By Brigid Quirke.
On 16 September 1982, right-wing Lebanese militia entered two Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut. A three-day rampage ensued as the militia, linked to the Maronite Christian Phalange Party, dismembered, raped and killed hundreds, if not thousands, of civilians. Israeli flares illuminated their path. Most of those killed were women, children or elderly.
Official death counts vary, but estimates range between 460-3,500. The Palestinian Red Crescent declared 2,000 casualties.
Three months earlier, in June 1982, the Israel Defence Force (IDF) had invaded Lebanon with the intention of rooting out the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). The IDF soon besieged PLO-controlled areas in West Beirut, with intensive bombardments killing thousands of civilians. By August, the PLO had agreed to withdraw from the area, on the understanding that a US-brokered ceasefire agreement would guarantee protection of the remaining Palestinian refugees.
On 14 September, days after the last contingent of Palestinian fighters had left Lebanon, the country’s newly elected Maronite president, Bashir Gemayel, was assassinated. The Phalangists pointed blame at Palestinians, despite a lack of evidence. Habib Tanious Shartouni, a Christian Lebanese man, was later convicted for the assassination. On 15 September, the Israeli army surrounded the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in West Beirut.
In The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine, Rashid Khalidi described being “baffled” by the sight of flares across the sky on the evening of 16 September. He and his family had sought refuge at a university campus. Khalidi wrote that, “Armies normally use flares to illuminate a battlefield, but the ceasefire had been signed a month earlier, all the Palestinian fighters had left weeks ago”.
Khalidi later learned that the flares fired by the Israeli army had illuminated the camps for the Phalange militias, allowing them to enter and slaughter defenceless civilians.
Swee Chai Ang, a Singaporean doctor, was working in Beirut’s Gaza Hospital in Sabra and Shatila when the camps were attacked. In a BBC interview, she described the casualties she saw, “mainly women, with high velocity machine gun wounds”. She and hundreds of refugees sheltered in the hospital overnight, fearful for their lives.
The following day, Ang and other foreigners were forced out of the hospital at gunpoint, and taken through streets littered with dead bodies. She recalled looking at the face of a dead man on the path, to see if it was someone she knew, but “his eyes had been dug out”.
Siham Balqis, a resident of Shatila, was 26 years old at the time of the massacre. In an Al Jazeera interview, she described being forced by militiamen to walk over dead bodies to a nearby sports stadium, where Israeli soldiers were interrogating captured Palestinians. She recounted that, ”At one point I passed a tank, where the body of a baby only a few days old was stuck to the wheel”.
In 1983, an Israeli investigative commission, the Kahan Commission, concluded that Israeli leaders were “indirectly responsible” for the killings and that Ariel Sharon, the then-Israeli defence minister, bore “personal responsibility” for failing to prevent the atrocity.
Previously classified documents from the Israel State Archives, released in 2012, exposed even greater culpability than the 1983 report offered. They detail long-deliberated decisions by Sharon and others to send the militia into the refugee camps, with the aim of massacring and driving out Palestinians.
Israel was not only responsible for failing to prevent the atrocity—the state set up the conditions for it to occur in the first place.
The United States also failed to exert diplomatic pressure on Israel to prevent or stop the massacre, despite being aware of the plans.
The documents include a transcript of an exchange between US Special envoy Morris Draper and Israeli officials on 17 September, where Draper sought withdrawal of the Israeli army from West Beirut. Sharon was clear in the meeting, “When it comes to our security, we have never asked. We will never ask.”
He falsely asserted that there were thousands of armed terrorists in West Beirut, despite Palestinian fighters having evacuated as part of the ceasefire agreement.
“We’ll kill them. They will not be left there. You are not going to save them,” he said.
On 18 September, Draper sent a message to Sharon imploring him to put an end to the attack.
“You must stop the massacres. They are obscene. I have an officer in the camp counting the bodies. […] They are killing children. You are in absolute control of the area, and therefore responsible for the area.”
The militia withdrew from Sabra and Shatila later that morning, after negotiations with the IDF. On 16 December, the UN General Assembly condemned the massacre, declaring it to be an “act of genocide”.
Though the recommendations of the 1983 investigative commission led to Sharon’s removal as the Defence Minister, he was later elected as Israel’s Prime Minister in 2001. That year, survivors of the massacre tried to initiate legal proceedings against Sharon for these war crimes in a Belgian court. The charges were dismissed on a technicality—though the court allowed for the prosecution of war crimes committed anywhere in the world, it required Sharon to be in the country to proceed.
Forty years on, Israel continues to enact senseless violence on Palestinians, with illegal Israeli settlements on Palestinian land and continued bombing of the Gaza strip. The anniversary of the Sabra and Shatila massacre is a stark reminder of the international community’s continued failure to hold Israel to account for its violations of international law.
Top Image: “Sabra and Shatila Massacre” by Dia al-Azzawi.