Today is the thirtieth anniversary of the massacres (designated as genocide by the UN General Assembly), at Sabra and Shatila. These were two mainly Palestinian refugee camps on the outskirts of West Beirut, set up in the aftermath olf the 1967 war, and at the time under the control of Israel following their penetration into Lebanese territory, the evacuation of PLO forces and the declaration of a supposed “ceasefire.”
Although Israeli forces did not carry out the massacres, they resulted from an alliance between Israel and the Lebanese Phalangists – a Christian semi-fascist party and militia. Israel supplied the Phalangists with money and arms. Israel’s aim was to drive the Palestinians out of Beirut by means of terror directed against civilians – women, children and the aged.
The decision to move into West Beirut was taken by Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Defence Minister Ariel Sharon, in violation of of the “ceasefire” and, indeed, of promises made to the US after the PLO evacuation.
Sharon and Israel’s Chief of Staff, Rafael Eitan decided that Phalangist forces should storm the two camps and assigned the operation to to Eli Haqiba, a senior Lebanese security official at a meeting at which Fadi Afram, Commander of the Lebanese forces, was also present.
On Thursday 16th September, the Phalangists attacked, watched by the Israeli army, which had surrounded the camps. In the chilling words of one account*, It was “a three-day orgy of rape and slaughter”. The Israelis provided the attackers with lighting, bulldozers and maps. Palestinians who manged to escape were captured and returned to the camps by Israeli forces. By the end of the third day, bodies were everywhere: “Many of the victims had been mutilated by axes or knives; others had their heads smashed, their eyes removed, tyheir throats cut and the skin had literally been stripped from their body. Severed limbs lay strewn about the floor and others had been disembowelled.”
Shatila camp, Beirut, 20 September 1982 (Photo: UNRWA/Beirut)
The exact number of victims is not known and probably never will be, not least because the Lebanese authorities refused to co-operate with the Red Cross and would not open mass graves. The likely figure is between 3,000 and 3,500, about a quarter of whom were Lebanese and the rest Palestinian.
The Israeli public was horrified when reports began to come through and 30,000 Israelis marched in Tel Aviv, demanding the resignations of Begin and Sharon.
In 1983 the Kahan Commission of Inquiry into the Events at the Refugee Camps in Beirut, established by Israel to investigate the events, found Sharon to be “unfit for public office”. He was elected Prime Minister in February 2001.
On this day we must remember and honour the victims. And we must redouble our efforts for the only just settlement of the whole Israel/Palestine tragedy: two states for two peoples.
* ‘War Crimes and Atrocities’, by Janice Anderson, Anne Williams and Vivian Head, published by Futura, 2007.