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Who Crushed Fatah?

In response to:

Begin vs. Begin from the May 31, 1979 issue

To the Editors:

Professor Avishai refers to “the Syrian army’s murderous crushing of Fatah at the Tel-a-Zaatar refugee camp in early 1977” in his article, “Begin vs. Begin” (NYR, May 31). The “murderous crushing” was actually carried out by the Christian militias of Lebanon. In other words, Israeli-supplied arms in the hands of Maronite youth did most of the killing at Tel-a-Zaatar.

Syria’s principal contribution (one of many) to the brutalizing of Lebanese life was the subsequent shelling of the Christian quarter of Ashrifiyah. If so many had to die so tragically at Tel-a-Zaatar, how sad it is that Professor Avishai’s version was not in fact correct. Then Ashrifiyah could have completed the process of discrediting the Syrian occupation masquerading as part of the “Arab Deterrent Force,” a US-inspired mechanism. Together with the American failure to restrain Israeli interference in Lebanese affairs, the “ADF” illustrates the bankruptcy and mindlessness of American policy on Lebanon, a country which deserves so much better of us.

The only other blemish on a perceptive, important article was the remarkable assertion that somehow the Egyptian army has served as the protector of Saudi Arabia’s King Khalid. That will be news not only to the House of Saud, but to Egyptian commanders who served on the Eastern Front in 1956, 1967, and (after a few moments of well-deserved exultation) 1973.

Joseph J. Malone

Middle East Research Associates

Washington, DC

Bernard Avishai replies:

The Syrian Ba’athists regard Lebanon (and Palestine) as provinces of Greater Syria. They have never required American “inspiration” to do so. President Assad intervened in Lebanon mainly to reverse the early military success of Fatah in league with the “leftist” units (mostly Moslem) which had split off from the disintegrated Lebanese army. He wants to dominate rival powers in Lebanon, and later turned on the Christian militias for the same reasons he had unleashed them on the Palestinians. What Mr. Malone does not say is that the Syrian army had the Tel-a-Zaatar camp under virtual siege when Camille Chamoun’s “Tigers” attacked—not only with Israeli arms. The Syrians blocked all escape routes in the rear of the camp and about 1,500 Palestinians died. Fatah spokesmen have often referred to Tel-a-Zaatar as Syria’s counterpart to Hussein’s “Black September.”

President Nasser died in 1970. Since then Sadat’s explicit and implicit commitment to help protect the Saudi’s interests in the Gulf have been a matter of record and should not come as news to the Middle East Research Associates.

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