Why Lebanese don't call for probe of massacre

While Israel's opposition presses for a full inquiry into who committed the Beirut massacre, Lebanese politicians of all political persuasions would prefer not to know.

The question of who exactly was responsible for the killings in the Palestinian refugee camps has become a political powder keg in both Jerusalem and Beirut - but for diametrically opposite reasons.

In Israel, 300,000 to 400,000 people massed last Saturday in Tel Aviv to demand a full judicial inquiry into the massacre. What appeared to be an initial government coverup of Israel's role in planning and supporting the operation by Lebanese Christian militiamen and its refusal to hold an independent inquiry have roused a political storm that has shaken the position of Prime Minister Menachem Begin.

But in Lebanon, where numerous massacres have marked the past eight years of communal strife, there is little public discussion of the killings. Too much information about the identity of the killers could threaten the delicate entente now finally forming between Christians and Muslims on which hopes for future Lebanese stability depend.

The most detailed information on the organization of the attacks on the camps has come from Israel. Defense Minister Ariel Sharon told the Israeli parliament that the Israeli Army coordinated, helped plan, and gave limited field support to Christian militiamen charged with clearing out remaining Palestinian ''terrorists'' from the refugee camps. He insisted the militiamen were told not to kill civilians and that the Israeli Army was not involved in the actual killings.

Journalists in Beirut have established through interviews with survivors in the camps and with foreign medical personnel and Lebanese Army officers who were near the scene of the massacre that individual Christian militiamen involved were from at least two camps. They included Phalangists, men from the militia built up by the late President-elect Bashir Gemayel, and followers of Maj. Saad Haddad, the renegade Lebanese Army officer who heads an Israeli-backed militia in south Lebanon. Some are known to come from Damour, a Christian town whose residents openly seek revenge for a massacre there by Palestinians in 1976.

But who led the operation, and whether the leaders came from senior Phalangist ranks, has not been conclusively established.x

Israeli sources told the BBC and the Guardian of London that the Lebanese in charge of the operation was Elias Khbeika, chief intelligence officer of the Lebanese Forces, the umbrella Christian militia that includes the Phalangist fighters. They say his 40-man elite security force spearheaded the operation in which some men of Major Haddad participated.

However, the new Lebanese President, Amin Gemayel (brother of Bashir), and the Lebanese Forces have both denied any Phalangist involvement. A senior source in the Lebanese Forces intelligence branch denied Mr. Khbeika was in any way involved.

''Orders were given to all our men not to move to west Beirut because we were on the edge of a national reconciliation with the Muslims,'' he added. ''No one from our side disobeyed.'' Mr. Khbeika, who was ''out of town,'' could not be reached for comment.

Even more striking, have been Muslim Lebanese denials of Phalangist involvement despite the past eight years of bitter sectarian strife. Key Muslim leaders have consistently blamed the Israelis and Major Haddad for the killings. Even the leftist daily As Safir, a sharp enemy of the late Bashir Gemayel and a strong supporter of the Palestine Liberation Organization, absolved the Phalange Party, the political directorate of the Phalange movement, of any responsibility. As Safir, along with more moderate Muslim voices, has accused Israel of trying to blame the right-wing party in order to reopen national communal divisions.

This unified Muslim stand reflects a desperate desire finally to end Muslim-Christian violence and allow the conciliatory presidency of Amin Gemayel breathing time.

''Our new national atmosphere should not be disrupted,'' former prime minister and key Muslim leader Saeb Salam told the Monitor. ''That was what led me, horrible as I felt, not to blame the Phalange. Otherwise we do great damage to Lebanon.''

A Lebanese journalist was more graphic. ''The Lebanese Muslims want it over with, if it takes a thousand dead Palestinians,'' he said. ''They want an entente with the Christians. It is not in their interest to have the names of who did the massacre revealed.''

Many Phalangists are blunt in their disdain for the attention the West has paid to the massacre, especially when the assassination of President-elect Bashir Gemayel and 21 aides remains unsolved. ''Everybody will forget this (massacre) in one month as they did Ashrafiye, Zahle, and Ehden (the first two massacres of Christian Lebanese by Syrians, the last, a Phalange killing of rival Christians),'' said a senior military source with the Lebanese Forces.

But international pressures have mounted on the Lebanese to investigate the massacre. Western diplomatic sources here say the US encouraged President Amin Gemayel to conduct an investigation. And, on the President's instructions, the Lebanese military prosecutor has taken the first steps toward one.

How serious the inquiry will be remains to be seen. If it should reveal culpability at the top of the Lebanese Forces, it would embarrass Muslims and complicate the new President's task of reconciliation. It would also strain his already delicate relationship with the Christian militia.

But Western diplomats here say Muslim desire for entente is so strong that President Amin would survive such revelations.

A Muslim businessman said, ''The Lebanese Muslims want peace, even if the Phalangists did it.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.