While Americans mark the second anniversary of the attacks on September 11, 2001, Muslims will be marking another tragedy. ZAFAR BANGASH remembers the massacres of Sabra and Shatilla.
At least four anniversaries fall within the four weeks from August 20 to September 18, but only one – the September 11 attacks in the US – has been or will be commemorated.
This exclusive emphasis on the suffering of Americans demonstrates the hierarchical nature of the world today. Three other events also demand to be recalled. On August 20, 1998, the US rained cruise missiles on the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum, destroying Sudan’s only facility, where anti-malaria and anti-TB tablets were produced; hundreds of thousands died because of the resultant shortage of medicines. On August 21, 1969, Denis Michael Rohan, an Australian-born Jew, set fire to the Nuriddin Zingi Mihrab in Masjid al-Aqsa in an attempt to destroy Islam’s third holiest site. On the thirty-fourth anniversary of the al-Aqsa outrage Israel assassinated Ismail Abu Shanab, a senior leader of Hamas, and two bodyguards in Ghazzah.
This month also marks the twenty-first anniversary of the massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps in Beirut, perpetrated by Israel’s Christian allies, the Phalangist militia (Kata’eb), but carried out at the behest of the zionists. The massacre occurred between September 16 and 18; according to the most conservative estimates, 3,000 Palestinian men, women and children (including infants) were butchered. Even their animals – horses, cattle, dogs and so on – were not spared. Many women were raped and then bayoneted. In a rare departure from past practice, the UN Security Council passed a resolution (no 521, on September 19, 1982) condemning "the criminal massacre of Palestinian civilians in Beirut" and describing it as a "genocide". Uncharacteristically, the US did not veto the resolution, as it has often done, before then and since.
The killings in the camps were witnessed by general Amos Yaron, Israel’s commander in Beirut, perched atop a seven-storey building only 200 metres away. At night Israeli forces fired flares to light up the camps so that the Phalangists could do their job more efficiently. On the morning of September 17 a message was sent to general Rafael Eitan, Israel’s chief of staff, requesting permission for the Phalangists to remain in the camps for a few extra hours; he told them they could stay there until the next morning. The Phalangists did not leave the camp until 8 am on September 18, and not until they had buried many of the dead by bulldozing their bodies in deep trenches and then blasting buildings on top of them.
The massacre was instigated by Ariel Sharon, at that time defence minister; he had also masterminded the invasion of Lebanon in June 1982. On September 12, 1982, Sharon forced Bashir Jumayyil, Lebanon’s president-elect, to send his Phalange militias into the camps to eliminate the 2,000 Palestinian "terrorists" belonging to Yasser Arafat’s Fatah group, who were allegedly hiding there. Two days later Jumayyil was killed in a bomb explosion as he celebrated his election victory at the Phalange party headquarters. On the evening of September 15, Israeli troops entered West Beirut in violation of the ceasefire agreement (Israeli troops had besieged West Beirut by July 3), and sealed off the Sabra and Shatilla camps.
Israel did not plan the invasion of Lebanon alone; the US, its chief patron, was fully involved. In November 1981 the US had entered into a strategic partnership with Israel. Sharon regarded this as an opportunity to invade Lebanon and destroy the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The PLO had already been driven out of Jordan after the Jordanian army perpetrated a similar bloodbath in September 1970. In preparation for the invasion of Lebanon, Sharon secretly visited West Beirut in mid-January 1982 and identified all the landmarks that needed to be secured by the Phalangists once the invasion got under way. The PLO was aware of these moves but, with only 15,000 fighters, it could be no match for the Israeli army.
In the same month defence ministers of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council had met and essentially said that they would do nothing if Israel invaded Lebanon to eliminate the PLO. There was one other thing Sharon needed before launching the invasion: America’s acquiescence in his criminal enterprise. On May 20, 1982, he met US secretary of state Alexander Haig in Washington. Haig was in agreement with the plan; his only concern was that Israel should use a suitable pretext for the invasion in order to deflect international criticism. Arafat had been careful to avoid providing that pretext, forbidding his fighters to respond to Israel’s provocative attacks on their positions in South Lebanon. The "pretext" – almost certainly Israel’s doing but carried out through the renegade Abu Nidal – took the form of an attack on Shlomo Argov, Israel’s ambassador to London, on June 3. That was all Israel needed.
Three days later (June 6) 90,000 Israeli troops, backed by 1,300 tanks, 12,000 trucks, 1,300 armoured personnel-carriers and many helicopters and combat aircraft, invaded Lebanon. The invasion was code-named Peace for Galilee. It was initially believed that the Israelis would only go after Palestinian positions in South Lebanon. The zionist juggernaut met little resistance as it rolled in; this suited Sharon’s plan perfectly; he intended to go all the way to Beirut and destroy the PLO, killing Arafat if possible. Beirut was besieged and bombarded, killing an estimated 20,000 civilians. Under a US-brokered deal, the PLO agreed to evacuate its fighters from Lebanon in return for a multinational force to oversee the evacuation, as well as provide protection for the Palestinians who would be left behind, from the zionists and from their Phalangist allies (who had perpetrated a bloodbath against Palestinians in the Tel el-Zatar refugee-camp in 1976). On September 1 all the PLO’s fighters left Lebanon for Tunisia. The rest of the Palestinians were left to the non-existent mercies of the invaders and their American and Phalangist allies; the massacre at Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps was the immediate result. No multinational force turned up to protect the Palestinians.
When news of the massacre spread, there was an immediate outcry worldwide. Aware that the crime was too serious to sweep completely under the carpet (although Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin tried to shift the blame by alleging that "Goyem kills goyem and they come to hang the Jew!"), something more than a mere statement was needed. A three-member commission of inquiry was set up, headed by Justice Kahan, president of the Israeli Supreme Court, to investigate the massacre. Its findings, released on February 8, 1983, concluded that the "Minister of Defence [Ariel Sharon] bears personal responsibility", and that he should "draw the appropriate personal conclusions arising out of the defects revealed with regard to the manner in which he discharged the duties of his office." The commission recommended that Begin remove Sharon from office if he did not resign. Sharon did resign, but was soon back in the cabinet as agricultural minister. Others were also rehabilitated, notably general Eitan as Knesset member and general Yaron as military attache in Washington.
The pliant western media, always eager to whitewash Israel’s crimes, soon forgot about the massacre in Sabra and Shatilla. It would have become a footnote in history but for a law passed by the Belgian parliament in 1999, which opened the way for charges to be laid in a Belgian court against suspects of war crimes committed anywhere in the world. The law was further amended in January 2002. On June 17, 2001, the BBC aired a documentary on the Sabra and Shatilla massacre, in which Morris Draper, a US special envoy to the Middle East at the time, said that US officials were horrified when they were told that Sharon had allowed Phalangist militias into West Beirut and the camps "because it would be a massacre." He told the BBC that after the killings began he cabled Sharon, telling him, "You must stop the slaughter... The situation is absolutely appalling. They are killing children. You have the field completely under your control and are therefore responsible for that area." The day after the BBC documentary was aired, 23 survivors of the massacre lodged a formal complaint against Sharon in a Belgian court.
The court case led to a storm of protest in Israel; Israel’s ambassadors were recalled from both Belgium and the US. The Belgian government, however, initially held its ground. A number of Belgian senators visited Beirut in January 2002 to persuade Eli Hobeika, the Christian militia intelligence chief at the time and Israel’s principal liaison in Lebanon, to testify. At a secret meeting on January 23 Hobeika agreed to do so, provided that he was given protection and his agreement to testify was kept secret. Early next day Hobeika was blown to pieces in his car, almost certainly by Mossad (the Israeli intelligence agency). Despite this setback, the Belgian appeal court ruled on February 12 that action against former general Amos Yaron could proceed, but "international custom prevents heads of government being pursued by a foreign state." The ruling, however, left the door open for Sharon’s trial once he left office.
The US would have none of this; US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld forced the Belgian government on June 28, 2003, to gut its anti-atrocity law so that it would have no jurisdiction over crimes committed outside its own territory. Rumsfeld threatened to withhold funding for NATO operations and building projects, and even warned that the US would move NATO out of Belgium, unless the law was watered down. The Belgians caved in. Rumsfeld was primarily concerned about the law being used against Americans, including himself, but he was also concerned about Sharon, who is a confidant of president Bush. Gloating over his success at forcing Belgium to comply with US demands, Rumsfeld remarked condescendingly that "Belgium has learned its lesson: there are consequences to its actions."
It would be unrealistic to expect a court in Europe to deliver justice to Muslims. What the Belgian law did was to give Sharon’s crimes some publicity. He has a gory record, and it is for Muslims themselves to apprehend this criminal and bring him to justice. If that is not possible, then at least his crimes must be underlined so that future generations know about the crimes being perpetrated against Muslims. It is also pertinent to note that the final deathtoll in the WTC and Pentagon incidents, according to the US government, was 2,823, of whom nearly 500 were citizens of other countries. In the Sabra and Shatilla camps the death toll exceeded 3,000. Yet it is clear even to a casual observer how differently the two events are being treated. Those who are powerful get away literally with murder; those without power cannot even get their grievances aired.