The mass demonstration calling for an official commission of inquiry into the Sabra and Shatila massacre, 25 September 1982.
Photograph: Miki Shuvitz, Government Press Office
All documents are in Hebrew, see the ISA Hebrew website.
On 10 February 1983, at 5:00 p.m., the government of Israel convened for the third time for an especially heated and emotional discussion of the conclusions of the commission of inquiry headed by the president of the Supreme Court, Judge Yitzhak Kahan. The commission had been appointed to investigate events in the refugee camps in Beirut – the massacre of approximately 700-800 Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila camps, from 16 to 18 September 1982. The ministers present were well aware of the voices of protest raised by members of the "Peace Now" movement demonstrating outside the Prime Minister's Office, demanding the dismissal of Minister of Defence Ariel Sharon, as the commission had recommended. Suddenly, the prime minister's military secretary, Azriel Nevo, interrupted Prime Minister Menachem Begin, and announced: "An explosive device has just exploded among the demonstrators. Apparently there are people injured. It is being investigated." The discussion continued and while Interior Minister Yosef Burg was speaking – unaware that his son Avraham was among the injured – Nevo again interrupted and said: "It appears that a grenade has been thrown at the demonstrators, and one has been killed and three injured. Two policemen were slightly injured."
The hand grenade thrown at the protestors under cover of darkness, at approximately five minutes to nine, caused the death of one of the demonstrators, Emil Grunzweig, and wounded nine, among them Avraham Burg, son of Yosef Burg and later speaker of the Knesset and chairman of the Jewish Agency. Another was Yuval Steinitz, who later joined the Likud political party and served as minister of finance in Benjamin Netanyahu's second government.
In the following months the Israel Police conducted an intense investigation to discover who threw the grenade, but for many months it was groping in the dark. Only in January 1984 was there a breakthrough, and it was discovered that a similar grenade had been sold to a petty criminal, Yonah Avrushmi, a few days before the murder. Extracts from the verdict in Avrushmi's trial can be seen in Document 7.
These are two of the dramatic events shown in this publication, which deals with the highly charged period following 14 September 1982, when Bashir Gemayel, the leader of the Christian Phalangist Movement ("The Lebanese Forces") who was to take office as president of Lebanon on 23 September, was assassinated. The assassination took place a short time after what seemed like the successful conclusion of Operation "Peace for Galilee" (The First Lebanon War) which led to the evacuation of the Palestinian terrorists and Syrian forces from Beirut, and the election of Gemayel, Israel's ally, as president. During the campaign, Israel had captured South Lebanon, destroyed the Syrian anti-aircraft missile deployment in the Beka'a Valley and prevented the terrorists from shooting Katyusha rockets at the Galilee. Now, in view of the deep ethnic divisions in Lebanon and the Phalangists' desire for revenge, there was a danger that the situation might get out of hand.
On the 30th anniversary of these events the Israel State Archives is publishing for the first time 8 documents from its collection on two issues: the appointment of the Kahan Commission and the government discussions of its recommendations, up to the decision to remove the minister of defence from his position, and the investigation of the murder of Emil Grunzweig and the trial of Yonah Avrushmi. The documents appearing here have been declassified for the first time. They were collected for a commemorative volume on the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin, to be published shortly by the Israel State Archives.
Israeli tank carrier removing a long range gun and other equipment left by the PLO in West Beirut, 21 September 1982.
Photograph: Miki Shuvitz, Government Press Office
The IDF's Entry into West Beirut
Following the murder of Bashir Gemayel, Begin called a meeting of the government on 16 September, at 7:30 p.m. He reported that after consultation with the minister of defence, he had given orders to reinforce the IDF in the Beirut area. Israel would enter West Beirut, the Muslim part of the city (which had been under the control of the Palestinian terrorists until they were forced to leave at the beginning of September) because there was no knowing what might happen there. Thus Begin supported entry of the IDF to West Beirut in order to prevent a massacre of the Muslim and Palestinian civilian population. This was also the reason given by the IDF spokesman, who said that Israeli forces had entered West Beirut "to prevent possible grave occurrences and to ensure quiet. The entry of the IDF forces was executed without resistance."
Minister of Defence Ariel Sharon had different reasons for supporting the move. He explained that two days before the assassination Israel had coordinated plans with Gemayel on the entry of the Lebanese army to West Beirut, followed by the IDF, to deal with the problem of the two thousand armed terrorists and their heavy weapons left there in contravention of the evacuation agreement. Thus, according to Sharon, the IDF entered West Beirut in accordance with a plan previously agreed upon with Gemayel, and the assassination only caused the timetable to be moved up.
During the meeting Sharon reported to the government that Phalangist forces had entered the refugee camp. In fact, these forces had moved in about an hour and a half before the government meeting began. Deputy Prime Minister David Levi disapproved of the plan for fear of Phalangist revenge and "slaughter" – but he did not put his opinion to the vote. The government reached a unanimous decision, which opens with the words:
"In the wake of the assassination of the President-elect Bashir Gemayel, the IDF has seized positions in West Beirut, in order to forestall the danger of violence, bloodshed and chaos; as some 2,000 terrorists, equipped with modern and heavy weapons have remained in West Beirut, in flagrant violation of the evacuation agreement."
The Massacre and the Appointment of a Commission of Inquiry
The Phalangist forces which entered the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps on 16 September slaughtered hundreds of the inhabitants, including women, children and old people. The massacre ended on the morning of 18 September. In its wake there was a great outcry in Israel, among the Jewish public in the Diaspora and in the rest of the world, which was directed at the Israeli government and the IDF for permitting the massacre to take place next to IDF positions. Therefore, Begin convened the government on 19 September in the evening, at the end of the Jewish New Year festival.
During this session, Begin condemned the criticism directed at the IDF. He took responsibility for the IDF's actions, but emphasized that the government was responsible for IDF actions and these alone. He gave an example from his own past. During the War of Independence the local headquarters of the Irgun Zvai Leumi paramilitary group in Jerusalem decided, on its own, without consulting the national headquarters (which Begin headed), to attack the Arab village of Deir Yassin. Although the conquest of Deir Yassin ended in a massacre of the inhabitants and widespread criticism of the IZL, Begin refused, until this government meeting, to reveal this and to disavow his personal responsibility for the massacre. Begin emphasized that it was not the IDF that had committed the massacre in the refugee camps, but the Phalangists. The government adopted the following resolution (Document No. 1, ISA/4281/3):
"On Rosh Hashana [the New Year] a libel was concocted against the Jewish state and its government, [and] against the Israel Defence Forces. On a site which was far away from the IDF's positions, a Lebanese unit entered the refugee camp where terrorists were hiding, in order to arrest them.
This unit attacked the civilian population and caused many casualties. We declare this fact with great sorrow and pain.
As soon as the IDF learned of what was happening in the Shatila camp, it put a stop to the murder of innocent civilians and forced the Lebanese forces to leave the camp.
The civilian population itself expressed openly its gratitude to the IDF for saving them.
All the open or implied accusations that the IDF bears some responsibility for the human tragedy in the Shatila camp, are without foundation. The government rejects them with contempt. It is a fact that, were it not for the intervention of the IDF forces, the number of casualties would have been much greater. It is also a fact, that the IDF operated for two days against terrorists in West Beirut and not even one complaint was made about any harm to the civilian population.
Meanwhile it was discovered, that the terrorists had broken the evacuation agreement and had left in West Beirut not only two thousand terrorists but also vast stores of weapons, including tanks, artillery, mortars and all kinds of ammunition, in enormous quantities. All this was done in order to continue their bloody terror against Israel and other nations, from inside West Beirut.
Despite the incitement at home, we call on the people to close ranks around its elected government, which is fighting to provide peace and security for Israel and all its citizens.
No one can preach to us about moral values and respect for human life, on which we have brought up and will continue to bring up generations of fighters in Israel."
This statement did not calm the storm in Israel. Angry demonstrations against the massacre continued. One of the demands was to appoint an official commission of inquiry to investigate and determine who was responsible. At the beginning Begin opposed this demand. Thus, on 24 September, he tabled a proposal to ask the president of the Supreme Court to appoint a single investigator or a team, to examine the "facts related to the atrocity committed by a unit of the Lebanese forces in Beirut". However, this investigation would not be conducted according to the "Law of Commissions of Inquiry – 1968", and therefore the investigators would have no special authority and their recommendations would not be binding. The government accepted Begin's proposal (Document No. 2, ISA/A4281/4).
Much of the Israeli public and even some of the leadership rejected this approach, and demanded the appointment of a commission of inquiry with full legal powers. On 20 September the president, Yitzhak Navon, met with Begin, and subsequently his office issued a statement, saying "We do not have the right to, and should not, ignore the issue; not towards ourselves, not towards our image in our own eyes, nor towards that part of the world which we perceive ourselves as being part of – our duty is to investigate, as quickly as possible and in an accurate manner, by credible and independent people, everything that occurred in this unfortunate affair, and if it is warranted – to draw the full conclusions of this investigation " (see the "Yediot Ahronot" newspaper, 21 September 1982).
It was clear that the president had brought to bear the full weight of his office to support the appointment of an official commission of inquiry. Another expression of popular demand was a demonstration organized by the "Alignment" opposition party on 25 September in Malchei Yisrael Square in Tel Aviv (now Rabin Square). This mass demonstration was one of the biggest in the history of the country, and became known as "the demonstration of the 400,000". On 28 September Begin proposed to the government to establish a commission of inquiry. The government accepted his proposal (Document No. 3, ISA/4281/4).
In accordance with the law, Judge Kahan appointed the members of the commission. He appointed himself to head it and Judge Aharon Barak, of the Supreme Court, and Major-General (Res.) Yona Efrat as the other members.
The Recommendations of the Commission
On 7 February 1983 the Kahan Commission published its recommendations: Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Events at the Refugee Camps in Beirut. The report attributed direct responsibility for the massacre to the Phalangists. However, the commission determined that indirect personal responsibility fell on several Israeli office holders. It stated that: "in our view, everyone who had anything to do with events in Lebanon should have felt apprehension about a massacre in the camps, if armed Phalangist forces were to be moved into them without the IDF exercising concrete and effective supervision and scrutiny of them ". It listed a series of warnings against a massacre even before the murder of Bashir Gemayel.
The commission decided not to distinguish in its conclusions between the political and the military leadership. It thus took a different stand than the position of the Agranat Commission appointed in the wake of the Yom Kippur War. The Kahan Commission found that Begin had not received any advance report from the minister of defence or the chief of staff regarding the Phalangists' entry into the refugee camps, and it was made known to him only at the government meeting on the evening of 16 September 1982. The commission found that Begin was aware of the possibility of a massacre and therefore supported deployment of the IDF in West Beirut, between the Christians and the Moslems. The commission attributed to Begin "a certain amount of responsibility" for not preventing the entry of the Phalangists into the camps, and not even reacting to the news he heard on BBC radio (on 18 September, in the afternoon), in which the massacre was mentioned. The commission did not demand that Begin resign. However, it did attribute responsibility to Minister of Defence Ariel Sharon, for ignoring the danger of acts of revenge by the Phalangists towards the population in the refugee camps. The Phalangists could be allowed to enter the camps only if the IDF was able to supervise their activities effectively – but even that was not done. In addition, the commission attributed responsibility to Sharon for not informing Begin in advance of his intention to let the Phalangists into the camps. Therefore, the commission recommended that Sharon should draw his own conclusions (i.e. resign), and if necessary, that the prime minister should weigh the option of using his authority under Section 21A (a) of the "Basic Law – the Government ", which enables the prime minister to dismiss a minister.
The commission attributed a heavy portion of the responsibility to Chief of Staff Raphael Eitan (Raful). He was not only equally responsible with Sharon for letting the Phalangists into the camps – he did not appropriately examine what was happening in the refugee camps during his visit to Beirut on the Jewish New Year. Had he done so, he might have stopped the massacre and reduced the number of victims. On the contrary, the chief of staff's orders to supply the Phalangists with tractors, as they requested, in order to help the forces in the camps, could have been construed by them as implying that "they could continue their operations in the camps without interference". Therefore, "we determine that the Chief of Staff's inaction (…) and his order to provide the Phalangist forces with tractors (…) constitute a breach of duty and dereliction of the duty incumbent upon the Chief of Staff". Taking into account that Eitan was about to conclude his term in April, the commission refrained from calling for his dismissal. In addition, the commission attributed major responsibility to the director of Military Intelligence, Major-General Yehoshua Saguy, and demanded his dismissal. It recommended that the division commander, Brigadier-General Amos Yaron, not be appointed to a command position for the following three years.
Some criticism, with no personal conclusions, was directed at Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, G.O.C. Northern Command, Major-General Amir Drori and the head of the Mossad, the Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations, Nahum Admoni. In addition, the commission directed general criticism against the functioning of the military establishment in Israel.
Begin's first reaction after reading the report was: "I think that I should resign". However, Minister of Justice Moshe Nissim, and Government Secretary Dan Meridor dissuaded him.
The First Discussion of the Kahan Commission's Recommendations, 8 February 1983
First, Nissim analyzed the report. He argued that "there is no obligation on the part of the government, after appointing the commission of inquiry, to adopt its recommendations (…), but it is not possible to take them lightly". Sharon chose to use his right of speech to defend the army officers whose actions the commission had criticized: Eitan, Drori, Saguy and Yaron. Minister-without-Portfolio Mordechai Ben-Porat called on the entire government to resign. He claimed that all of them were responsible for the situation, and no special responsibility should fall on Sharon. He recalled that after the Yom Kippur War he objected to the dismissal of Defence Minister Moshe Dayan, and demanded that the entire government resign. Yoram Aridor and Yosef Burg rejected his proposal. The first claimed that the government should not be harsher on itself than the commission had been. Burg held the view that he was not responsible for something "that I wasn't responsible for, was not told about and did not know about. I can't be responsible for something I didn't know about". The ministers were divided on the question of whether to accept the recommendations of the commission in full or in part, or to reject them completely. Yosef Burg, Ya'acov Meridor, Gideon Patt and Aharon Uzan supported full implementation. Some of them explained this stand by fear that the government would fall – endangering continuing settlement of the territories. The only minister to announce his unequivocal objection to the recommendation to dismiss Sharon was Minister of Health Eliezer Shostak. Begin announced that he would not use his legal authority to dismiss Sharon, and convened another session for the next day (Document No. 4, ISA/A4282/2).
The Second Discussion of the Kahan Commission's Recommendations, 9 February 1983
At the opening of this session, Sharon called on the government to reject the personal recommendations against IDF officers. He claimed that their status should not be harmed by a single mistaken decision, out of a wide range of decisions they had made throughout their careers. He added that the commission had exceeded its authority in making these personal recommendations. Chief-of-Staff Eitan heaped praises on Army Intelligence headed by Saguy and the division commanded by Yaron. Begin read a letter from Minister Yuval Ne'eman, who was absent due to his wife's illness, which expressed his objection to dismissing Sharon. If there was legal necessity that he leave the Ministry of Defence , he should "continue to serve as a minister in the government, and especially also participate in conducting the negotiations in Lebanon". In addition, Begin read out a letter from the "Agudat Yisrael" party, which was a member of the coalition but had no representative in the government. Agudat Yisrael cited its earlier opposition to appointing a commission of inquiry, and rejected its recommendations.
Attorney-General, Yitzhak Zamir, analyzed the findings, and explained that the commission had not discussed ministerial responsibility, i.e. the responsibility of a minister for the actions or failures of a subordinate, taken without his knowledge. The commission discussed the personal responsibility of a minister for the actions or failures that the minister himself had committed. He stressed that the commission attributed full direct responsibility for the massacre in Beirut to the Phalangists. However, it also examined whether Israel bore indirect responsibility. The recommendations of the commission regarding Israeli office holders derived from that indirect responsibility. Zamir said that the recommendations were not a legal verdict, and there was no absolute obligation to accept them and act on them: "However, there is no doubt that they carry great weight, and not only in the public or moral field (…) [When] a commission of inquiry was appointed in order to examine, among other things, the government itself (…) recommendations of this type have a special weight. (...) Although from a legal viewpoint there is no absolute obligation to adopt the Kahan Commission's recommendations – there is an obligation to consider them with the intention of adopting them and the recognition that only reasons of extraordinary importance can justify deviation from them."
Minister Yitzhak Shamir claimed that it was possible to accept part of the recommendations. He even recommended advancing the date of the next elections, "and then the report does not obligate us". Shamir also proposed to appoint a commission chaired by Begin, to examine the various options – but Begin rejected out of hand the proposal to appoint a commission "to examine the findings of a commission of inquiry". Minister Zvulun Hammer made it clear that the "National Religious" party was loyal to the government and to the "Likud", and did not threaten to join a government with the "Alignment". Nevertheless, he demanded adoption of the recommendations – as did Minister Mordechai Zippori. Sharon had to leave during the meeting to meet with guests from abroad, and some of the ministers refrained from detailing their full positions or making a decision during his absence. Begin decided to postpone the decision to a third meeting, which took place the next day (Document No. 5, ISA/A/4283/2).
Acceptance of the Commission's Recommendations and the Murder of Emil Grunzweig, 10 February 1983
This was the most dramatic and the longest of the discussions. At the beginning the right to speak was accorded to the officers whose actions the commission had criticized: Saguy, Drori and Yaron. Deputy Prime Minister Levi argued that the recommendations of the commission must be implemented, mainly because not to do so would bring down the government, and thus lead to "the abandonment of Judea and Samaria". Minister of Energy Modai proposed accepting the "verdict" of the commission relating to the defence establishment, but to reject carrying out its sentence - i.e., dismissal of the minister of defence and the senior officers. He also proposed appointing a smaller ministerial committee to read the entire minutes of the commission and frame additional recommendations within a week. Attorney-General Zamir replied that there was no possibility of adopting only part of the recommendations. The ministers waited for Sharon, who was delayed at his ranch by a demonstration by "Peace Now" members. Sharon arrived an hour and a half after the beginning of the meeting. He called on the government to reject the recommendations, because they cast indirect responsibility on Israel for the massacre in the refugee camps, and even accused it of genocide, according to the "Law Regarding the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide-1950". Zamir, Aridor and Begin rejected out of hand Sharon's interpretation that the commission had accused Israel of genocide.
The discussion was interrupted by the announcement of Military Secretary Nevo, about the attack on the demonstrators (see above). Following that, Minister Yosef Burg spoke. When Nevo announced that someone had been killed, Burg responded: "I want to rise above myself and continue, in order to finish. I will overcome all the emotions that I feel ". Begin asked: "What should we do in the face of this event?", and Burg replied: "Someone can again speak about a 'putsch', or 'populism', or demonstrations" – and continued discussing the recommendations. At the conclusion of his words, Begin shouted: "Someone has been killed, a Jew is dead!" He asked the members of the government whether to continue, under the circumstances, and whether Sharon's legal interpretation required a special examination; or if they should be satisfied by the things said at the government meeting. All the ministers except for Sharon voted to continue the discussion.
Burg argued that the government had three options: to accept all the recommendations, to reject them all, or to accept the recommendations dealing with the political echelon (Sharon) and reject those dealing with the military echelon. He hinted that if Sharon resigned, he would make it easier for the IDF officers. Sharon rejected the third proposal, and termed it immoral.
At this stage, Begin spoke out. He argued that regretfully the government had no choice but to accept the recommendations as they were, in full, due to the special status of an official commission of inquiry, whose recommendations had the force of a final verdict. Begin thus showed himself as more concerned for the commission's recommendations than anyone else at the meeting – even the Attorney-General.
A vote was held, in which 16 members of the government supported Begin's proposal. Sharon's proposal to appoint a committee to consider amendments to the commission's recommendations regarding the IDF officers received only his vote (Document No. 6, ISA/A3283/2). As a result Sharon was forced to relinquish the defence portfolio but remained a minister-without-portfolio. In addition, the personal recommendations about the IDF officers were implemented.
Emil Grunzweig, courtesy of the Grunzweig family
Finding the Murderer
The murder of Grunzweig, a mathematics teacher aged 35, the father of a child, a post-graduate student at the Hebrew University and an ex-combat officer in the IDF, shocked many Israelis deeply. For months the Israel Police were in the dark. They arrested a series of suspects with no results. Only in January 1984 was there a breakthrough. A man confessed to the police that he had sold a hand grenade to a petty criminal, Yonah Avrushmi, shortly before the murder.
Under interrogation it became clear that he had bought three hand grenades from an IDF soldier, who stole them from a military base. The grenades were wrapped in black electrical tape intended to prevent them from exploding unintentionally. The seller and buyer brought the police the two grenades they had in their possession. The grenade held by the additional buyer had black electrical tape that had been torn, and the marks on it corresponded to the tape on the grenade found at the murder scene.
On 10 February 1984, a year after the murder, the District Attorney for the Jerusalem District, Asher Palgi, presented an indictment against Avrushmi. At his trial, Avrushmi denied any connection to the attack, but in January 1985 he was convicted of the murder by a majority vote, and was sentenced to life imprisonment. One of the judges convicted him of manslaughter, because he was not convinced that Avrushmi had intended to murder (Document No. 7, ISA/ LAW28373/3). Avrushmi filed an appeal to the Supreme Court and his appeal was unanimously denied in May 1986 (Document No. 8, ISA/LAW28373/3). He was released in January 2011, after his sentence was reduced to 27 years.
Historical editing: Arnon Lammfromm
English translation: Shosh Ornstein (Quality Translations)
English editing: Louise Fischer
Internet content editing: Oranit Levi
Scanning: Shlomo Mark
We would also like to thank the Declassification Department of the Israel State Archives.