The Kahan Report: Banishing the Palestinian Ordeal

by Richard Falk
published in MER115

If politics is the art of the possible, then the impact of the Kahan Commission Report has to be understood as “beyond politics,” Israel’s final victory in the Lebanon war is not the expulsion of the PLO or even the extension of its sovereign reach to challenge Lebanese territorial and political independence. The full measure of Israel’s victory is rather its vindication, despite all, as a moral force in the region—as a superior state, especially as compared to its Arab rivals.

The Washington Post’s lead editorial on the day the Report was issued set the tone of its quasi-official reception here: “The whole process of the Israeli reaction to the Beirut massacre is a tribute to the vitality of democracy in Israel and to the country’s moral character.” [1] Gaston Deferre, the French minister of the interior, is quoted on the dustjacket of the US edition: “This report is the honor of Israel. It gives the world a new lesson in democracy.” This phenomenon, as might have been expected, has been efficiently exploited by Israel’s vast public relations apparatus. What is remarkable is that use of the massacres was not in any sense a product of conscious planning. Quite the contrary, the Begin government genuinely resisted the appointment of a commission of inquiry at every stage. Its existence was a tribute to the force of public opinion within Israel and outside.

If the motivation for the Kahan Commission was pure, may it not seem gratuitous now to portray its outcome as a gigantic, if unwitting, public relations coup? Isn’t it appropriate to give Israel credit for conducting a no-holds-barred inquiry into the conduct of its highest officials, in order to pass judgment on the wisdom and moral character of its most powerful and popular leaders, Prime Minister Begin and Defense Minister Sharon? There is an obvious comparison between the Kahan Report and the Peers Commission Report issued by the US government after an investigation of who was responsible for the My Lai massacre of defenseless Vietnamese civilians in 1968. The Israeli inquiry is much more devastating in its evaluation of state leadership during the Lebanon war than any self-scrutiny that the American government allowed during the Vietnam war. The Peers Report never explored links to US command policies and political leaders, and thereby tended to quarantine the public’s perception of the massacre, fostering the false impression that what happened at My Lai was an aberration, a battlefield lapse of discipline that cast the hook of responsibility no higher than the regimental level. In contast, of course, and unavoidably in view of the context, the Kahan inquiry examined only the responsibility of Israeli military and political leaders for the bloody happenings in the Palestinian camps of Shatila and Sabra, and neglected altogether the roles of lower-level Israeli operatives.

What is most disturbing about the Report is its overriding and paradoxical effect of once more banishing the Palestinian ordeal from the political imagination. Empathy for the incredible suffering of the Palestinians in Lebanon is displaced by this reaffirmation of Israel’s underlying political virtue. By thus shifting the attention of both the public and the media, the Kahan Report somehow makes the victims disappear before our eyes. The present circumstance makes this result particularly shocking: Palestinian victimization in Lebanon and the West Bank and Gaza has continued unchecked and virtually unquestioned since the massacres. Let me be clear. The three Israeli members of the Commission could not possibly have set out to achieve this pernicious result. However cynical one might be about official inquiries, there is no reason to indict the Commission as a deliberate tool of state propaganda. Their inquiry, indeed, seems to have been so beclouding to public perceptions precisely because it was sincere and careful, and based on a strong public mandate.

Variants of Consensus

The damaging worldview embodied in the Kahan Report is made more insidious in many respects by its pervasive quality of unwittingness. There exists an Israeli mindset that frames all political discourse in terms of an overriding historical consensus: the Zionist cause is unconditionally blessed by history, religion, ethnic talent, and circumstance: the Palestinian obstacle must be removed at all costs in the end; this is necessary, no matter how unpleasant it may turn out to be. One definitive cost of the consensus is the permanent demonization of the Palestinian people and of their chosen political movement, the PLO. Israel’s leadership since 1948, whether Labor or Likud, has never seriously called this consensus into question. True, within Labor Zionism, the faction personified by Moshe Sharett and Abba Eban struggled for a policy toward the Palestinians that did not jeopardize Israel’s image as a progressive, democratic society. The dominant figures in Labor, however, were the “activists”—Ben-Gurion, Moshe Dayan, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Yigal Allon—who used this image to clothe a consistent policy of intimidation and expulsion against the Palestinians. By 1956, if not earlier, the ascendancy of this perspective was virtually irreversible. The subsequent rise of Begin and Sharon represents the most recent evolution of this process. Sharon, a protege of Dayan and identified with Labor throughout the 1960s, represents an important link between these ruling Labor figures and the once marginal demagoguery of Begin’s Likud.

This variant of Zionism, which grew increasingly important in the wake of the 1967 territorial conquests, draws its direct inspiration from the candidly proto-fascist thinking of Vladimir Jabotinsky. It emphasizes the primacy of state power and military solutions over political ones, while disparaging even lip service to any kind of moral “cover.” When politically cornered, a hardline proponent of this ideology claims either brute “necessity,” or relies on the assertion that the survivors of Hitler’s holocaust are simply exempt from moral assessments as provided by those who earlier stood idly by while Jewish blood was being spilled.

A haunting question for the friends of Israel is why this hardline position has achieved increasing influence during a period in which Israel’s national security seems to have improved dramatically. A popular explanation has been that an influx of Sephardic Jews has altered the demographic balance of the country in an anti-democratic direction. I do not doubt the importance of this factor, but it is not the most important aspect of an explanation. I believe that the main reason for this shift of Israel’s perception of its security reflects the outcome of the 1967 war, which made Israel conscious of the extent of its military prowess and fostered an imperial conception of Israeli security. Israel emerged from the 1967 war with a set of regional interests and capabilities that required a more aggressive foreign policy. To sustain the gains from the war led Israel to a greater mobilization of resources for and by the military. This post-1967 orientation was generally more compatible with an avowedly militarist leadership and an expansionist conception of the Zionist project in Israel, a perception strongly reinforced by the temporary sense of jeopardy created among Israelis by the 1973 war.

The Kahan Report seems to emanate from the more benign variant of the Israeli mentality, but it needs to be understood as a contribution to an Israeli dialogue which proceeds within the old consensus on Palestinian issues, and does not in any sense challenge that consensus. For this reason the Report, despite the fact that its subject matter is ostensibly the massacres in Lebanon, tends so naturally to focus attention on a reaffirmation of the political character of Israel as a moral force rather than on the fate of the Palestinians as the moral and political priority. The Kahan Commission Report can be understood better if this prevailing Israeli mindset is taken into account. Consider the crucial question of the language used to describe the Palestinian people and their national movement. The Report is written as if the PLO did not exist: it is never once mentioned by name, not even for the purpose of dismissing its claim to represent Palestinian national aspirations, a claim widely and formally accepted in international life. The Commission’s willingness to toe the official line in this regard is extremely revealing, even if compared to Abba Eban’s frequent references to the PLO in his long introduction to the Report in the hardcover American edition. [2]

In the Kahan Report, male inhabitants (whether Palestinian or Lebanese) of the Beirut refugee camps are repeatedly described as “terrorists.” This dehumanizing label has the primary effect of making them count as fair game under any circumstances. The report’s concern with the massacre is generally confined to its “civilian” victims, a designation explicitly limited to women and children. In describing the events of September 16-18, the Report argues that “... as a result of the Phalangists’ operations up to that time 300 terrorists and civilians had been killed in the camps.” [3] Referring to an Israeli intelligence analysis of the military situation in West Beirut, the Report writes on the same page about “the terrorists and other armed forces.” Explaining the assignment by the Israeli Defense Forces of the specific Phalangist unit that was to enter the camps, the Report notes that “this unit were [sic] considered especially trained in discovering terrorists, who tried to hide among the civilian population.” [4] (Even Eban cannot resist talking of the departure of the PLO fighters as an evacuation of “the terrorists,” and he, too, manages to fix primary responsibility for the Palestinian tragedy on the Palestinians.)

This usage of the term “terrorist” is never explained, justified or delimited in any careful manner. By contrast, the perpetrators of the massacre, with their long bloody record of atrocities, are described as Phalangists, a name in common usage and not obviously derogatory in its implications. The commissioners explain this usage in the Report: “The expression ‘Lebanese Forces’ refers to an armed unit known by the name ‘Phalangists’ or ‘Keta’ib’ (henceforth Phalangists).” [5] The double standard embedded in the political language of the entire Report is starkly evident. Recounting the background of the massacre, the report notes: “The Christian city of Damour was captured and destroyed by Palestinian terrorists in January 1976.... In August 1976 Christian forces captured the Tel Za’atar refugee camp in Beirut, where Palestinian terrorists had dug in, and thousands of Palestinian refugees were massacred.” [6]

The Language of Terror

This indiscriminate use of the term “terrorist” expresses no concern whatsoever as to whether a male victim of the massacres was or was not engaged in combat at the time of these events, or whether such a person was or was not affiliated with the PLO. Furthermore, given the nature of the armed combat between the PLO and the IDF during the siege of Beirut, which encompassed fixed lines of battle, the use of conventional weaponry, and even such amenities as the exchange of prisoners of war, was it in any sense appropriate to regard even PLO fighters, much less any other males resident in the camps, as terrorists?

The mindset evident in the Kahan Report is not merely a matter of anti-Palestinian posturing. It shapes the outcome of the inquiry in decisive respects. If one is engaged in an operation to kill “terrorists,” then such a scale of murder might be somehow understood as a reasonable undertaking, provided only that measures are taken to avoid harming “others”—civilians, defined as women and children. The Report apparently does not object to using the Phalangists with their murderous tactics to kill all the males in the camps, regardless of whether or not they are fighting or resisting at the time. The Commission exonerates Israel from direct responsibility with these words: “We assert that in having the Phalangists enter the camps, no intention existed on the part of anyone who acted on behalf of Israel to harm the non-combatant population.” [7] A kind of Orwellian thinking is evident here. If no effort was made to describe and delimit the non-combatant population by measures more precise than gender, then the acceptable range of the Phalangist operation included many people who were in fact non-combatants (that is, males who were not resisting or fighting). The Report, remarkably, never expresses any concern as to whether steps were taken to differentiate “terrorists” from other males, or to deal humanely with “terrorists” who were neither fighting nor armed. The whole moral edifice of the conception is, on another level, absurd. Why, after all, limit the designation “terrorist” to men, when women, and for that matter, children, have been active PLO members all along, and have even engaged directly in combat. In fact, by the implicit Kahan Commission view of what makes someone a terrorist, there were no civilians in the camps, and the Phalangists’ failure to confine their slaughter to males was quite understandable.

The report accepts the morality of the entry into the camps by the Phalangists under Israeli direction (to save IDF lives) to eliminate “the terrorists.” The report bases its findings of indirect responsibility on Israel’s failure to prevent what Major General Drori, the IDF northern commander, describes as “an unclean mopping up.” [8] The Kahan commission accepts the rationale for such a “mopping up,” but rejects its “unclean” (that is, including women and children) character. Several passages could be cited from the report to document this main feature of the Commission’s approach to its task, but the following short extract seems sufficient:

We do not say that the decision to have the Phalangists enter the camps should under no circumstances have been made and was totally unwarranted... an understandable desire existed to prevent IDF losses in hazardous combat in a built-up area, that it was justified to demand the Phalangists to take part in combat which they regarded as a broad opening to assume power and for the restoration of Lebanese independence, and that the Phalangists were more expert than the IDF in uncovering and identifying terrorists. These are weighty considerations; and had the decision-makers and executors been aware of the danger of harm to the civilian population on the part of the Phalangists but had nevertheless, having considered all the circumstances, decided to have the Phalangists enter the camps while taking all possible steps to prevent harm coming to the civilian population, it is possible that there would be no place to be critical of them, even if ultimately it had emerged that the decision had caused undesirable results and had caused damage? [9]

In the end, the Israeli leadership is censured for its carelessness, and that alone. The Commission accepted as a permissible operation of military occupation the Israeli impulse to kill “the terrorists” in the camps. Because of this acceptance, the Commission never appraised the peculiar contextual circumstances that make Israeli responsibility for the massacres so profound. Independent outside observers, including reliable journalists, described the camps as completely quiet at the time, and described the Palestinian refugees as waiting, with fearful apprehension about what would be done about them. As the Report acknowledges, the Arafat-Habib agreement on the evacuation of the PLO fighters included an accepted American obligation to protect the remaining residents of the camps from military attack. At United States’ urging, the multilateral force hastily left Beirut on September 10-12. The camps were left unprotected by the time IDF forces entered West Beirut three days later, after Bashir Gemayel’s assassination. The IDF, having entered western Beirut in defiance of the general ceasefire, was under a definite positive obligation under international law as an occupying power to protect the inhabitants pf the camps. Finally, the Report accepts uncritically Israeli claims that 2,000 or so PLO fighters remained behind in the camps in violation of the evacuation arrangements. No effort at all is made to interpret or to validate that claim. Is every Palestinian and Lebanese male remaining in the camps to be treated as a PLO member? If not, how was the figure arrived at? Many Palestinian men, both fighters and civilians, did not want to leave their families behind in Beirut and made a personal decision to say.

Perhaps most telling, the character of the IDF/Phalangist operation seems to have been calculated from the outset to generate maximum and unnecessary terror. Why was entry into the camps organized to take place at night? Why was it conducted in such haste? And why did the IDF troops, apparently acting under orders, prevent even women and children from leaving the camps during the massacre? The framework of inquiry adopted by the Kahan Commission precludes raising these and many other pertinent questions. But the Commission’s reliance on this framework has at least one unexpected feature. It seems to imply what Israeli officials always deny, namely, that the PLO does indeed speak for all Palestinians. If the term “terrorist” is to be politically decoded to mean “PLO,” and if at least all Palestinian males in refugee camps are to be treated as terrorists, then the PLO obviously is, whatever else it may be, representative of all Palestinians.

The Logic of Repression

At the end of the Report, the IDF is praised, the Phalangists censured, and the Palestinians held responsible for their own tragic fate. “The main purpose of the inquiry,” the Report concludes, is “to bring to light all the important facts relating to the perpetration of the atrocities; it therefore has importance from the perspective of Israel’s moral fortitude and its functioning as a democratic state that scrupulously maintains the fundamental principles of the civilized world.” [10] Eban, in his introduction for US publication, praises “the three eminent Israelis” who write the Report as giving “eloquent expression to a moral preoccupation for which it is hard to find a parallel in the practice or tradition of any other modern state,” and even suggests that this process achieves “a kind of aesthetic beauty” arising from Israel’s “democratic structure that finds a restraint or a balance for every contingency of authority pushed too far or power deployed without a sense of harmony.” [11] This exceptionally pious tone is ridiculous, given the tactics relied upon by the IDF throughout the Lebanon War and, of course, given the daily brutalities—systematized at the highest levels—of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. One need only consult the MacBride Commission Report to find extensive documentation of IDF violations of the laws of war and of a pattern of the use of high technology to inflict severe indiscriminate devastation of all Palestinian refugee camps in the combat zone. [12]

The Report censures Begin and IDF Chief of Staff Eitan and recommends that several high Israeli officials resign their present positions. In general, there has taken place strictly nominal compliance with the conclusions of the Report, most importantly the resignation of Ariel Sharon as Minister of Defense. Sharon was immediately reappointed to another post in the Begin cabinet and was made a member of two influential state committees concerned with defense policy. The Kahan Commission Report can be understood partly as a feeble effort by the Ben-Gurion variant of the Israeli consensus on Palestinian issues to regain the upper hand over the advocates of revisionist Zionism who are now running the country. As a domestic power play, the Report seems without much lasting consequence. Begin and his hardline associates remain very much in control of Israel. Sharon, although currently sidelined, might well return to a leadership role in a national emergency. The basic Israeli state policy of terrorism against the Palestinians and their organization, whether in Lebanon or elsewhere, goes on and on. The resilience of those “punished” as a result of the Kahan Comission Report recalls the Costa-Gravas film Z: Greek officials indirectly responsible for the murder of a political opponent are censured and apprehended, but the film made it clear that there was no reason to suppose that their control of state power has in any lasting sense been weakened or even that their unscrupulous tactics had been repudiated.

It is possible to take some satisfaction from the refusal of the Israeli public, and then of the Kahan Commission, to sweep the massacres under the rug. It is morally important for the behavior of those who have allowed such an atrocity to occur to be scrutinized and for their careers to be jeopardized, even if only marginally and temporarily. It is, of course, essential not to confuse the image-building exercises of this Commission with genuine mainstream Israeli soul searching about the politics of dispossession and ethnocide. Nothing in the Kahan Commission Report demonstrates any such questioning of the Israeli consensus which continues to determine official policies on Palestinian issues. As with other Western-style democracies, including the United States, a certain amount of soul searching necessarily accompanies the politics of dispossession. A societal tension is created by the contradiction between creed and practice, as Gunnar Myrdal depicted with regard to race relations in the United States in The American Dilemma. Israel is pursuing the kind of logic toward Palestinian claims that the United States has pursued and is still pursuing in relation to Native American national rights, but the Israeli setting involves much greater resistance and fewer safety valves. As a consequence, although such comparisons are always odious, the direct and brutal repression of the Palestinians has left little “political space” for more than nominal reconciliation of humanistic claims with practical imperatives. The massacre, ironically, provided Israel with an occasion to express its commitment to this reconciliation but, sadly, the Kahan Commission’s enduring impact is not likely to extend much beyond the orbit of public relations.

Author’s Note: I acknowledge with gratitude Cindy Halpern’s considerable editorial contributions to this review essay.


[1] Washington Post, February 9, 1983.
[2] The Beirut Massacre: The Complete Kahan Commission Report (New York: Karz-Cohl, 1983).
[3] Ibid., p. 23.
[4] Ibid., p. 20.
[5] Ibid., p. 3.
[6] Ibid., p. 6.
[7] Ibid., p. 54.
[8] Ibid., p. 30.
[9] Ibid., p. 62.
[10] Ibid., p. 106.
[11] Ibid., p. xvi.
Israel in Lebanon: The Report of the International Commission to Inquire into Reported Violations of International Law by Israel During Its Invasion of the Lebanon (London: Ithaca Press, 1983).

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