Every September for the last two decades Palestinians and sympathetic friends memorialize the Sabra-Shatila massacre in Lebanon. It occurred when Ronald Reagan was President and Israel had conquered half of Lebanon. In the all news magazine articles about Reagan’s passing I don’t recall a one that talked about Reagan and the Palestinians in Lebanon. But I remember. I remember Reagan’s support for the invasion of Lebanon, his betrayal of an American agreement to protect Palestinians in refugee camps and his indifference to the agony of the survivors.
In early 1982 Israel was preparing to attack Lebanon. The Reagan Administration helped out by increasing the amount of military goods sent to Israel by 50% over 1981 levels. Ariel Sharon who was Israeli Defense Minister at the time visited Washington where he told Reagan’s Defense Secretary that Israel “must act in Lebanon”. According to Jimmy Carter, Israel got the “green light”. Sharon’s army invaded Lebanon in June ’82 and in three months killed, according to the Lebanese government, some 20,000 Palestinians and Lebanese. By August its army was poised around Beirut where the Palestinians were fighting on without any support. Supposedly to spare the city U.S. special envoy Philip Habib negotiated an agreement whereby the PLO would evacuate its fighters from Beirut. Palestinian civilians would be guaranteed protection by the US. It was agreed that U.S. soldiers would stay in Beirut and watch out for their safety for thirty days.
Part of the agreement read, “The governments of Lebanon and the United States will provide appropriate guarantees of safety of law-abiding Palestinian non-combatants left in Beirut, including families of those who have departed. The U.S. will provide its guarantee on the basis of assurances received from the Government of Israel and the leaders of certain Lebanese groups with which it has been in contact.” (As related by Alexander Cockburn and quoted in Chomsky’s “The Fateful Triangle”.)
The PLO left Beirut on August 30 and then the U.S. suddenly pulled its troops. They boarded their ships two weeks early! The French and Italians quit, too. Reagan left the Palestinian women and children to the mercies of the Ariel Sharon and the so-called Lebanese government, which was controlled by a “Christian” Palestinian-hating militia called the Phalange. Lebanon’s President, elected under the shadow of Israeli guns, was Phalange leader Bashir Gemayel, who had become the top Christian leader by knifing to death the sons of his main rival.
Though the Palestinian fighters were evacuated under the watchful eyes of U.S. troops, Sharon and the Israeli Prime Minister of the time, Menachem Begin, claimed that the PLO had left behind in Beirut 2,000 terrorists armed to the death. Then on September 14th Bashir Gemayel was assassinated. The Israeli army then moved into Beirut according to Begin “to prevent acts of revenge by Christians against Palestinians” and surrounded the Palestinians camps. To “prevent” revenge Sharon sent 150 of those very same “Christians” into the Palestinian camps to fight the 2,000 heavily armed terrorists. 150 were to battle against 2,000? There was no fighting. For a day and half the Phalangists knifed, hacked and shot to death women, children and old men. Israeli soldiers shot illuminating flares above the camp at nighttime to help the Phalangists with their “battle”. The final death toll has always been in dispute. The International Committee of the Red Cross said it counted 2,750 dead. The Israeli Kahan Commission claimed the real number was 700.
To my knowledge not a single person served a day in jail for any of these murders, not an Israeli nor a Lebanese. Sharon lost his job as Defense Minister, but his demotion obviously didn’t do any long lasting damage to his career.
What was Regan’s reaction to the killings? One can get a sense of it from the recent “Reagan: A Life in Letters” by editors Kiron Skinner, and Martin and Annilese Anderson. They mention that Philip Habib who negotiated the PLO evacuation and US “guarantee” of safety for Palestinians was awarded the Medal of Freedom. It’s our nation’s highest civilian honor. It was granted on September 7, 1982, just as our soldiers were leaving and Reagan was washing his hands of things.
Concerning Lebanon the book’s editors include a few letters Reagan wrote to people who were upset with him for making mild criticism’s of Israel. There are no letters in the collection with apologies for his betrayal of the Habib agreement. There are no letters demanding the arrest of the killers of the Palestinians. There is no correspondence telling how he rushed aid to the families of the victims. Instead we read that on October 20 he wrote of his meeting with Lebanon’s new President Amin Gemayel. Amin Gemayel, who was a Phalange representative in the Parliament, was brother of Bashir. Of the meeting Reagan wrote, “Very impressive.” Just one month after Sabra and Shatila, with the blood of the victims not yet cold, Ronald Reagan was hobnobbing with the new leader of Israel’s puppet regime offering him help.
After the massacres Ronald Reagan sent back U.S. soldiers into Lebanon to “keep the peace”, to be the linchpin of a new multi-lateral force. They were soon up to their ears in the Lebanese fighting, backing the Lebanese Phalange government. This aid wasn’t just money and guns. Navy battleships bombarded Gemayel’s rivals. I recall the accounts. The shells were said to be the “size of Volkswagens”. It was in this context that a Lebanese drove a truck full of bombs into a U.S. marine barracks and killed 241 servicemen. A few months later all US troops were pulled out, their mission a total failure.
All the big media remembers about Lebanon is that Reagan made a speech of tribute to the fallen marines. We must remember the rest.
STANLEY HELLER is Chairperson of the Middle East Crisis Committee founded in New Haven in 1982. He can be reached at mail@TheStruggle.org