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20 Years After Sabra and Shatila: the Forgotten Massacres

Sabra and Shatila, the Forgotten Massacres

by Peggy Thomson

Every time I open my closet door I see them. The black Talbots sandals I wore when I revisited the wretched Palestinian refugee camps known as Sabra and Shatila. Although I’ve cleaned them, for some reason the sandals seem to be coated with a film of dust and dirt which simply will not go away.

Over the years dirt from Sabra and Shatila has clung just as tenaciously to Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon. As some — but probably not many — Americans may remember, twenty years ago this month the twin camps in southern Beirut were the scene of an infamous massacre carried out by Lebanese militiamen operating under Israel’s direct control. The massacre was an exceptionally tragic denouement to Israel’s 1982 invasion of its neighbor to the north, which Israel carried out with American approval partly in the hope of establishing a Lebanese government friendly to its interests.

During Lebanon’s earlier civil war, Israel had begun viewing the right-wing Christian Phalange militia as a natural ally. (In a strange way the relationship reminds me of Israel’s present relationship with the Christian right in this country in that both parties are trying to use the other for their own ends in an alliance which may in fact be extremely short-lived.) In the late 1970s, both Israel and the Phalangists saw the Palestinians as an enemy — Israel because of the obvious PLO threat and the Christians because the Palestinian refugees had the potential for upsetting the country’s delicate Christian-Muslim communal balance. At the end of Israel’s Lebanon campaign it looked for a very short while like the Phalangist leader Bashir Gemeyal, Israel’s hand-picked candidate, would indeed become the new Lebanese president. This plan was thwarted, however, after Gemeyal was assassinated in a powerful bomb blast shortly before assuming office.

Israel immediately reinvaded West Beirut and secretly began making preparations to allow Lebanese militiamen to enter the refugee camps in search of “terrorists.” In a two-day orgy of bloodshed which subsequently shocked and sickened the world, Israel’s allies murdered between 1,000 and “,000 unarmed Palestinian refugees and impoverished Lebanese while torturing, raping and terrorizing countless others. The death toll may in fact be as high or higher than that of the September 11 attacks on America. No one will ever be able to say for sure because figures for the number killed in the massacre vary wildly.

An Israeli investigative commission eventually found Sharon, who was Israel’s defense minister at the time, “personally responsible” for the slaughter. As a result, many people, including many Israelis, predicted that Sharon would never become Israel’s prime minister. Today, however, the phrase that comes to mind is “never say never.”

Although Sharon has been officially rehabilitated, like every politician he must of necessity be concerned to some degree about his image. In light of the ironfisted tactics he has been using in the occupied territories since assuming the Israeli premiership, the last thing the always controversial Sharon has needed of late was a new wave of publicity relating to his involvement in the massacre.

Interest in the twenty-year-old atrocities was rekindled nonetheless, at least in Europe, after a court case was brought last year against Sharon in Belgium charging him with war crimes. The case received additional attention in January after Elie Hobeika, a Lebanese warlord involved in the massacre, was assassinated in Beirut. Shortly before his death Hobeika had announced that he would go to Belgium to testify against Sharon. Speculation is that Hobeika may have wanted to clear his name by trying to pin a large portion of blame on another Israeli proxy force long implicated in the massacre — the South Lebanon Army of Major Saad Haddad.

Also, it is worth nothing that Hobeika isn’t the only Lebanese Forces militia leader to have recently met with an untimely end: Since the first of the year two of Hobeika’s comrades, who may have had connections to the case, were assassinated or died under mysterious circumstances.

In a surprise move a Belgian appeals court dismissed the case in June on grounds that Sharon could not be prosecuted because he was not residing in Belgium. Lawyers for the Palestinian survivors and relatives say they are appealing the case to the Belgian Supreme Court while Belgian legislators have been busily redrafting the existing law to specify, among other things, that the accused, including sitting heads of government, does not have to be in the country to be prosecuted.

When it comes to the massacres and to Israel’s 1982 Lebanon invasion, people in this country sometimes say, “Oh yeah, I remember hearing something about that. I just can’t remember what.” But you can’t blame the average American for not knowing much about the Lebanon invasion and its aftermath since the story only ever got “a minute-ten” or so on the evening news two or three times a week throughout that long, terrible summer.

Still, as some may remember, in the beginning the stated aim of what Israel euphemistically called “Operation Peace for Galilee” was to stop cross-border attacks by Palestinian guerrillas in southern Lebanon on Israel’s northern settlements. At the time of the Israeli invasion, however, a truce had been in effect for more than a year and not a single settler had been killed.

After Israeli troops reached Beirut in three days, the campaign quickly expanded beyond its original stated aims. The new objective suddenly became the removal of Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization from the Lebanese capital, where the group had gone after being expelled from Jordan in 1970.

By the end of the summer of 1982, nearly 18,000 Lebanese and Palestinian civilians had been killed, most of them in Israeli air strikes on civilian targets. The carnage stopped only after Arafat and his men were shipped to Tunisia and several other Arab countries in a move which seems eerily similar to the deportations this spring of the Palestinian militants who were holed up in the Church of the Nativity.

The fact that this year marks the twentieth anniversary of the invasion may have had something to do with my decision to return to Lebanon this summer. Perhaps in some way I don’t fully understand the events of September 11 also played a role, even though I knew full well that I wasn’t likely to discover any answers to the terrorist attacks carried out against America by nosing around Sabra and Shatila. No, what I think I was doing was trying to pay my respects in some small way to the present inhabitants of the camps and to see what, if anything, had changed since that bright Saturday morning twenty years ago when a voice over a cameraman’s walkie-talkie told me that something dreadful had happened in Sabra and Shatila.

At the time I was a naive young woman fresh out of journalism school who had been dispatched to Syria and Lebanon to help cover “the war.” This time, however, I was in Lebanon for a different reason: to observe a conference which was being held by a group of North American Christians whose aim is to support and encourage the indigenous Christians of the Middle East, who represent an often overlooked and beleaguered minority in the region. (Other than a single busload of Japanese tourists, the sixty or so Americans attending the conference seemed to be the only western — and certainly the only American — visitors in Lebanon at the time.)

While I was there I experienced some ominous signs of what has been described as “the bad old Beirut,” the Beirut everyone wants to forget. One morning, in what is apparently a relatively common occurrence, Israeli jets overflew the city, breaking the sound barrier. The next day a car bomb went off on a quiet residential street, killing Palestinian guerrilla leader Jihad Jibril. If that weren’t enough, the day after that the body of a kidnapped Christian leader was discovered in the trunk of his car. I knew I could have gone to Lebanon without revisiting Sabra and Shatila, but obviously something was drawing me back there. I had planned to go alone to the refugee camps, but Robert Fisk, a former colleague of mine at Canadian Broadcasting and Britain’s most respected Middle East correspondent, offered to accompany me.

As a middle-aged suburban housewife, I knew I cut a slightly ridiculous figure wandering through the camps in my khaki capris and Talbots sandals. (As every middle-class matron knows, Talbots attire is for parties around the pool or leisurely luncheons at the country club and not for the mean streets of Sabra and Shatila.) Leaving our car, we passed the Syrian soldiers who guard the camp and the Syrian workers who live on its fringes. I wanted to see again the spot where Mr. Nouri and another elderly man had fallen as they ran from their homes in their pajamas. They were the first victims I remember seeing, and I remember even now having the odd feeling at the time that I was on the set of a western and that these two old men had been gunned down in the street following a duel perhaps or a fight in a nearby saloon.

Later, standing near a small open field, which is actually a mass grave where several hundred victims of the massacre are buried, I contemplated a long, hand-lettered banner which read “The Arabic people will not forget the American support to the Nazi Sharon in his massacres in Sabra, Shatila and Janin (sic).” Squeezing through the dank, miserable alleyways, which were depressingly unchanged from the way they looked twenty years ago, I stopped before a crude, black-and-white poster of a gorilla — not to be confused with a guerrilla — cradling a baby gorilla in its arms. Ariel Sharon’s face was superimposed on the mother gorilla’s body while the baby had — you guessed it — the face of George W. Bush. (Finding such a poster in the refugee camps may not seem surprising, but later I was somewhat started to see the same poster prominently displayed near the principal’s office in an Anglican school in Amman.)

One theory is that the massacre took place, not because the Christian Phalangists wished to avenge their leader, but rather because the Israelis’ wished to frighten the Palestinians into fleeing, possibly to Jordan. The theory behind such an idea was that the Palestinians from Lebanon would then be joined, voluntarily or otherwise, by those living in the West Bank, thus effecting a wholesale Jordanian “transfer,” an option for solving the Palestinian “problem” still favored today by many Israeli right-wingers. The International Commission of Inquiry — not to be confused with Israel’s Kahan Commission, although both were established to investigate the massacre — noted in its report “the extent to which Israeli participation in prior massacres against the Palestinian people creates a most disturbing pattern of a political struggle carried on by means of mass terror directed at civilians, including women, children and the aged.” This statement is an obvious reference to the 1948 massacre at Deir Yassin, which has long been cited as an example of the use of terror tactics by Israel to effect the exodus of Palestinian civilians.

The only western correspondent still based in Beirut, Robert Fisk has somehow managed to survive twenty-six years of warfare and unrest, including the especially terrifying years during the 1980s when scores of western men — including several friends and acquaintances of ours — were being whisked off the streets by shadowy Islamic kidnappers. But in the year since the September 11 tragedies, Fisk has been faced with another threat: a steadily accelerating stream of hate mail for what many regard as his anti-Israel views, even though the veteran reporter has long been an ardent critic not only of Yasser Arafat and the PLO but also of the Arab world’s various other despotic regimes.

There were, of course other journalists, including a number of Americans, who covered the massacre at Sabra and Shatila. But you don’t hear much from them these days. As we trudged through the camps, I couldn’t help thinking that perhaps Fisk’s dogged pursuit of the massacre story might be yet another reason behind the threats now being made against him.

In an even more disturbing development, the actor John Malkovich has publicly stated that he would like to shoot the fifty-six year-old journalist, a statement Fisk admits worries him, “since a crazy might actually listen to someone like Malkovich and take him seriously.” I must admit experiencing a fleeting moment when I wondered whether it was safe to be in the company of my former colleague. Almost as soon as I had the thought I pushed it away because that’s what Lebanon does to you. It can make what might in other circumstances seem risky somehow seem perfectly normal.

Fisk says he keeps returning to Sabra and Shatila from time to time because whenever he does he learns something new. As disturbing and depressing as the camps are, they do seem to retain a terrible fascination for journalists. And if you stop to think about it, it’s easy to understand why. Like detectives, journalists are attracted to unsolved crimes, and despite the effort mounted in the Belgian court, so far no one has stood trial for the atrocities that took place in Sabra and Shatila. And for the moment at least it seems unlikely that anyone ever will.

The camps also beckon because they represent in the most graphic way imaginable the Palestinian “problem,” a problem soon to be obscured, it would seem, if only temporarily, by a U.S. war in Iraq. Still, journalists are always looking for “the story,” and when you visit Sabra and Shatila — or any other Palestinian refugee camp for that matter — you know you are getting at the heart of the story euphemistically known as “the Middle East conflict.” All of a sudden you see for yourself why the early Zionists’ slogan about what was then Palestine — “a land without a people for a people without a land” — was at best wishful thinking and at worst a dangerous and costly delusion.

Peggy Thomson can be reached at: thomson@counterpunch.org