Today in Middle Eastern history: the Sabra and Shatila massacre (1982)

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Of all the atrocities that took place during Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war, and of all the atrocities that have been blamed on the Israeli Defense Forces, or on American meddling in Middle Eastern affairs, over the past several decades, what happened in the Sabra neighborhood of west Beirut and the neighboring Shatila refugee camp between September 16 and September 18, 1982, stands out among the very worst. We’ve already talked about the June 6 start of the so-called Lebanon War, the 1982-1985 phase of the civil war that saw Israel invade southern Lebanon. Israel was ostensibly retaliating for the attempted assassination of the Israeli ambassador to the UK by the Abu Nidal organization and the killing of an IDF soldier in southern Lebanon. But in reality Israeli defense minister (and later prime minister) Ariel Sharon had already been planning an invasion of southern Lebanon and was simply waiting for a justification.


Sharon, in 1982, talking with Ronald Reagan’s defense secretary, Caspar Weinberger (Wikimedia Commons)

The IDF and its Lebanese Christian allies, called either the Kataeb Party in Arabic or the Phalanges Party in French (both kataib and phalanges mean “phalanxes,” as in the military unit), quickly surrounded and besieged Palestinian-controlled areas of western Beirut. With US mediation, they reached a deal on August 21 that allowed the Palestinian fighters to evacuate under international supervision and, crucially, was supposed to provide for the protection of civilians living in both the Beirut neighborhoods and the refugee camp. The implementation process seemed to go fairly smoothly. By September 1 the PLO had pulled most of its fighters not only out of western Beirut, but out of Lebanon altogether. But then something very unexpected caused the situation to quickly take a turn for the worse.

Fair warning, it’s going to get very unpleasant from here on.

On August 23, Phalanges Party leader Bachir Gemayel was elected president of Lebanon. The Israelis were very pleased, because they’d had a tight relationship with both the Phalanges in general and Gemayel in particular, and so they expected that he would quickly sign a treaty with them. But Gemayel was under some pressure from elements within the Phalanges Party to instead cut a deal with Syria, which had begun to make inroads among Lebanon’s Christian community, and so he hesitated. On September 14, before he could make up his mind about how to proceed, Gemayel was assassinated by a bomb planted in the east Beirut apartment that served as Phalanges Party HQ. Lebanese authorities arrested a Syrian Social Nationalist Party member named Habib Shartouni, who confessed to the bombing and who was probably working on behalf of Syria though that’s never been proven conclusively.

The Israelis, seeing a chance to kill (literally) two birds with one stone, approached the Phalanges about undertaking an assault on west Beirut in retaliation for the assassination—even though there was nothing connecting the PLO, let alone the Palestinian civilians living in Sabra and Shatila, to Gemayel’s killing. This operation would have the dual effect of strengthening Phalanges-Israeli ties and, hopefully, of driving even the remaining Palestinian civilians out of Lebanon—or, I guess, just killing them—so as to leave the Christians in a stronger position in Lebanon’s sect-based political system.

The Israelis initially planned to use Gemayel’s assassination as an excuse to invade west Beirut themselves, but they opted to seize control of the area and employ the Phalanges as proxies to carry out the actual violence, the better to avoid antagonizing Washington. Already the Israeli government of Menachem Begin had started getting nastygrams from the Reagan administration admonishing it to stop causing civilian casualties in Lebanon, lest the US-Israel relationship be imperiled. Yes, hard as it may be to believe there was a time when the US government would occasionally pressure Israel over civilian casualties. The Israelis felt using a proxy would give them some plausible deniability for the violence they were about to unleash. The decision to use the Phalanges, still angry about Gemayel and eager to prove themselves, ensured the bloodbath that followed.

The Americans, I guess to their credit (it was the literal least they could do) began complaining to the Israelis as soon as the IDF moved to take control of west Beirut—they weren’t buying Sharon’s claim that there were still thousands of PLO fighters in the area—and even some in Begin’s government seem to have been uncomfortable with the idea of turning the Phalanges loose:

In Tel Aviv, Mr. Draper and the American ambassador, Samuel W. Lewis, met with top Israeli officials. Contrary to Prime Minister Begin’s earlier assurances, Defense Minister Sharon said the occupation of West Beirut was justified because there were “2,000 to 3,000 terrorists who remained there.” Mr. Draper disputed this claim; having coordinated the August evacuation, he knew the number was minuscule. Mr. Draper said he was horrified to hear that Mr. Sharon was considering allowing the Phalange militia into West Beirut. Even the I.D.F. chief of staff, Rafael Eitan, acknowledged to the Americans that he feared “a relentless slaughter.”

On the evening of Sept. 16, the Israeli cabinet met and was informed that Phalange fighters were entering the Palestinian camps. Deputy Prime Minister David Levy worried aloud: “I know what the meaning of revenge is for them, what kind of slaughter. Then no one will believe we went in to create order there, and we will bear the blame.” That evening, word of civilian deaths began to filter out to Israeli military officials, politicians and journalists.

As evening set in over west Beirut on September 16, Phalanges fighters allegedly under the command of Elie Hobeika (Hobeika denied this, see below)—though really Sharon was in overall control of the operation—began combing through the streets of Sabra and Shatila, killing just about anybody they encountered. Estimates vary from a low of about 450 dead to a high of around 3500, with most impartial (i.e., not Lebanese and not Israeli) estimates landing somewhere in the neighborhood of 2000 men, women, and children slaughtered. The violence was the stuff of nightmares:

When Israeli troops and foreign journalists entered the camps on the morning of September 18, 1982, they found mounds of corpses. Israeli intelligence said the dead numbered about 800. The killers had butchered everyone in their path – mutilating many of their victims. Young men were castrated, others scalped, and some had signs of the Cross carved into their bodies.


Photo taken of the aftermath of the massacre at Shatila, by Robin Moyer for Time (Wikimedia Commons)

Survivors of the massacre have also described what they saw:

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.”

Israeli soldiers witnessed the violence, and in isolated instances may have stepped in to prevent this or that particular atrocity. But for the most part they at least watched it all take place, and in some cases seem to have participated more directly:

Jameel Khalifa was 16-years-old and newly engaged when the massacre took place.

“On Saturday morning, we saw them [fighters] climbing down the sand bank and heading for the houses,” she told Al Jazeera. “We saw the tanks coming in, on them were Israeli soldiers and Lebanese fighters, some in civilian clothes, some with masks on.”

As the fighters began pounding on the front door, most of her family escaped through the back into their neighbour’s shelter. On hearing the soldiers’ orders that they would not shoot if they surrendered, an elderly woman in the shelter ripped up her white scarf, handing each of them a strip to wave to stop them from being shot at.

“My dad was holding me, telling me not to leave the shelter, but I told him we should,” she said.

The women left the shelter first.

As her mother came out the shelter, a Lebanese fighter shoved his Kalashnikov in her stomach. “I’m going to kill you, you, b****!”

An Israeli soldier observing nearby told him in Hebrew to leave her alone.

“My father was coming out [of] the shelter behind my mother. As he stepped out, he was killed with a bullet to the head by an Israeli soldier,” Khalifa said.

By the morning of September 17 reports of the massacre were already reaching Washington, and Reagan’s Middle East envoy, Morris Draper, demanded in a meeting with Sharon and then-Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir (who would also later serve as prime minister) that the Israelis order the Phalanges to stand down. But Sharon refused, and Draper failed to challenge his assertion that the operation was killing PLO terrorists, when in reality it was killing civilians and refugees. To make matters worse, by not dealing directly with Begin the Reagan administration elevated Sharon’s stature and ensured that nothing would stop the massacre, because he was fully committed to seeing it through to the bloody end. By September 18, when it was impossible to pretend that anything other than a massacre had taken place, Reagan publicly denounced the attack, but obviously it was far too late by then.

The fallout from Sabra and Shatila was wide ranging. The UN voted to declare it an act of genocide, since its aim was really the slaughter of the Palestinian civilians living in western Beirut. Israel’s investigation, the Kahan Commission, blamed Sharon for not doing more to prevent bloodshed, an entirely bullshit charge given that bloodshed was exactly what he wanted. He was forced to resign as defense minister, though unfortunately this didn’t have any long-term negative impact on his political career. Elie Hobeika, upon whom the Kahan Commission piled most of the blame for the massacre, spent the rest of his life denying that he played any, let alone a leading, role in what happened. It’s an interesting coincidence, or maybe not so much a coincidence, that Hobeika was assassinated in Beirut in 2002, by parties still unknown, at a time when the Prime Minister of Israel was, hey look at that, Ariel Sharon. The US was blamed, rightly, for negotiating the PLO’s withdrawal from Lebanon and essentially leaving the civilians in west Beirut at the mercy of their attackers. The Israelis didn’t begin withdrawing from Lebanon until 1985, and then remained in a “security zone” in southern Lebanon until 2000.

There’s one more bit of fallout worth mentioning. A group of US Marines had overseen the PLO withdrawal from Lebanon and then pulled out of Lebanon themselves on September 10. Their withdrawal, in fact, arguably violated US promises to ensure the security of Palestinian civilians in Beirut and inarguably helped to enable the massacre. They were quickly deployed back to Lebanon and told to, well, mostly just be there to make Washington look better. They were still there on October 23, when their barracks was bombed, likely by elements of what would eventually become Hezbollah, and 241 of them were killed.