Thirty years ago last night, Lebanese militias tore through two Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut, brutally killing at least 800 civilians. An investigation found top Israeli officials bore some responsibility for the massacres at Sabra and Shatila: the Israeli army had sealed off the camps and illuminated them with flares so the Phalangist militias could see their way through the massacre. Today, an op-ed in the New York Times by Seth Anziska, a doctoral candidate in history at Columbia, examines the American role, or lack thereof:
This summer, at the Israel State Archives, I found recently declassified documents that chronicle key conversations between American and Israeli officials before and during the 1982 massacre. The verbatim transcripts reveal that the Israelis misled American diplomats about events in Beirut and bullied them into accepting the spurious claim that thousands of “terrorists” were in the camps. Most troubling, when the United States was in a position to exert strong diplomatic pressure on Israel that could have ended the atrocities, it failed to do so. As a result, Phalange militiamen were able to murder Palestinian civilians, whom America had pledged to protect just weeks earlier.
The archival record reveals the magnitude of a deception that undermined American efforts to avoid bloodshed. Working with only partial knowledge of the reality on the ground, the United States feebly yielded to false arguments and stalling tactics that allowed a massacre in progress to proceed.
The lesson of the Sabra and Shatila tragedy is clear. Sometimes close allies act contrary to American interests and values. Failing to exert American power to uphold those interests and values can have disastrous consequences: for our allies, for our moral standing and most important, for the innocent people who pay the highest price of all.
One must be careful in riffling through history to draw insights for policy-making going forward: the lessons don't always apply. But it's worth noting, even if only historically, that some of Israel's excesses go unabated absent U.S. pressure. That's why many people think pressure is needed to make any advances in the (currently moribund) peace process—something many on the American pro-Israel right oppose. Either way, American pressure looks unlikely, at least for the moment. One wonders at what cost.
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