Remembering the Sabra and Shatila massacre (16-17 September 1982)
The Sabra and Shatila massacre was the killing of between 762 and 3,500 civilians, mostly Palestinians and Lebanese muslims, by Christian right-wing militias close to the Kataeb Party, also called the Phalangists, in the Sabra neighborhood and the adjacent Shatila refugee camp in Beirut, Lebanon during the Lebanese civil war. Lebanese President-elect Bachir Gemayel, during his days as a Phalangist militia commander
The massacre was presented as retaliation for the assassination of newly elected Lebanese president Bachir Gemayel, a Maronite Christian and the leader of the Lebanese Kataeb Party & former militia commander when his office building was blown up by a hidden bomb. It was wrongly assumed that Palestinian militants had carried out the assassination (in fact the assassination was done by pro-Syrian factions and later, Habib Tanious Shartouni, a Lebanese Christian admitted he was the mastermind behind the bombing).
On the evening of 14 September, following the news that Bashir Gemayel had been assassinated, Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Minister for Defence Ariel Sharon and Chief of Staff Yamos Eitan agreed that the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) should invade West Beirut. The public reason given was to be that they were there to prevent chaos. In a separate conversation, at 20:30 that evening, Sharon and Eitan agreed that the IDF should not enter the Palestinian refugee camps but that the Phalange should be used.The only other member of the cabinet who was consulted was Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir. Shortly after 6.00 am 15 September, the Israeli army entered West Beirut.
By noon on 15 September, Sabra and Shatila had been surrounded by the IDF, which set up checkpoints at the exits and entrances, and used a number of multi-story buildings as observation posts. Hours later, IDF tanks began shelling Sabra and Shatila. The following morning, 16 September, Ariel Sharon and Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan met with Phalangist militia units and invited them to enter Sabra and Shatila, accusing that the PLO was responsible for Gemayel's assassination. An hour later, 1,500 Christian militiamen assembled at Beirut International Airport, then occupied by Israel. Under the command of Elie Hobeika (Bachir Gemayel's close ally, a prominent figure in the Phalanges, the Lebanese Forces intelligence chief and liaison officer with Mossad), they began moving towards the area in IDF-supplied jeeps, with extra weapons and ammunition provided by the IDF (after the massacre, ammunition boxes with IDF markings and discarded ration packs with hebrew writing was presented as proof of Israeli support). Ostensibly the orders given to the militiamen was only to escort civilians to the football stadium for questioning by Lebanese intelligence services and Mossad on the whereabouts of PLO fighters and the existence of weapons caches inside the camps.Phalangist militiamen during the Lebanese civil war
What followed was a 72-hour orgy of violence and bloodshed. Eyewitnesses report of families being gunned down in their homes, women publicly stripped and gang-raped, children and babies bayonetted or hacked with axes & machetes and young men being lined up and executed, ganglang-style, at every street. Nurses at the UN-run hospital report of militiamen gunning down and bayonetting patients in their hospital beds. In the inquiries done following the massacre, former IDF veterans recall Phalangists borrowing an IDF bulldozer to dig a large hole and dumping bodies into the impromptu mass grave, in plain sight of soldiers not 300 meters from an IDF observation post. Meanwhile, IDF checkpoints denied passage and in some cases shot at people trying to flee the massacre and IDF mortar crews fired illumination flares over the camps at night to aid the Phalangists' operations in the blacked-out camps. During this time reports of massacres and indiscriminate killings started to filter out to journalists & foreign observers and questions were started to be asked. By the time the IDF ordered the Phalangists to clear out on the morning of 18 September, it is estimated by eyewitnesses and foreign observers that anywhere up to 3,500 Palestinians, Lebanese muslims and a few foreign medical and aid personnel had died in the massacre.The bodies of the massacre victims littering the streetsThe aftermath. Bodies of the victims of the massacre are collected for identification
In an attempt to find out what happened, several commissions were created to determine the events. The independent commission headed by Sean MacBride, however, did find that the concept of genocide applied to the case as it was the intention of those behind the massacre "the deliberate destruction of the national and cultural rights and identity of the Palestinian people". Individual Jews throughout the world also denounced the massacre as genocide.
The MacBride commission's report, Israel in Lebanon
, concluded that the Israeli authorities or forces were responsible in the massacres and other killings that have been reported to have been carried out by Lebanese militiamen in Sabra and Shatila in the Beirut area between 16 and 18 September.
Israel's own Kahan commission found that only "indirect" responsibility befitted Israel's involvement. The Kahan Commission concluded Israeli Defense minister Ariel Sharon bears personal responsibility "for ignoring the danger of bloodshed and revenge" and "not taking appropriate measures to prevent bloodshed". Sharon's negligence in protecting the civilian population of Beirut, which had come under Israeli control, amounted to a non-fulfillment of a duty with which the Defense Minister was charged, and it was recommended that Sharon be dismissed as Defense Minister.
At first, Sharon refused to resign, and Begin refused to fire him. It was only after the death of Emil Grunzweig after a grenade was tossed by a right-wing Israeli into the dispersing crowd of a Peace Now protest march, which also injured ten others, that a compromise was reached: Sharon would resign as Defense Minister, but remain in the Cabinet as a minister without portfolio. Notwithstanding the dissuading conclusions of the Kahan report, Sharon would later become Prime Minister of Israel. The Kahan commission also recommended the dismissal of Director of Military Intelligence Yehoshua Saguy, and the effective promotion freeze of Division Commander Brig. Gen. Amos Yaron for at least three years.
The commander of the Phalangist militia, Elie Hobeika was assassinated by a car bomb in Beirut on 24 January 2002. Lebanese and Arab commentators blamed Israel for the murder of Hobeika, with alleged Israeli motive that Hobeika would be ‘apparently poised to testify about Sharon’s role in the massacre'.