September 16


The anniversary of the massacres in Sabra and Shatila and a chance to explore another of the many ways in which we re-tell and re-write history to suit our own interests.

First, a view from the Jewish Diaspora. The online Jewish Virtual Library tells it like this:

"The Lebanese Christian Phalangist militia was responsible for the massacres that occurred at the two Beirut-area refugee camps on September 16-17, 1982. Israeli troops allowed the Phalangists to enter Sabra and Shatila to root out terrorist cells believed located there. It had been estimated that there may have been up to 200 armed men in the camps working out of the countless bunkers built by the PLO over the years, and stocked with generous reserves of ammunition.

"When Israeli soldiers ordered the Phalangists out, they found hundreds dead (estimates range from 460 according to the Lebanese police, to 700-800 calculated by Israeli intelligence). The dead, according to the Lebanese account, included 35 women and children. The rest were men: Palestinians, Lebanese, Pakistanis, Iranians, Syrians and Algerians. The killings came on top of an estimated 95,000 deaths that had occurred during the civil war in Lebanon from 1975-1982.

"The killings were perpetrated to avenge the murders of Lebanese President Bashir Gemayel and 25 of his followers, killed in a bomb attack earlier that week.

"Israel had allowed the Phalange to enter the camps as part of a plan to transfer authority to the Lebanese, and accepted responsibility for that decision. The
Kahan Commission of Inquiry, formed by the Israeli government in response to public outrage and grief, found that Israel was indirectly responsible for not anticipating the possibility of Phalangist violence. Israel instituted the panel's recommendations, including the dismissal of Gen. Raful Eitan, the Army Chief of Staff. Defense Minister Ariel Sharon resigned.

"'The Kahan Commission,' declared former Secretary of State
Henry Kissinger, was 'a great tribute to Israeli democracy....There are very few governments in the world that one can imagine making such a public investigation of such a difficult and shameful episode.'

"Ironically, while 300,000 Israelis demonstrated in Israel to protest the killings, little or no reaction occurred in the Arab world. Outside the Middle East, a major international outcry against Israel erupted over the massacres. The Phalangists, who perpetrated the crime, were spared the brunt of the condemnations for it.

"By contrast, few voices were raised in May 1985, when Muslim militiamen attacked the Shatila and Burj-el Barajneh Palestinian refugee camps. According to
UN officials, 635 were killed and 2,500 wounded. During a two-year battle between the Syrian-backed Shiite Amal militia and the PLO, more than 2,000, including many civilians, were reportedly killed. No outcry was directed at the PLO or the Syrians and their allies over the slaughter. International reaction was also muted in October 1990 when Syrian forces overran Christian-controlled areas of Lebanon. In the eight-hour clash, 700 Christians were killed-the worst single battle of Lebanon's Civil War.."

Al-Jazeera has the recollections of three Palestinian women: the tale is slightly different, and the memories are thirty years later, but they too blame the Phalangists, "in collaboration with the Israeli army". I have given one of their accounts here; you can read all three by clicking the Al-Jazeera link:

Siham Balqis, a resident of Shatila, was 26 years old when it happened.

"We heard gunshots on Thursday night, but didn't think anything of it, because it was the war and this was not an unusual sound for us," she told Al Jazeera. Living at the Shatila end of the two camps, she said men began in Sabra and worked their way northwards. "They didn't reach us until Saturday morning." At 7am, she was confronted by three Phalangists and an Israeli soldier who ordered them to leave their house. "One of the Lebanese launched forward to attack me, but the Israeli pulled him off me, as if to show he was the better of the two," she remembered. In the commotion that ensued, a Lebanese neighbour of hers spoke to the fighters, saying she heard they were slaughtering people. The fighters dismissed these claims, so she asked them to help the Palestinians who were holed up in Gaza Hospital, located at the Sabra end of the camp. After asking for directions, the fighters marched those they had rounded up, about 200 people, to the hospital. Once there, they ordered the doctors and nurses out of the building, the majority of whom were foreign or Lebanese. "I remember there was one Palestinian boy from the Salem family, in his early 20s, who donned a doctor's coat to try and escape," Balqis said. "The Lebanese caught him, realised he was Palestinian, and pumped his body full of bullets" ...

At one point, the fighters separated the group, putting the women to one side and the remaining men on the other. "They would pick on the men at random and make them crawl on the floor. If they thought they crawled well, they assumed it was due to some sort of military training, so they took them behind a sand bank and killed them." The Lebanese fighters took those they had not killed and forced them to march over the dead bodies scattered on the streets toward the large sports stadium on the outskirts of the camp. "We were made to walk over the dead bodies, and among cluster bombs," Balqis said. "At one point I passed a tank, where the body of a baby only a few days old was stuck to the wheel." At the stadium, the command changed from Lebanese to Israeli. "It was here the Israelis took my brother Salah, who was 30-years-old, for interrogation," she said. Inside the stadium the men were interrogated, tortured, and killed. Few were able to leave alive. The Israelis threatened them, saying, "If you don't cooperate with us, we will hand you over to the Phalangists."

GlobalResearch takes much stronger sides against Israel, regarding the incident as a crime against humanity. It begins by presenting new information, which I have reprinted below; for the full article, click on the GlobalResearch link:

On September 16, 1982, Christian Lebanese militiamen allied to Israel entered the Palestinian refugee camp of Shatila and the adjacent neighborhood of Sabra in Beirut under the watch of the Israeli army and began a slaughter that caused outrage around the world. Over the next day and a half, up to 3,500 Palestinian and Lebanese civilians, mostly women, children, and the elderly, were murdered in one of the worst atrocities in modern Middle Eastern history. The New York Times recently published
an op-ed containing new details of discussions held between Israeli and American officials before and during the massacre. They reveal how Israeli officials, led by then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, misled and bullied American diplomats, rebuffing their concerns about the safety of the inhabitants of Sabra and Shatila.

The same accusation, of an Israeli rather than a Lebanese, or even a joint Lebanese-Israeli, crime against humanity, is made in the Palestinian
The Electronic Intifada, and it too adds information never previously known:

One of Israel’s most infamous crimes occurred 33 years ago this week. In September 1982, the Israeli army surrounded the Sabra neighborhood and adjacent Shatila refugee camp in southern Beirut. Israel gave its allies in a right-wing Christian militia known as the Phalange free rein to massacre a large number of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians living in the area. Israeli troops even shot flares into the night sky to help the Phalangists find their targets..."

You can read the whole article by clicking on The Electronic Intifada link.

And finally, for this survey anyway, a piece from Human Rights Watch, which throws the blame back on the Lebanese government, and wonders why no one there has ever been brought to account.

Israel’s Kahan commission, tasked with investigating the massacre, found that Israel’s Defense Minister at the time, Ariel Sharon, bore personal responsibility for allowing the Phalangists into the camps without taking any measures to prevent the massacre. He was forced to resign as Defense Minister but was later elected Prime Minister. Sharon died in 2014 without ever facing justice, despite sustained but ultimately unsuccessful efforts to prosecute him in Belgium under the country’s universal jurisdiction laws... Amos Yaron, who commanded the Israeli army’s forward post on the roof of a building 200 meters from Shatila, was disciplined by being moved out of operational roles for three years after the Kahan report but in 1999 ended up director-general of Israel’s Defense Ministry... While Israel never held its officials accountable, Lebanon has done even less to shed light on the role of the Lebanese perpetrators. The Kahan commission – in the absence of a Lebanese investigation – found that the Phalange unit that entered the camp was an intelligence unit headed by Elie Hobeika. Yaron told the Kahan commission that Hobeika himself did not go into the camps but was on the roof of the forward command post during the night. One of the Israeli soldiers who was on the roof told the commission that he heard a Phalangist officer inside the camps tell Hobeika over the radio that there were 50 women and children, and ask what should he do. Hobeika’s reported reply over the radio was: “This is the last time you’re going to ask me a question like that. You know exactly what to do.”

Again, you can read the whole article, by clicking on the Human Rights Watch link.

And why do I care so much? I was living on a kibbutz on the northern Israeli border at the time. For fifteen months through 1981 and 1982 we lived under daily bombardment of katyusha rockets from the PLO, who were then based in southern Lebanon. In June 1982 the Israeli army went into Lebanon, with the stated aim of removing the PLO to a buffer zone, 40 miles from the border, at the Litani river. But Minister of Defense Sharon, who was commanding the army, was at odds with Prime Minister Begin, and refused to stop at the Litani, laying a siege to Beirut that would last the next six months, wrecking most of Tyre and Sidon en route. When I heard about the massacres at Sabra and Shatila, I joined the other hundred thousand who marched in Tel Aviv to demand accountability; the march that led to the creation of the Kahan Commission. When Kahan announced its findings, we were jubilant. Thirty-five years later, with Palestinians still living in those and other refugee camps, and the colonisation of the West Bank in daily increase, that jubilation has turned into despondency. 

And one last thought. I have written at length about the Israel-Palestine predicament in my novel "A Little Oil & Root"; in another novel, "My Friend The Prophet", I have recounted the life of the founder of Islam, including the ethnic cleansing of Jews from the city of Yatrib (now Medina). There was never an equivalent of the Kahan Commission to hold Muhammad to account for the eradication of three tribes, the Banu Qurayza, the Banu Qaynuqa and the Banu al-Nadir. In every account that I have ever read, from ibn-Ishaq to the present day, Muhammad is exonerated, and the only person ever named with blood on his hands is Muhammad ibn Maslamah, the man who assassinated the poet Ka'b, a clan-chief of the Banu al-Nadir, and who personally took off between 600 and 900 Banu Qurayza heads in the first phase of the genocide.

But this, I guess, is just one man's view of history.

Amber pages

Henry V of England, or Wales really, born today in 1387

The strange tale of Anthony Panizzi, the only (known) librarian ever to have been hanged in effigy; born today in 1797

The pilgrim-ship Mayflower left Plymouth for Utopia, today in 1620 (the text for this can be found under September 20)

The little village of Shawmut in Massachusetts, became the city of Boston, today in 1630

And GER to Tomas de Torquemada, the Inquisitor-General of Spain, who died, in his own bed sadly, of natural causes alas, today in 1498 - at least, please tell me, that they threw the body on a fire

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