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Sabra and Shatila massacre

The Sabra and Shatila massacre (or Sabra and Chatila massacre) occurred in September, 1982 in Israeli-occupied Beirut, Lebanon by Lebanese Christians. Some advocates, and in particular the United Nations, have called it an act of "genocide" -- a term with international legal ramifications. Much debate has focused on Israel's degree of responsibility.

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At the time, Lebanon was in a civil war involving complex series of alliances. Among them was the alliance between Israel and Lebanese Christians, led by the Phalangist[?] party and militia. They were in conflict with Muslims, including Palestinians represented by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Massacres among different ethnic groups were not uncommon during that civil war, which has claimed up to 100,000 victims in 1975-1990, but Israel claims its experience working with the Phalanges before the massacres did not indicate a tendency among them for violence against civilians. The Phalangist leader of the time, Bashir Gemayel, extremely popular among Maronites, was actually known to be ruthless and to have massacred potential rivals. He was elected president of Lebanon on August 23. Israel had been training, arming, supplying and even uniforming Phalangist troops since 1976.

The PLO had been using Lebanon as a staging grounds for attacks on Israel's northern border, and on that basis Israel had invaded southern Lebanon on June 6, 1982. Under a US-sponsored cease fire agreement signed in late August, the PLO agreed to leave Lebanon under international supervision and Israel agreed not to advance into Beirut and to guarantee the security of Palestinian civilians left behind in the camps. On September 1st, the evacuation of the PLO fighters was completed and by September 10 the international force (US, French, and Italian) overseeing it had withdrawn. However, on September 14, 1982, Bashir Gemayel was assassinated, immediately raising vows for revenge. The perpetrator was later discovered to be a Syrian agent, but Israeli Defense Minister, Ariel Sharon, blamed the assassination on the Palestinians, which served to inflame the Phalangists' well-known hatred of Palestinians. Gemayel's death also left a state of instability, which made the Israeli leadership want to secure its position by invading West Beirut. The Israeli intelligence claimed that the Sabra and Shatila camps for Palestinian refugees in Beirut still contained up to 2,000 PLO members (who allegedly were not evacuated, as they were supposed to, on the basis of the earlier agreement), and some weapons, a claim that has been disputed (more below).

Events The Phalangist militia and the Israeli Defense Force[?] (IDF) reached an understanding that the IDF would control the perimeters of the camps and the Phalangists would filter out the PLO men and hand them over to Israeli forces. Sharon's instructions to the Phalanges emphasized that the IDF was to retain commandment of all the forces in the area. On the evening of September 16, 1982, the IDF encircled the camps and the Phalangists entered, under the command of Elie Hobeika[?]. For the next 36 hours, the Phalangists massacred the inhabitants of the camps, while the IDF was entering West Beirut.

By noon Wednesday, 15 September, the IDF had completely surrounded and sealed off the camps and set up observation posts on the roofs of nearby tall buildings. By midday Thursday, Israel announced that it controlled all key points in Beirut. The IDF met throughout the day with Phalangist leaders, including Hobeika[?], to arrange the details of their entry in the camps and to instruct them not to harm civilians. At 4pm, 1500 militiamen assembled and started moving towards the camps, and a first unit of 150 men entered the camp at sunset, armed with guns and knives and hatchets. From nightfall till late into the night, on both nights, the IDF fired illuminating flares above the camps. A Phalangist officer reported 300 hundred civilian killings to the Israeli command post as early as 8pm Thursday night, and further reports of the killings followed through the night. Some of these reports were forwarded to Tel Aviv and seen by a number of IDF senior officers.

Despite this, reinforcements arrived in the camps on Friday morning. During all that time, individual Israeli troops witnessed fragments of the massacre. At one time it was a radio question aimed at Elie Hobeika[?] asking what to do with the women and children and intercepted by an Israeli liaison officer (he replied "This is the last time you're going to ask me a question like that, you know exactly what to do", Phalange troops at the spot laughing having heard that). Another time it was a tank crew seeing several men, women and children led to a stadium (apparently to be shot). Some IDF soldiers posted around the camps followed their orders and turned back refugees trying to flee. Others reported what they were witnessing to their superiors. Phalangists kept coming to them for food, water and ammunition throughout the massacre. At 11:30am, IDF General Yaron ordered the Phalanges to stop advancing. That order seems to have been largely ignored. Later in the afternoon, a council of Israeli officials decided to give the Phalanges still until 5am the following day. American pressure sparked by the rumors of massacre was apparently the motive behind the decision to stop the Phalanges. The IDF also provided the militia with an additional bulldozer.

The militia men did not exit the camps at 5am on Saturday like they had been ordered, but at 10am, after forcing the remaining survivors to march out of the camps, randomly killing individuals, and sending most of the others to the stadium for interrogations, which went on for the entire day. The IDF did not enter the camps then, to avoid getting implicated. The first foreign journalists were allowed into the camps at 9am and upon finding hundreds of bodies scattered everywhere, many of them mutilated, broadcast the first official news of the massacre around noon.

The precise number of victims of the massacre is unknown. The International Committee of the Red Cross counted 2,750. Israeli figures, based on IDF intelligence, cite a figure of 700-800, a similar figure being brought by the Lebanese authorities and most Western sources, and occasional reports go from as little as 300 to as much as 3,000.

Allegations against Israel The news spread through media around the world. Following the controversy, Israel formed a Commission of Inquiry led by the former Supreme Justice Kahan. The report included the evidence of Israeli army personnel, as well as political figures and Phalange officers. In the report, published in the spring of 1983, the Commission stated that there was no evidence that Israeli units took part in the massacre or were even were aware of it. They may have been aware of shooting, but they stopped the Phalangists as soon as they realized it was a massacre. Furthermore, it stated that it was proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the sole perpetrators of the massacre were Hobeika and his men. However, it recommended that Israel's Defense Minister Ariel Sharon resign and several Army personnel be demoted for gross negligence for the introduction of the Phalangists into the camps.

Others disagree with the report:

"The massacre was not a spontaneous act of vengeance for the murder of Bashir Gemayel, but an operation planned in advance aimed at effecting a mass exodus by the Palestinians from Beirut and other parts of Lebanon. Israel's participation in prior massacres directed against Palestinian people creates a most disturbing pattern of a political struggle carried on by means of mass terror directed at the civilians, including women, children, and the aged." [1] (http://www.jerusalemites.org/sabra)

Some, such as Noam Chomsky and Robert Fisk, have alleged that the Israelis must have been aware of the massacre. Furthermore, they have doubted that their were any PLO members in the camps, as 1) the Kahan Commission claims that the IDF sent 150 Phalangists to fight 2,000 PLO members (an uncharacteristically poor military tactic) and 2) the Phalangists suffered only two casualties, an impropable outcome of a 36-hour battle involving 2,000 experienced soldiers [FT]. Chomsky's analysis has been criticized by some as subjective, due to his own, proclaimed political views, which are considered radical by many. Both books have been critically acclaimed.

Critics, however, have numerous objections to that point of view. According to them, Israel never claimed all of the PLO members (as opposed to Fatah militants) were armed or tried to organize a defense; on several previous occasions, the Phalanges were summoned just to filter out the PLO members from the rest of the Lebanese crowd. In these cases, the Phalanges' conduct was good. In addition, Israel points out that the Phalanges' field commander, Elie Hobeika[?], was at that time already maintaining contacts with Syria (he openly defected a while later), suggesting that he may have orchestrated the massacres as a political provocation against his Israeli allies (a move not untypical of him); finally, Israel points out that the Israeli army never received an order (on this occasion or any other), that would imply the death of unarmed civilians.

Nevertheless, Israel had committed in writing to protecting the Palestinian civilians as was its duty as an occupying power under international law.

Following Sharon's 2001 election to the post of Prime Minister of Israel, a lawsuit was filed in Belgium regarding his alleged role in causing in the Sabra and Shatila massacres. The Belgian Supreme Court ruled on February 12, 2003, that Sharon (and others, among whom Yaron) can be indicted under this accusation. Critics of this lawsuit claim that it was made for political reasons. Israel reacted with furor to the ruling, and questionned the legitimacy of Belgian courts over the case, forgetting that Israeli citizens have also brought a (unrelated) case forward to the very same courts against the Palestinians.

The information in the lawsuit is disturbing. The lawsuit is partly based on a part of the Kahan commission which was never made public(the sealed portion of the report.) This report was made available to Belgian prosecutors by an Israeli source. Details of the Belgian case are available at http://www.indictsharon.net .

See also

  • Kahan Commission of Inquiry (http://www.us-israel.org/jsource/History/kahan) - Israel's official investigation regarding the massacre
  • From Israel to Damascus (http://www.israeltodamascus.com/index.htm) a book written by Elie Hobeika's bodyguard, that includes the description of how Hobeika carried out the massacre.
  • A Palestinian view on the massacre (http://www.jerusalemites.org/sabra)
  • Statement by Guardians of the Ceder (http://www.gotc.org/st16.7.1.htm), a Lebanese-Christian nationalist group, expressing its regret over the unilaterality of the investigation in Belgium.
  • [2] (http://www.indictsharon.net) the website of the International Campaign for Justice for the Victims of Sabra & Shatila, offering news on the case lodged in Belgium against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and other Israelis and Lebanese responsible for the massacre
  • Terrorism against Arabs, Terrorism against Israel
  • "Pity the nation: The Abduction of Lebanon", Robert Fisk (ISBN 1560254424)


  • [FT] Fateful Triangle, Noam Chomsky (ISBN 0-89608-601-1)
  • "The Sabra and Shatila massacres: eye-witness reports" Leila Shahid, with an introduction by Linda Butler, in Journal of Palestine Studies XXXII, no. 1 (Autumn 2002)

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