— Statement by the Israeli Cabinet.
That was the Israeli government's explanation for its decision to send its armed forces into Muslim-dominated West Beirut last week following the assassination of Lebanon's President-elect Bashir Gemayel. The Israeli action alarmed the U.S., which saw it as a violation of a promise the Israelis made this summer to U.S. Special Envoy Philip Habib while he was negotiating the withdrawal of Palestine Liberation Organization guerrillas from West Beirut. It frightened the Lebanese capital's Muslim population, infuriated the governments of other Arab states, and led to a United Nations Security Council resolution calling on the Israelis to withdraw from Beirut. But no one could have anticipated that before the week was over, the Israeli peacekeeping exercise in West Beirut would lead, whether by complicity or carelessness or outright incompetence, to the massacre of hundreds of men, women and children in two Palestinian refugee camps that the Israelis were supposedly guarding.
First reports were fragmentary but horrifying. A group of armed men had entered the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps south of Beirut and opened fire on everyone they could find. They murdered young men in groups of ten or 20, they killed mothers, babies and old people. They even shot horses. And when it was over, they attempted, in a manner reminiscent of World War II, to destroy the evidence by bulldozing the bodies into makeshift common graves. TIME Correspondent Roberto Suro visited the Sabra camp late Friday afternoon and counted 50 corpses in one place. A Red Cross worker at a nearby hospital estimated that 450 bodies had been removed from the two camps.
What had happened? Practically everybody agreed that the gunmen were right-wing Lebanese Christian militiamen, and were either from the Lebanese Forces led by the vengeance-bent Gemayel clan or from the militia run by Major Sa'ad Haddad, which is based in southern Lebanon and is closely alh'ed with the Israelis. The Lebanese Forces would be the more logical culprits, since they live in the region and were in mourning for their fallen leader. On the other hand, there were reports that a group of Haddad's men were seen in the vicinity of the camps on the day of the murders.
More baffling was the role the Israelis had played. Certainly Israeli soldiers had not done the shooting, but the Israelis controlled the area, had checkpoints near the camps, and were within earshot of the firing. How and why had they allowed the militiamen to enter the camps? At the Israeli checkpoint outside the Sabra camp, an officer of the Lebanese Forces told Correspondent Suro Friday afternoon: "We have been waiting to get in there for years.'' Explaining that his troops had been going from house to house through the camp "clearing out the last fighters," he added: "We are better at this kind of operation than the Israelis. We have had more practice." Asked if his men were taking any prisoners, he replied, "The only people in that camp now want to fight to the end. I do not think there are any prisoners."