31 Years After the Massacre at Sabra-Shatila

Shatila camp, Beirut.

Each year, during the third week of September, Lebanon and this region, as well as international supporters, pause to reflect upon and commemorate the victims one of the twentieth century’s most horrific and cynical crimes perpetrated by a member state of the United Nations. The Sabra-Shatila massacre took place September 16-19th in Beirut, a well-documented 48 hours of slaughter that saw the Shatila Palestinian refugee camp surrounded and sealed off by the occupying Israeli army, whose intent was to block and force back inside the killing field anyone seeking to escape the predicted orgy of butchery (see Bayan al Hout, Sabra and Shatila September 1982, Pluto Press).

Under a sky illuminated by night flares, and within close earshot of the screams emerging from the horror, IDF commanders sat perched above the camp watching through binoculars as if at a coliseum sporting event, looking down, occasionally pointing, monitoring the killers through line- of-sight as well as by radio contact. The victims were a defenseless civilian population. The instrument used to kill them? A drug, alcohol, and hate-filled militia which had been provided abundant aid and assistance, including a bulldozer to bury evidence of its crimes. Israel, whose continued occupation of Palestine is possible only because of arms, funding and diplomatic cover from the United States, and despite its accelerating pariah status, has largely escaped international legal accountability for its crimes at Sabra-Shatila, even though universally condemned for the carnage it organized and oversaw there.

Justice for the victims of Israel’s “Peace for Galilee” aggression in mid-September of 1982 has been delayed for three decades, and though the bloodbath which took place has been studied and documented—along with the suffering of the Palestinian people as a whole at the hands of the Zionists occupying their country—no legal recourse is available to those whose families were slaughtered 31 years ago. The international community has failed to recognize their fundamental human rights for justice, denying them even the right to be heard and have their claims adjudicated.

But this quest for justice—and that is what it is— has intensified, continuing to gain momentum in a variety of forms.

“However long it takes we will work relentlessly for full accountability from those responsible for Sabra-Shatila,” Palestinian Authority negotiator Saeb Erekat declared this week.

One young man from Shatila who lost five relatives during the slaughter three decades ago put it somewhat differently: “Long after Palestine is liberated, our country and the world will remember this horrific crime and those who continue to protect the criminals with arms, their taxpayer’s money, diplomatic cover, and political collaboration.”

This year’s commemoration, as is the case every year, is impacted by local and regional conditions and political developments.  The socio-economic status of the nearly 90,000 Palestinian refugees forced into Lebanon as a result of the 30-month-old civil war in Syria was among several topics this observer heard frequently discussed this week. To the already-tightly-packed Shatila camp, 230 more families have been added. Also much talked about are the effects of the war in Syria on Lebanon’s economy, travel warnings by various Western countries against coming to Lebanon, as well as the impact this may have upon people from around the world wishing to be in Beirut at this time of year to express their solidarity with Palestine and their respect for the victims of the 1982 massacre.

During this week international delegations are visiting Shatila and other camps as well as the notorious Al Khiam Prison and torture center. The latter facility was under Zionist control for 22 years—from 1978 all the way up until the expulsion of the occupiers in May of 2000, a retreat that was induced by the National Lebanese Resistance led by Hezbollah and which included some Palestinian fighters.

Internationals this week are also visiting the village of Maron el Ras, which overlooks Palestine and which historically has been a main path into Lebanon from Palestine, including during that dark spring of 1948 as the Nakba was occurring. Tradition has it that Virgin Mary, the Mother of Issa, or Jesus, used this road with her son to attend a marriage ceremony at Qana, and that on arrival she asked him to please arrange for more wine to accommodate the unexpectedly large number of guests. It is written in the New Testament that he obliged his mother and turned water into wine, an act recorded as his first miracle. Maron el Ras, perhaps also miraculously, is where Israel forces were battered into retreating during the 33-day July 2006 war with Hezbollah.

Many of the international visitors additionally attended events organized by the Palestinian NGO Beit Atfal Assumoud, events also attended by some of the massacre survivors.

The brilliant Palestinian researcher and activist, Leila el-Ali, director of the NGO Najdeh (Help) briefed guests on a recent study carried out on the flood of Palestinians arriving from Syria. Entitled Palestinian-Syrian Refugees in Lebanon: Numbers and Facts, the study documents the approximately 65,000 newly arrived refugees, their living situations, and health conditions. Numbers of men, women, and children, their education level, employment, if any, and other social indexes are also included. Lebanon’s population is nearly four million today and is projected to grow to 6.4 million (a more than 33 percent increase) by 2014 if the UN Economic and Social Commission for West Asia’s estimates of Syrian refugee growth prove accurate.

Najdeh’s director pointed out that that while approximately three dozen NGOs are offering some modest help to Palestinian refugees, including food vouchers, a few dollars, and used clothing, nothing at all has been forthcoming from the Lebanese government, which has now all but blocked virtually every Palestinian fleeing death in Syria from entering Lebanon.

The latest regulations at the Masnaa border crossing (from Syria to Lebanon) are appalling. This observer was advised on 9/10/13 by immigration officials at Masnaa that a new regulation has been put into effect requiring that all Palestinian refugees either, a) show, by means of a lease, that she/he has rented housing and paid in advance, or, b) possesses a paid-in-full airline ticket to depart Lebanon for somewhere/anywhere within 48 hours.  It is an absurd, Kafkaesque condition that fundamentally violates the 1952 Refugee Convention—binding on Lebanon via international customary law as well as the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights.

Not to be outdone by Lebanon, Zionist ally Jordan, as well as “Camp David” Egypt, have also issued bans upon Palestinian refugees from war-torn Syria. In fact, much of the help Palestinians from Syria receive comes from their own kin. We see Palestinians helping Palestinians in a heartening exhibition of sisterhood and brotherhood.

Other commemoration events included parties at the Palestinian embassy, a visit with massacre survivors in their homes, and a community lunch. Also each year a march takes place—from Ghobeiry Municipality Cultural Center, located across from Shatila camp, to the cemetery off Rue Sabra. It is here where nearly 1100 Sabra-Shatila massacre martyrs were hastily buried on Sunday, September 20, 1982. As witnessed and reported by the late American journalist Janet Lee Stevens, the corpses, of mainly women and children, were in a state of rapid decomposition due to the hot weather and piled into a mass grave. The site later became a garbage dump, and then a football field, until the Hezbollah led Ghobeiry Municipality insisted on its sanctity, cleaning up the area and planting some shrubs, while Europeans donated a rose garden.

Despite delayed justice for the victims, the quest, as I say, continues and is accelerating. Another subject much discussed this year is why after 31 years, Israel and its officials who oversaw the massacre have in the main avoided legal consequences and accountability. But the culture and era of international sanctions to dismantle the apartheid Zionist regime is rapidly spreading and gaining momentum. Two examples are the BDS movement and the EU sanctions. The new European Union guidelines, it emerged today, will prevent Israeli ministries, public bodies, and businesses that operate in occupied Palestinian territory from receiving loans worth hundreds of millions of Euros each year from the European Investment Bank. The EU will also stop awarding grant funding for activities that take place in occupied Palestinian territory, even if they are headquartered inside Israel’s pre-1967 borders. As the Palestinian BDS National Committee counseled on 7/18/13, no one seeking the liberation of Palestine and the full right of return must sit by in despair. It remains for all of us to put as much pressure on apartheid Israel and its accomplices, whose numbers seem to be dwindling every month.

There are also a number of other non-governmental initiatives to secure justice for the victims of Israeli crimes, including the 1982 massacre. These include the work of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) (http://ccrjustice.org/) and citizen tribunals such as the just-adjourned  Kuala Lumpur War Crimes Commission, which worked on  the case of IDF commander Amos Yaron, and the Russell Tribunal on Palestine (RTOP). The latter is an international initiative created in the 1960s to expose human rights abuses and to stir people to action in opposition to Israel’s clear but unpunished violations of international law. The RTOP’s current efforts include achieving justice for the victims of Sabra-Shatila.

As for the Kuala Lumpur War Crimes Commission, its indictment of Yaron read in part:

Defendant Amos Yaron is accused of perpetrating War Crimes, Crimes Against Humanity, and Genocide in his capacity as the Commanding Israeli General in military control of the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Israeli occupied Lebanon in September of 1982 when he knowingly facilitated and permitted the large-scale Massacre of the Residents of those two camps in violation of the Hague Regulations on Land Warfare of 1907; the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949; the 1948 Genocide Convention; the Nuremberg Charter (1945), the Nuremberg Judgment (1946), and the Nuremberg Principles (1950); customary international law, jus cogens, the Laws of War, and International Humanitarian Law.

This was not the first time the Amos Yaron case has been presented before the international public and may not be the last, as human rights advocates pursue justice for the victims of Sabra-Shatila.

True American patriots working at or with the CCR have prepared cases and a valuable Legal Handbook for Palestinian Activists (see CCR website above). These efforts have included work by Maria LaHood, Jamil Dakwar, cooperating human rights attorney, and Abdeen Jabara, civil rights lawyer and activist. The CCR has done historic work on the subject of Universal Jurisdiction and use American courts on behalf of Palestinian claimants to seek justice for alleged rights violations committed by Israeli officials, both in Palestine and internationally.

In a US federal court in 2008, CCR brought a class action suit against retired Israeli Lieutenant General Moshe Ya’alon, charging him with war crimes and extra-judicial killing for his role in the 1996 IDF attack on a United Nations compound in Qana that killed more than 100 Lebanese civilians who had taken shelter there, injuring many more. While presenting a very strong and factual case, the court upheld a dismissal of Belhas v. Ya’alon on procedural grounds, citing sovereign immunity.

Even so, CCR believes that as we are all citizens of an increasingly interconnected world, it is critical that all nations, the United States especially, recognize and incorporate the norms of international law into their systems of justice. And it was CCR, by the way, which also pioneered the use of the Alien Tort Statute to prosecute human rights abuses committed abroad in U.S. courts—an effort that has led to the creation of a body of law which helps to hold foreign officials and corporations accountable to the public—plus the organization has also brought cases against U.S. officials in foreign courts under the principle of Universal Jurisdiction, all of this based in the belief that some crimes are so heinous they defy national boundaries. Such initiatives cannot be understated in their importance in educating both the public and legal community, as well as in developing remedies for those previously shut out of the American legal system.

As various aspects of the carnage at Sabra-Shatila continue to surface, they reveal the abject depravity and criminality of Israeli officials as well as the weak response to these crimes by US government officials, including President Reagan. Also discussed this week was the work of Seth Anziska, a doctoral candidate in international history at Columbia University, who has gained some limited access to the reportedly massive secret files guarded by the Zionist regime not only from public examination but also from the governments of its supposed allies.

Visiting the Israel State Archives, Mr. Anziska saw a few declassified documents chronicling key conversations between American and Israeli officials, discussions which took place both before and during the two and one half days of slaughter.  Anziska concluded:

The verbatim transcripts reveal that the Israelis misled American diplomats about events in Beirut and bullied them into accepting the spurious claim that thousands of “terrorists” were in the camps, when both countries knew the camps’ residents were defenseless—since their PLO protectors evacuated Beirut the month before once Yassir Arafat received written assurances from Ronald Reagan that the US government guaranteed the safety of Shatila’s residents. When the United States was in a position to exert strong diplomatic pressure on Israel that could have ended the atrocities, it did essentially nothing. As a result, Phalange militiamen were able to murder Palestinian civilians at their own pace.  And they did.

A few summaries from the Israeli archives examined by Mr. Anziska:

“By Sept. 16, the I.D.F. was fully in control of West Beirut, including Sabra and Shatila. In Washington that same day, Under Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger told the Israeli ambassador, Moshe Arens, that “Israel’s credibility has been severely damaged” and that “we appear to some to be the victim of deliberate deception by Israel.” He demanded that Israel withdraw from West Beirut immediately.

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.  I.D.F. chief of staff, Rafael Eitan, also acknowledged to the Americans that he feared “a relentless slaughter.”

All this occurred before the Massacre was launched by Amos Yaron and Ariel Sharon who oversaw the transfer of the killers from East Beirut to the airport just south of Shatila and then into the camps where they immediately sought out the 11 shelters that camp residents had identified the day before to some “foreigners who said they were from a European NGO and would repair the shelters”  Rather, they were agents of Mossad.

Just before the slaughter began, and 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 but there was little if any reaction.

At 12:30 p.m. on Sept. 17, Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir hosted a meeting with Mr. Draper, Mr. Sharon and several Israeli intelligence chiefs. Mr. Shamir, having reportedly heard of a “slaughter” in the camps that morning, did not bother to mention it.

The transcript of the Sept. 17 meeting reveals that the Americans were browbeaten by Mr. Sharon’s false insistence that “terrorists” needed “mopping up.” It also shows how Israel’s refusal to relinquish areas under its control, and its delays in coordinating with the Lebanese National Army, which the Americans wanted to step in, prolonged the slaughter.

Mr. Draper opened the meeting by demanding that the I.D.F. pull back right away. Mr. Sharon exploded, “I just don’t understand, what you are looking for? Do you want the terrorists to stay? Are you afraid that somebody will think that you were in collusion with us? Just deny it. We denied it.” Mr. Draper, unmoved, kept pushing for definitive signs of a withdrawal. Mr. Sharon, who knew Phalange forces had already entered the camps and were slaughtering everyone they came upon, some killers to the point of exhaustion, cynically told Draper, “Stop worrying. Nothing important will happen. Maybe some more terrorists will be killed. That will be to the benefit of all of us.” Mr. Shamir and Mr. Sharon finally agreed to gradually withdraw once the Lebanese Army started entering the city — but they insisted on waiting 48 hours (until the end of Rosh Hashanah New Year, which started that evening).

Continuing his plea for some sign of an Israeli withdrawal, Mr. Draper warned that critics would say, “Sure, the I.D.F. is going to stay in West Beirut and they will let the Lebanese go and kill the Palestinians in the camps.”   Mr. Sharon replied: “So, we’ll kill them. They will not be left there. You are not going to save them. You are not going to save these groups of the international terrorism.”  Mr. Draper responded with shocking words as an employee of the American people: “We are not interested in saving any of these people.”

Mr. Sharon declared: “If you don’t want the Lebanese to kill them, we will kill them.”

Mr. Draper then caught himself, and backtracked. He reminded the Israelis that the United States had painstakingly facilitated the P.L.O. exit from Beirut “so it wouldn’t be necessary for you to come in.” He added, “You should have stayed out.” Mr. Sharon exploded again: “When it comes to our security, we have never asked. We will never ask. When it comes to existence and security, it is our own responsibility and we will never give it to anybody to decide for us.” The meeting ended with an agreement to coordinate withdrawal plans after Rosh Hashanah (“head of the year”) and the Israelis rushed from the meeting to begin its (the new year’s) celebration.

An American Congressman, noted at the time the cynical irony of  the Begin government allowing forty eight more hours of slaughtering Palestinians during the Rosh Hashanah two-day celebration, which  many believe to be the anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve and their first actions toward the realization of mankind’s role in God’s world.

By allowing the argument to proceed on Mr. Sharon’s terms, Mr. Draper failed in his duty to his fellow Americans and effectively gave Israel cover to let the Phalange fighters remain in the camps. Years later, Mr. Draper called the massacre “obscene.” Just as, no doubt, in the future ex-US officials and former Members of Congress will call the Zionist occupation of Palestine “obscene.”

Draper, in an oral history recorded in 2002, recalled telling Sharon: “You should be ashamed. The situation is absolutely appalling. They’re killing children! You have the field completely under your control and are therefore responsible for that area.”  Yet the transcript of Mr. Draper’s meeting with the Israelis demonstrates how the United States was unwittingly complicit in the slaughter at Sabra and Shatila.

Ambassador Lewis, now retired, told Mr Anziska that the massacre would have been hard to prevent “unless Reagan had picked up the phone and called Begin and read him the riot act even more clearly than he already did in August — that might have stopped it temporarily.” But “Sharon would have found some other way” for the militiamen to take action, Mr. Lewis added. Nicholas A. Veliotes, then the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, agreed saying that the killing frenzy was “Vintage Sharon,” adding, “It is his way or the highway.”

On Sept. 18, 1982 Reagan pronounced his “outrage and revulsion over the murders.” He said the United States had opposed Israel’s invasion of Beirut, both because “we believed it wrong in principle and for fear that it would provoke further fighting.” Secretary of State George P. Shultz later admitted that “we are partially responsible” because “we took the Israelis and the Lebanese at their word.” He summoned Israeli Ambassador Arens. “When you take military control over a city, you’re responsible for what happens,” he told him. “Now we have a massacre.”

Belated expressions of shock and dismay do nothing for the nearly 3000 butchered or their survivors gathering this week at Shatila camp.  And they belie the Americans’ failed diplomatic effort during the massacre. The transcript of Mr. Draper’s meeting with the Israelis demonstrates how the United States was unwittingly complicit in the tragedy of Sabra and Shatila.

The Sabra and Shatila massacre severely undercut respect for America and its influence in the Middle East as well as its moral authority. In the aftermath of the crime the US felt compelled by “guilt” to redeploy the “peacekeeper Marines”, who joined the anti-Muslim side in the midst of a brutal civil war and themselves killed countless civilians.

The partially revealed archival record illustrates the magnitude of deception that undermined American efforts to avoid bloodshed. Working with only partial knowledge of the reality on the ground, the US feebly yielded to false arguments and stalling tactics, thus allowing a massacre that was already in progress to proceed.

The White House, the UN Security Council, and the global community must join the above noted citizen initiatives for belated justice for the victims of this Israeli-organized massacre by demanding the release of all the Israeli records pertaining to the incident.  American law, including The US Foreign Assistance Act enacted September 4, 1961, mandates, inter alia,  that no assistance will be provided to a government which “engages in a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights including torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, prolonged detention without charges, causing the disappearance of persons by the abduction and clandestine detention of those persons, or other flagrant denial of the right to life, liberty, and the security of person…”  The law stipulates a cutoff of all American aid pending full compliance.

Franklin Lamb volunteers with the Sabra-Shatila Scholarship Program (SSSP) in Shatila Camp (www.sssp-lb.com) and is reachable c/o fplamb@gmail.com

Franklin Lamb volunteers with the Lebanon, France, and USA based Meals for Syrian Refugee Children Lebanon (MSRCL) which seeks to provide hot nutritional meals to Syrian and other refugee children in Lebanon. http://mealsforsyrianrefugeechildrenlebanon.com. He is reachable c/o fplamb@gmail.com.