Martyr’s Square, Shatila Camp
Meandering the alleys and ground vapors of the wet fetid stench in Beirut’s Shatila Palestinian Refugee Camp, 27 years after the 1982 Sabra Shatila Massacre, one witnesses a dystopia. This shanty ground, is the most squalid of the World’s 59 Palestinian Refugee Camps, including the eight in Gaza.
The Camp is an island society of misery characterized by poverty, oppression, tension, nearly 40 per cent unemployment, depression, rising domestic violence, rising student dropout rates, deep frustration among youth eager to enroll in university for fall semester but there is neither tuition money nor places for most Palestinians. The camp families are experiencing rising numbers of respiratory disease cases, nonexistent health care for the majority, pollution and the near total abridgement of civil rights. Many see an explosion on the horizon.
Among the many Lebanese laws that straitjacket Palestinians is a 2002 one that forbids people with no recognized state — Palestinians — to own property outside the camps. So with no room for expansion laterally, the Camp residents are forced to build upward with cinder blocks and this also is illegal unless one has enough money to bribe a series of government officials.
According to Salah M. Sabbagh, a Palestinian-Lebanese lawyer in Beirut. ”If Jesus Christ comes here he cannot own property, because he was born in Bethlehem. He would be better off in that stable.”
Shatila Palestinian Refugee Camp, like Lebanon’s other 11, is a place of widespread sorrow. As in Kafka’s short story, The Penal Colony, it is as if the inhabitants wear their sentences on their foreheads, having run afoul of local or regional Commandants.
Of course the camps fundamental feature is the injustice of the refugees having been expelled from their homes in occupied Palestine and forced into Lebanon six decades ago where increasingly, here under siege, or there under brutal occupation, there is little tolerance for Palestinians or even much concern for their survival.
Today, the political reality that the 410,000 UNRWA registered refugees are increasingly becoming sub-human pawns in Lebanon’s and the region’s political maneuvers, without political, social or human rights. About 25 per cent of Lebanon’s Palestinians have already emigrated from Lebanon, which suits the US and Israel since they want Palestinians anywhere but Palestine. And it suits Lebanese parties which want them anywhere but Lebanon. Local sectarian warlords (Zaiim) may eventually accept about 40,000 or rougly 10 per cent to be naturalized (Tawteen) in Lebanon and who after 10 years or longer could theoretically receive citizenship including voting rights. This number would mainly come from those Palestinian women who already have citizenship or those who have at least some civil rights through marriage with Lebanese men. A recent survey showed that 93 per cent of Lebanon’s Palestinians want no part of naturalization in Lebanon but want to return to their own country. So much for some local politicians’ nonsense that giving anything to the refugees “runs the risk of making them comfortable so they will try to stay.”
A Lebanese woman can convey no rights by marrying any foreign national including Palestinians, a defect in Lebanese law that has been the object of an intermittent corrective campaign by progressive civil organizations here for the past 12 years. They, along with some international NGO’s are seeking to bring Lebanese domestic relations law into line with most of the rest of the world. Legal experts at La Masion des Avocats in Beirut do not foresee significant near-term changes in Lebanon’s law for either woman or Palestinians.
Each year, during mid-September a week of events is held in Lebanon to commemorate the approximately 3,000-3,400 victims of the 1982 Israeli sponsored Sabra-Shatila Massacre. In recent years, more and more people from the international community arrive to participate. This year many have arrived from Italy Norway, Sweden, Finland, Germany, Ireland, the U.K. whose solidarity with the cause of Palestine spans nearly half a century. Again, this year, Canadians and Americans and several from Asian countries and south American countries participated including black clergymen from New York City, citizens from Oregon, California, Illinois, Florida, Massachusetts and Washington DC among others.
A Jewish initiative
A group of American Jews arrived from Washington DC last Sunday and announced a US based Jewish initiative to break the siege of the Palestinians in the camps of Lebanon. Their initiative was well received on 9/15/09 by the Palestinian and International delegations, NGO’s and camp residents, during a conference at the new PLO Embassy in Beirut. The, group, representing several American Rabbis and Synagogues also participated in laying a wreath on the resting place of some of the victims of the Hula Club massacre of June 6, 1982, when Israeli forces killed 51 women and children inside the eastern part of Burj Shemali Palestinian Refugee camp near Tyre at the start of their 75-day bombing of Lebanon. The Hula Club itself was named for the October 24-29, 1948, machine gunning by Israeli forces of at least 50 civilians at Hula near the border with Palestine.
Hula experienced yet another massacre by Israel in July 2006 when Israeli forces bombed a civilian shelter, killing 29 and destroying approximately 20 per cent of Hula’s housing.
The morning of 9/15/09, members and guests of the Sabra Shatila Foundation, the Palestinian NGO Beit Aftal Assumoud, other NGO’s and international visitors met with relatives of those who perished during the 43 hours of slaughter between 9/15- 9/18, 1982.
The gathering took place in an orphanage along some of the barely three foot wide alleys of Shatila Camp, where the sun has not shone since the camp’s construction by the International Red Cross in 1949.
“Today I was silent”
Umm Ali Edelbi welcomed Stephanie, an Italian woman she met years earlier, as the ‘foreigners’ and the Mothers embraced and Umm Jamal kissed a Jewish nurse, Ellen, from Washington DC who was a witness to the 1982 massacre while working in Shatila’s Gaza hospital.
The scene was quite emotional for Antonio, from Rome, who is visiting a Palestinian camp for the first time. He paused, and watching the more than a dozen surviving mothers, several carrying framed photos of their loved ones, dried his eyes and said: “I never imagined that there is a place on earth where people are living like this. My shock is not just due to the nature of life inside this camp, it is because seeing parents who lost their children in such a brutal way is very upsetting.”
A few moments later, the official meeting started. Abdel Nasser spoke on behalf of the Shatila families and thanked “the foreigners” who have come to support us” while criticizing the Arabs “of which I never saw anyone offering support.” Abdel Nasser is gently interrupted by a soft-spoken woman from near the back of the crowded room, who explains “I am an Arab, Moroccan, and Muslim. I came from my country to support you.” He thanked her for the clarification and continued his talk by explaining the parents’ demands that the international community “finally prosecute and punish those who committed these awful crimes.”
The next speaker was the glamorous Italian academic Stephanie Lemettie, the Italian delegation’s spokesperson. Holding back tears, she told the gathering: “The toughest moments are those of our meeting with you. Words cannot begin to express how much love and solidarity we have for you. We will never forget and we will never cease our work for your return to Palestine.”
She was followed by Ms. Stephanie Karnini, sister of the Italian committee’s founder Stephano, a legend in Shatila and the other 11 camps in Lebanon for his nine years of solidarity work with the camps before his tragic untimely death two years ago. She told the assembly that she hopes “that God gives us the strength to fight the second ongoing massacre, that of the memory that they are trying to erase.”
One man, maybe in his seventies and who did not speak, carried a framed photo of his teenage son. He remained behind as the crowd dispersed. He sat slumped quietly against the pale green wall of the classroom of the orphanage and stared at the toddlers ‘cubbies’ with their cute brightly colored tooth brushes and plastic cups. His shirt was saturated in perspiration, and the gentleman looked unwell and very tired and weak from three weeks of daily Ramadan fasting, Beirut’s September heat, and his profound grief.
He softly introduced himself to me: “My name is Kamal Ma’rouf, and this is my son Jamal. We don’t know if he’s a martyr or just missing. For twenty seven years, I am waiting and talking about my son. Today I was silent. Maybe it is better that way” and he began to sob.
Who were the victims of the Sabra Shatila Massacre?
27 years after the massacre we know more about many of those who perished but not all. Only 68 per cent of the bodies were ever identified. Israel’s vaunted game theory would have preferred none were identified, but many of the killers panicked and Israeli bulldozer operators got cold feet and were watched as they left their vehicles and fled, leaving incriminating evidence.
147 families’ lost at least 1 member each while 34 families lost between 2 and eleven members. 51 families had members abducted or who disappeared.
Where are they or their remains? Hauled away from Israel and Lebanese Forces interrogation centers set up in the UNESCO building and Sports Stadium outside the camp and buried somewhere in the East Beirut race track or pine forest as the late American journalist Janet Stevens theorized? In the sewers of surrounding neighborhoods like Bir Hassan where we now know manhole covers were lifted and bodies stuffed in—yet more bones and remains discovered as recently as this summer?
We also now know that 6 unborn babies killed inside their mothers, 18 less than one year, 13 less than 3 years, 58 less than 12 years old. Roughly 12-24 per cent of the refugees emigrated following the massacre.
78 per cent of those killed or abducted have living witnesses from the family. 48 per cent believe the killers were Lebanese Forces (now led by Samir Geagea who continues to deny his militia’s involvement while calling for peace negotiations with “our enemy” Israel). We now know that within hours of the massacre, Phalange leader Sheik Pierre Gemayel ordered that “under no circumstances should the Lebanese forces admit to any participation.” He apparently wanted to protect his son Amin who he hoped would soon be appointed President of Lebanon by the Reagan administration following his brother Bashir’s assassination ( indeed he was).
Pierre did later tell friends privately, but always denied publicly, that “a few of our people were in on the massacre”, describing these as ‘Israeli agents’ not under my orders: “Sharon had a good many Judas Iscariots in our ranks”, Pierre would explained.
52 per cent of the survivors indicated they “could not tell” who the abductors they observed taking camp residents were.
There are no headstones to identify those buried, approximately 1000, in Shatila’s Martyr’s Square but we now know their professions included jockey, doorman, doctor, nurse, tailor, weaver, teachers shoemakers plumbers fish vendors, vegetable venders, electricians, masons, peddlers and home makers.
Yesterday, this observer, along with British surgeon Dr. Swee Ang Chai and Nurse Marion Looi Pok, true global medical heroines during and following the 1982 Massacre at Sabra-Shatila had the honor to pass the afternoon with our longtime friend, Dr. Bayan al Hout whose husband Shafiq, one of the most respected and loved founders of the Palestine Liberation Organization passed away quite suddenly on August 2, 2009.
Her now classic volume, “Sabra and Shatila: September 1982” by Bayan Nuwayhed Al-Hout, 2004, available from Pluto Press, London, is highly recommended by the Sabra Shatila Foundation for those who seek a deeper understanding of the exact sequence of events during and surrounding the Massacre.
For more than 15 years Bayan painstakingly interviewed survivors and eye witnesses, sometimes furtively and ignoring threats while trying to avoid the swarms of intelligence agents who moved into West Beirut and the Palestinian camps in late 1982,part of whose work was to create the correct narrative and suppress the truth. She succeeded in piecing together the precise events during the 43 hours of slaughter and its aftermath, as well as to present the reader with the Massacre’s political context.
Bayan proved that the massacre was a continuous uninterrupted slaughter lasting a full 43 hours, from 6 pm on Thursday September 16 to 1 pm Saturday September, 18 and that it did not end as the Kahan Commission claims at 8 a.m. on Saturday September 18. As in many instances with its flawed Inquiry, Bayan exposed the Kahan Commissions bias including its failure to challenge Sharon’s comment, delivered with a smirk, to the Kahan Comission on the morning of October 25, 1982:
“I want, in the name and on behalf of the entire Israeli defense establishment, to say that no-one foresaw-nor could they have seen-the atrocities committed in the neighborhood of ‘Sabra and Shatia”…“If I were to be asked, on oath, who committed the crimes, I should have to reply that I don’t know. The Israeli Army wasn’t there. There were two entrances to the camp that we didn’t control. I know who went in and out, but I don’t know exactly who did the killing. It remains a great mystery.”
Bayan’s is the most authoritative book on the Sabra Shatila Massacre. Part of her motivation in researching her book, she explained yesterday, came from frustration with the 1983 Israeli Kahan Commission report, widely considered a whitewash of Israeli responsibility for this Crime against Humanity. The Kahan Report, along with the now completely rejected and disappeared fraudulent Lebanese Government Jermanos Report sought to create a misleading narrative about the who, what, and why of the slaughter. Bayan al Hout questioned, exposed and then demolished the Kahan Report with her detailed investigation and presentation of irrefutable evidence.
The Israeli government has yet to answer the indictment Bayan tabled before the international community or to compensate the hundreds of survivors who lost their loved ones and who today live shattered lives. International humanitarian law, specifically the Geneva Convention (IV) and the Rome Statue, with its universal jurisdiction, and people of good will everywhere, demand that this indescribably horrendous crime, the Massacre at Sabra Shatila, planned and executed 29 years ago this week, is heard in The Hague.
Freezing the Rebuilding of Nahr al Bared
One particularly egregious recent example of Lebanese politicians continuing to pressure the Palestinian refugee community for personal political gain occurred this month, when one self-proclaimed “defender of the rights of our Palestinian Arab brothers”, the Free Patriotic Movement’s Michel Aoun took an initiative to “help Lebanon.” Political ally of Hezbollah and Syria, Aoun was able to miraculously arrange for Lebanon’s Court of Cassation , which is closed tight for the Judicial vacation with empty courtrooms and offices, to issue a special injunction, freezing any and all rebuilding of the Nahr al Bared Palestinian Refugee Camp near Tripoli.
Following the 15 week, May-August 2007 Fatah al Islam-Lebanese army battle which destroyed the camp, Nahr al Bared’s nearly 35,000 residents fled to Bedawi Camp seven miles down the road, and to other camps including Shatila, causing more overcrowding. Nahr al Bared, where bus loads of international visitors are visiting today, has become a symbol for the condition of Palestinians in Lebanon and is closely watched for tell-tale signs of how events are moving. Nahr al Bared has yet to see any reconstruction despite two years of international meetings and pledges.
Aoun apparently wants to keep it that way and his lawsuit is anchored in the fact that in part of Narh al Bared there appear to be some historical relics and artifacts which the reconstruction would cover again.
Aoun’s action has sent a chill throughout Lebanon’s Palestinian Camps and currently it is unsure if the Nahr al Bared will be rebuilt. If rebuilt, Palestinian sources indicate the plan is for only 10,000 Palestinians or 25 per cent of the April 2007 population to return to Nahr al Bared and these not until 2020.
This latest use of Lebanon’s Palestinians as fodder in the continuing struggle to form a government is ludicrous on its face. Assuming, that there are some Roman remnants in a small part of the camp, yet unproven but claimed by Aoun in his the lawsuit, this is not grounds for stopping all reconstruction. Every school child in Lebanon knows there are Phoenician, Egyptians, Greek, Roman, Ottoman, and all sorts of others ruins all over Lebanon and construction anywhere in Lebanon is routinely allowed after a survey with a permit issued by the Ministry of Culture. During the Hariri build-a-thon in the early 1990’s, the Hariri family Solidaire Corporation simply used huge US D9 (935 hp), 104 ton Caterpillars (think occupied Palestine) or the Japanese Komatsu D 275A bulldozers to excavate as they pleased and to shove mountains of Lebanon’s antiquities into Beirut Port (the area called Normandy) as a vast landfill for yet more lucrative commercial building projects.
Some political analysts view Aoun’s bizarre efforts to keep Nahr al Bared’s Palestinians homeless is linked to his struggle with the Sunni Muslims and fellow Maronite Christian and his nemesis, the Lebanon First leader Saad Hariri. Aoun is also moving to gain influence with the Sunni middle class in Tripoli by preventing the return of the very competitive Palestinian Nahr al Bared retail markets which drew customers from across North Lebanon and away from Tripoli merchants. Targeting the Palestinians also works politically in Akkar, across the Damascus highway from the Camp, because most of the nearly 250 soldiers killed fighting Fatah al Islam two summers ago are from nearby villages and their friends and relatives still want revenge against Palestinians whether or not they support Fatah al Islam.
Aoun’s actions also appeal to right wing elements of the Christian community, some of whom continue to be apologists for the Sabra Shatila Massacre, and view favorably any effort targeting Muslim Palestinians
Aoun also wants to undermine the US ally, Maronite Archbishop Nasrallah Sfeir who yesterday Aoun accused of joining Samir Geagea’s fascist Lebanese Forces. It was the Lebanese Forces militia who Ariel Sharon arranged to lead other killing units into Shatila Camp following the Syrian assassination of their leader Bashir on 9/14/82. Archbishop Sfeir, as political as any in Lebanon despite his claims that the Church should avoid politics, has now come out against Aoun’s nephew being renamed a minister in the new government. Aoun’s Opposition ally Hezbollah, is mute. Some members shrug off Aoun’s antics and claim that that Hezbollah can’t control Aoun. Other Hezbollah members see an advantage for the Shia if Sunni Palestinian numbers decrease in order to maintain the Sunni-Shia roughly one third each balance. They know that 90 per cent of Palestinians support Hezbollah due to its resistance to the occupation of Palestine and will overlook the fact that Hezbollah does not pick a fight with the mercurial Aoun.
This picture is further complicated by Druze leader Walid Jumblatt breaking with Washington due to his grave doubts that the US administration will or can deliver on more than three years of unfulfilled promises to him if he will oppose the Opposition and the Lebanese Resistance. Jumblatt has now decided to cast the Druze lot with Hezbollah and Syria, candidly telling colleagues that the Resistance represents Lebanon’s future.
No sooner had Jumblatt dumped the US than the US dumped Phalange leader Amin Gemayal and Lebanon First leader Saad Hariri because the State Department needs someone “with bigger balls” according to one staffer.
Thirteen weeks after heralding the June 7 election results as a great victory for Democracy, the State Department views the election as a disaster. Not only did Hezbollah receive more than 100,000 votes that the US team, it has emerged stronger with its 57 seats than the US team with its 71 seats 10 of whom have now split.
This led US Ambassador Michele Sisson to charm the group who helped conduct the Sabra Shatila massacre, the Lebanese Forces, and its charismatic and very focused and ambitious leader Samir Geagea who intends to push aside his Phalange rivals, the Gemayels , and lead Lebanon into battle (with US and Israeli support) against Syria and if necessary Hezbollah. The US-Israel plan for Lebanon now requires either a civil war in Lebanon or another Israeli invasion to recoup Lebanon from Iranian influence and the growing support for the Hezbollah led Resistance. The State Department finally appear to realize that the Lebanese public will no longer accept a forgive-and-forget, no compensation for six invasions over the past 40 years, peace deal with Israel and that it has entered the era of Resistance. Senior Shiite Cleric Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, while Shia,has a large following among Christian and Sunni Muslims. Last week he warned against attempts to normalize ties with Israel and submit to its “humiliating” conditions. In a statement to a European delegation, Fadlallah accused Arab leaders of “attempting to fool” Muslims and the Arab world. He said Arab leaders were negotiating the normalization of ties with Israel, “while the Palestinian people are getting exhausted and becoming further subdued.” Days later he issued a Fatwa (religious ruling) forbidding yielding Jerusalem and Palestine to Zionist colonizers.
Meanwhile, Ambassador Sisson has met five times in the past several weeks with Geagea and his supreme spiritual guide, Archbishop Sfeir. They are quickly forming the nucleus of Welch Club II and are trying to make sure they can continue to count on Saudi Arabia for the kind of financial largesse that ran up the price of votes in the June 7 2009 election, according to Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah, to as high as $5,000 per vote in key areas.
Pressure building in the Camps
Lebanon’s Palestinian leadership is being used by domestic and foreign interests and so far has pretty much kept quiet and out of Lebanese politics. Some of the Camp leaders have been accused of collaborating with the army’s wanton destruction and continuing siege of Nahr al Bared and sealing off more than half of the Camps on orders from Ramallah so as to retain civil relations with their host country.
But the pressure has been building this hot summer and fall in Lebanon’s refugee camps with warnings coming from Palestinian, that 27 years after the Sabra Shatila massacre, explosive conditions exist in nearly all of Lebanon’s camps.
After Aoun’s reconstruction injunction succeeded earlier this month, Khalil Mekawi of the Lebanese Palestinian Dialogue Committee held an urgent meeting with lame duck prime minister Fouad Siniora and warned that this decision to freeze plans to rebuild Narh al Bared is causing outrage among Lebanon’s estimated 250,000 Palestinian camp residents that could, in his words, spill out across the country, leading to major chaos, at any time. While not claiming Palestinian involvement, he implied that more katyusha rockets might be launched into Palestine.
FRANKLIN LAMB is Interim Director of the Washington DC-Beirut Lebanon based Sabra Shatila Foundation. He can be reached at Sabrashatila.org.