Sabra & Shatila, 1982 – never again

The world watched in horror as the story of the inhuman massacres in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon first emerged in September, 1982 | An entire generation of the Palestinian people has grown up in their shadow | The general at the centre of this butchery is today the prime minister of Israel – Ariel Sharon | The scale of the infamy has changed, but not the methods, the perpetrators or their allies | The past is always present

Sabra and Chatila – two undefended refugee camps in Beirut where hundreds of unarmed Palestinian refugees, including babies, were massacred 16-18 September 1982. (Click to enlarge)

Sabra and Chatila – two undefended refugee camps in Beirut where hundreds of unarmed Palestinian refugees, including babies, were massacred 16-18 September 1982. (Click to enlarge)

From the Dossier on Palestine (2002)


TWENTY years have passed, but reread the accounts or speak to survivors in what remains of the Sabra and Shatila camps, and the words still drip red. Time has not washed away the blood. All through my investigation I was horrified as I listened to story after story about children with their throats slit, or pregnant women with their bellies slashed open, or heads and limbs hacked off. I felt physically sick.

I did not approach what remains of the Sabra and Shatila camps through the main entrance but via a dirty district on the periphery, home to new, mostly Asian, arrivals. I entered the main street that once linked Gaza hospital, which no longer exists, to the main entrance near the Kuwaiti embassy. The embassy stands out, incongruously luxurious, as is the nearby sports centre where Palestinian and Lebanese adults who escaped the massacre were questioned.

The new generation in Sabra and Shatila | Christophe Goussard, 2002

The new generation in Sabra and Shatila | Christophe Goussard, 2002

People now made their way to the camp between shops and stalls selling fruit, CDs, new and second-hand goods, cars, scooters.

How do you select between direct and indirect witnesses to the massacres? Their voices subdued, they brought alive the scenes of September 1982.

Um Shawki, 52, lost 17 members of her family, including a 12-year-old son and her husband. She lived in the Bir Hassan district near the Kuwaiti embassy. After 1982, she moved with her 12 surviving children to the main street in Shatila and lives on the fourth floor of a poorly constructed building. Her apartment is clean; artificial flowers complement its soft furnishings and pictures are stuck or nailed to the walls, of Al Quds (Jerusalem) and the Hamas flag. She does not belong to Hamas: “I don’t belong to any organisation. I would only join when I was sure of the outcome.” And her children? “I don’t want them to sacrifice themselves for anything, but on the day I am certain of getting my revenge, I’ll encourage them and be at their side.”

Day and night she revisits the memories of the corpses, the mutilated bodies, the husband and son she never saw again, and whose fate she never knew. The colours of her room do not brighten her sombre dress and eyes. She is unsmiling. She becomes angry, though she does not raise her voice, as she relives her family’s second tragedy, the first being their departure in 1948 from Tarisha, a village near Haifa. “Someone knocked at the door and said: ‘We are Lebanese, we have come to search for weapons’. My husband opened the door. He was not worried because he didn’t belong to any fighting group. He worked at the golf club, near the airport.”

She spoke of three Israeli soldiers and a soldier from the Lebanese Forces, the rightwing Christian militia. They entered the house, took her daughter’s bracelets, tore out her own earrings – one of her earlobes is still torn – and beat them.

Those soldiers came from Israel

Israeli Defence Forces smash through UN refugee camp near Beirut.

Israeli Defence Forces smash through UN refugee camp near Beirut.

“They didn’t wear the same uniforms as the Lebanese Forces and didn’t speak Arabic. I don’t know whether they were speaking Hebrew, but I am sure they were Israelis.”

That is not impossible. The Bir Hassan district, outside the camp perimeter, was occupied by the Israelis. Like other Palestinian families, Um Shawki’s family was taken inside the camps. “We were put in a lorry that took us to the entrance to the Shatila camp. The soldiers separated the men from the women and children. The Lebanese took the papers from three cousins and then shot them before our eyes. My husband, my son and other cousins were taken away by the Israelis.” The women and children went on foot to the sports centre. By the roadside, women were crying and weeping, claiming that all the men had been killed. During the evening, in the chaos, Um Shawki and her children fled to the Al Helou barracks district.

At first light, she left her children in a school and went to find out what had happened to her husband and son. She was not able to speak to any of the Israeli officers present. She heard orders being given in Arabic for the men to have their identity cards stamped.

She saw an Israeli lorry full of adults and youngsters. A woman in tears, who had lost her whole family, showed her where the corpses had been dumped. The two women went to the Orsal district and climbed over Lebanese, Palestinian and Syrian dead. Um Shawki says that she saw hundreds of the dead. Most of the victims were in the Orsal district.

“They were unrecognisable, their faces deformed and swollen. I saw 28 corpses of members of the same Lebanese family, including two disembowelled women. I tried to spot the clothing of my son and husband. I searched all day and went back the next day. I didn’t recognise the body of anyone from Bir Hassan.” Um Shawki saw Lebanese soldiers dig ditches to bury the dead. She never found her husband and son.

She finds it even harder to talk about her daughter, who was raped. “I think about that day and night. I have brought up my children alone. I had to beg. I shall never forget. I want revenge for that. My heart is as black as my dress. I shall tell my children and my children’s children what I saw.”

‘The end of the target zone’

I walked through a maze of little alleys, with electric flex hanging everywhere and water running on the ground. Finally I came to a building with three or four offices. In one, at the back, Siham Balkis, president of the returnees’ association, was sitting straight behind a small desk. Also seated in the office were a Palestinian official and two other survivors. Balkis is about 40. She is a committed and determined militant. Her family came from Kabe, near Acre, in Israel.

She said, evenly: “The massacre began on Thursday evening at about 5:30pm. We could not believe it. We stayed inside the house until Saturday morning and were not aware of much except that on Thursday and Friday a small group of Palestinians and Lebanese had tried to defend themselves, but they were too few in number and did not have enough ammunition. During the night, we saw rocket fire light up the sky and heard shots. We thought it was the Israelis after the fighters and in search of arms. On Saturday morning, when it was calm again, we went out on the balcony and saw a group of Lebanese Forces accompanied by an Israeli officer. The Lebanese told us to come out. As we did, they shouted insults at us. The Israeli had a walkie-talkie. One of the Lebanese took it from him and said: ‘We have reached the end of the target zone’.”

Siham is sure he was an Israeli because he was wearing a badge with Hebrew writing and did not look like an Arab. He spoke French with the Lebanese.

Along with others, Siham was taken to Gaza hospital. The soldiers escorting them gathered together the foreign doctors and the people who had taken shelter around the hospital.

“They killed about a dozen fighters. Among the doctors and nurses, they spotted a young Palestinian who had put on a white coat, and they killed him. When everyone had been assembled – hundreds of people – we set out towards the Kuwaiti embassy. The streets were littered with corpses. Young women with their wrists tied together. Houses destroyed. Tanks, probably Israeli. The remains of a baby crushed in the tracks of one of them. Before we reached the sports centre, the men were separated. Soldiers told the young men to crawl. Those who crawled well were considered to be fighters and killed by the Lebanese Forces. They kicked the others.

“I saw Saad Haddad1 with others in front of the Kuwaiti embassy. Then, when we got to the sports centre, lots of Israeli soldiers. An Israeli colonel said the women and children could go home. Later I saw my brother climb into a jeep, while others were put on lorries. I ran towards him, but to no avail. I heard an officer say in Arabic: ‘We are going to hand you over to the Lebanese Forces. They’ll be better at making you talk’.”

All the witnesses tell more or less the same story. Kemla Mhanna, a Lebanese woman who runs a grocery in the Orsal district said: “All those in our district who stayed were killed. Most of them were Lebanese. When I came back, I saw a pile of corpses. Next to my house, a Palestinian was hanging from a meat hook, split in two like a sheep’s carcass. I saw that a first layer of bodies had been thrown into a big ditch, then a layer of sand, then another layer of bodies. I also saw another Lebanese man from Orsal district, Hamad Shamas, one of the few survivors of the massacre there. He was in a shelter when two Israelis came along in a jeep with seven or eight soldiers.

“I am positive the soldiers were Israelis because they wore Israeli uniforms and did not speak Arabic properly. The soldiers told us to get out of the shelter and abused us. They told me to put down the child I was carrying and stand in line with the others. One who spoke good Arabic searched everyone and took one man’s money; then they shot at us. I was only wounded in the head and thigh, under a pile of bodies. There were 23 dead. I stayed in a shelter all night. At dawn, the smell of death was all around.”

The same story

There is nothing new in these accounts. They are like those that Leila Shahid, the Palestinian representative to France and one of the first to enter the camps after the massacres, collected alone, or with Jean Genet. Within memory, they also tally with the accounts of the English, Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, German, Irish and American members of the medical team at Gaza hospital, and those recorded by many journalists.

Christophe Goussard photographed this memorial in the camps in 2002

Christophe Goussard photographed this memorial in the camps in 2002

Elias Khoury, a Lebanese writer and dramatist2, argues passionately that it is impossible for the Palestinian people to turn the past, and the Sabra and Shatila massacres, into a memory. “The normal process of memory does not work with the Palestinians because the massacres continue: Deir Yassine, Qibya, Sabra and Shatila and now Jenin. They cannot look to the past because the past is still the present. Since 1948 they have been caught in a cycle of hell. The Palestinians are the victims of the Israeli government’s policy of orchestrated Shoah. Ethical standards stop at Israel’s frontiers. In those circumstances, the idea of the tragedy of Sabra and Shatila becomes marginalised.”

So marginalised that, in Lebanon, the issue is taboo. First to be accused was Elie Hobeika3, who had been a government minister. “The criminals seized power after the war,” said Khoury. “The Palestinians have become the scapegoats for the war in Lebanon and are subject here to laws no better than the Vichy government applied to the Jews.”

Even the numbers of dead and disappeared remain vague. Estimates range from 500 to 5,000. Bayan Hout has been trying to fill the gap for 20 years. She is Lebanese, born in Jerusalem where she lived until she was nine; she is a historian and lecturer at the University of Beirut. She has closely questioned the families of the victims and the disappeared, analysed hundreds of questionnaires, crosschecked lists of humanitarian organisations and the Red Cross, and tried to locate all the cemeteries. She is now sure of her figures: 906 dead of 12 nationalities, half of them Palestinians, and 484 disappeared, 100 of them abducted. That makes 1,490 identified victims.

The massacres and disappearances were part of the war the Israeli government launched on 6 June 1982 to neutralise the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). The invasion of Lebanon left more than 12,000 civilians dead, 30,000 wounded and 200,000 homeless.

Palestinian resistance against the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, 1982.

Palestinian resistance against the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, 1982.

In mid-June the Israelis began the siege of Beirut and surrounded 15,000 PLO fighters and their Lebanese and Syrian allies. In July US President Ronald Reagan sent Philip Habib, assisted by Morris Draper, to defuse the situation which threatened to ignite the Middle East and damage US interests. It became apparent that the way to resolve the crisis was to get the Palestinian fighters and Yasser Arafat to leave Beirut. Arafat was persuaded that there was no other solution.

The discussions were complicated because the Israelis and Americans did not want to hold direct talks with the Palestinians4: Elias Sarkis, Lebanon’s Christian president, and his Sunni prime minister, Shafiq Wazzan, were to act as intermediaries. The Israelis were set on brutal military oppression and on obtaining the total and ignominious surrender of Arafat. Arafat made further concessions and tried to obtain guarantees of safety for Palestinian families remaining in Lebanon. He feared violence from Israeli soldiers and their Phalangist allies. As far as Arafat was concerned, the guarantees had to be given by the Americans and the international community.

Habib finally obtained an assurance from the Israeli prime minister that his soldiers would not enter West Beirut or attack the Palestinians in the camps; an assurance from Lebanon’s future prime minister, Bashir Gemayel, that the Phalangists would not move; and an assurance from the Pentagon that US Marines would be the ultimate guarantors of those commitments. On the strength of those promises, Habib gave a written undertaking on civilian safety. Two letters were addressed to the Lebanese prime minister. The US undertaking was contained in the fourth clause of the agreement on the PLO’s departure, published by the US, the day before the first Palestinian fighters left.5

But Arafat was increasingly worried about the fate of the Palestinian civilians. Habib again approached Gemayel, who renewed his promise.6 He stressed the role of the multinational force of 800 French, 500 Italians and 800 Americans. The first (French) contingent arrived to supervise the evacuation and collection of weapons. The force was to remain for about 30 days, prevent any untoward action and protect Palestinian families. Finally Arafat agreed to leave Beirut.

No one kept their word

US Phantom jet bombs Beirut, the capital. USS New Jersey, sitting offshore, also shelled Lebanese towns and cities.

US Phantom jet bombs Beirut, the capital. USS New Jersey, sitting offshore, also shelled Lebanese towns and cities.

But no one kept their word. Starting with the United States. Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger, who ordered the Marines to leave Lebanon even as the Christian militiamen were taking up positions in the Bir Hassan district around the Sabra and Shatila camps. The American departure triggered the departure of the French and Italians. On 10 September the last soldier left Beirut, but the Habib plan had been based on evacuation between 21 and 26 September. When Bashir Gemayel, now Lebanese president, brought to power by the Israelis, was assassinated, Sharon used this as a pretext to invade West Beirut, surround the Sabra and Shatila camps and encourage the Lebanese militia to a cleansing operation.

To this day, there has been only one official enquiry, that of the Israeli Commission chaired by Yitzhak Kahan, president of the Supreme Court, published in 1983. It points the finger at the Phalangists and, to a lesser degree, Ariel Sharon. The report first speaks of a grave mistake by Sharon, who failed to exercise supervision and prevent the massacres. It describes it as “puzzling” that Sharon did not in any way make Menachem Begin “privy to the decision to have the Phalangists enter the camps”. It concludes that “responsibility has to be imputed to him for not ordering appropriate measures for preventing or remedying the danger of massacres”. Sharon, it said, bore “personal responsibility” and must draw the personal conclusions.

Israeli newspapers have published a number of articles confirming and reinforcing those conclusions, in particular in 1994. Relying on official documents, Amir Oren wrote in Davar in July 1994 that the massacres were part of a plan decided upon between Sharon and Gemayel. They used the Israeli secret services, headed by Abraham Shalom, who was ordered to exterminate all “terrorists”. The Lebanese militiamen were simply agents in the chain of command that led, via the secret services, to the Israeli authorities.

The BBC’s Panorama programme, The Accused, broadcast in June 2001, further illuminated the events, particularly the evidence of Morris Draper, Habib’s assistant, which is hardly open to challenge. Reminded of Sharon’s claims that he could not predict what was to happen in the camps, Draper commented that it was “compete and utter nonsense”. He told of a meeting at the defence ministry in Tel Aviv with Sharon and Arnos Yaron, his chief of staff, on the day when the Israelis had already entered West Beirut, despite their undertaking. Yaron justified that decision, citing the desire to prevent the Phalangists from turning on the Palestinians after the assassination of Gemayel.

Draper said: “The whole group of maybe 20 of us altogether fell silent. It was a dramatic moment.” He explained that the United States had rejected the Israeli proposal to deploy the Phalangists in West Beirut “because we knew it would be a massacre”. He added: “There is no doubt whatsoever that Ariel Sharon was responsible. Well, more Israelis have to share in that responsibility.”

The former diplomat was not questioned about US responsibility or that of France and Italy, both of which withdrew troops once the Marines left.

The families of the victims and the disappeared are entitled to the truth, to allow them to complete mourning. And the whole world is entitled to know who organised and perpetrated these acts, and how, and why.

* Author of Dernières volontés, derniers combats, dernières souf-frances (Plon, 2002) and Manipulations africaines (Plon, 2001). This article is reproduced from Le monde diplomatique, September 2002.


1 Commander, South Lebanon Army who worked with the Israelis.

2 See, especially, Les Portes du Soleil, Le Monde diplomatique and Actes Sud, which describes 50 years of the Palestinian tragedy. Khoury’s play Les mémoires de Job was well received in Paris.

3 See below. According to prosecuting counsel, Shibli Mallat, it was not Hobeika’s revelations that posed a threat to Sharon but his mere presence in Brussels. Once he was before the tribunal and inevitably charged, jurisdiction would cease to be an issue.

4 Direct, albeit discreet, talks had been taking place for years in Beirut between the Palestinian leadership and the US embassy as well as the CIA. In 1979, Arafat secured the release of 13 American hostages in Teheran.

5 In American Foreign Policy, Current Documents, State Department, Washington, 1982: “… law-abiding Palestinian non-combatants left behind in Beirut, including families of those who have departed, will be subject to Lebanese laws and regulations. The Governments of Lebanon and the United States will provide appropriate guarantees of safety in the following ways … The United States will provide its guarantees on the basis of the assurances received from Lebanese groups with which it has been in touch.”

6 For the history of the negotiations conducted by Philip Habib, see John Boykin, Cursed is the Peacemaker, with a preface by George Schultz, then US Secretary of State (Applegate Press, Washington, 2002), and The Multinational Force in Beirut 1982-1984 (Florida International University, Miami, 1991), edited by Anthony McDermott and Kjell Skjelsbaek.

Dirty work in secret

By the Dossier on Palestine editorial team

Israeli governments have always disclaimed direct involvement of their armed forces in this slaughter, but recent basic forensic detective work may have caught them in a lie.

According to Alain Menargues, Beirut correspondent for Radio France 1982-95, an Israeli hit squad named “Sayerret Matkal” secretly penetrated Sabra and Chatila refugee camps on the morning of 15 September 1982 – before the entry of the Phalangist gangs – to execute 120 “Palestinian activists” from a list that included their names and addresses.

The victims were executed with a bullet to the nape of the neck, in the same fashion as 63 others murdered earlier by this unit throughout the Occupied Territories. The latter were “lawyers, doctors, teachers and even nurses… who had believed their status as non-combatants placed them above the battle.” The strategy of Israeli Defence Minister Sharon was to send in this squad to “dismantle Palestinian infrastructure” – credible witnesses, life-saving personnel, etc. – in advance of, and in order to facilitate, subsequent mass slaughters by a later wave, comprising the forces of the “South Lebanese Army” (SLA).

Although Israel’s official Kahan Commission, which assigned Ariel Sharon “indirect” responsibility while exonerating the Begin cabinet, acknowledged coroners’ autopsy findings of two different calibres of bullets corresponding to Phalangist and SLA weaponry, Menargues unraveled his new disclosures by following up the discovery of a third calibre of bullet, unique to Israeli special forces and ignored by the Commission.

His book is due to be published in Paris by Albin Michel in December 2002.


Birth of a massacre: a brief chronology

By the Dossier on Palestine editorial team

Feb, 1982: Israel’s Major General Yehoshua Saguym, Chief of Intelligence, meets with Pentagon officials and Secretary of Defense Haig to outline plans for a major invasion of Lebanon. Israel takes delivery of $217,695,000 worth of us arms. The media prepares for the invasion by “revealing” the PLO was receiving Soviet rockets supposedly to threaten Israel. (Israel’s casualties from cross border shelling by the PLO from 1967–June 1982, totalled, according to army statistics, 106.)

6 Jun: Israeli minister of defence, Ariel Sharon, launches the operation ‘Peace in Galillee’ – the air, land and sea invasion of Lebanon.

Declaring Lebanon a “geographical expression”, Israel occupies one-third of a sovereign country and bombs Beirut, which has no military significance. Tens of thousands are killed and wounded, at least 80 per cent of them innocent civilians; cluster and phosphorus bombs rain down on schools, orphanages and hospitals over three months. This drives 500,000 from their homes. The uss New Jersey shells towns from offshore. The skill of the Palestinian defence, who fight street by street for some 60 plus days, forestalls the capture of Beirut. There are 500 Israeli casualties – a disaster in Zionist terms.

20 Aug: Following a new agreement between Reagan and Begin, the PLO agrees to US terms. The next day the first contingent of a ‘multinational’ force, composed of us Marines from the 6th Fleet, Italians and the French, arrives.

30 Aug: Arafat and 5,000 PLO fighters are forced to emigrate to Tunis, leaving Beirut defenceless.

10 Sep: US Marines and multinational force departs Beirut ten days earlier than agreed.

14 Sep: President Bashir Gemayel killed.

15 Sep: Israeli troops occupy West Beirut.

15-18 Sep: massacres in Sabra and Chatila Palestinian camps in West Beirut.

1985: The massacre at Sabra and Shatila is described as an act of genocide in resolutions of the UN General Assembly and UN Commission of Human Rights (e/cn.4/res/1985/4, UNCHR, 26 February 1985), the latter imputing responsibility directly with Israel). ‘Genocide’ includes an intent to destroy in whole or part a national ethnic, racial or religious group.



Filed under History, Palestine, West Asia (Middle East)

2 responses to “Sabra & Shatila, 1982 – never again

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