Issue 2 - 2024 200dpi

3 July 1997 Edition

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Israeli hawk edges near power

By Dara MacNeil

It is quite possible that Israel's next Minister of Finance will be none other than Ariel Sharon. Thus once again, inter-cabinet rivalry and bickering sees Israeli premier Binyamin Netanyahu place his own hold on power above any prospects for peace.

It was Ariel Sharon, as Israeli Minister of Defence in a Likud government, who masterminded his country's hugely destructive and murderous invasion of Lebanon, in 1982. And it was Ariel Sharon who was in charge when a right-wing militia known a the Lebanese Forces entered the Sabra and Shateela camps and massacred up to 3000 unarmed Palestinian refugees.

Sharon was later found guilty by Israeli authorities of failing to prevent the massacres. Given the circumstances, Mr Sharon's indictment represented little more than a reprimand, a token slap on the wrist that would hopefully defuse international anger over the massacres. The verdict also tended to deflect attention away from a mass of evidence that overwhelmingly pointed to Israel's deep involvement in the killings.

In June 1982, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon effectively culminated in the siege of West Beirut, that area being home to the command of the PLO and the bulk of its fighters. The siege lasted for three months, during which time West Beirut was under almost continuous bombardment from land, sea and air. Aiding the Israeli army in the maintenance of the siege were their allies in the Lebanese Forces.

Finally in August 1982, the PLO agreed to evacuate its fighters from West Beirut under the terms of an internationally-brokered accord. Crucial to the PLO's decision to leave and go into exile abroad were written guarantees of protection for the many thousands of Palestinian civilians and non-combatants who were to be left behind. Most were crowded into the Sabra and Shateela refugee camps. Those explicit written guarantees were provided both by the Lebanese and US governments. Thus, on 1 September 1982, the last contingent of Palestinian fighters (the feda'yeen) left West Beirut.

Within two days, Israel and her Lebanese allies had already breached the accords by moving into positions around the two camps and effectively encircling the area. On 15 September, the Lebanese Forces moved into the camps. An Israeli journalist, who later published a book about the massacre, described how the operation was organised: ``At 3pm, the commander of Israeli forces in Beirut, General Amos Yaron, along with two of his officers, met the Lebanese Forces' intelligence chief, Elias Hobeika and Fadi Ephram. With the help of aerial photographs provided by Israel, together they made arrangements for entering the camps.''

Both forces has waited until the withdrawal of PLO combatants had been completed, before moving in on camps that held only civilians.

The Israelis provided cover for the assault force by way of sniping and shelling. This in turn discouraged attempts to escape, as did the fact that Israeli forces controlled the camps' perimeters.

Although Israel's role in the massacre was never in doubt, it was never revealed precisely who had given final approval. While Sharon was later chastised for failing to prevent the killings, some who have investigated the Sabra and Shateela killings believe that the general operation was only given full authorisation following a 12 September 1982 meeting in Beirut between Ariel Sharon and Lebanese leaders.

Yet, Sharon's immediate objective in launching the 1982 invasion was never achieved. The PLO may have been forced into exile in Tunis, but they were not, as he had hoped, destroyed. In addition, the invasion itself was to prove costly to Israel - its armed forces suffering more casualties than in all previous wars combined.

It was this latter factor, more than events at Sabra and Shateela, which was to prove Ariel Sharon's undoing in political terms. Once highly-popular, Mr Sharon's political profile declined significantly in the wake of Israel's final withdrawal from (most of) Lebanon, in 1985.

And now, courtesy of Binyamin Netanyahu, Mr Ariel Sharon is once again close to the levers of power. Within Israel, he has built a political base as an avid supporter of the country's religious settlers. He is, according to The Economist ``dedicated to the belief that a pattern of Jewish settlements and protective roads in the heart of the West Bank is the best means of preventing the Palestinians from gaining a reasonable state.'' This `belief' bears more than a passing resemblance to the final plan for the West bank that was floated by Netanyahu last month.

In order to appease those within the Israeli cabinet who currently oppose his proposed promotion to the finance ministry (they believe it would spell disaster for any hopes of peace), Sharon has lately taken to reinventing himself, presenting the image of a pragmatist intent on peace. Yet, for the last year the same Ariel Sharon has insistently and publicly voiced the opinion that Yasser Arafat is not a negotiating partner but someone who should, in fact, be brought to trial for war crimes. He is not, apparently, attempting to be ironic.

Meanwhile, private Israeli intelligence assessments are warning that the occupied territories are on the brink of widespread eruption. Surprise, surprise.

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