War, death and animation: Cartoon film stirs Israel's conscience

An acclaimed new cartoon film has stirred Israel's conscience about its responsibility for the notorious 1982 massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. Ben Lynfield reports from Jerusalem

Monday 17 November 2008 01:00 GMT

Until a matter of months ago, very few Israelis realised that their army fired flares to light up Beirut's Sabra and Shatila refugee camps while Lebanese Christian militiamen committed the notorious massacre of Palestinian civilians there in 1982.

But Ari Folman, who as a 19-year-old soldier fired some of the flares, makes their descent through the sky over Beirut's beachfront one of the recurring images of Waltz With Bashir, his "animated documentary" that premiers in Britain this week.

In Israel, the film has rekindled discussion about the divisive invasion of Lebanon that was initially billed by Ariel Sharon, who was defence minister at the time, as a limited push to halt PLO rocket attacks, and the extent of Israeli responsibility for the Sabra and Shatila massacre where the estimated number of victims ranged from 700 to more than 3,000. Folman has said he had no idea the massacre was being committed when he shot the flares.

The killings by Phalangist militiamen dispatched into the camps by Israel came after their leader, Bashir Gemayel, president-elect of Lebanon, was assassinated in a bombing wrongly blamed on Palestinians. An Israeli state commission of inquiry set up as a result of a tide of public protest in the massacre's wake found that Mr Sharon, today comatose from a stroke nearly three years ago, bore "personal responsibility" for not having foreseen the danger that the Phalangists would commit the slaughter. He was forced to give up the defence portfolio, something that did not prevent him from being elected as premier in 2001 and re-elected in 2003. Lebanon, for its part, has never seriously investigated the massacre.

The film has been widely acclaimed in Israel. One reviewer, Eitan Weitz, writing for the website Parshan (Commentator), termed it "required viewing" for those aged 16 and 17 nearing their mandatory military service, for army reservists in their thirties and for mothers of soldiers. But not everyone is happy about the film's screening abroad. Gerald Steinberg, a political scientist at Bar Ilan University with right-of-centre views, voiced concern even though he has not seen the film. "The Israeli audience knows the atrocities were committed by Lebanese Christian militiamen and can sort out how much responsibility is ours and how much is theirs. Foreign audiences will be blaming Israel for everything and this could reinforce that."

A flaw in the movie is that it gives the impression that the massacre lasted only one night and was stopped the following morning. It began the evening of 16 September 1982 and ended on 18 September. Some Israeli viewers say Folman lets Israel off too easily. "The Israeli soldiers are shown as being good, as being people who are tormented by what is going on," says Ronit Shpiner, 35, a psychologist from Jerusalem. "Ultimately, the moral responsibility is taken off of them even though those who saw the slaughter should have stopped it."

She added: "The movie depicts the soldiers as the victims of the massacre because they were traumatised by it." A bartender, Lidya Ophir, 26, said: "I think the movie is saying that probably the Israeli army is just as responsible as the people with the guns inside the camps."

Folman says the movie aims to dissuade young people from fighting in wars. "I hope that young people, when they watch Waltz With Bashir will see how stupid all wars are, a useless idea, a creation of tiny little leaders with big egos," he wrote in an email response to The Independent. "They will see in Waltz With Bashir that there is no glory in war, no bravery in war, nothing. They will never want to be the guy in the movie. And that is unlike a lot of American anti-war movies, where they show you that war sucks, but the guys in the movie are so cool."

Mr Sharon is shown only briefly in the film, wolfing down steak and eggs, his nose twitching as he talks on the phone to the Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin and to a commander in Lebanon.

His former spokesman, Raanan Gissin, takes issue with the depiction. "He never gave orders while eating," he said. Mr Gissin denied Israel had any responsibility in the killings, saying they were "probably a Syrian-instigated plot" and recalled a statement by Mr Sharon that the inquiry's findings put "a mark of Cain" on Israel's forehead.

For many people, the most powerful part of the film is the recollection by an Israeli journalist Ron Ben-Ishai of a conversation he had with Mr Sharon during the massacre. Mr Ben-Ishai, stationed in Beirut as Israel Television's war correspondent, had heard from army officers at a dinner he hosted that a massacre was being committed. Disturbed by the reports, he called Mr Sharon at his ranch in southern Israel but the defence minister showed little interest and did not act to stop it. Regarding Israel's degree of responsibility, Mr Ben-Ishai says: "It is like the Allies in the Second World War who could have stopped the slaughter in the death camps but didn't."

For the Israeli historian Gershom Gorenberg, the movie brought back memories of the protest in which he participated to press Mr Begin to implement the inquiry commission's findings. "The fact that under public pressure Israel created a commission of inquiry and Sharon was dismissed indicates there was a significant degree of a country insisting on an accounting," Mr Gorenberg said. "The movie raises for us the question of whether that accounting went far enough."

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