The Accused

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Good human rights reporting, such as The Accused, can do little to stop those intent on pursuing hatred through violence but it can put them on notice that witness and justice will not remain quiet.

Panorama, Produced by BBC One, June 17, 2001

Reviewed by Joe Lockard

Thursday, June 21 2001, 3:05 PM

One of the great ironies in current Israeli-Palestinian politics is that the top leadership is fully composed of losers who have managed to survive.

Ariel Sharon began a futile war in Lebanon in 1982, lost his position as defense minister after the Kahan Commission found that he bore indirect responsibility for the Sabra and Shatilla massacres, spent years as a political untouchable, and is prime minister today. Shimon Peres has lost more national elections than any man in Israeli history, is roundly despised even within his own political party, and is foreign minister today. Yassir Arafat built an entire career on disasterous losses, including the Jordanian civil war, Lebanon against the Israelis, and Lebanon against fellow Palestinians. Speculation ran rampant in Israel for years that the leading reason Arafat had not been assassinated was that no other Palestinian leader could be counted upon to fail so miserably and consistently. It's a reasonable observation that Palestinians would have had an independent state years ago but for Yassir Arafat's bad decisions.

All three men speak more to the ugly aspects of their national movements than to the affirmative qualities of intertwined Israeli and Palestinian histories. The essential difference between Ariel Sharon and Yassir Arafat lies in that Sharon has been far better armed and much more effective in his bloodiness.

The BBC Panorama program The Accused examined one instance of Ariel Sharon's bloodletting during Israel's 1982 war against Lebanon. The Israeli embassy in London complained loudly for the week prior to the program's airing, but that was to be expected. Possibly they forgot that former Israeli ambassador to the UK, Shlomo Argov, whose attempted assassination served as the nominal trigger event for the Begin government's long-planned invasion of Lebanon, bitterly condemned that war and was mortified that Israel's government used an attempt against his life as an excuse to take thousands of other lives. The embassy's publicity efforts against the program would have been far better spent apologizing for making a war without substantive provocation, given that there had been no cross-border actions for six months prior.

Gideon Meir, a spokesman for Israel's foreign ministry, stated that the BBC's reporting was biased against Israel and "sometimes there is a shade of antisemitism." Indeed, the BBC has within the past two weeks sacked one of its Middle East correspondents who at a public affair praised the Hizbullah for its war against Israel's existence, which both confirms the potential and BBC's determination to avoid raising partisanship over newsgathering. The Accusedfairly represented events, to the extent that the horror of such brutality can or need be fairly portrayed. In truth, fairness of reportorial balance would be extraordinarily unfair and unethical in view of the Palestinian lives that were unforgiveably ended or irrevocably torn apart by butchers.

The Accused takes viewers through a summary version of the events in Beirut of September 15-17, 1982. Sharon conducted his war goals -- a near-complete invasion of Lebanon and radical altering of the Middle East geopolitics on terms favorable to Israel, with aid from the Lebanese Christians and their Phalange -- through deceit. As prime minister Menachem Begin remarked with ironic bitterness after realizing that even he had been deceived when he endorsed a limited invasion of southern Lebanon, "My defense minister tells me everything. Sometimes before and sometimes after."

So listening to US envoy Morris Draper state in a filmed interview that Sharon deceived him by breaking promises and moving into West Beirut is like listening to a pimp complain that his whore has deceived him and is back on the streets again. The Phalange had US-supplied M16s and they were backed by masses of US weapons that enabled Israel's invasion, so the US stands in much the same relationship to Sharon as Sharon did in his sponsorship of the Phalange.

If Draper and his staff had, as he states, sufficient political awareness to know exactly what letting Phalange forces into West Beirut meant in terms of threat to Palestinian lives, did he also not have sufficient awareness to know that Sharon planned to break the Palestinians by any means available? And what, in any case, is a US diplomat doing eliciting promises about the extent of invasion rather than vehemently protesting against such an invasion occurring in the first place?

Absent PLO protection, the Palestinian refugee camps of Beirut were defenseless. Under order from Sharon, Israeli forces were to remain outside the camps and only the Israeli-trained and armed Lebanese militia forces were to enter those areas. IDF troops were deployed around the camps. In the meantime, the Phalange had been outraged by the bomb assassination of Bashir Gemayel, the Maronite Christian leader who, after sitting nights off the coast on an Israeli navy patrol boat taking IQ tests administered by IDF psychologists, had been selected by Israel's decisionmakers to head a reconstructed Lebanon favorable to their interests.

Although Gemayel's assassination was later proved to be a Syrian operation, the Phalange wanted blood and Palestinian blood would do. On the night of September 15, in coordination with the IDF which lighted their way with mortar flares, a force of about 150 Phalangists moved into the neighborhoods. Commanded by Phalange leader Eli Hobeika, that force went on during the next 36 hours to kill what some estimate at over 800 Palestinians of all ages. The video footage of bodies strewn about the streets is gruesome and brings the moment's loathsomeness once more before Western audiences.

The documentary provides the testimony of eyewitnesses. Nabil Ahmed, whose family was murdered. Suad Surur, much of whose family was killed while she was raped, shot in the head and elsewhere, and left for dead. Ellen Siegal, an American nurse at a camp hospital, who witnessed murders when the Phalange invaded the hospital and who describes a man on his knees begging for his life. One Israeli soldier describes his shock and horror at entering a camp after the massacre. Children were scalped and men castrated.

To all this, Sharon replied in his own defense "Not for a moment did we imagine that they would do what they did." If Sharon's imagination was the sole protection upon which Palestinians could rely, the wonder is that anything remained of Sabra and Shatilla. In fact, as an occupying power, Israel assumed legal responsibility for the safety of civilian residents. This is the heart of the documentary's arguments, since the basic facts of the massacres have been known for almost twenty years. Judge Richard Goldstone explains the concept of "command responsibility" for the camera, and professor Richard Falk at Princeton University suggests that this failure and indirect responsibility represents an "indictable" war crime.

Those directly responsible, the Phalange leadership, have done well for themselves in post-war Lebanon. Some, like Elie Hobeika, who is interviewed off-camera and apparently recorded without his knowledge, took new sponsorship with the Syrians who invaded in October 1990. Others faded quietly into lives as prosperous businessmen. Many others, although the film does not mention it, have emigrated into the Lebanese diaspora. None have ever faced trial, particularly given -- the BBC producers seem a bit obtuse on the point -- that such prosecution would tear open afresh old Lebanese animosities. When Hobeika and Fuad Abu Nader, another Phalange leader, answer that they are not concerned with international prosecution for war crimes they have the solidity of history behind them. And, to consider the other possibilities, who has seriously proposed indictments and trials for the PLO leadership for massacres of Lebanese Christians by Palestinian forces beginning in Damur in 1975 and continuing through Qaa, Aley and the Shouf mountains?

One of the hardest realizations concerning such massively criminal behaviors and human rights violations is that very, very few prosecutions are ever brought in comparison with the number of outrages committed. Documentaries such as this raise the necessary question of "Why not?" by re-telling stories that bear repetition until they percolate into public conscience. Sharon, Arafat, Hobeika, Tlas and many of their fellow-bloodletters of the Middle East would make excellent company sharing a defendants bench at the Hague. But just about all the bastards get away with it, though we may wish them an excruciating hell. When the frontline soldiers do get caught and named for filthy murder, there is little record of adequate punishment. Danny Pinto, an IDF lieutenant who shot five civilians in southern Lebanon and dumped their bodies into a well, served less than two years in military prison before being pardoned. He remains the only Israeli soldier prosecuted for war crimes in Lebanon, and his name has basically disappeared from the Israeli public conscience.

One participant in the documentary, Suad Surur from the Shatilla camp, is now off to Brussels to file a complaint against Sharon under a 1993 Belgian law that provides its courts with jurisdictional authority to prosecute foreign officials for human rights violations, including genocide, committed outside Belgium. "I am going to Brussels on behalf of a whole people," she says, "I hope Sharon is tried and hanged for what he did." Even sympathizing with the latter sentiments, however, there is room to wonder about the demonization of a single responsible distant figure in order to avoid confronting unpalatable knowledge that those directly responsible are living undisturbed in Beirut.

Matters turn to a grim laugh, however, when Syrian information minister Adnan Omran praises the program and its producers. Omran stated that the program shows "that Sharon does not belong in some (world) capitals as prime minister, but rather in an international courtroom where he can be punished for his crimes." Given the armed violence and ruthless suppression of human rights that has characterized the Assad family regime, under which banned salon room political discussions can risk a date with a torture cell, this is inimitable hypocrisy.

Hypocrisy never lacks companionship. There is a myth attached to this moment of Middle Eastern history that needs to be noted, the myth of a mass demonstration of Israeli public revulsion after Sabra and Shatilla. Specifically, as the program notes, there was a demonstration of some 400,000 Israelis in Malchei Israel Square (now Rabin Square) in Tel Aviv following news of Sabra and Shatilla. This was indeed a massive demonstration, probably the largest in Israeli history, and there was great Israeli public outrage and revulsion.

However, as someone who was there and who has attended larger demonstrations elsewhere, I can state that there were not 400,000 gathered that evening. Maccabee Dean, a right-wing veteran Israeli journalist, once published a demonstrative calculation of the size of the square and adjoining areas, the claimed number of protestors, and the ridiculous number of square centimeters that each protestor would have had to occupy to achieve such attendance. Whatever the minimizing politics behind that calculation, his arithmetic was on the mark.

What such a de-mythologization means in a larger sense is that Israeli civic outrage over Sabra and Shatilla was substantially more claimed -- or charitably, felt as sincere sentiment -- than actually manifested. Were that Israeli public horror at having enabled or strategically overlooked the entry of the Phalange into the camps to have had any deep and persistent social meaning, then the outpouring of anger for that one evening in Tel Aviv would have been seen through to far more lasting effect. The gradual re-emergence of Sharon into further cabinet posts and at last as prime minister gave final lie to that single night of Israeli public outrage. Revulsion against Sharon did not last and, as predicted his Boswellian syncophant, journalist Uri Dan, those who did not want Sharon for defense minister eventually got him for prime minister. Moral revulsion proved inadequate in the face of perceived national interests, or in a worse interpretation, the advancement of a repulsive figure became the national interest.

The Israel Broadcasting Authority bought a tape of The Accused immediately after it was aired, and Rafik Halaby, head of Channel One's news department and an excellent journalist, wanted to air the tape on Israeli television. The IBA's controlling authorities, however, damned the program as inaccurate and malicious and refused to allow airing of the documentary. Since the program does not go beyond the facts of the Kahan Commission report, although it does differ in legal interpretation of responsibility, the IBA has engaged in open political censorship of its news department. That Israeli public willingness to confront issues of accountability over Sabra and Shatilla, once manifest, was brief-lived.

All of this leads to the question of why The Accused appears now, given that its events happened nineteen years ago? The production has taken some four months and apparently began in earnest when Sharon's ascent to the prime ministership was assured. Concern over Sharon certainly seems one good motivation, and bringing leaders to account for their actions is another. Outside the immediate politics of the television screen, another possibility seems clear too. Given the intifada being fueled by anger from Palestinian streets and refugee camps, together with Sharon's past record for irresponsibility and use of ethnic militias, a potential exists for repetition of the events of Sabra and Shatilla. What would be the results if, instead of the Phalange, a group of Baruch Goldstein wannabes from Gush Emunim were to enter a Palestinian neighborhood in the occupied territories with all guns blazing? Do we not have similar potential in the current Israeli-Palestinian situation?

Good human rights reporting, such as The Accused, can do little to stop those intent on pursuing hatred through violence but it can put them on notice that witness and justice will not remain quiet.

BBC investigative human rights reporter Fergal Keane provides perspective onThe Accused and its making at this website

Copyright © 2001 by Joe Lockard. All rights reserved.

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