News stories and analyses of the report of Israel's special commission of inquiry have emphasized the commission's conclusion that Defense Minister Ariel Sharon "bears personal responsibility" for "blunders" he committed in relation to the massacres at Sabra and Shatila and that Director of Military Intelligence Yehoshua Saguy is responsible for "extremely serious omissions" that warrant his removal from office. The members of the inquiry commission have been accurately described in press accounts as "among the most respected nonpolitical figures in Israel," and their findings and recommendations are consequently being given great weight in the Israeli political process.
Respect should be given, however, not only to findings that assign blame to Israeli personnel, but to those that exculpate them and reject allegations that had been made in the news media and elsewhere against Israeli officials. The commission's report indicates that it treated all such allegations with great care, and did a thorough investigation of even the wildest of charges. The commission's conclusions refute several inflammatory assertions and clarify several important points.
(1) Only Phalangist forces were in Sabra and Shatila during the massacre: The commission found "with certainty" that "no organized military force" other than Phalangist troops entered the camps at any time between 6 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 16, and 8 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 18. No Israeli soldier and no troops under the command of Maj. Saad Haddad were in the camps at any time during the period when the murders were being committed. The commission tracked down the allegation made by Franklin Lamb that an Israeli soldier's dog tag was found in the camps and learned that the soldier had been wounded on Sept. 15 and that his protective vest, which contained his dog tag in a pocket, had been cut away from his body by a medic when the soldier was hit. He was in a hospital when the massacres occurred.
(2) The Israelis who permitted the Phalangists to enter the refugee camps had no intention to harm civilians: The commission examined the motivations of Israeli officials who decided to allow the Phalangists to enter Sabra and Shatila. The comission determined that "no intention existed on the part of any Israeli element to harm the noncombatant population in the camps." The commission found only the following reasons for allowing the Phalangists into the camps: "to accede to the pressure of public opinion in Israel, which was angry that the Phalangists, who were reaping the fruits of the war, were taking no part in it; and to take advantage of the Phalangists' professional service and their skills in identifying terrorists and in discovering arms caches."
(3) The massacre was not visible to Israeli troops stationed on rooftops near the camps: The commission rejected unequivocally the frequently heard allegation that Israeli troops witnessed what the Phalangists were doing in the camps from rooftop stations in a forward command post. The commission said that events in the camps "were not visible" from those rooftops and that "no sounds from which it could be inferred that a massacre was being perpetrated in the camps reached that place."
(4) The reason Israeli troops entered West Beirut after Bashir Gemayel's death was to maintain order: The commission heard evidence on the reasons the Israeli army went back into Beirut on the night of Sept. 14, after Bashir Gemayel was assassinated. Allegations have been made that Israel's re-entry was a violation of a commitment to the United States and that it led to the massacre. The commission found the contrary. It confirmed the suggestion that if the Israeli army had not gone back into West Beirut after the Gemayel assassination, "a situation of total chaos and battles between various combat forces would have developed, and the number of victims among the civilian population would have been far greater than it ultimately was."
There are other lesser allegations of Israeli culpability that were rejected by the commission after meticulous study. What may not be fully understood in view of the publicity surrounding the commission's suggestion that Sharon resign or be removed from office is that the commission found blame only for what lawyers call "nonfeasance"--the failure to live up to a high legal standard of affirmative action in protecting the civilian population of the refugee camps.
The commission emphasized this point by saying that if Sharon and others had taken account of the "danger of harm to the civilian population on the part of the Phalangists but had nevertheless, having considered all the circumstances, decided to have the Phalangists enter the camps while taking all possible steps to prevent harm coming to the civilian population, it is possible that there would be no place to be critical of them, even if ultimately it had emerged that the decision had caused undesirable results and had caused damage."
The failure to consider the likelihood of danger to civilians and to provide for it with "appropriate measures for preventing or reducing the danger of a massacre as a condition for the Phalangists' entry into the camps" was the only basis on which the commission charged Sharon with "indirect responsibility" for the massacre. By this standard, American secretaries of defense who did not protect civilians in Viet Cong villages from the atrocities committed by South Vietnamese forces, or from killings by American troops such as took place at My Lai, should have been called on to resign.
Israeli military personnel were faulted by the commission for not taking "energetic and immediate actions . . . to restrain the Phalangists and put a stop to their actions" once some reports of killings began emerging. The Israeli chief of staff, the head of its northern command, and its division commander were found to have "breached their duties" in not finding out more about what was happening in the camps and in not stopping the excess of the Phalangists.
There was, in this allocation of blame, no suggestion whatever that the Israeli personnel desired the massacre or associated themselves in any way with the killings. The head of the northern command, for example, was found to be at fault only in making "no special efforts . . . to investigate and verify the details of the reports reaching him, and did not give orders to conduct special checks on what was going on in the camps." These must be recognized as standards of conduct for occupants of military positions that are far above what is remotely contemplated in our own military.