Historians try not to audibly gasp in the reading rooms of official archives, but there are times when the written record retains a capacity to shock. In 2012, while working at the Israel State Archives in Jerusalem, I came across highly classified material from Israel’s 1982 War in Lebanon that had just been opened to researchers. This access was in line with the thirty-year rule of declassification governing the release of documents in Israel. Sifting through Foreign Ministry files, I stumbled upon the minutes of a September 17 meeting between Israeli and American officials that took place in the midst of the Sabra and Shatila massacre.
The startling verbatim exchange between Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon and US diplomat Morris Draper clearly demonstrated how the slaughter of civilians in the Palestinian refugee camps of south Beirut was prolonged by Draper’s acquiescence in the face of Sharon’s deceptive claim of “terrorists” remaining behind. This made the US unwittingly complicit in the notorious three-day massacre carried out by militiamen linked to the Phalange, a right-wing political party of Lebanese Maronite Christians that was allied with Israel.
Not long after publishing these findings, I was approached by William Quandt, a leading American expert on the Middle East who served on the National Security Council with responsibility for Arab-Israeli affairs under President Jimmy Carter. Quandt had been an expert consultant for the defense in the 1983–1984 lawsuit of Ariel Sharon v. Time Magazine, in which Sharon sued Time for libel over its coverage of his role in the massacre. In the course of preparing for the case, which was eventually settled out of court, the New York-based law firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore obtained classified material from the secret appendix of the official Israeli report into the massacre, known as the Kahan Commission. Large sections of the Hebrew original were translated into English by the law firm, and have been authenticated by several experts, including Israeli sources. Quandt was given a copy of those documents and passed them along to me for my own research. [Continue reading…]