Remembering Sabra And Shatila

By Sonja Karkar

16 September, 2010
Australians for Palestine

The Massacre

happened twenty-eight years ago – 16 September 1982. A massacre so
awful that people who know about it cannot forget it. The photos are
gruesome reminders – charred, decapitated, indecently violated corpses,
the smell of rotting flesh, still as foul to those who remember it as
when they were recoiling from it all those years ago. For the victims
and the handful of survivors, it was a 36-hour holocaust without mercy.
It was deliberate, it was planned and it was overseen. But to this day,
the killers have gone unpunished.

Sabra and
Shatila – two Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon – were the theatres
for this staged slaughter. The former is no longer there and the other
is a ghostly and ghastly reminder of man’s inhumanity to men, women and
children – more specifically, Israel’s inhumanity, the inhumanity of
the people who did Israel’s bidding and the world’s inhumanity for
pretending it was of no consequence. There were international witnesses
– doctors, nurses, journalists – who saw the macabre scenes and have
tried to tell the world in vain ever since.

act was barbarous enough on its own to warrant fear and loathing. It
was human savagery at its worst and Dr Ang Swee Chai was an eye witness
as she worked with the Palestinian Red Crescent Society on the dying
and the wounded amongst the dead. What she saw was so unimaginable that
the atrocities committed need to be separated from each other to even
begin comprehending the viciousness of the crimes. [1]

tortured. Blackened bodies smelling of roasted flesh from the power
shocks that had convulsed their bodies before their hearts gave out –
the electric wires still tied around their lifeless limbs.

with gouged out eye sockets. Faces unrecognisable with the gaping holes
that had plunged them into darkness before their lives were thankfully

Women raped. Not once – but two, three,
four times – horribly violated, their legs shamelessly ripped apart
with not even the cover of clothing to preserve their dignity at the
moment of death.

Children dynamited
alive. So many body parts ripped from their tiny torsos, so hard to
know to whom they belonged – just mounds of bloodied limbs amongst the
tousled heads of children in pools of blood.

executed. Blood, blood and more blood sprayed on the walls of homes
where whole families had been axed to death in a frenzy or lined up for
a more orderly execution.

There were also
journalists who were there in the aftermath and who had equally
gruesome stories to tell, none of which made the sort of screaming
front page headlines that should have caused lawmakers to demand
immediate answers. What they saw led them to write shell-shocked
accounts that have vanished now into the archives, but are no less
disturbing now. These accounts too need to be individually absorbed,
lest they be lumped together as just the collective dead rather than
the systematic torture and killing of individual, innocent human beings.

gunned down while cooking in their kitchens. [2] The headless body of a
baby in diapers lying next to two dead women. [3] An infant, its tiny
legs streaked with blood, shot in the back by a single bullet. [4]
Slaughtered babies, their bodies blackened as they decomposed, tossed
into rubbish heaps together with Israeli army equipment and empty
bottles of whiskey. [5] An old man castrated, with flies thick upon his
torn intestines. [6] Children with their throats slashed. [7] Mounds of
rotting corpses bloated in the heat – young boys all shot at
point-blank range. [8]

And most numbing of all
are the recollections of the survivors whose experiences were so
shockingly traumatic that to recall them must have been painful beyond
all imaginings. One survivor, Nohad Srour, 35 said:

was carrying my one year-old baby sister and she was yelling “Mama!
Mama!” then suddenly nothing. I looked at her and her brain had fallen
out of her head and down my arm. I looked at the man who shot us. I’ll
never forget his face. Then I felt two bullets pierce my shoulder and
finger. I fell. I didn’t lose consciousness, but I pretended to be

The statistics of those killed vary,
but even according to the Israeli military, the official count was 700
people killed while Israeli journalist, Amnon Kapeliouk put the figure
at 3,500. [10] The Palestinian Red Crescent Society put the number
killed at over 2,000.[11] Regardless of the numbers, they would not and
could not mitigate what are clear crimes against humanity.

Fifteen years later, Robert Fisk, the journalist who had been one of the first on the scene, said:

Palestinians massacred 2,000 Israelis 15 years ago, would anyone doubt
that the world’s press and television would be remembering so terrible
a deed this morning? Yet this week, not a single newspaper in the
United States – or Britain for that matter – has even mentioned the
anniversary of Sabra and Shatila.”[12]

Twenty-eight years later it is no different.

The political developments

happened must be set against the background of a Lebanon that had been
invaded by the Israeli army only months earlier, supposedly in
‘retaliation’ for the attempted assassination of the Israeli Ambassador
in London on 4 June 1982. Israel attributed the attempt to Arafat’s
Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) then resident in Beirut. In
reality, it was a rival militant group headed by Abu Nidal. Israel
wanted to oust the PLO from Lebanon altogether and on 6 June 1982,
Israel began its devastating assault on the Lebanese and Palestinian
civilian population in the southern part of Lebanon. Lebanese
government casualty figures numbered the dead at around 19,000 with
some 30,000 wounded, but these numbers are hardly accurate because of
the mass graves and other bodies lost in the rubble. [13]

1 September, a cease-fire had been mediated by United States envoy
Philip Habib, and Arafat and his men surrendered their weapons and were
evacuated from Beirut with guarantees by the US that the civilians left
behind in the camps would be protected by a multinational peacekeeping
force. That guarantee was not kept and the vacuum then created, paved
the way for the atrocities that followed.

soon as the peacekeeping force was withdrawn, the then Israeli Defence
Minister Ariel Sharon moved to root out some “2,000 terrorists” he
claimed were still hiding in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila.
After totally surrounding the refugee camps with tanks and soldiers,
Sharon ordered the shelling of the camps and the bombardment continued
throughout the afternoon and into the evening of 15 September leaving
the “mopping-up” of the camps to the Lebanese right-wing Christian
militia, known as the Phalangists. The next day, the Phalangists –
armed and trained by the Israeli army – entered the camps and proceeded
to massacre the unarmed civilians while Israel’s General Yaron and his
men watched the entire operations. More grotesquely, the Israeli army
ensured there was no lull in the 36 hours of killings and illuminated
the area with flares at night and tightened their cordon around the
camps to make sure that no civilian could escape the terror that had
been unleashed.

Inquiries, charges and off scot-free

Israel’s Kahan Commission of Inquiry did not find any Israeli directly
responsible, it did find that Sharon bore “personal responsibility” for
“not ordering appropriate measures for preventing or reducing the
danger of massacre” before sending the Phalangists into the camps. It,
therefore, lamely recommended that the Israeli prime minister consider
removing him from office. [14] Sharon resigned but remained as Minister
without portfolio and joined two parliamentary commissions on defence
and Lebanese affairs. There is no doubt, as Chomsky points out “that
the inquiry was not intended for people who have a prejudice in favour
of truth and honesty”, but it certainly gained support for Israel in
the US Congress and among the public. [15] It took an International
Commission of Inquiry headed by Sean MacBride to find that Israel was
“directly responsible” because the camps were under its jurisdiction as
an occupying power. [16] Yet, despite the UN describing the heinous
operation as a “criminal massacre” and declaring it an act of genocide
[17], no one was prosecuted.

It was not until
2001 that a law suit was filed in Belgium by the survivors of the
massacre and relatives of the victims against Sharon alleging his
personal responsibility. However, the court did not allow for
“universal jurisdiction” – a principle which was intended to remove
safe havens for war criminals and allow their prosecution across
states. The case was won on appeal and the trial allowed to proceed,
but without Sharon who by then was prime minister of Israel and had
immunity. US interference led to the Belgian Parliament gutting the
universal jurisdiction law and by the time the International Criminal
Court was established in The Hague the following year, the perpetrators
of the Sabra and Shatila massacre could no longer be tried because its
terms of reference did not allow it to hear cases of war crimes, crimes
against humanity or genocide pre-dating 1 July 2002. Neither Sharon nor
those who carried out the massacres have ever been punished for their
horrendous crimes.

The bigger picture

length of time since these acts were carried out should be no
impediment to exposing the truth. More than 60 years after the Nazi
atrocities against the Jews in Europe, the world still mourns and
remembers and erects monuments and museums to that violent holocaust.
How they are done, to whom they are done and to how many does not make
the crimes any more or less heinous. They can never be justified even
on the strength of one state’s rationale that another people ought to
be punished, or worse still, are simply inferior or worthless beings.
It should lead all of us to question on whose judgment are such
decisions made and how can we possibly justify such crimes at all?

atrocities committed in the camps of Sabra and Shatila should be put in
the context of an ongoing genocide against the Palestinian people. The
MacBride report found that these atrocities “were not inconsistent with
wider Israeli intentions to destroy Palestinian political will and
cultural identity.” [17] Since Deir Yassin and the other massacres of
1948, those who survived have joined hundreds of thousands of
Palestinians fleeing a litany of massacres committed in 1953, 1967, the
1982 invasion of Lebanon, the 2002 Jenin massacre, and the most recent,
the 2008/2009 atrocity committed on the people of Gaza. Thus were the
victims and survivors of the Sabra and Shatila massacre gathered up in
the perpetual nakba of the slaughtered, the dispossessed, the displaced
and the discarded – a pattern of ethnic cleansing perpetrated under the
Zionist plan to finally and forever extinguish Palestinian society and
its people.

This is why we must remember Sabra and Shatila, twenty-eight years on.

Sonja Karkar is editor of Australians for Palestine


[1] Dr Ang Swee Chai, “From Beirut to Jerusalem”, Grafton Books, London, 1989

[2] James MacManus, Guardian, 20 September 1982

[3] Loren Jenkins, Washington Post, 20 September 1982

[4] Elaine Carey, Daily Mail, 20 September 1982

[5] Robert Fisk, “Pity the Nation: Lebanon at War”, London: Oxford University Press, 1990

[6] Robert Fisk, ibid.

[7] Robert Fisk, ibid.

[8] Robert Fisk, ibid.

[9] Lebanese Daily Star, 16 September 1998

[10] Amnon Kapeliouk, “Sabra & Chatila – Inquiry into a Massacre”, November 1982

[11] Schiff and Ya’ari,, Israel’s Lebanon War, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1984,

[12] Robert Fisk, Fifteen Years After the Bloodbath, The World turns its Back,, 1997

[13] Noam Chomsky, “The Fatal Triangle” South End Press, Cambridge MA, p.221

[14] The Complete Kahan Commission Report, Princeton, Karz Cohl, 1983, p. 125 (Hereafter, the Kahan Commission Report).

[15] Chomsky, ibid. p.406

The Report of the International Commission to Enquire into Reported
Violations of International Law by Israel during Its Invasion of the
Lebanon, Sean MacBride, 1983 (referred to as the International
Commission of Inquiry or MacBride report)

[17] United Nations General Assembly Resolution, 16 December 1982

[18] MacBride report, ibid. p.179

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