For three days in September 1982, Israeli forces in collusion with the Lebanese Phalangist militia’s, slaughtered, raped and maimed a large number of unarmed civilians inside the encircled and sealed Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. As many as 3,000 innocent men, women and children were massacred, but to this day no one has been held accountable for this genocidal act.
For 40 hours in September 1982, members of the Israeli-allied Lebanese Phalangist militia raped, killed, and injured a large number of unarmed civilians, mostly children, women and elderly people inside the encircled and sealed Sabra and Shatila camps. The estimate of victims varies between 700 (the official Israeli figure) to 3,500.
On 6 June 1982, the Israeli army invaded Lebanon in retaliation for the attempted assassination of Israeli Ambassador Shlomo Argov in London on 4 June. The Israeli secret services had that same day attributed the attempted assassination to a dissident Palestinian organisation backed by the government of Iraq, which was at the time eager to deflect world attention from its recent setbacks in the Iran-Iraq war. The Israeli operation, planned well in advance, was called “Operation Peace for Galilee.”
Initially, the Israeli government had announced that its intention was to penetrate just 40km into Lebanese territory. The military command, however, under the orders of Defence Minister Ariel Sharon, decided to execute a more ambitious project that Sharon had prepared several months earlier. Having occupied the south of the country and destroyed any Palestinian and Lebanese resistance there, simultaneously committing a series of violations against the civilian population, Israeli troops proceeded to penetrate as far as Beirut. By 18 June 1982 they had surrounded the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s (PLO) armed forces in the western part of the Lebanese capital.
According to Lebanese statistics, the Israeli offensive, particularly the intensive shelling of Beirut, caused 18,000 deaths and 30,000 injuries, mostly among civilians.
After two months of fighting, a cease-fire was negotiated through the mediation of United States Envoy Philip Habib. Under the terms of these negotiations, the PLO was to evacuate Beirut under the supervision of a multinational force deployed in the evacuated part of the town. The Habib Accords envisaged that West Beirut would subsequently be under the control of the Lebanese army, and the Palestinian leadership was given guarantees by the Americans regarding the security of civilians in the camps after their departure.
The evacuation of the PLO ended on 1 September 1982.
On 10 September 1982, the multinational forces left Beirut. The next day, Sharon announced that “2,000 terrorists” had remained inside the Palestinian refugee camps around Beirut. On Wednesday 15 September, the day after the assassination of President-elect Bashir Gemayel, the Israeli army occupied West Beirut, “encircling and sealing” the camps of Sabra and Shatila, which were inhabited by Lebanese and Palestinian civilians, the entirety of armed resistors (more than 14,000 people) having evacuated Beirut and its suburbs.
Historians and journalists agree that it was probably during a meeting between Ariel Sharon and Bashir Gemayel in Bikfaya on 12 September that an agreement was made authorizing the “Lebanese forces” to “mop up” these Palestinian camps. Sharon had already announced, on 9 July 1982, his intention to send the Phalangist forces into West Beirut, and in his autobiography he confirms having negotiated the operation during his meeting with Gemayel in Bikfaya.
According to statements made by Ariel Sharon on 22 September 1982 in the Knesset (Israeli parliament), the decision that the Phalangists should enter the refugee camps was made on Wednesday, 15 September 1982 at 15.30. Also according to General Sharon, the Israeli Command had received the following instruction: “[t]he Tsahal forces are forbidden to enter the refugee camps. The ‘mopping-up’ of the camps will be carried out by the Phalanges or the Lebanese army.”
By dawn on 15 September 1982, Israeli fighter-bombers were flying low over West Beirut and Israeli troops had secured their entry. From 9 am, General Sharon was present to personally direct the Israeli penetration, installing himself in the general army area at the Kuwait embassy junction situated at the edge of Shatila camp. From the roof of this six-story building, it was possible to observe the town and the camps of Sabra and Shatila clearly.
By midday, the camps of Sabra and Shatila – in reality a single zone of refugee camps in the south of West Beirut – were surrounded by Israeli tanks and soldiers, who had installed checkpoints all around the camps in order to monitor the entry or exit of any person. During the late afternoon and evening, the camps were shelled.
By Thursday 16 September 1982, the Israeli army controlled West Beirut. In a press release, the Israeli military spokesperson declared, “Tsahal controls all strategic points in Beirut. The refugee camps, inside which there is a concentration of terrorists, are surrounded and sealed.” On the morning of 16 September, the following order was issued by the army high command: ” [t]he searching and mopping up of the camps will be done by the Phalangists/Lebanese army.”
During the course of the morning, shells were being fired down at the camps from higher elevations and Israeli snipers were shooting at people in the streets. By approximately midday, the Israeli military command gave the Phalangist militia the green light to enter the refugee camps. Shortly after 5pm, a unit of approximately 150 Phalangists entered Shatila camp from the south and south-west.
At this point, General Amir Drori telephoned Ariel Sharon and announced, “Our friends are advancing into the camps. We have co-ordinated their entry.” To which Sharon replied, “Congratulations! Our friends’ operation is approved.”
For the next 40 hours the Phalangist militia raped, killed, and injured a large number of unarmed civilians, mostly children, women and elderly people inside the “encircled and sealed” camps. These actions, accompanied or followed by systematic roundups, backed or reinforced by the Israeli army, resulted in dozens of disappearances.
The Israeli army had full knowledge of what was going on in the camps right up until the morning of Saturday 18 September 1982, and its leaders were in continuous contact with the militia leaders who perpetrated the massacre. Yet they never intervened. Instead, they prevented civilians from escaping the camps and arranged for the camps to be illuminated throughout the night by flares launched into the sky from helicopters and mortars.
The count of victims varies between 700 (the official Israeli figure) and 3,500 (in the inquiry launched by the Israeli journalist Amnon Kapeliouk). The exact figure can never be determined because, in addition to the approximately 1,000 people who were buried in communal graves by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) or in the cemeteries of Beirut by members of their families, a large number of corpses were buried beneath bulldozed buildings by the militia members themselves. Also, particularly on 17 and 18 September, hundreds of people were carried away alive in trucks towards unknown destinations, never to return.
The victims and survivors of the massacres have never been deemed entitled to a formal investigation of the tragedy, whether in Lebanon, Israel, or elsewhere. After 400,000 Israelis took to the streets in protest once news of the massacre was broadcast by the international media, the Israeli parliament (Knesset) named a commission of inquiry, to be presided over by Yitzhak Kahan, in September 1982. In spite of the limitations of the Commission’s mandate (limited because it was a political rather than a judicial mandate and because the voices and demands of the victims were completely ignored), the Commission concluded that the Minister of Defence was personally responsible for the massacres.
Upon the insistence of the Commission, and the demonstrations that followed its report, Sharon resigned from his post of Minister of Defence but remained in the government as Minister without Portfolio. It is worth noting that during the Peace Now demonstration immediately prior to Sharon’s “resignation,” demonstrators were attacked with grenades, resulting in the death of a young demonstrator.
Several non-official inquiries and reports, including those of Sean MacBride and of the Nordic Commission, based mainly on the testimony of western eyewitnesses, as well as other pieces of journalistic and historical research, have assembled vital pieces of information.
Despite evidence of what the UN Security Council described as a “criminal massacre,” and the ranking of the Sabra and Shatila massacres in humankind’s collective memory as among the most heinous crimes of the 20th century, the man found “personally responsible” for this crime, as well as his associates and the people who carried out the massacres, have never been pursued or punished. In fact the warlord Ariel Sharon was proudly rewarded for his actions with the Premiership of his country and was welcomed into the White House with open arms, as a man of peace.
In 1984, Israeli journalists Schiff and Ya’ari concluded their chapter on the massacre with this sobering reflection: “If there is a moral to the painful episode of Sabra and Shatila, it has yet to be acknowledged.” The reality of this impunity remains true to this day.
The United Nations Security Council condemned the massacre with Resolution 521 (19 September 1982). This condemnation was followed by a 16 December 1982 General Assembly resolution qualifying the massacre as an “act of genocide.”
The perpetual acts of genocide carried out in the 28 years since Sabra and Shatilla are countless. Ask yourself how many more have died, how many more have been butchered under the tracks of armoured caterpillar bulldozers, been picked off by snipers, or been blown to pieces by missiles fired from Israeli helicopters.
The truth of the matter is that the blood of the Palestinians is cheap and plentiful, there are no remembrance ceremonies for those who died, no ringing of any bells, no remembrance of the fathers, mothers, sons and daughters, whose lives were taken in such a savage and brutal manner.
Originally posted September 19 2009.