Nineteen years after the gruesome massacres at the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps in Beirut, there is renewed interest in the issue, largely because a lawsuit has been lodged in a Belgian court against Ariel Sharon, now Israeli prime minister, for his role. (The massacre is being commemorated around the world; al-Awda, the Palestinian Right of Return, has launched a petition to seek endorsements for the commemoration.) Sharon was the defence minister who masterminded the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in June 1982 which culminated in the massacres (September 16-18) at the two refugee camps. Patrick Collignon, the presiding magistrate in Brussels, has ordered an investigation into the case after 23 survivors filed a suit under a Belgian law (passed in 1993 and further amended in 1999 to allow the prosecution of government officials) for crimes against humanity committed anywhere in the world.
Estimates of the number of people who died in the massacres vary because Israeli bulldozers threw a lot of bodies into large pits and covered them; others were buried under the rubble of destroyed buildings. The most conservative estimate puts the death toll at 2,000; it could be as high as 5,000. Despite his arrogance, Sharon has been forced to retain a Belgian lawyer to represent him. Michele Hirsch, who is Jewish, has made a name for herself by defending women and the downtrodden, but she now has a very different brief on her hands. Regardless of how the lawsuit against Sharon develops, the massacres at Sabra and Shatilla must be remembered: they show the ugly and racist nature of zionism and its practitioners, currently continuing similar murderous policies against the Palestinians in the intifada.
The circumstances surrounding the Sabra and Shatilla massacres ought also to be borne in mind. Having reached the outskirts of Beirut after slaughtering 20,000 Lebanese and Palestinian civilians, the Israelis demanded the expulsion of Palestinian fighters from Lebanon. Under a US-brokered deal Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization abandoned Beirut, leaving hundreds of thousands of Palestinian women, children and old men to the non-existent mercies of the zionists and their Lebanese Christian allies, the Phalangists. The Phalangists were mostly murderous thugs who revelled in killing Palestinians and Muslims to maintain Christian supremacy in Lebanon. Bashir Gemayel, militia leader of the Phalangists, was elected president of Lebanon after Israel’s invasion and occupation of his country.
On September 15, 1982, Bashir Gemayel died in a bomb explosion in Christian East Beirut while celebrating his presidential victory. The following day (September 16), in accordance with his agreement of September 12 with the Phalangists, Sharon allowed about 150 heavily-armed militiamen to enter the camps and butcher people as well as animals — cats, dogs, horses and so on. Israeli tanks and vehicles surrounded approaches to the camps and fired flares at night to light up their dark alleys. The day the Phalangists entered the camps, Israeli forces were in complete control of West Beirut. They fired into the camps from the hills above while Israeli snipers shot at people in the streets in order to keep them pinned down within their homes.
General Amir Drori, then head of the Israeli forces’ Northern Command, telephoned Ariel Sharon and told him, “Our friends are advancing into the camps. We have coordinated their entry.” Sharon replied, “Congratulations! Our friends’ operation is approved.” This conversation, recorded on tape in Lebanon, has been submitted to the Belgian court as part of the evidence against Sharon. More gripping is the testimony of some of the survivors of the camps, whose English translation from the Arabic was provided by the Palestinian Society for the Protection of Human Rights and the Environment (LAW).
Souad Srour al-Meri, now 36, holds Palestinian nationality and has a Lebanese passport. She lives in the al-Horch section of Shatilla, Beirut. In the massacre of September 1982, she lost her father, three brothers (11, 6 and 3 years old) and two sisters (18 and 9 months old). This is her testimony:
On Wednesday [Sept 15], after Bashir Gemayel had been killed, we heard Israeli helicopters flying overhead at a low altitude, and at night the Israelis started firing illumination flares, which lit up the camp as though it was day. Some of my friends went down into the shelter. On Thursday evening I went with my brother Maher to see some friends and tell them to come and sleep at our house; on the way, the road was full of corpses. I went into the shelter but I didn’t find anyone there, so we went back... We stayed in the house all night long.
On Friday morning [September 17], my brother Bassam and our neighbour climbed up to the roof to see what was happening, but the Phalangists spotted them. A few moments later, around 13 men knocked at our door. My father asked who they were; they said, ‘Israelis.’ We got up to see what they wanted; they said, ‘You’re still here,’ and then they asked my father if he had anything. He said he had some money. They took the money and hit my father. I asked them, ‘How can you hit an old man?’ Then they hit me.
They lined us up in the living room and they started discussing whether or not to kill us. Then they lined us up against the wall and shot us. Those who died, died; I survived with my mother. My brothers Maher and Ismail were hiding in the bathroom. When they [the soldiers] left the house, I started to call my brothers’ names; when one of them replied, I knew he wasn’t dead. My mother and my sister were able to escape from the house, but I was unable. A few moments later while I was moving, they [the soldiers] came back; they said to me, ‘you’re still alive?’ and shot me again. I pretended to be dead. That night I got up and I stayed until Saturday. I pulled myself along crawling into the middle of the room and I covered the bodies. As I put out my hand to reach for the water jug they shot at me immediately. I only felt a bullet in my hand and the man started swearing. The second man came and he hit me on the head with his gun; I fainted. I stayed like that until Sunday, when our neighbour came and rescued me.
Samiha Abbas Hijazzi, a Lebanese, lost her daughter, son-in-law, daughter’s godmother and “other loved ones” in the massacre:
On Thursday, there was shelling when the Israelis came, then it got worse, so we went down into the shelter... We learned on Friday that there had been a massacre. I went to my neighbour’s house; Mustapha al-Habarat was injured and lying in a pool of his own blood. His wife and children were dead. We took him to the Gaza hospital [in Beirut] and then we fled. When things had calmed down, I came back and searched for my daughter and my husband for four days. I spent four days look[ing] for them through all the dead bodies. I found Zeinab dead, her face burnt. Her husband had been cut in two and had no head. I took them and buried them.
Mahmoud Younis, still living in Shatilla, was 11 years old at the time of the massacre and lost his father, three younger brothers, an uncle, five cousins and other members of his family:
We took refuge in the bedroom and stayed there. As soon as they arrived, they went straight to the living room, ransacked it while cursing and swearing. Not finding us, they went up to the roof and stayed there all night long. We spent that night in terror in our hiding place, listening to the shooting and people screaming, while Israel fired flares to light the sky until sunrise.
The next morning they started saying, ‘give yourself up and your life will be spared.’ My nephew was 18 months old. He was hungry and we were far from the kitchen. My sister wanted him to quiet down, and she put her hand over his mouth for fear that they would hear. Her husband decided that we would have to give ourselves up, adding that each person’s fate was anyway preordained by God. The women went out first, my brothers, my father, my brother-in-law and other members of the family followed. My brother was ill. As soon as they heard our voices, they shot in our direction and came straight back inside the house. They asked us where we had been the day before when they had come in and not found us. Then they ordered the women and children to go out. My brother-in-law started kissing his little girl as if he were saying goodbye. An armed man came toward my niece, tied a rope around her neck and threatened to strangle her if her father didn’t let go of her. He let go of her and gave her to me. They wanted to take me too, but my mother told them I was a girl.
They made my mother and the women walk to the Sports Center. While I was walking, I saw my aunt’s husband, Abu Nayef, killed near our house with blows of an axe to his head. The dead bodies were disfigured. While I was carrying my niece, I bumped into a dead body that had been hit with an axe and I fell over. They discovered I was a boy, and one of them put me up against the wall; he wanted to fire a bullet into my head. My mother begged him and kissed his feet so that he would let me go but he pushed her away. As he did, he heard the clinking of some money she had hidden next to her chest. He demanded the money which she gave in return for letting me stay with her. In this way, we survived and arrived at the Sports Center. The Israeli bulldozers were busy digging large trenches. We were told that we all had to get in because they wanted to bury us all alive. My mother started begging him again, and then asked for some water before dying.
At the Sports Center, I saw the Israeli military, as well as tanks, bulldozers and artillery, all Israeli. We also saw groups of Phalangists with the Israelis. The Sports Center was packed with women and children. We stayed there until sunset. An Israeli came then and he said, ‘Everyone go to the Cola region, whoever comes back to the camp will die.’ We left, as they fired shots in our direction.
Such accounts are echoed by numerous survivors of the massacres. Yet observers are frankly sceptical about the prospects for the prosecution of Sharon in Belgium. Most people believe that Israel’s favoured status in the West will be sufficient to shield “the Butcher of Beirut” from the consequences of his crimes. Muslims around the world, however, will not forget the massacres, or the reality of the nature of the West and the Zionist state that they demonstrate.