Thursday, 27 November 2008
by Kathryn Hadley
Ari Folman’s latest film has brought to the big screen a relatively ignored chapter of middle-eastern history. Waltz with Bashir is the story of the director’s personal journey in an attempt to recover his lost memories of his participation in the 1982 Lebanon War, or Operation Peace of the Galilee as it was called by Israel, when he was barely twenty. His memory is jogged when a friend and ex-fighting companion complains of his recurring nightmare about the war. Unable to recall anything of the war, Folman sets out to interview various participants who he met at the time, in an attempt to retrace his own involvement. His powerful film highlights important questions about the war itself, in particular the Sabra and Shatila massacres which he has particular trouble remembering, and how different participants dealt with their consequent trauma as a result of the war. It also addresses the issue of responsibility in war crimes. One of the interviewees claims that he believed that the massacre was being dealt with by the Israeli Defense Forces; Ron Ben-Yeshai recalls how the Minister of Defense, Arik Sharon, refused to intervene when he informed him of the massacre at the refugee camps.
Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, at the beginning of June 1982, took place in the midst of ongoing and rising tension between the two countries. There had been outbreaks of violence during the summer of 1981 and the considerable number of Palestinian refugees in Southern Lebanon was a cause for concern. Following repeated bombings on towns in the North of Israel by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) from Southern Lebanon, the initial Israeli plan was to occupy a 40km security zone in Lebanon. The unofficial plan, however, notably drawn up by Arik Sharon, was to occupy Lebanon as far as Beirut (including Beirut) and to appoint his Christian ally, Bashir Gemayel, as President. The threat from the North would thus be eradicated and a sympathetic Lebanon under Gemayel would provide a front against Syria.
On April 21st, 1982, an Israeli officer on a visit to a South Lebanon Army gun emplacement was killed by a land mine and the Israeli Defense Forces attacked the Palestinian controlled town of Damour. On June 6th, the Israeli Defense Forces invaded Southern Lebanon in response to an assassination attempt against Israel’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, Shlomo Argov by the Abu Nidal Organisation. A week later, the Israeli forces had reached the outskirts of Beirut. In August, however, they were still waiting for orders to enter the city.
Bashir Gemayel was elected president on August 23rd, 1982. He was, however, assassinated on September 14th, whilst giving a speech at the Phalangist headquarters, the Lebanese Christian Militia which allied with Israel. The following day, Israeli Defense Forces moved in to occupy Western Beirut. Shortly after, the first unit of Phalangists entered the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in the southern outskirts of West Beirut. The Israeli command had allegedly allowed the Phalangists to enter the camps and supervised the entrances and exits by the means of checkpoints, whilst the Christian militia massacred their inhabitants.
In September 1982, the PLO withdrew most of its forces from Lebanon; Israeli troops were not withdrawn, however, until January 1985 when a buffer zone was created to protect the North of the country. The Israeli government subsequently investigated the massacre in the refugee camps and Arik Sharon was found guilty of being personally responsible. He was dismissed and removed of his functions as Minister of Defense. On December 16th 1982, the massacre was condemned by the United Nations General Assembly and declared it to be an act of genocide. Sharon was elected Prime Minister in February 2001.
For more information on the history of Lebanon and Hezbollah, which was formed in response to the war, read our article Lebanon’s Shi’as: A Long March out of the Shadows.
Labels: middle east