An event the U.N. deemed an act of genocide is apparently not worth including in the American narrative of Middle Eastern history.
Between Sept. 16 and Sept. 18, 1982, between 762 and 3,500 Palestinian and Lebanese civilians — most of whom were women, children and the elderly — were raped, tortured, killed and mutilated in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut, Lebanon. The killings were carried out as retaliation for the assassination of Lebanese President Bachir Gemayel, the head of the Kataeb Party, also known as the Lebanese Maronite Christian Phalange. His assassination was erroneously attributed to Palestinian militants; it is now widely accepted that Lebanese militants with ties to Syria were actually responsible for the killing.
To this day, the Sabra and Shatila massacre remains a noticeable and unforgettable slight against humanity in the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Despite this, it is little talked about in the West. Most of the major media outlets refused coverage of the massacre’s anniversary and it is rarely discussed in official circles — if ever.
Israeli Defense Forces, the South Lebanon Army and the Phalangists invaded Palestine Liberation Organization allegedly-held territory in Lebanon with the intention of rooting out the PLO. The PLO actually had withdrawn from Lebanon weeks prior to the Israeli attempt to “flush out the PLO,” after battles in West Beirut under the supervision of the Multinational Force, a Western armed peacekeeping force in Lebanon at the time. The Israeli took advantage of this to push through the now-defenseless Muslim communities. The Israeli taking of West Beirut allowed the “Young Men” — a gang of former Lebanese Forces soldiers that were expelled for insubordination or criminality, under the command of then-Lebanese Forces intelligence chief Elie Hobeika — to actually perform the killings. The Israeli troops surrounded the perimeter, preventing anyone from escaping the slaughter.
It was felt that Hobeika agreed to do this in revenge for the murder of his family and fiancee at the Damour massacre of 1976, which was undertaken by the Palestinians and their Lebanese allies. The Damour massacre itself was a response to an earlier Christian militant massacre of Palestinian and Lebanese Muslims.
“I am not a war criminal,” Hobeika said to the Telegraph in 2001. “I was a man of war because I had to be a man of war; 200,000 people other than me did it. There was a war. It was not me against the Lebanese population. It was everybody there. I survived it, maybe, but that’s good for me.”
Voices from the massacre
Siham Balqis, a Shatila resident, was 26 at the time of the massacre. “We heard gunshots on Thursday night, but didn’t think anything of it, because it was the war and this was not an unusual sound for us,” she told Al Jazeera. Living at the Shatila end of the two camps, she said men began in Sabra and worked their way northwards. “They didn’t reach us until Saturday morning.”
At 7 A.M., three Phalangists and an Israeli ordered her to leave her house. “One of the Lebanese launched forward to attack me, but the Israeli pulled him off me, as if to show he was the better of the two,” she remembered. A neighbor confronted the soldiers, accusing them of slaughtering innocent people. The soldiers denied these claims, and — believing that the soldiers’ intentions were benevolent — the neighbor asked the soldiers to help the Palestinians holed up in the Gaza Hospital.
The soldiers ordered the doctors and nurses — who were primarily foreign or Lebanese — out of the building. “I remember there was one Palestinian boy from the Salem family, in his early 20s, who donned a doctor’s coat to try and escape,” Balqis said. “The Lebanese caught him, realised he was Palestinian, and pumped his body full of bullets.”
“We were made to walk over the dead bodies, and among cluster bombs,” Balqis said. “At one point I passed a tank, where the body of a baby only a few days old was stuck to the wheel.”
“It was here [at the stadium] the Israelis took my brother Salah, who was 30-years-old, for interrogation,” she said. He was interrogated, tortured and killed.
Jameel Khalifa was 16 at the time of the massacre. “On Saturday morning, we saw [fighters] climbing down the sand bank and heading for the houses,” she also told Al Jazeera. “We saw the tanks coming in, on them were Israeli soldiers and Lebanese fighters, some in civilian clothes, some with masks on.”
Most of Khalifa’s family was able to escape to a shelter by the time the soldiers reached her door. Upon hearing from the soldiers that they would not shoot if they surrendered, an old woman tore her white scarf into flags, handed them out and headed out the shelter. As Khalifa’s mother followed, a Lebanese soldier shoved his rifle into her stomach and screamed, “I’m going to kill you, you, b****!”
“My father was coming out [of] the shelter behind my mother. As he stepped out, he was killed with a bullet to the head by an Israeli soldier,” Khalifa said.
Afterwards, no one believed that anything about the massacre actually happened. “We came across a group of elderly folk sitting outside the mosque, and told them the Israelis had come and were killing people. They didn’t believe us, called us liars, and told us to leave them alone,” she said.
“We went back to see dead bodies explode as they were being removed because the Phalangists and Israelis placed mines underneath them,” she continued. “I remember the smell. It was so strong, and it stayed for a week, even though they sprayed the camp to get rid of it.”
It was reported that many of the bodies, after the massacre, were severely mutilated. Many of the boys had been castrated, and some were scalped. Some had crosses cut into their bodies. In a personal letter to her husband, Janet Lee Stevens, an American journalist, wrote, “I saw dead women in their houses with their skirts up to their waists and their legs spread apart; dozens of young men shot after being lined up against an alley wall; children with their throats slit, a pregnant woman with her stomach chopped open, her eyes still wide open, her blackened face silently screaming in horror; countless babies and toddlers who had been stabbed or ripped apart and who had been thrown into garbage piles.”
Condemnation and the denial of justice
In 1983, Israel’s Kahan Commission of Inquiry found that while no Israeli bore “direct responsibility” for the massacre, Israelis were “indirectly responsible” for the massacre. The commission also laid “personal responsibility” on Ariel Sharon, the then-defense minister, for failing to prevent the massacre. Sharon was reluctantly forced to resign his office — becoming a minister without portfolio — only later to become the minister of industry, trade and labour; the minister of housing and construction; the minister of energy and water resources and the minister of foreign affairs before becoming the 11th prime minister in 2001.
In 1982, the United Nations General Assembly declared the massacre an act of genocide, condemning Israel “in the strongest terms the large-scale massacre of Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps” — over the objections of the United States and Canada. The resolution, however, was never taken up by the Security Council for punishment against Israel. After Israel declined to adhere to Security Council resolution 497, which in 1981 called for Israel to rescind its claim to the Golan Heights, the United States made clear its intention to not impose punitive measures against Israel, forming a de facto veto on any future sanction resolution.
In 2001, Sharon was sued in Belgian court by survivors of the massacre on the basis that Sharon had command responsibility of Israeli troops at the time of the attack.
“In international law, command responsibility — also known as indirect responsibility — is more severe than the direct responsibility of those who actually do the killing,” said Chibli Mallat, one of three lawyers representing the plaintiffs. “Whether in the Yugoslav massacres or in Germany or Japan in World War II, those who sat at the top, often miles away from the death camps, are more responsible than those who pulled the trigger.”
The case was dismissed in 2003, as none of the plaintiffs were Belgian citizens and the court ruled it did not have the jurisdictional right to pass judgment on this case.
At the end, no one received any punishment for this act against humanity, besides a few statements of condemnation. This situation, ultimately, represents a “complication” in the narrative the West — particularly, the United States — wishes to cultivate about Israel. How can Israel be seen sympathetically when the U.N. has condemned the nation as the genocidal killer of children, women, the elderly and the infirmed? While it can be argued by some that anniversaries are not necessarily newsworthy, there seems to be a great deal of nostalgia about another anniversary of violence — the recent remembrance of the terrorist attacks at the Munich Summer Olympics.
The way the world remembers
“Some editors argue that anniversaries are by themselves not newsworthy,” wrote Ali Abunimah for the Electronic Intifada. He continued:
National Public Radio’s Foreign Editor, Loren Jenkins, observed that “every day is an anniversary of something … You cover a story when there is something new to say, not just when there is an anniversary.” If all media organizations applied this principle, then there would be little cause to complain, or at least if all anniversaries were treated equally. But this September 5-6 was the thirtieth anniversary of the murder of eleven Israeli athletes after they were taken hostage by a Palestinian group at the 1972 Munich Olympics. In marked contrast to this week’s Sabra and Shatila anniversary, the Munich anniversary received blanket coverage.
The list of newspapers that carried the dozens of stories, features and opinion pieces on the events in Munich includes, but is not limited to The Los Angeles Times, Newsday, The San Diego Union-Tribune, The Miami Herald, The Kansas City Star, The Orlando Sentinel, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, The Rocky Mountain News, USA Today, The Tampa Tribune, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, and The New York Times.
While many of this week’s reports and commentaries made the connection between the September 5-6, 1972 attack on the Israeli athletes, and the September 11, 2001 attack on the Twin Towers, we could find no commentary making a connection between either of these incidents and the deliberate murder of up to thousands of men, women and children in Sabra and Shatila. Perhaps that is for the best, as each of these events ought to stand uniquely on its own terms. But if there is a connection between an event in which eleven innocent people died in Munich and one where more than 3,000 died in New York and Washington just because the events occurred in September, then surely there must be a connection with the deaths of unknown thousands in Beirut? You would think so, except as so often with much in the US media, when the victims are Palestinians and the murderers are Israelis or the allies they armed, trained and protected, a different set of standards applies.
In the American psyche, there tends to be a need to divide the world into extremes — good versus bad, black versus white, righteous versus evil. The reality is that few things can be so cleanly delineated — the world is full of shades of gray. Those that have been called “good guys” tend to have blood on their hands, and the “bad guys” are usually the ones that speak of peace.
Justice for the victims of this massacre may never come. But hiding from the truth of what happened in 1982 is a greater slight. As the situation in the Middle East worsens and the political situation continues to shift, it is essential to know the truth and to recognize and remember what has happened. Only through this can the repetition of history be avoided.