Remembering Sabra & Shatila: The death of their world

Amira Howeidy , Wednesday 16 Sep 2015

Thirty-three years today, Israeli-backed Lebanese Phalangist militias massacred 3,500 Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. We republish an Ahram Weekly account to mark one of the 20th century's worst atrocities

The death of their world
File photo: Sabra & Shatila massacre ( AL-Ahram archive )


Dying with their eyes wide open, they experienced the terror of seeing all creation -- men, chairs, stars, suns, Phalangists -- tremble, convulse and blur ... The dying saw, felt, knew that their death was the death of their world."  --Jean Genet, Un captif amoureux

The images only resurface in our collective memory when the almost unbelievable footage is aired on TV screens. Sun-bloated corpses -- some mutilated, others too dark or disfigured to know that they were human -- are covered with flies. Disembowelled women and decapitated bodies and limbs veer into view among piles and piles of the shattered bodies of Palestinian men, women and children swimming in pools of sticky blood. Grotesquely absurd, these scenes document the carnage wrought during the bloodbath orchestrated by Israel and its Lebanese Christian militia, the Phalange, which took over 3,000 Palestinian lives in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila.

Last Sunday marked the 19th anniversary of the Sabra and Shatila massacre, but this year had all the markings of being different. Three months ago, Souad Surour El-Merhi, the iconic victim and survivor of this massacre, travelled to Belgium and filed a complaint, the first of its kind, against the perpetrators of the massacre. Because Belgium law allows for universal jurisdiction with respect to genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes -- a connection to Belgium is not necessary -- an investigative judge accepted the case and an inquiry into the roles of its perpetrators was opened. Jubilant and in disbelief, the victims and survivors of Sabra and Shatila had every reason to hope that justice could finally be near for the main perpetrators of their misery, notably current Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and top Phalange official Elie Hobeika.

At the time when El-Merhi filed her complaint, anti-Israeli sentiment was running high not only in the Arab world, but within the court of international public opinion. Israel's brutality against the Palestinians throughout the Intifada had finally infiltrated the Western media and had sent a powerful message. But international condemnation of Israel would only reach its peak a couple of weeks ago in Durban, South Africa, when thousands of NGOs assembled at the World Conference Against Racism (WCAR) and fought to identify Israel as a racist state, equating Zionism with racism. Hundreds of Palestinians have been killed since the flare-up of the Intifada in late September of last year. For Israel, the year-long uprising has marked some of the worst times in the country's history. The world was exposed to the nation's true face.

In Belgium, the Arab European League (AEL), a Belgian NGO, announced its plans to organise a peaceful march in Brussels to mark the 19th anniversary of Sabra and Shatila. AEL's sub-committee, the Sabra and Shatila committee (SSC), is the body that is handling the complaint against Sharon. Thousands across Europe were expected to join the 'March for Justice' last Sunday to honour the victims of the massacre in the first such gathering in a European capital. Likewise, the London- based Palestinian Right of Return Centre (PRRC) said it was organising a demonstration in central London to commemorate the victims and that the centre would host a seminar attended by some survivors. But suddenly, Belgium decided to freeze the investigation on Sharon -- a move critics described as caving in to Israeli pressure.

A high-profile marking of the Sabra and Shatila anniversary was not to be. On 11 September, the world ground to a halt following the devastating attacks in the United States. As the world's eye swivelled to a shocked US, the Palestinian issue faded into temporary obscurity. Israel used the occasion to step up its attacks against Palestinians, but even as this was happening, the plight of the Palestinian people became a taboo subject. Only America's victims were to be mourned.

All the events commemorating the massacre, even those marking the upcoming first anniversary of the outbreak of the Intifada, were abruptly cancelled. In Belgium, which had so quickly come to epitomise new Western condemnation of Israel after the Belgian judiciary accepted the complaint against Sharon, the Arab community and AEL were prohibited from expressing their solidarity with the Palestinians or even marking the massacre of Sabra and Shatila. On Sunday, a staggering 2,000 Belgian police officers, backed by hovering police helicopters, thwarted a demonstration by some 150 AEL members and arrested its organisers, including AEL's president Dyab Abou Jahjah.

Is the West turning its back on the Palestinian plight once more? Is this trend part of the growing chasm between radically different cultures that some commentators have begun to theorise about -- a global polarisation between the West, and the rest? (But wasn't it there all along, others ask.) It is poignant then that this anniversary, a chapter of Israeli terror morally backed by the West, should coincide with such trying times in the clash between East and West.

Lebanon, 6 June 1982: Israeli Prime Minister Menehem Begin and Defence Minister Ariel Sharon, with the complicity of US Secretary of State Alexander Haig, order the invasion of Lebanon. The objective was to purge Lebanon of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), a goal that was also shared by the Phalange. Having occupied the south of the country and destroyed Palestinian and Lebanese residences there, simultaneously committing a series of gross human rights violations against the civilian population, the Israeli troops penetrated as far as Beirut. By 18 June 1982 they had surrounded the PLO's armed forces in the west side of the town.

Citing Lebanese statistics, the official complaint presented to the Belgian judiciary requesting an investigation into the massacre said that the Israeli offensive resulted in 18,000 deaths and 30,000 injuries, mostly among civilians.

After two months of fighting, a ceasefire was negotiated, mediated by US envoy Philip Habib. It was agreed that the PLO would evacuate Beirut under the supervision of a multinational force. The Habib Accords envisaged the subsequent takeover of West Beirut by the Lebanese army and the Palestinian leadership was given American guarantees for the security of civilians in the camps after the evacuation.

The evacuation was complete on 1 September 1982. On 10 September 1982, the multinational forces left Beirut. The following day, Sharon claimed that 2,000 "terrorists" remained inside the Palestinian refugee camps around Beirut. A day after the assassination of pro-Israeli Lebanese President Bashir Jemayel on 14 September, the Israeli army occupied West Beirut, surrounding and sealing the camps of Sabra and Shatila, inhabited by an entirely civilian Lebanese and Palestinian population of more than 14,000.

Dawn, 15 September 1982: Israeli fighter- bombers begin flying low over West Beirut. Israeli troops have ensured the entry of the Phalange into Sabra and Shatila camps. According to the complaint filed against Sharon, he was present from 9.00am, to personally direct the Israeli penetration, installing himself in the general army area at the Kuwait embassy junction, situated at the edge of Shatila. From the roof of this six-storey building, it was possible to clearly observe the town and the camps of Sabra and Shatila.

During the morning, shells were fired down towards the camps from high locations and Israeli snipers were shooting down at people in the streets. At about midday, the Israeli military command gave the Phalangist militia the green light to enter the refugee camps. Shortly after 5.00pm, a unit of approximately 150 Phalangists entered Shatila camp. According to survivors, those who tried escaping the zone were held back by Israeli soldiers.

16-18 September 1982: Terror and carnage rage unchecked for three days as the cold-blooded massacre unfolded.

Until the morning of Saturday, 18 September 1982, the Israeli army, aware of what was going on in the camps, and whose leaders were in permanent contact with the militia leaders who perpetrated the massacre, did not intervene. Instead, they assisted the operation by lighting the night sky with a stream of flares shot from helicopters and mortars.

The count of victims varies between Israel's estimate of 700 to that of independent sources, who say the death toll was as high as 3,500. The exact figure, however, will never be determined. In addition to the approximately 1,000 people buried in communal graves by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) or by family members in the cemeteries of Beirut, a large number of corpses were buried under buildings bulldozed by the militia themselves. Hundreds more people were placed in trucks and sent off to unknown destinations. They never returned.

Testimonies of eye-witnesses, survivors and those who visited the camp directly after the massacre cannot stress enough the barbaric nature of the killing and consistently return to images of the sickening aftermath.

An account by well-known British journalist Robert Fisk captures the scene immediately after the massacre.

I walked into a place of such horror that -- for the first and only night of my life -- I suffered ferocious nightmares. I had walked into the Palestinian camp of Sabra and [S]hatila in Beirut while Israel's Lebanese militia thugs were still finishing their work of butchery and rape. There were corpses covered in flies, disembowelled women, babies with bullets in their heads. To cross one street, I had to clamber over a pile of bodies, their arms and stomachs and heads pressing around my legs. All that moved were the flies that covered my face and the minute hands of the watches, on dead wrists. On the other side of the pile was a mass grave. When I hid from the militiamen, I found myself crouching beside a beautiful young woman whose blood was still running from a hole in her back.

But it is the personal testimony of survivors that reflects the true nature of a deeply rooted hatred for Palestinians as an ethnic group. Accounts offered as part of the complaint presented to the Belgian investigative judge who opened the inquiry follow.

Samiha Abbas Hijazi:

On the Friday that there had been a massacre, I went to my neighbours' house. I saw our neighbour Mustafa Al-Habarat; he was injured and lying in a bath of his own blood. His wife and children were dead. We took him to the Gaza hospital and then we fled. When things had calmed down, I came back and searched for my daughter and my husband for four days. I spent four days looking for them through all the dead bodies. I found [my daughter] Zeinab dead, her face burnt. Her husband had been cut in two and had no head.

Mohamed Ibrahim Faqih lost his two daughters, aged two and 14:

A shell hit our neighbours' house. Some of the shrapnel hit my son in the chest and the leg. We took him to hospital and when he came back, he found his daughter Fatima had been hit with an axe, along with my little girl. I noticed that they had dug a ditch in the ground and they had buried them alive in the ditch. The baby's throat had been slit. I also saw people who had been killed and pregnant women with their stomachs ripped open. About 30 young people had been massacred near our house, without any distinction made as to whether they were Lebanese or Palestinian. They didn't spare anyone; they killed everyone they came across. In the home of our neighbour Ali Salim Fayad, they had killed his wife and children.

My God, what can I say? What can I tell you? They had demolished the shops in Sabra road and dug large ditches where they had buried the victims. I saw about 400 children's corpses. They upturned the earth and buried them.

Jamila Mohamed Khalife:

The Israelis and the Phalangists came back a short while later with a loudspeaker, through which they asked us to give ourselves up, promising that our lives would be spared if we came out of the shelter. We waved a white flag, but when we came out of the shelter my father said that our lives would not be spared and that they were going to kill us. I told him not to be scared and to come with us. They dragged us all along; women, children and men; my father tried to escape and they killed him in front of my mother and my little sister.

They made us all walk; our injured neighbour was with us, carrying her intestines and hemorrhaging. She and I escaped to the interior of Shatila camp, and from there we sought refuge in Gaza hospital. When they arrived near Gaza hospital, we ran away once again. ... When the massacre was over, we went back and saw the corpses of the dead, including our neighbours' son Samir, murdered. And under the corpses, they had placed bombs as booby-traps.

The testimony of Souad Surour El-Merhi, who filed the formal complaint in Belgium requesting an investigation into the massacre, stands out. Though El-Merhi survived the massacre, she took away unfathomable scars. She was 16 years old when the Phalange raided her home, shot her father, her three brothers and two sisters, one of whom was a toddler. "They blew her brains out with gun shots" she recounts. She was raped and shot in the spine, paralyzing her for life.

El-Merhi might be the only living victim who has footage of rescue men pulling her from beneath the bodies of her family members after the massacre. The shocking images were broadcast across the world, shocking dormant nations and organisations into action. Two inquires followed, one Lebanese and one Israeli.

The Kahan commission, an Israeli investigative body, found Sharon "indirectly irresponsible". But as the Beirut-based researcher Rosemary Sayigh argues in her recent article "How the Sabra/Shatila massacre was buried with the victims", published in Al-Majdal, a quarterly magazine on Palestinian affairs, "The Kahan report stopped short of accusing Sharon of intentionally introducing the Lebanese forces into the camps to carry out a massacre, and did not question the truth of Sharon's claim that 2000 'terrorists' had remained in the camp. It did not probe the prior relations between the Israeli army and the massacre perpetrators, some of who are known to have received training in Israel."

According to Sayigh, certain evidence submitted to the Kahan commission was classified as "secret." A February 21, 1983 Newsweek article indicated that the 10-page annex was thought to contain Israel's relations with the Phalange, perhaps, also, the notes of Israeli's secret intelligence agency, the Mossad, on a meeting between Sharon and Phalange leaders Amin and Pierre Jemayel the day before the massacre began. The Lebanese inquiry was carried out by military prosecutor Assad Germanos in 1983. According to the Phalange news agency at the time, his report cleared the Phalange of any involvement, stating that there would be no prosecutions.

Two international independent investigations were also carried out: the International Commission of Enquiry (ICE) and the Nordic Commission. Both held hearings in Oslo late in 1982. The ICE concluded that the massacre warrants a war crime tribunal along the lines of the Nuremberg trials, but this recommendation was the only outcome of the inquiry. No one was punished for the massacre.

Israel says that Sharon paid the price by losing his post as defence minister, but very few would agree that losing one's job is a fair price for supervising a massacre that even the United Nations General Assembly branded "an act of genocide".

This article was originally published by Al-Ahram Weekly on 26 September 2001

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