When an event gains serious infamy, it is often enough to merely mention its location, and people will understand which event you mean. Today marks the 35th anniversary of the massacres at Sabra and Shatila, one of the bloodiest incidents in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Sabra, a neighbourhood in West Beirut, and Shatila, a refugee camp adjacent to it, would host the bloody murder of between 1,000 and 3,000, mainly Palestinian, men, women and children. That the massacres took place in Lebanon highlights the truly regional nature of the conflict.
By 1982, Lebanon was 7 long years into its gruesome civil-war. While the war had begun with fighting between Palestinian militants and Maronite Christian militias, the country’s various other ethnic, political, and religious groups soon after took sides, enmeshing the mosaic country into a long-drawn out conflict that pitted neighbour against neighbour. Lebanon had hosted many Palestinian refugees since the Nabka of 1948, taking in an initial 100,000, with the number having risen significantly prior to Israel’s invasion in 1982. Israel entered Southern Lebanon in June of 1982, and by September, Israeli forces had reached as far as Beirut.
While he always denied accusations that he had asked Israel to invade Lebanon, Christian Phalangist leader Bachir Gemayel was open about his pleasure in this invasion, remarking that, ‘Definitely for us, this was the only way to finish with all the problems”. By the time Israel had invaded he commanded a personal army of 25,000 Christian militiamen, who had been warring against Palestinian, Muslim, and Leftist factions since the beginning of the Civil War. On September 15th, 2 days before the massacres, Gemayel was assassinated by a bomb blast at his party’s office in East Beirut. His Phalangist followers were livid, and quickly set forth a plan to satisfy their thirst for a bloody revenge. Despite not knowing who had carried out the assassination, a mystery that has not been resolved to this day, the Phalangists took aim the Palestinians.
In the days leading up to the massacre, Israeli tanks had stormed many positions in West Beirut. Israeli troops encircled the camps at Sabra and Shatila, preventing the inhabitants from leaving; Israeli positions overlooked the camps, and they had control over all who entered and left the camp. On September 16th, Phalangist militiamen were allowed entry into the camps, and proceed to round up the camps’ men, women and children.
Survivors of the massacre describe being accosted by Phalangist and Israeli troops, being forced from their homes where they were grouped together for further inspection. Siham Balqis, who was 26 at the time of the massacre, described seeing Palestinian men being forced to crawl, presumably in order to assess who had been given military training. Those who crawled “well” were taken behind a sandbank and shot. Siham also describes seeing the body of a very young baby stuck to the wheel of a tank.
Another survivor, Wadha Sabeq, recounts the murder of 15 men from her family, including her 2 sons and her brother. On trying to find out their fate, she found herself at the sports stadium where many men had been taken, “You couldn’t look at the faces of the bodies, they were covered in blood and disfigured…You could only identify people by the clothes they were wearing…I couldn’t find my sons, none of my family…We never found their bodies”. Other eye-witnesses reported seeing Israeli and Phalangists putting mines under dead bodies, turning their remains to smithereens; a horrific explanation as to why some families were denied the closure of burying a body.
On the 18th of September, the Israeli army finally ordered the Phalangist militiamen out of the camp. They left behind thousands of dead, mainly civilians, as well as countless victims of trauma and rape, many of whom will still be suffering the results of these 3 days to this day.
Being Held to Account
To this day, no one has been put to trial for their role in the massacres. Journalist Robert Fisk describes the massacre as, “a memorial to criminals who evaded responsibility, who got away with it”. Some claim that the responsibility for the massacres lies at the feet of then-Defence Minister, Ariel Sharon. Indeed, Israel’s own Kahan Commission into the massacre found him responsible, and he lost his job as a result. However, this would not stop him becoming Israeli Prime Minister in 2001, and playing a key role in igniting the 2nd Intifada. It is also worth noting that the Jewish Virtual Library reports that 300,000 Israeli marched to protest the killings, again highlighting the reality that within Israel, as within all countries, exists a range of attitudes and convictions towards the conflict and more significantly, towards the way Palestinian life is valued.
Remembering the Victims
We always seem to be quick to condemn mainstream media, and the way in which they focus on certain events over others. While these grievances are sound, and have been scientifically proven to be true, there is always a lot more to be gotten out of creating a new reality, rather than cursing things as they are. Let us find our dignity in remembering and honouring the victims of the Sabra and Shatila massacres; taking a moment out of our days to allow for a thought of remembrance, or a prayer of forgiveness, can help us add humanity to such a horrific event.