Beirut — The Israeli government knew on Thursday night of the massacre in progress at Shatila refugee camp but did nothing about it until Saturday morning, according to authoritative reports by Israeli journalists in the Hebrew press Sept. 20.
This contradicts statements by the Israeli Cabinet and by senior Israeli officials but corroborates the chain of events pieced together by correspondents here.
While fierce political debate raged inside Israel over responsibility for the massacres, panic struck Shatila camp and other areas nearby after reports - apparently mistaken - that revenge-bent Christian militiamen had returned to the camp. Hundreds of hysterical refugees poured out of the camp, besieging the offices of the International Committee for the Red Cross, and the home of former Prime Minister Saeb Salaam. Some were persuaded to return to Shatila, where volunteer relief workers have been working since mid-Sunday.
The refugees' terror reflects a fear now prevalent in this distraught city that if Israeli troops leave Beirut, Christian mili- tiamen may use the resultant vacuum to make more revenge raids. Among the startling Israeli press reports, Eitan Haber, defense correspondent for Israel's largest circulation and politically conservative daily, Yediot Aharanoth, wrote that the Israeli government knew on Thursday night of the massacre but ''didn't do anything to prevent the massacre until Saturday morning.''
Israel has vigorously denied responsibility for the Beirut tragedy. The Israeli Cabinet Sunday charged that claims of Israeli culpability were a ''blood libel.'' A senior official Monday told journalists in Jerusalem that the Israeli Army did not ask the Phalange - the strongest Christian militia - to enter the camps or cooperate with them. He said that when the Israeli Army began to receive reports of the massacre on Friday, it began to act to stop it as soon as the facts were clear, even by firing on Lebanese Christian forces.
(It is still unclear to what extent the attacking Christian fighters were made up of Phalangists and/or fighters of Maj. Saad Haddad's forces. Fighters from both forces are reported to have participated.)
However, Mr. Haber wrote that Israeli intelligence had warned the Israeli chief of staff (Rafael Eitan) and the government of the possibility of such a massacre if the Phalange were allowed to enter the refugee camps in west Beirut. He also quoted Defense Minister Ariel Sharon as saying on Friday, the second day of the massacre, that Israeli troops had closed the camps and that the Phalangists could only have entered with the permission of the Israeli command.
Ze'ev Schiff, Israel's most distinguished military correspondent, wrote in the daily Ha'aretz on Monday that he personally had told senior officials of the massacre on Friday. Israel radio reported that Israeli Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir knew of the massacre on Friday morning, but checked with military sources and was told there was no massacre.
The killings in the two camps appear to have streched over the period from last Thursday evening to early Saturday morning, despite official Israeli claims to have stopped it on Friday. American journalists here report having seen Israeli soldiers near the camps during the attacks talking with Christian militiamen and giving them water at the camp's periphery as late as 6 p.m. Friday.
An Israeli command post located atop a seven-story building with huge spotting telescopes trained directly on the camp was in full view of all that went on.
One Israeli sergeant who was near the Shatila area during the massacre explained why he did not send his men in to stop the shooting. ''If you were in charge here,'' he asked, ''would you have sacrificed your men to go in and stop the Phalangists?'' He then quoted a Spanish proverb that advises, ''When it is between brothers, don't get involved.''
''All we were trying to do,'' he continued, ''was to get things to the point where we could let these people do the job themselves.''
But observers here fear that Israeli moves may have left the city open to further bloodletting.