral reports made by the chief of General Staff to the defense minister. No report reached the prime minister until he learned of the events from a British broadcast on September 18 after the Phalange had finally left the camps.

The commission could not establish precisely the number of people killed. Non-Israeli sources put it between 328 and 460. The International Red Cross indicated they included over 100 Lebanese and over 300 Palestinians, most of them males; women and children victims numbered 35. The commission noted the difficulty of distinguishing between those who fell in military action and those who were simply slain.

The report held that direct responsibility lay with the Phalange. The victims were all found in the camps which the Phalange alone had entered; no other forces were present or had means of entry. The Phalange were notorious for their extreme hostility to the Palestinians for their acts against Lebanese Christians during the civil war that had raged since 1975. The assassination of Bashir Jemayel, the Phalange leader, two days earlier, had also inflamed passions.

No evidence was produced to implicate the forces of Haddad. Nor was the idf present in the camps throughout the three vital days, and the Phalange were refused the artillery and tank support they asked for.

In the opinion of the commission, the manner in which the decisions were reached at the political level and the handling of intelligence gave cause for concern. The decision of the minister of defense and the military command to allow entry to the Phalange was made without proper consideration as to its implementation and without thought for the likely consequences. The decision was not passed on in a timely manner to the political element or to other military elements that should have been informed. Nor were reports of what was happening that filtered through passed on or fully passed on, and then only after some delay that prevented appropriate orders to be issued or action to be taken. The commission was clear as to the steps to be taken to remedy the deficiencies disclosed. In addition to internal review by the military themselves, it recommended investigation by a ministerially appointed team of experts to establish the responsibility of those concerned.

Regarding the indirect responsibility of the nine persons who were notified of the jeopardy they were in, the commission came to the following conclusions: Prime Minister Menaḥem Begin, preoccupied as he was with other matters of state, was entitled to rely on the optimistic reports he received from the minister of defense and the chief of General Staff. Under the circumstances, however, he should have given thought to all the possibilities, especially those raised by other members of the government, but he seems to have distanced himself from the matter.

Although no clear warning was received from Intelligence by Minister of Defense Ariel Sharon, his disregard of the obvious dangers and his failure to order that suitable safeguards be taken could not be justified, especially in view of the very active role he played in the Lebanon War. The commission thought he should draw the necessary personal conclusions; if necessary, the prime minister should exercise his constitutional right to remove him from office.

Foreign Minister Yiẓḥak Shamir, although informed by his deputy minister (with whom he was not on good terms) of what was happening, did not show any special interest or attempt to investigate the matter or take it up with the minister of defense.

The Chief of Staff General Raphael Eitan knew from his past experience with Phalange that they could not be relied upon. His view that they were a disciplined force was entirely baseless, and he made no proper provision to control their actions; his belief that the Phalange would report fully was naive, especially in view of what he heard from the local Israeli commanders. Since he was soon due to retire, the commission made no recommendation in his regard.

The head of Military Intelligence, General Yehoshua Saguy, could not be believed when he said that he received no information about the plan to let the Phalange into the camps. He was present at all relevant meetings but acted with complete indifference. His awareness that his organization took second place to the Mossad in the deliberations did not justify his complete inactivity. It was recommended that he should cease to act.

The head of the Mossad did not initially know, nor should he have known, of the decision about the Phalange but, having learned of it, he failed in his duty to evaluate the situation, especially in the light of his close association with Phalange.

General Amir Drori, head of the Northern Command, had no explicit information. He relied on the chief of General Staff and acted correctly with understanding and responsibility, although he should have warned the cgs.

Brigadier Amos Yaron of the local command was severely criticized for the absence of critical oversight of events. He was content with taking Phalange promises at their face value. He did not act firmly though he knew that the behavior of the Phalange left much to be desired. He did not keep the chief of General Staff fully informed and made no suggestions as to how to proceed. It was recommended that he should not fill a position of command for at least three years.

Finally, the personal assistant of the minister of defense was exonerated, having, it seems, done what was to be expected from him.

[Peter Elman (2nd ed.)]