Sabra and Shattila Thirty Years On
Not Forgotten... but still waiting for justice
The Pope arrived in Lebanon last weekend. He met with President Michael Suleiman, and at an open air mass on Sunday he called on young people to work for peace and "love one another". It was not the first papal visit (Pope John Paul came before), but with the carnage in neighbouring Syria, his message was linked to that. He took the opportunity to condemn the supply of arms as a sin.
What neither Benedict nor many commentators remarked upon was the bloody massacre which took place near where he was preaching, thirty years ago. A slaughter in which the chief perpetrators were supposed to be Christians, adherants in fact of the Maronite Church which is in communion with the Roman Catholic church. So probably were some of their victims, though most were Moslems.
It was on September 16, 1982, that Christian Phalangist forces, backed by their Israeli allies, went into Sabra and Shattila refugee camps, which had grown up like a Palestinian town within Beirut. The occasion was said to be the assassination two days before of newly elected Lebanese president Bashir Gemayel, leader of the Kataeb (Phalange) party which, in Lebanon's religious-fractured politics relied on the Maronites' support.
It was doubtful that Palestinians had anything to do with the killing, but it made do as a pretext, just as the attempt on Israeli ambassador Shlomo Argov in London, arranged by the Abu Nidal group, was used by the Israeli government as its excuse to invade Lebanon and attempt to destroy the PLO.
It was after the PLO had withdrawn its forces and weapons from West Beirut, entrusting the safety of its people to international agreements and promises from the United States, that the onslaught on the camps was begun. Israeli troops were in control of West Beirut, and therefore under international law responsible for the fate of the civilian population. And responsible they were, in that they cordoned off Sabra and Chatila, and unleashed the killers to go in, firing flare shells over head to light their way through narrow alleys. General Ariel Sharon was there to watch the operation proceed.
Besides the Israelis and Phalangists, units of the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army were said to be there. Elie Hobeika, the Lebanese forces intelligence chief, is said to have given orders for the killings to "the Young Men", a gang recruited from men dismissed from the army for criminal activity. Hobeika went on to become an MP and hold ministerial positions.
At first the people did not know what was happening, and when they did there was nowhere to hide. Their shelters had already been reconnoitred. In one of them, 12 year old Munir was with his mother and sister.
“The killers arrived at the door of the shelter and yelled for everyone to come out. Men who they found were lined up against the wall outside. They were immediately machine gunned.” As Munir watched, the killers left to kill other groups and then suddenly returned and opened fire on everyone, and all fell to the ground. Munir lay quietly not knowing if his mother and sisters were dead. Then he heard the killers yelling: “If any of you are injured, we’ll take you to the hospital. Don’t worry. Get up and you’ll see.” A few did try to get up or moaned and they were instantly shot in the head.
Munir remembered: “Even though it was light out due to the Israeli flares over Shatila, the killers used bright flash lights to search the darkened corners. The killers were looking in the shadows”. Suddenly Munir’s mother’s body seemed to shift in the mound of corpses next to him. Munir thought she might be going to get up since the killers promised to take anyone still alive to the hospital. Munir whispered to her: “Don’t get up mother, they’re lying”. And Munir stayed motionless all night barely daring to breath, pretending to be dead.
Umm Ali was in her forties when the massacre took place.
The orgy of savagery and murder went on for three days and nights. The most conservative estimate of the death toll was about 800, but others such as Israeli journalist Amnon Kapeliuk reckoned at least two thousand bodies were found amid the ruins."The militiamen made us all sit down on the bodies of people who had already been killed. My daughter turned to me and told me that the body she was sitting on was cold. The men dragged us to our feet and made us walk. They tried to take my daughter but I refused to let them, shouting that we were surrendereing and they couldn't harm us.I thought they might have been Jewish, so I started shouting that I came from a village the Jews call Rosh Pinah in northern Palestine, I started to shout at them that we lived with Jews in Rosh Pina. An israeli soldier heard what was going on and came over. he asked me why I was talking about Rosh Pina to this man. He told me that the man was not an Israeli but a Kitaeb (Phalangist), and the soldier took my daughter from him and brought her back to me.
The militiaman who had been trying to take my daughter got angry at this, and took a pregnant woman. I saw him kill her and then cut the baby from her stomach before stamping on it. "
This survivor Umm Ali's account is from a pamphlet produced this week by Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP). Swee Chai Ang, a doctor who was in Sabra and Shattila's Gaza hospital when the massacre took place founded MAP after coming to the UK. Together with American Jewish nurse Ellen Siegel, Swee also went to Jerusalem to testify before the Israeli government's Kahane Commission. This Commission declared in early 1983 that Israeli military personnel had been aware a massacre was taking place and not taken serious steps to stop it. It held Ariel Sharon personally responsible for having let the right-wing Christian militias enter the camps, knowing the consequences. .
This damning indictment did not prevent Sharon from resuming his political career and coming back as Prime Minister. (Nor did the accusation that Sharon had misled prime minister Menahem Begin into approving what he thought was a limited operation in Lebanon, while planning to make it all out war and take his tanks into Beirut). It says something about Israeli politics.
Attempts by survivors to bring a war crimes case against Sharon through the Belgian courts were unuccessful, perhaps because the Belgian authorities came under pressure from the United States as well as Israel.
Writing in the New York Times on Monday, Seth Anziska points to a wider context of responsibility: While Israel’s role in the massacre has been closely examined, America’s actions have never been fully understood. This summer, at the Israel State Archives, I found recently declassified documents that chronicle key conversations between American and Israeli officials before and during the 1982 massacre. The verbatim transcripts reveal that the Israelis misled American diplomats about events in Beirut and bullied them into accepting the spurious claim that thousands of “terrorists” were in the camps. Most troubling, when the United States was in a position to exert strong diplomatic pressure on Israel that could have ended the atrocities, it failed to do so. As a result, Phalange militiamen were able to murder Palestinian civilians, whom America had pledged to protect just weeks earlier.
Victims and survivors still waiting for justice:
A massacre that could have been prevented:
Ellen Siegel's letter to survivors:
And more on the massacre: