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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Elie Hobeika’s Assassination: Covering Up the Secrets of Sabra and Shatilla

Filed under: Israel, Israel Defense Forces (IDF), Lebanon
Publication: Jerusalem Issue Briefs

Vol. 1, No. 17


Elie Hobeika knew the truth of Israel’s innocence in the Sabra and Shatilla massacres, and for that reason many interested parties wanted him silenced.

Elie Hobeika, the former Lebanese Christian militia leader, was killed by a car bomb outside his home in a Beirut suburb on January 24, 2002. Lebanese officials immediately blamed Israel for the assassination, since Hobeika had stated that he planned to testify in a Belgian court case which is deliberating allegations against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon regarding his purported connection with the massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps during the 1982 Lebanon War.

Yet a careful examination of recent material on Sabra and Shatilla indicates that Hobeika was far more concerned about what a Belgian court would reveal about his own role in the massacre, rather than the accusations made in Belgium against Israel’s prime minister.


The Legacy of the Kahane Commission

Israel established its own commission of inquiry into the events that transpired at the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps. The Kahane Commission Report, issued on February 8, 1983, concluded:

  • Israel had no direct responsibility for the massacre of Palestinians which had been conducted by Lebanon’s main Christian militia, the Lebanese Forces (that also included the Phalangists), between September 16 and the morning of September 18, 1982. When the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) first informed Defense Minister Ariel Sharon of the Christians attacks against the Palestinians, the IDF insisted that the massacres had already ended. Estimates of the number of dead vary from 328 (Red Cross) to 800 (Israeli military sources).

  • Despite efforts to impute Israeli responsibility by charging the involvement of the Israeli-supported South Lebanon Army (SLA) of Major Haddad, SLA forces at this time were actually located south of the Awali River, and hence not in the area of Sabra and Shatilla.

  • Neither the Mossad nor Israeli military intelligence warned the Israel Defense Forces or the political echelon in Israel that Lebanon’s Christian militia might conduct a massacre if they were allowed to enter the Palestinian refugee camps. After the assassination of pro-Israeli Lebanese President Bashir Gemayel on September 14, 1982, Israel was compelled to enter West Beirut to prevent disorder; it preferred that the regular Lebanese Army enter the Palestinian camps, where Palestinian terrorist groups were still active, but the Lebanese Army refused.

  • Nonetheless, the Kahane Commission charged Prime Minister Menahem Begin, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. General Rafael Eitan, and Defense Minister Ariel Sharon with “indirect responsibility” for the deaths of the Palestinians, claiming that they should have anticipated the massacres, despite the lack of any intelligence warning. Still, its report adds: “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.”


The Testimony of Eli Hobeika’s Security Chief, Robert Hatem

Robert Hatem, code-named “Cobra,” was Eli Hobeika’s security chief in the early 1980s. In 1999, he published an unauthorized biography of Hobeika, From Israel to Damascus, that was banned in Lebanon. Hatem brought to light new evidence about the role of Elie Hobeika in the massacres of Sabra and Shatilla:

  • In the afternoon of September 16, 1982, before the Lebanese Forces entered the Palestinian refugee camps, “Sharon had given strict orders to Hobeika (who served as chief of intelligence for the Lebanese Forces) to guard against any desperate move, should his men run amuck.” Yet contrary to this advice, Elie Hobeika gave his own instructions to his men: “Total extermination…camps wiped out.”

  • Elie Hobeika maintained a secret channel to Syria in 1982 and had meetings the same year with Abdul Halim Khaddam, who had served as Syria’s foreign minister. Hatem charges that Hobeika actually sought to serve Syrian interests by conspiring in the murder of President Bashir Gemayel and by his efforts “to tarnish Israel’s reputation world-wide” through Sabra and Shatilla. The massacres, in fact, created an entirely new strategic situation on the ground, forcing Israel to withdraw from the Beirut area and accept the insertion of international forces (Itamar Rabinovich, The War for Lebanon, 1970-1983 [1984]).

Hobeika filed suit against the editor of the Arabic magazine al-Hawadess for having published an interview with Robert Hatem. Hobeika had another concern with Hatem’s revelations: For Hatem asserts that Hobeika was responsible for the kidnapping and murder of four Iranian diplomats in 1982. This charge would have made Hobeika a potential target of the pro-Iranian Hizbullah.

Hobeika may have been interested in testifying in Belgium in order to clear his name with Lebanon’s Christian community, which came to view him as a Syrian agent. Yet there were those, like Syria, that might have been concerned where Hobeika’s testimony could lead. It is noteworthy that Hobeika was careful not to accuse Sharon. A Belgian senator, Vincent Van Quickenborne, who visited Hobeika just before his death, told Qatar’s satellite television network al-Jazira on January 26, 2002, that Hobeika had specifically stated that he did not plan to identify Sharon as being responsible for Sabra and Shatilla (IMRA, January 27, 2002).


International Responses to the Sabra and Shatilla Case

Sabra and Shatilla was a horrible massacre, which certain determined groups in the international community are trying to link directly to Israel, despite the conclusions of the Kahane Commission. Notably, the other attacks against innocent Lebanese civilians that punctuated Lebanon’s civil war have been ignored. In just one example, on January 21, 1976, the PLO was directly responsible for the slaughter of 260 Christian residents in the Lebanese town of Damour. The selective focus on Israel, which had no direct responsibility for Sabra and Shatilla, indicates that this initiative in the Belgian courts is motivated largely by political concerns rather than by considerations of international justice.

The singling out of Israel appears to be particularly blatant when other instances of more recent attacks on civilians in armed conflicts are examined. In July 1995, a Bosnian Serb Army unit slaughtered nearly 8,000 Bosnian Muslims in the UN “safe area” of Srebrenica; a Dutch UN battalion, part of the UNPROFOR peacekeeping force, failed to take minimal measures to protect the Bosnian Muslims. UNPROFOR was under a French officer.

While the killings went on for weeks, no adequate response was adopted by those with operational responsibility to immediately terminate the attacks. Yet no European state (or the UN) faulted the ministerial level in the Netherlands, France, or in UN headquarters with respect to the Srebrenica case (Manfred Gerstenfeld, “Srebrenica: The Dutch Sabra and Shatilla,” Jerusalem Viewpoints, No. 458, July 15, 2001). No state suggested a doctrine of “indirect responsibility,” as did Israel. Clearly, Israel held itself to a much higher standard in 1982-83 than many other international bodies have held themselves since.