Remembering Fearless Israeli Journalist Kapeliouk

By Franklin Lamb – Beirut

Amnon Kapeliouk, an Israeli Jew, was an extraordinary journalist. Sadly, he died on June 26 at the age of 78 and was buried near his birthplace in West Jerusalem. For more than 40 years Kapeliouk reported on Palestinian and Arab affairs for half a dozen newspapers and was a pro from the old school for whom reporting meant getting to the scene fast and carefully scribing with pencil and notepad.

I knew Kapeliouk mainly through his writings and a dozen or so encounters over the years following our first improbable encounter during the infamous Beirut summer of 1982. Those months of US-armed Israeli carnage, which continue to shape the region, left him with an indelible scar.  He once told me: “I can’t forget. It doesn’t fade. I don’t think it ever will.” I understood what he meant.

In his last communication he said he would try to attend the 27th Anniversary Memorial to the victims of the Sabra-Shatila Massacre, set for this coming September 16-18 at Beirut’s Shatila Camp.

I thought about Amnon Kapeliouk a couple of weeks ago while giving one of my twice weekly swimming lessons to a gaggle of  ‘Hezkids’ (children from Dahiyeh) and ‘Palkids’ (Palestinian children from nearby Shatila, Mar Elias, and Burj Barajeneh Refugee Camps) because it was near the same spot on Beirut’s Ramlet al Baida beach where Kapeliouk and I  first met.

It was an unusual first encounter. I had left my room at the Beau Rivage Hotel where Kapeliouk, (who I had never heard of) was also staying, to go for an early morning swim at the nearby beach. The PLO used to put up guests (their media office got a cut rate of $10 per night) at the Beau Rivage because it was near their Fakhani offices and within their security zone. Amnon had decided to take a walk on the beach and, as he later told me, was just a couple of hundred meters behind me ‘sur la plage’ when he witnessed a Class A Felony.

As I was approaching the nearly deserted shore, a young masked al-Mourabitoun fighter appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, and put a .45 caliber pistol to my head and demanded my money. I gave him all I had ($5). He asked me in broken English where I was from and we started talking politics which, from my experience, nearly all militia types like to do. Before long, the young man learned that my political views were close to his and he apologized, removed his face mask (a wrapped red colored al-Mourabitoun flag) which the rapidly intensifying morning sun must have made uncomfortable, returned my $5, and we continued our discussions as the French-Israeli journalist happened upon us. 

As Kapeliouk approached, with the gunman (Mohammad) still holding his pistol, he coolly joined our conversation and we were soon invited for tea in the nearby Mourabitoun cafe near the north end of the beach. The Nasserite Maurabitoun movement was pro-Arafat — Fatah paid each fighter $200 per month – Sunni. In those days there was no Sunni-Shia strife in Lebanon that anyone talked about and they were good hosts and  produced  plastic stools for Kapeliouk and me and served sweet tea with fresh mint optional.

Amnon noticed a couple of the young men were snickering and asked what they found so amusing. With a grin, they showed us. The lids of our round plastic stools were removable and as we stood up to look inside at their suggestion we saw each was filled with  probably two dozen sticks of dynamite which, they  explained, were used for ‘ stun fishing’ and to keep rival militia at bay. Mohammad, still ashamed, explained that the only reason he robbed me was that his had overslept and missed his fishing run which usually brought him $25 per day, and he needed cigarettes until payday. All was forgiven.

By evening I was in Mohammad’s house having dinner with his widowed mother and young siblings in Shatila Camp talking about Palestine while Kapeliouk went off to a PLO appointment. Whenever I saw Amnon after that the first thing he would ask: “Been robbed lately Lamb?"

Kapeliouk was an intense and indefatigable shoe-leather reporter with encyclopedic knowledge about the Palestine National Movement, Zionism, and the Israeli occupation of Arab lands. He no doubt loved his country, as most of us love ours, but he was a severe critic of what he saw as its hijacking by extremists who he thought may well destroy it. Like many journalists he had certain subjects that most interested him and that he covered regularly. A few come to mind.

The Israeli Army: “The army no longer represents the Israeli people (religious exemptions have narrowed its conscript basis), while the people have lost confidence in the army. It has grown used to being an army of occupation and a police force for the settler movement, not to fighting wars, especially unwarranted wars.” (Le Monde Diplomatique, November 2007)

Camp David 2000: “This was the most important meeting between the Israelis and Palestinians since the 1993 Oslo accords. The crucial questions of refugees and Jerusalem, as well as settlements and land, were to be debated. But the meeting was always doomed to failure due to lack of serious preparation.”

Kapeliouk quoted Arafat: "In this same room, not long before the Camp David invitations were issued, I told Madeleine Albright in the clearest possible terms that such an important meeting was doomed to failure without proper preparation."

“Speaking in his Ramallah office the day after he got back from the 11-25 July 2000 summit, Yasser Arafat was adamant. He thought he had convinced the United States secretary of state of the need to take more time preparing the groundwork. But Albright allowed herself to be persuaded by the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, and advised Clinton to get the parties together quickly.” (Le Monde Diplomatique, September 2000)

Israeli racism and Colonization of Palestine: “The immigration of Jews to the "promised land" has always been the cornerstone of Zionism. Now the ultra-orthodox religious parties that are helping keep Benyamin Netanyahu in power are demanding sole control over conversions to Judaism. But two-thirds of the Diaspora are not orthodox. And in the powerful Jewish community of the United States, the figure rises to 90 per cent. This makes life difficult for Mr. Netanyahu. It also raises the question of the changing nature of immigration into Israel, and of its diverse origins and separate communities."

“In the last few years there has been the unprecedented phenomenon of the wide-scale arrival of non-Jewish workers. Some 300,000 East Europeans, Asians and Africans fill unqualified, poorly-paid jobs, until now reserved for the Palestinians. These latter-day slaves are miserably housed. But what bothers the guardians of the "purity of the race" is the fact that they are not Jews. Their worry is that sooner or later they will integrate into the country through marriage and naturalization. Their voices will perhaps be heard one day in Israel’s pluralist concert. In the meantime, it is nationalism and intolerance that reign. When will Israel become the state of all its citizens and transform itself into a multicultural society in which all its communities, Jewish and non-Jewish, can live in harmony?” (Le Monde Diplomatique, November 1997)

Israel Settlers: "You thorns in our side, your colonial enterprise is coming to an end and you can all go back to Israel." Palestinian officials say this is the message of the Aqsa Intifada to the 200,000 Jewish settlers living in the West Bank and Gaza. The settlers should not be under any illusion that the Palestinians would agree to Israel annexing the settlements that are ruining the territorial continuity of their future state” (Le Monde Diplomatique, January 2001.)

Kapeliouk devoted four years to writing ‘Arafat l’irreductible’ (the indomitable), the most exhaustive biography as of 2004 of the Palestinian leader and, I think, the best one although I have not yet  read Bassam Abu Sharif’s  just released volume,  ‘Arafat and the Dream of Palestine: An Insider’s Account. Kapeliouk’s is a sympathetic book about one of the founding and sustaining forces behind the Palestine National Movement. He describes Arafat, the man Israel and the United States worked so hard to sideline in peace negotiations, as the Palestinian equivalent of French hero of World War II and former president Charles de Gaulle:

"Arafat’s name, as De Gaulle’s, is indissolubly linked to the national cause of his people," he wrote, having gained many insights from privileged information “the old man” gave him during some 150-200 interviews over nearly three decades.

His first interview was in Beirut during the siege of 1982 for Kapeliouk’s then employer, the Israeli newspaper Al HaMishmar (“On Guard”) founded during the British Mandate in 1943. Al HaMishmar closed its doors in 1997 with its editor still apologizing to Amnon for the paper’s refusal to publish his first interview with Arafat, which the editor  admitted was scratched due solely to ‘the political climate at the time’. The climate included a raging and obsessed Ariel Sharon launching various half-baked schemes aimed at killing Arafat and Sharon’s bombasts and threats against any journal who would publish such an interview.  Kapeliouk, according to his wife Olga, took umbrage and quit Al HaMashmar in favor of the daily tabloid, Yedioth Aharonoth (‘Latest News’), which since the 1970’s  has been the most widely read in Israel. When Kapeliouk left Yedioth Aharonoth he joined Le Monde and Le Monde Diplomatique where he had always felt more at home, publishing his first article in January of 1969 and his last in March of this year.

Kapeliouk wrote several other books, including Rabin, un assassinat politique, Le Monde éditions, 1996, Hébron, un massacre annoncé, Arléa, 1994,Sabra et Chatila, enquête sur un massacre, Seuil, 1982, Israël, la fin des mythes, Albin Michel, 1975..

The volume that enormously impacted recent history was his 1982 work on the Sabra-Shatila Massacre, Sabra et Chatila: Enquete sur un massacre  which came out quickly just before Christmas in 1982, not quite three months after the slaughter.

Armed with a French dictionary (an English version came out the next year thanks to a Palestinian group in Washington) I studied his findings, which influenced my own book, (International Legal Responsibility for the Sabra-Shatila Massacre, Paris 1983.

Much more importantly, Kapeliouk’s detailed reporting short circuited the intensive Zionist campaign to bury the Israeli  crimes along with the approximately 3,500 butchered during 43 hours at Shatila Refugee Camp.

Following the entry into Shatila Camp by journalists and civil defense workers, groups such as the International Committee for the Red Cross, the Lebanese Red Cross, the Lebanese Civil Defense teams, various religious groups, NGOs and news agencies were heavily pressured to limit the numbers of those killed. Several succumbed to this pressure. What Kapeliouk achieved was to challenge the “final” name lists and low figures and pointed out three key categories of victims that were not being taken into account. He argued that the killers had in the course of the massacre, buried in numerous mass graves hundreds of victims which the Lebanese governments forbade to be examined. Secondly, Kapeliouk pointed out that victims that could not, without great difficulty, be brought out from the rubble of more than 200 houses torn down over their inhabitants (115 bodies from the houses were found on the first day and 56 on the second), after which the Lebanese ordered the search stopped, and this number he estimated to be in the hundreds. Thirdly, Kapeliouk, along with Janet Stevens, insisted that those camp inhabitants driven off in trucks and now missing (Agency France-Press estimated the number to be 2000, but Kapeliouk thought it more likely to be in the hundreds) should be investigated. Combining all three categories Kapeliouk and Stevens told this researcher and the public that the likely number was near 3,500, not the 470 number being suggested by some. Partly as a result of Kapeliouk’s work exposing the details of the Sabra-Shatila Massacre, two month later on December 16 1982, the United Nations General Assembly condemned the massacre and declared it to be an act of genocide by ninety-eight votes to nineteen, with twenty-three abstentions: all Western powers abstained from voting.

In addition to his journalism, Amnon Kapeliouk was one of the founders of B’Tselem (Hebrew for: “in the image of”. The word is taken from Genesis 1:27 “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them”), the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories which was established in 1989 by a group of prominent academics, attorneys, journalists, and Knesset members.

Kapeliouk insisted that B’Tselem’s work was to document and educate the Israeli public and policymakers about human rights violations in the Occupied Territories, and to combat the phenomenon of denial prevalent among the Israeli public. As a Board Member, Kapeliouk worked on B’Tselem’s August 2007 seminal study, “Ground to a Halt: The Denial of Palestinians’ Freedom of Movement in the West Bank” with its findings and descriptions of abuses and illegalities.

– Franklin Lamb is doing research in Beirut. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Contact him at: fplamb@sabrashatila.org.

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