Sabra and Shatila

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Sabra and Shatila

On September 16 and 17, 1982, members of the LF (the "Lebanese Forces"), a Christian-Maronite militia, carried out a massacre targeting civilians at the Palestinian refugee camps Sabra and Shatila, located in the southern part of Beirut, the capital of Lebanon. Nearly a thousand people lost their lives in this massacre and many other were wounded.

The Lebanese Forces were established by Bashir al-Jumayyil in 1976 as the military wing of the Lebanese front. Their aim was to unite all Maronite forces in Lebanon. However, most members of the LF also belonged to a second Maronite party called the Lebanese Phalanges, which had been established by Bashir al-Jumayyil's father, Pierre, in 1936. This is why some sources refer to the Phalanges as those who had carried out the massacre, while other sources refer to the LF.

The Lebanese Forces entered the refugee camps two days after the assassination of their leader and their founder, Bashir al-Jumayyil. They did so in coordination with and at the request of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), which was in full control of Beirut at that time.

The IDF had invaded Lebanon on June 5, 1982. After a few days, the Israeli forces reached the outskirts of Beirut. The IDF's mission was named by the Israeli government "the Peace for the Galilee Operation." Its ostensible aim was to remove the threat of attack by the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) against the Israeli settlements along the Israeli-Lebanese border. It soon became clear, however, that the operation had more far-reaching targets. One such goal was to bring to power in Beirut an element friendly to Israel that would sign a peace agreement with it. This element was, in the eyes of the Israelis, the Lebanese Forces under the leadership of Bashir al-Jumayyil, who at that time maintained close ties with Israel.

The IDF reached Beirut within a week of the start of the war. They were joined by the LF and sealed off the Western part of the city, where Sunnis, ShiDites and Palestinians lived. On August 13, the PLO and Syrian forces, which were deployed in Western Beirut, started leaving the city, and on August 23, 1982, Bashir al-Jumayyil was elected President of Lebanon. But on September 14, 1982, Bashir al-Jumayyil was killed in an explosion—a bomb had been planted in his headquarters by a member of the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party (SSNP), a radical Lebanese party known for its close ties with Syria. Israel's illusions of being able to dictate a new Lebanese order were dashed.

After Jumayyil's death, the Israeli government, on the initiative of the then Defense Minister Ariel Sharon and Chief of the General Staff Refael Eytan, decided to take control of the western part of Beirut. The reason given for this move was the need to ensure peace and stability in the city for all its citizens. In fact, it was a clear effort to save at least a part of the massive investment Israel had made in Lebanon. On September 15, 1982, the IDF entered West Beirut. The Israeli commanders feared that members of the PLO who remained in the refugee camps would shoot at their soldiers, so they sent in their Lebanese allies, the LF, to take control.

On the evening of September 16, 1982, LF units under the command of Elie Hubayka entered the refugee camps. Hubayka served in the capacity of intelligence and security officer. Upon entering the Palestinian camps the LF unit began killing Palestinian civilians.

One reason for the killing was, no doubt, a desire to take revenge on the Palestinians for the assassination of Bashir al-Jumayyil. Another compelling reason, however, may have been the belief, commonly held within the hard core of the Maronite community, that the best way to deal with the Palestinians in Lebanon was through drastic measures that would cause them to flee the country. The massacre that ensued in Sabra and Shatila was but one of many civilian massacres to take place during the civil war in Lebanon. These further acts included the massacre of Christians in January 1976, after the Palestinians captured the Maronite town of Damur, and the massacre of Palestinian civilians in the refugee camp Tal al-ZaDtar, which fell into the hands of the LF in August 1976.

First reports of sporadic killings among civilians in the refugee camps Sabra and Shatila reached the Israeli forces surrounding the camps throughout the evening of September 16, and more reports were received throughout the following day. The IDF commanders, however, responded to these reports with indifference, and preferred to treat them as exaggerations or as exceptions that did not represent the general activity of the Lebanese Forces in these camps. The IDF even provided some technical assistance to the Lebanese Forces, such as projectors and a bulldozer that was brought in to clear away the rubble. Only after the reports could no longer be ignored or dismissed did the IDF order the LF to pull out of the camps.

There is some dispute regarding the number of the casualties in the massacre. The Lebanese investigation committee, established to inquire into the massacre, reported 460 dead. Of these, 15 were women and 20 were children. The remaining 425, all adult males, included 328 Palestinians, 109 Lebanese, 7 Syrians, 3 Pakistanis, 2 Algerians, and 2 Iranians. The Kahan Committee, organized by the Israelis, reported between 700 and 800 dead. The Palestinian Red Cross estimated that the number of the dead was 2,000 and reported that it issued death certificates for 1,200 people.

The Lebanese investigation, headed by the Military Attorney General, AsaDd Jaramnus, cleared the LF of any responsibility for the massacre, but failed to place responsibility on anyone else. However, it did mention reports alleging that some of the dead were killed by PLO activists before they left Beirut, or by members of SaDd Haddad's militia. SaDd Haddad was the commander of an Israeli-supported Maronite militia that had been deployed along the Israel-Lebanese border.

The Kahan committee, established in Israel as a result of public pressure to investigate the massacre, came to a different conclusion. The committee determined that members of the LF were responsible for the massacre. It also concluded that the Israeli military and the political leadership in Israel took no part in the planning or conduct of the massacre in the refugee camps but that, nonetheless, Israel did bear indirect responsibility. The committee argued that Israel's leaders and the army commanders failed to seriously consider the possibility that its LF proxies would carry out such a massacre when they were allowed into the camps. In addition, the committee pointed out that the Israeli commanders in the field did not react quickly enough when they first heard reports about the massacre while it was still ongoing. As a result of the committee's conclusions, Ariel Sharon was forced to resign his office as Israeli Minister of Defense, as was Yehushua Shagi, then Israel's Chief of Military Intelligence. The Chief of the General Staff, Refael Eytan, was permitted to finish out his term of office.

The findings of the Lebanese investigators reflected the public desire to bury the memory of the massacre so it would not disturb the process of conciliation among the various communities within Lebanese society. The fact that the dead were mainly Palestinian, a rejected element within the Lebanese society, made it easier to downplay the extent and significance of the massacre. Those who were directly responsible for the Sabra and Shatila killings were never brought to trial. The most prominent among them, Elie Hubayka, defected to Lebanon's pro-Syrian political camp and became an ally of Damascus. Under Syrian patronage he served as a minister in various Lebanese governments during the 1990s. He was assassinated in 2002, and some believe that his assassination was linked to his involvement in the massacre.

In Israel, in contrast, the massacre led to a public debate about Israel's moral responsibility for the massacre. Nevertheless, the indirect responsibility that the Kahan committee placed on some Israeli figures, such as Ariel Sharon, did not cause any lasting damage to their public standing. Indeed, in January 2001, Ariel Sharon was elected Prime Minister of Israel.

SEE ALSO Massacres; Refugee Camps


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Eyal Zisser