25 years ago: Sabra and Chatila
INDOMITABLE. Children at Bourj el-Brajneh camp salute news of the first
Intifada. Behind them, in dark
sweater, Swee Chai Ang, witness of
Sabra and Chatila.
(from her book, "From Beirut to Jerusalem", 1989)
"DID you hear what's happened in Lebanon? The Christians have gone into this Palestinian camp and are killing all the Palestinians. And the Israelis stood and watched!" I'd not heard the news. The man greeting me with it as I came into work that evening was grinning with glee. Well, he did boast of National Front sympathies and use racist language, so I was not surprised, though I did not know yet whether what he was saying was true, or a wind-up.
You meet some obnoxious characters in the security business. Fortunately he only worked days. If we'd had to share a nightshift I might have ended up doing time for the fascist bastard. I contented myself with seeing him off the premises and hoping he had an accident on his way home.
It was not a wind up.
On the night of September 16, 1982, Lebanese Christian forces, mainly from the Phalangist party, moved in to two Palestinian refugee camps, Sabra and Chatila, which were surrounded by Israeli forced that had moved into West Beirut. Palestinian fighters had already withdrawn from the city under US-backed agreement. The fascists began a two-day massacre of civilians, which left at least 800 dead according to the BBC, more than a 1,000 according to Israeli journalist Amnon Kapeliuk's estimate.
Israeli forces had invaded Lebanon that Summer, using the attempted assassination of London ambassador Shlomo Argov by one of Abu Nidal's gunmen as pretext, but also claiming they were defending northern settlements, by driving Palestinian guerrillas from southern Lebanon. They called it "Operation Peace for Galilee". Whether or not Prime Minister Menachem Begin believed it was to be a limited operation, as his son claims, Defence Minister Ariel Sharon had bigger plans.
Israeli leaders had long thought they could use the Christians of Lebanon as allies, which meant specifically an alliance with the right-wing, Maronite Christian Phalange (Khatib, in Arabic) founded by Pierre Gemayel, an admirer of European fascism, and possibly the rival National Liberals led by the Chamoun family. Not all Lebanese Christians supported these right-wing parties, and some, whether from the Left or minority Christian sects, stood alongside the Palestinians and Muslim Lebanese.
During the 1976-8 Lebanese civil war the Christian Right forces were supported by Israel and the CIA, and more directly assisted by Syrian forces (as in the siege of Tel al Zataar camp) but failed to crush the Palestinians or their Lebanese allies. Now Israel was intervening directly to back the Phalangists, though some Israeli officers viewed them with distrust and distaste, not least those with Druze units who found themselves having to wage war on their own people in Lebanon. In Israel itself there was to be a growing movement against what many saw as an unjustified and unnecessary war.
Menachem Begin met Bachir Gemayel in Nahariya, and urged him to sign a peace treaty with Israel. and take further action to oust the Palestinians. He also wanted the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army led by Major Said Haddad to stay in the south. Gemayel temporised, knowing many in his party favoured an alliance with Syria rather than risk isolation in the Arab world and further internal conflict. (There were rumours later that year that Ariel Sharon had his own contacts, with Syrian secret police chief Rifaat al Assad if not with his brother the president).
Gemayel was assassinated in bomb explosion at his headquarters on September 14. Palestinians and Muslims denied any involvement, and a supporter of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (based among Syrian Orthodox Christians) confessed; but Israeli and Phalangist forces ignored this, just as Begin had ignored the report by Mossad that the PLO had nothing to do with the attempt on ambassador Argov.
Within hours of Gemayel's assassination, Begin and Sharon ordered the occupation of West Beirut, informing Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir but not the Israeli cabinet. The move violated Israel's agreements with Syria and the United States, and US guarantees to protect West Beirut's Muslim population. By noon on September 15 Israel forces had surrounded Sabra and Chatila camps, and occupied high-rise buildings overlooking them.
Ariel Sharon and Chief of Staff Rafi Eitan met Phalangist commanders and told them they could go into the camps to root out PLO members. Some 1,500 Christian militiamen assembled at Beirut International Airport, which was under Israeli control, and began moving towards the camps. Many rode on Israeli jeeps. The mainly Phalangist force was commanded by Elie Hobeika.
Entering the camps at 6pm, they began their work with guns, hatchets and knives, raping and butchering Lebanese and Palestinian alike. Sometimes groups were led out then executed. Israeli forces fired flares over the camp to light it up for them. At 11pm the report reached Israeli army headquarters that over 300 people had been killed. Further reports came through the night, and were seen by the Israeli government. Begin later dismissed what was happening as "Arab killing Arab", and accused those blaming Israel of a "Blood Libel".
Later, Israel's Kahan Commission would hear how an Army lieutenant had witnessed five women and children being killed and told his commander, who replied "We know, it is not to our liking but don't interfere." A TV news crew filmed Israeli soldiers turning back people who were trying to flee the camps. The Israeli commanders told the Phalangists to leave the camps on Saturday morning, because of American concern, but having got their thirst for blood, these Christians carried on slaking it, marching some survivors out and either killing or sending for interrogation. It was the morning of September 18 when they finally pulled out, and journalists were able to go in and find hundreds of bodies scattered about.
No one ever faced justice for the Sabra and Chatila massacres, at least not in a court of law. Eli Hobeika who commanded the Phalangist forces was killed by a car bomb in Beirut in 2000. There had been speculation he might go to Brussels to testify in a war crimes tribunal, but others doubt this. Survivors of the massacres tried to bring a case against Ariel Sharon under Belgian law, and some of us here wrote in support of this. But under pressure from the United States the Belgian authorities halted proceedings taking place. If I were a religious man I might think the Israelis were keeping Ariel Sharon "alive" to save him facing a higher judge.
There used to be commemorative events for Sabra and Chatila. Maybe amid so many atrocities and war crimes around the world since, including what's happened in Lebanon and Iraq, this memory has been overshadowed. But it was a horror we should not forget, and nor (whatever the Pope among others said) will it easily be forgiven.