September 16 marks the 40th anniversary of the Sabra and Shatila massacre, the killing of around 3,000 Palestinians at the hands of Lebanon’s Phalangist militias operating under the command of the Israeli army.
Four decades have passed, yet no measure of justice has been received by the survivors of the massacre. Many of them have died, and others are aging while they carry the scars of physical and psychological wounds, in the hope that, perhaps, within their lifetime they will see their executioners behind bars.
However, many of the Israeli and Phalange commanders who had ordered the invasion of Lebanon, orchestrated or carried out the heinous massacres in the two Palestinian refugee camps in 1982, have already died. Ariel Sharon, who was implicated by the official Israeli Kahan Commission a year later for his “indirect responsibility” for the grisly mass killing and rape, later rose in rank to become, in 2001, Israel’s Prime Minister.
Even prior to the Sabra and Shatila massacre, Sharon’s name was always affiliated with mass murders and large-scale destruction. It was in the so-called ‘Operation Shoshana’, in the Palestinian West Bank village of Qibya in 1953, that Sharon earned his infamous reputation. Following the Israeli occupation of Gaza in 1967, the Israeli general became known as ‘The Bulldozer’, and following Sabra and Shatila, ‘The Butcher’.
The Israeli Prime Minister at the time, Menachim Begin, also died, exhibiting no remorse for the killing of over 17,000 Lebanese, Palestinians and Syrians in the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. His nonchalant response to the killings in the West Beirut refugee camps epitomizes Israel’s attitude toward all the mass killings and all the massacres carried out against Palestinians in the last 75 years. “Goyim kill Goyim, and they blame the Jews,” he said.
Testimonies from those who arrived at the refugee camps after the days of slaughter depict a reality that requires deep reflection, not only among Palestinians, Arabs and especially Israelis, but also humanity as a whole.
The late American journalist Janet Lee Stevens described what she had witnessed:
I saw dead women in their houses with their skirts up to their waists and their legs spread apart; dozens of young men shot after being lined up against an alley wall; children with their throats slit, a pregnant woman with her stomach chopped open, her eyes still wide open, her blackened face silently screaming in horror; countless babies and toddlers who had been stabbed or ripped apart and who had been thrown into garbage piles.
Dr. Swee Chai Ang had just arrived in Lebanon as a volunteer surgeon, stationed at the Red Crescent Society in the Gaza Hospital in Sabra and Shatila. Her book, ‘From Beirut to Jerusalem: A Woman Surgeon with the Palestinians’, remains one of the most critical readings on the subject.
In a recent article, Dr. Swee wrote that following the release of photographs of the “heaps of dead bodies in the camp alleys”, a worldwide outrage followed, but it was all short-lived:
The victims’ families and survivors were soon left alone to plod on with their lives and to relive the memory of that double tragedy of the massacre, and the preceding ten weeks of intensive land, air and sea bombardment and blockade of Beirut during the invasion.
Lebanese and Palestinian losses in the Israeli war are devastating in terms of numbers. However, the war also changed Lebanon forever and, following the forced exile of thousands of Palestinian men along with the entire PLO leadership, Palestinian communities in Lebanon were left politically vulnerable, socially disadvantaged and economically isolated.
The story of Sabra and Shatila was not simply a dark chapter of a bygone era, but an ongoing moral crisis that continues to define Israel’s relationship with Palestinians, highlight the demographic and political trap in which numerous Palestinian communities in the Middle East live, and accentuate the hypocrisy of the West-dominated international community. The latter seems to only care for some kind of victims, and not others.
In the case of Palestinians, the victims are often depicted by western governments and media as the aggressors. Even during that horrific Israeli war on Lebanon 40 years ago, some western leaders repeated the tired mantra: “Israel has the right to defend itself.” It is this unwavering support of Israel that has made the Israeli occupation, apartheid and siege of the West Bank and Gaza politically possible and financially sustainable—in fact, profitable.
Would Israel have been able to invade and massacre at will if it were not for U.S.-western military, financial and political backing? The answer is an affirmative ‘no.’ Those who are in doubt of such a conclusion need only to consider the attempt, in 2002, by the survivors of the Lebanon refugee camps massacre to hold Ariel Sharon accountable. They took their case to Belgium, taking advantage of a Belgian law which allowed for the prosecution of alleged international war criminals. After much haggling, delays and intense pressure from the U.S. government, the Belgian court eventually dropped the case altogether. Ultimately, Brussels changed its own laws to ensure such diplomatic crises with Washington and Tel Aviv are not to be repeated.
For Palestinians, however, the case will never be dropped. In her essay, “Avenging Sabra and Shatila”, Kifah Sobhi Afifi’ described the joint Phalangist-Israeli attack on her refugee camp when she was only 12 years old.
“So we ran, trying to stay as close to the walls of the camp as possible,” she wrote.
That is when I saw the piles of the dead bodies all around. Children, women and men, mutilated or groaning in pain as they were dying. Bullets were flying everywhere. People were falling all around me. I saw a father using his body to protect his children but they were all shot and killed anyway.
Kifah has lost several members of her family. Years later, she joined a Palestinian resistance group and, following a raid at the Lebanon-Israel border, was arrested and tortured in Israel.
Though Israeli massacres are meant to bring an end to Palestinian Resistance, unwittingly, they fuel it. While Israel continues to act with impunity, Palestinians also continue to resist. This is not just the lesson of Sabra and Shatila, but the bigger lesson of the Israeli occupation of Palestine as well.