The Israeli commission investigating the Beirut massacre warned Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Defense Minister Ariel Sharon and seven other high officials today that they may be "harmed" by its findings and have the right to retain counsel.
In a resolution reading much like a grand jury indictment, the independent board of inquiry told the nine men, who also include Foreign Minister Yitzak Shamir and Army Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan, that it may accuse them of "nonfulfillment of duty." It advised them that they had 15 days to testify again, examine evidence and cross-examine witnesses.
The three-man inquiry board, which is headed by the chief justice of the Israeli Supreme Court, is an investigative body with subpoena power but no authority to file legal charges against individuals. It was appointed Oct. 1 to examine charges that Israeli officials acted irresponsibly in allowing Lebanese Christian militiamen to enter the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps south of Beirut in September, when hundreds of Palestinian civilians were killed.
Israeli law required the board to issue the warnings if it appeared that "a particular person is likely to be harmed" by the investigation's conclusions. In a television interview tonight, Hebrew University law professor Claud Klein cautioned that the panel's findings may not necessarily match today's resolution.
Nevertheless, the warnings are a severe jolt to the Begin government, which maintains that Israel bears no responsibility for the massacre. The political implications of its findings, if they turn out to have anything like the scope suggested in today's warning, could be enormous, shaking the Begin government to its foundation.
Begin, a fiercely proud and confident politician, appears unlikely to accept findings that he and the top echelon of his government had failed in their duties without demanding new elections.
The others who received the warning were Maj. Gen. Yehoshua Saguy, the director of military intelligence; the director of the country's intelligence service, Mossad, who by law cannot be named in public; Maj. Gen. Amir Drori, the Army's northern commander; Brig. Gen. Amos Yaron, who was commander of all Israeli forces in the Beirut area, and Avi Dudai, Sharon's personal assistant.
All were warned that various failures by them between Sept. 16 and 18, when the massacre took place, could be found to be "tantamount to nonfulfillment of a duty." In addition, Eitan and Yaron were told they may be found guilty of "breach of duty."
Each of the officials has testified before the commission, which has heard both open and closed testimony. None of those warned today had any immediate comment. A spokesman for Begin told CBS News that he was unlikely to testify again.
The inquiry board's resolution closely paralleled the often skeptical line of questioning the three-member panel has pursued during a number of public sessions. The questioning has centered on why the Israeli government, knowing the history of hatred between the Christian Phalangists and the Palestinians, did not realize the danger of exposing the refugees to the militiamen after the assassination of their leader, Lebanese president-elect Bashir Gemayel, and why no one in the Israeli government or military acted on reports of civilian deaths that first surfaced on Sept. 16, the first night of the massacre.
The Lebanese government has said it is conducting its own investigation into the massacre, but no testimony or conclusions have been made public as yet.
Begin was notified of one possible finding against him. This was that he "did not appropriately consider the role to be played by the Lebanese Forces the Phalangist militia during and due to the IDF's Israel Defense Forces' entry into West Beirut, and ignored the danger of acts of revenge and bloodshed by these forces against the population in the refugee camps."
Begin testified before the panel that he had assumed "acts of revenge" would follow the Gemayel assassination but that he did not consider this a reason to prevent the Phalangist militia units Gemayel had commanded from entering the Palestinian neighborhoods.
He and other top government officials have maintained from the outset that the Christian militiamen were sent into the camps to root out the remaining Palestinian guerrillas after the evacuation of Palestine Liberation Organization troops from West Beirut at the end of August, and that they never dreamed that a bloody rampage against civilians would result.
Significantly, nothing in the board's resolution suggested that Begin may have known about the massacre while it was going on. The prime minister has said he learned of the slaughter from a radio news report at 5 p.m. Sept. 18. Among the nine men who received the warnings today, only he and the director of Mossad were not cited for possibly failing to act on early reports of a massacre.
Sharon was notified of possible findings that he "ignored or dismissed from his mind the danger of acts of revenge," did not "order that appropriate measures be taken to prevent this danger" and "did not order that the Lebanese forces be removed from the camps as quickly as possible, and that steps be taken to protect the population in the camps when he received reports of acts of killing . . ."
The inquiry board told Shamir he may be faulted for failing to act on a report he received on Sept. 17, the second day of the massacre, from Communications Minister Mordechai Zippori. Zippori told the panel he warned Shamir that a "massacre" was taking place in the camps, but Shamir, testifying earlier today, disputed this.
The most serious potential findings, of a "breach of duty," appear from the resolution to be facing Gens. Eitan and Yaron. At a critical meeting in Beirut at 4:30 p.m. Sept. 17, Eitan authorized the Phalangist units to remain in the refugee camps until 5 a.m. the next day.
That decision was specifically cited today by the inquiry board, which also notified the chief of staff that he may be faulted for ignoring the possibility of "acts of revenge" and for failing to check adequately reports of what was happening in the camps.
The board also warned Yaron about a failure to check similar reports, which it said reached him on the first night of the massacre, and for allowing the Phalangist units to bring in fresh troops and restock their ammunition supplies on the second day of the slaughter.
The board told Drori, like the other two generals, that he may be faulted for failing to "take appropriate and sufficient steps to prevent the continuation of actions by the Lebanese Forces in the refugee camps." It cited him in particular for failing to raise objections at the Sept. 17 meeting at which Eitan authorized the Christian militiamen to remain in the camps another 12 hours.
Both Saguy, the military intelligence chief, and the unnamed head of Mossad were told the inquiry board may criticize them for failing to warn government and military leaders of the likelihood of "acts of revenge" following Gemayel's assassination. In addition, today's resolution disclosed that Saguy received a report on the morning of Sept. 17 regarding "what had occurred in the refugee camps under the control of the Lebanese Forces."
Dudai, the least known of the nine officials who received the warnings, had been accused by another witness of having lied when he asserted he received no reports about what was happening in Sabra and Shatila on Sept. 17. Today the panel warned the Sharon aide that he may be faulted for not acting on the report he was said to have received.
The law requiring today's warnings is the outgrowth of an investigation by a similar panel into Israeli military and intelligence failures before and during the 1973 war. During that investigation, Maj. Gen. Shmuel Gonen, the Army's southern commander, learned that he was likely to be damaged by the findings and demanded a chance for rebuttal.
Gonen was found guilty of negligence and was forced to resign from the Army, but as a result of his complaint the law was amended to require the kind of advance notification issued today by the inquiry board.
Release of the resolution tonight completely overshadowed the earlier testimony today by Shamir. Zippori, the Israeli communications minister, had told the panel last week that on Sept. 17 he relayed to Shamir a report from a newspaper correspondent that "the Phalangists are massacring."
Shamir maintained today that Zippori never used the words "massacre" or "slaughter" in their conversation, but spoke only of "running wild by the Phalangists."
He said Zippori's report did not particularly bother him and that he did not raise the subject when he met later that day with Sharon and U.S. special envoy Morris Draper, assuming that if anything was seriously wrong they would already know about it.