The Kahan Commission was a three-member inquiry commission charged with investigating Israel's role in the events of September 16-18, 1982. Over these two days, immediately following the Israeli capture of West Beirut, I.D.F. troops in Lebanon allowed Lebanese Christian Phalangists entry into two Palestinian refugee camps in the southern half of Lebanon, Sabra and Shatilla. A "gruesome pogrom against undefended civilians resulted" (page xiii), with official Israeli estimates of the Palestinian death toll at between 700 and 800 old men, women, and children.
Abba Eban served as Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs under Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin in the 1960s and early 1970s. He was the spokesman for the opposition Labor party on foreign affairs during Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon.
In this introduction to the Kahan Commission report, Abba Eban gives his reader several levels of insight into the impact of these massacres on the Israeli political scene and the overall Arab-Israeli conflict. Specifically, he shows us how harmful the light of world media scrutiny was to the state of Israel in this situation, and how the government (although clumsily at first) entered a damage control mode in order to prevent further negative publicity. Furthermore, Eban reveals how the formation of the Kahan Commission itself could be seen a public relations coup for the Israeli state, since it gave the impression of a democratic society correcting itself, responding to events that were obviously aberrations in the overall morally humane history of Israel.
Immediately it becomes clear that Eban is writing only as a critic of this particular episode in the history of the state of Israel and its relations with Palestinians and other Arab peoples. Again and again, he stresses his loyalty to the basic principle of violent response to Arab resistance and hostility that Israel has lived by since its birth in 1948.
Eban begins his introduction by seemingly raising doubts about the validity of the reasons behind the Likud government's invasion of Lebanon in June, 1982, and presenting evidence to show that prominent Labor party figures like Peres and Rabin opposed it all along. However, a closer reading reveals that Eban is actually doing more justifying than questioning of the initial decision to launch the invasion. After describing the 1981 cease-fire negotiated between the governments of Israel and Lebanon and meant to prevent PLO attacks on northern Israeli villages, unbroken for a year prior to the invasion, Eban explains that "the PLO was not striking, but its capacity to strike made life for many Israelis like sitting on a volcano: even when there was no eruption, the possibility of an outbreak of violence hung broodily in the air" (page vi). He then sets out a lengthy, philosophy-laden argument that purports to show how differences of opinion over the invasion were simply the latest in a long line of Labor-Revisionist differences over which means to use to best pursue the state of Israel's overall goal of defusing "an implacable and ferocious Arab hostility with genocidal overtones" (page vii), about which both sides are in agreement.
Eban also takes care to explain how "the classical Israeli approach to armed force was always restrained" (page vii), meaning military actions undertaken by Labor governments, and in doing so paints the invasion as a Likud-initiated aberration. However, he also suggests that if the campaign had proceeded more smoothly, it likely would have been supported by Labor and Likud-leaning Israelis alike. "All in all, the atmosphere surrounding the Israeli campaign on September 1 had not been excessively abrasive...(negative) impressions had been softened by the recollection of great cruelties inflicted on the Lebanese nation by the PLO before the Israeli invasion had even been conceived" (page x).
My point is not that the Labor party was conspiring with Likud by pretending to be outraged over the massacres in order to salvage world opinion about the actions of Israel. Indeed, in Shimon Peres' Knesset speech of September 22, 1982, he is forceful in his denunciations of the massacres and raises all the right questions about the ludicrous circumstances that allowed them to happen (p 133). Similarly, some of the more vocal Labor members of parliament repeatedly interrupt Minister of Defense Ariel Sharon's Knesset speech of the same date with calls of "Sharon must resign" (p 122) and "Lies, lies!" (p 123).
Rather, I think these readings are revealing for two reasons. The first is because of what they show about the level of mainstream political consensus that has existed within Israel concerning security issues (i.e., Israeli-Arab relations). The second is that no matter what the intentions behind establishing the Kahan commission, it functioned as an instrument of damage control that allowed the state of Israel to sidestep moral responsibility for the massacres at Sabra and Shatilla. Did anything ever come of the recommendations contained within the report, other than the sacrifice of a few lower level functionaries in order to spare officials (such as Ariel Sharon) in the higher chain of I.D.F. command? The commission's report even gave Israel an opportunity to claim that outside criticism of any of its other policies were baseless and unnecessary. Eban admits as much when he notes that:
"The inquiry commission electrified world opinion and filled the media with words of respect and admiration for the Israeli nation. Very few countries would allow their actions to be scrutinized and criticized with such relentless truth and rigor. Countless people across the world who had not been able to identify with Israel's policies were able to admire the fact that these policies were under meticulous analysis in Israel itself so that the outside world had no need, or right, to make itself the forum for scrutinizing Israel's conduct" (page xvi).
Sources: Abba Eban's introduction to Kahan Commission Report, section on "Functioning of Establishments," and Knesset speeches by Shimon Peres and Ariel Sharon in response to Sabra and Shatilla massacres.