In mid-September of 1982, three months after Israel invaded Lebanon, a right-wing Christian militia slaughtered more than 1,300 mostly Palestinian civilians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut. The militia, part of the Phalange political party, worked in cooperation with then-Israeli defense minister Ariel Sharon.
The massacre came about a month after some 14,000 PLO fighters had been forced to evacuate Beirut, which Israel demanded before it would agree to stop its ongoing bombardment of Lebanon. The United States and other Western countries had military forces deployed in Lebanon as part of a multinational force and guaranteed they would protect civilians left behind in the camps.
That’s not what happened. Beginning on September 16, Israeli troops sealed off the camps. They let Phalangist militiamen in and over the next three days allowed them to kill civilians at will, under the guise that they were rooting out terrorists. Israeli forces fired flares at nighttime to illuminate the camps and guide the killers.
Despite protestations of ignorance on the part of the Reagan administration, Israeli documents declassified a few years ago showed U.S. officials knew what was happening inside the camps. Rashid Khalidi wrote in The Nation in 2017:
Special envoy Morris Draper, instructed to obtain a withdrawal of the Israeli army from West Beirut, met with Israeli officials in Jerusalem on September 17. There, Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir claimed that 2,000 armed “terrorists” remained in West Beirut. Defense Minister Ariel Sharon thereupon characteristically escalated things. “There are thousands of terrorists in Beirut,” he told the US envoy, challenging his demand that Israeli forces withdraw: “Is it your interest that they will stay there?” Draper, according to transcripts, failed to counter Sharon’s false assertion about the presence of thousands of “terrorists,” but when he mildly disputed another of his claims, the defense minister was even blunter, stating: “So we’ll kill them. They will not be left there. You are not going to save them.
Israel’s Kahan Commission, which investigated the massacre, found that Sharon allowing the Phalangists into the camps but that no Israeli was “directly responsible” for the killings. Sharon was forced to resign as defense minister but stayed in the cabinet and in 2001 was elected prime minister. He died in 2014; Israel is currently building a gigantic eco park near Tel Aviv to honor him.
Lebanon never held an investigation into the massacres and the government declared a general amnesty at the end of the broader Lebanese Civil War in 1990. “Lebanon’s warlords…traded their military fatigues for fancy suits and ministerial portfolios,” Nadim Houry of Human Rights Watch wrote in 2015. “Attempts to overturn Lebanon’s legacy of impunity since the end of the war have generally failed to generate momentum.”
The Kahan commission found that a Phalangist commander named Elie Hobeika headed an intelligence unit that entered the camps and was on the roof of a forward command post during the killings. “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,” Houry wrote. “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’.”
After the war Hobeika –who was assassinated in 2002 — was twice elected to parliament and served as a government minister multiple times. “Sabra and Shatila are a memorial to criminals who evaded responsibility, who got away with it,” Robert Fisk has written.
The 46th anniversary of the massacres is coming up next week. I recently visited Sabra and Shatila, and Palestinian residents — no one knows for sure how many people live there but it is tens of thousands — I spoke with say their lives are significantly worse now than they were in 1982.
Palestinians cannot buy land and have no title to their homes. Restrictions on employment make it virtually impossible for them to work, and as non-citizens — even though most were born here — they have no access to health care, education and other state social services. They have no passports can only travel with a document, often rejected, that identifies them as stateless residents of Lebanon.
The Lebanese government supplies no water so residents who don’t have a well have to buy bottled water. For electricity, residents depend largely on private generators — few can afford them — and whatever can be pirated, and a jumble of cables run across the camps. Public sanitation is non-existent. One resident who took me around the camp at night carried a revolver in the event he needed to kill any rats, which scampered everywhere.
During the days after my visits protests erupted at Palestinian camps across Lebanon. The fundamental blame for the refugees’ situation lies with Israel, which refuses to grant the right of return to all Palestinian refugees. But residents also expressed frustration about corruption within their own political leadership, and with charities and international organizations. Rice, oils, lentils, chickpeas and other goods that are supposed to be delivered as aid is frequently diverted and ends up for sale in the camps.
“I’m a qualified engineer and I would like to start a company and hire people and pay taxes but I’m not allowed to,” Abed, who was raised in Shatila, told me. “We’re not treated like second class citizens, we’re treated like criminals.”
The economic and psychological suffocation now is worse than it was in 1982. I have no rights. I can’t be educated here or receive health care, but I also can’t leave. What do you want from us? That’s what every Palestinian is asking right now. But no one cares. We have no names, no faces. We’re forgotten.