Sabra and Shatila massacre
The Sabra and Shatila massacre refers to the killings of Palestinian refugees and Lebanese Shias at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camp that took place in Beirut, Lebanon, the 16, 17 and 18 of September, 1982, during the Lebanese Civil War.
At least 460 people were killed in the massacre by Lebanese Forces. Those killed were nearly all Palestinian refugees, and the slaughter was carried out at the discretion of the Lebanese Christian political party by their Phalangist militia. The massacre is today referred to as Sabra and Shatila after the names of the refugee camps that were assaulted in the attack.
Historical Context: The Lebanese Civil War[change | change source]
Before the War: A Strained Situation[change | change source]
The Lebanese civil war takes place in a context of extreme tensions all around Lebanon. The politicians are extremely corrupted and cannot agree on the country's policy, for example on subjects such as international policy and on the Palestinian question, in which many countries of the Middle-East region are involved at this time.
Civilians are divided, mostly directly because of the organization of the Lebanese society: The society is divided between religious groups. That means if you were a Christian, you were assimilated in the society as a Christian and nothing else. Certain religious groups had certain political rights and occupied specific functions that could not be taken by a member of another group. Christian group was essentially monopolizing the political life while certain Muslim groups, such as Sunni and Shi'i, were put aside.
There is also an important Palestinian presence in the south of the country. Palestinians are mainly refugees. They are also numerous members of the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization), who established in south Lebanon in order to lead terrorist operations from there. Therefore, the different classes of society are also divided about the Palestinian question that is supported by some but not by others. The economic situation is not great as well since unemployment is at a very high rate.
The Start of the War[change | change source]
Violent events rise during the end of the 1960s and the first half of 1970s. They are persecuted by different factions with various revendications. People are overall tired of the monopoly of Christians and struggle for more rights and representation. Several armed movements are creating, with different political views. The Lebanese National Movement, led by Kamal Jumblatt, asks for the de-confessionalization of Lebanon: It wants to end the religious class societal system. Sunni and Shi'i struggle for more representation and support the Palestinian refugees, creating groups reuniting those populations. Many Palestinians therefore join the struggles.
It is today considered that the civil war starts on the 13th of April, 1975, after one of these attacks, committed by the phalanges against a Palestinian bus. Fights immediately generalize in the same day. The government finds itself unable to control and demilitarize the militias that create all around the country and violences rise extremely quickly.
During these first two years of war, several massacres are already committed. For example, the massacre of Tel al-Za'atar (1976) by the Syrian and Lebanese Phalanges forces against Palestinians. Also, the massacre of Damour (1976) by the Palestine Liberation Organization against Christians.
Civilian fights last for a year until other countries step in the fight. In 1976, Syria steps into the conflict, and so the Lebanese civil war starts to impact all the Middle-east region. Israel also steps into the conflict in 1982, pretexting the attempt against the Israeli ambassador, Shlomo Argov. The Israeli army invades Lebanon by the south until Beirut. According to the claims of the invaders and the leaders representing them, the intention of the invasion was to safeguard Israeli citizens and to generally diminish the threat of international terrorism. Because of how these attacks were targeted and the nature of Israeli army’s invasion, this intentionality would mean a siege of West Beirut and destruction of the PLO as well as the surrounding area. At this time, Syrian forces also began occupying areas of Lebanon. It is the same year in this context that the Sabra and Shatila massacres will be perpetrated.
The context before the Sabra and Shatila massacre[change | change source]
Right before the massacre of the two camps, the current President of Lebanon, Bachir Gemayel, is murdered in a bombing attack on the 14 of September 1982. He also was the leader of the Lebanese Phalanges. In reaction, those take control and close the west part of Beirut, including the Sabra and Shatila camps. Their invasion was helped by Israeli forces, who are sent at the pretext of maintaining order in the capital.
The Factions Involved in the Massacre of Sabra and Shatila[change | change source]
There were different factions involved in the Sabra and Shatila massacre: The Lebanese phalanges, the Israeli army, and the Palestinian refugees, inhabitants of the camps.
The Lebanese Phalanges[change | change source]
Formally known as the Christian Maronite Lebanese Forces, the Lebanese Phalanges were the primary Christian militia involved in the Lebanese Civil War. The Maronites first came to Lebanon in an attempt to escape persecution in Syria, and it was at this time that the group was able to build a relationship with European powers, specifically maintaining a connection with France. In addition to the Phalangist militia, there was also a strong Phalangist political party, led most prominently by Pierre Gemayel.
One of the key leaders of the Phalangist military faction was Bachir Gemayel, son to Pierre, and eventually elected president, though he was assassinated in mid-September of the same year he was elected, before having the opportunity to actually take office. His murder was carried out via bombing and perpetrated by Habib Tanious Shartouni, whose allegiance lied with Syria and is known to have been a member of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. Another pertinent figure to the Phalangist group in Lebanon was Elie Hobeika, who was known to have a close relationship with Gemayel and served as a military leader for the Lebanese forces at the time of the war.
The Israeli Army[change | change source]
Israel steps into the conflict in 1982 by sending troops to Lebanon. This action follows the murdering attempt on Shlomo Argov, the Israeli ambassador. It gives to Israel the pretext to invade the south of Lebanon and the capital. This operation is called "Peace for Galilee". Its goal behind the intervention was to drive out the PLO fighters who established in the country. Though the murdering attempt on Shlomo Argov was not perpetuated by the PLO, it gave to Israel the justification to attack Palestinian fighters in Lebanon. The Israeli army slowly advance until Beirut where they join their military forces with the Syrian forces already involved in the conflict and with the Lebanese Phalanges. They will not enter the capital, though, after a cease-fire agreement was conclude with the USA in September.
After the assassination of Bachir Gemayel, though, Israel breaks the agreement. Before the massacre of Sabra and Shatila, the Israeli forces will allow the Lebanese militia to enter the camp, despite of the agreement of protecting the muslim populations.
The Palestinian Refugees and Fighters of the PLO[change | change source]
The PLO, formally the Palestine Liberation Organization, was initially conceived in 1964 with the ultimate intention of creating a Palestinian state. The organization had directly opposition to and conflict with the State of Israel.
Following revolts, Jordanian-Palestinian conflict in the early 1970s, and the events of Black September, a large number Palestinians were forced to flee Jordan and entered Lebanon seeking refuge and a place where they could better face potential confrontation. Both Palestinian refugees and fighters had been privy to large amounts of violence, death, and decimation and sought to establish a place for themselves in Southern areas of Lebanon and in Beirut.
The Palestinian refugees' presence in Jordan played a significant role in the rising tension which eventually led to the Lebanese Civil War. They were the target of several forces, including the Maronites, accompanied by the Lebanese army and several other militias, as well as the Israeli army. As we know, they would eventually become the objective and victims of the Sabra and Shatila massacre.
The Proceedings: When, Where, How and Why the Massacre Occurred[change | change source]
In June of 1982, the Israeli army executed an unprecedented invasion of Lebanon in an attempt to effectively obliterate the Palestinian Liberation Organization, its infrastructure, and its allies, inciting continued violence and battle in the area. Part of this attack was a culmination of tensions among Zionists and Phalangists. The Phalanges ultimately sought to achieve dominion over Lebanon, and in particular with concern to religion; they desired a Maronite Christian supremacy in the country and a strict force of control in which they wielded power. They were willing to elevate the ongoing conflict in Lebanon and sanction war and violence to achieve their goals, using a variety of military strategies including a near constant arial strafe of the capital city.
Despite steadfast attempts at resistance from the Palestinian-Lebanese side, violence and death was crescendoing and other actors became involved. Along with several others, the Lebanese prime minister at the time, Shafik Wazzan, and an American representative named Philip Habib were making attempts to diffuse the issue diplomatically. On 11th August 1982, they came to an accord which designated that the PLO would be forcefully removed from Beirut under the direction of both American and European forces, specifically France and Italy. Providing this evacuation of Palestinian troops, the Israeli government made guarantee that their army would not infiltrate west Beirut or perpetrate further attack. They also pledged, in conjunction with the United States government, to assure the safety of the Palestinians and people already inside the refugee camps.
The Shatila camp, located in west Beirut, had been a standing Palestinian refugee camp since the 1940s, established for several years before the massacre took place. Over time, the camp had grown to also include the nearby Sabra neighborhood, and both Sabra and Shatila were in the direct path of the violence being perpetrated by the Israeli forces. However, because of the formal agreement reached by Philip Habib and Shafik Wazzan, the camps and the Palestinian civilians' security should have been safeguarded. This changed following the assassination of Lebanese president Bachir Gemayel, which prompted the Israeli army and the Phalangist militia, whose loyalty was strongly tied to Gemayel, to take action that they considered necessary to regain control in Beirut and protect the area and people within it. This claim of needing to acquire security and safeguard against terrorism was the veneer Israeli forces employed to justify the disruption of their previous promises and the acts of brutality which followed. Many other parties, including the United States, were implicated in the events of the next few days.
On 15th September, the Israeli army was the first power to occupy Sabra and Shatila, closing all access out of the camps and effectively confining thousands of civilians and refugees inside. From 16th to 18th September 1982, the camps were then subjected to an onslaught of violence, rape, abuse, and mass murder. Other groups became involved in carrying out the decimation, including the Lebanese Forces and other right-wing militias. The massacre was an enormous loss of human life, consisting of almost entirely Palestinian refugees and Lebanese civilians, including many women and children, hospital patients, and public servants such as medical staff. There is still uncertainty as to precisely how many were killed in the massacre; some state the death toll to be as low as 300, some claim it's nearer to 1,700, while other estimates range as high as 4,500 victims. Most sources posit that at least 3,000 innocent people were murdered in this 3-day period.
The Impact of the Massacre[change | change source]
International reactions[change | change source]
Very few time after the massacre was commited, it immediatly reached an international range. It was highly denonced by international powers and by the israeli population. The United Nations qualified the event as a "high scale massacre" and as a "genocide". It also pointed out the responsability of Israel, while Israeli people manifested in the streets. An international inquiry commission, the Mc Bride Commission, was opened. Under the pressure, Israeli government was forced to open its own inquiry commission, the Kahan Commission.
The Mc Bride commission, does not establish the direct responsability of Israel in the massacre. However, it makes Israel responsible for letting the Phalanges enter the camps and helping the massacre by lightning the camps at night. This allowed the massacre to continue even after nightfall. 
Following the Kahan Commission, Israel recognized having surrounded and controlled the camps during the massacre. However, it denies knowing that the massacre was happening. Ariel Sharon, the Israeli ministor of Defense, was several times blamed for the responsability of the massacre, for failing to prevent it. He was sued in Belgium with other Israeli supervisors. However, the plaint would not be followed.
Lebanese reponsability[change | change source]
Elie Hobeka was particularly blamed as the one who ordered the massacre by the Phalanges. He was the leader of the Lebanese secret services. Today, his role as the main responsible of the massacre is fully acknowledged. He would however die in a bombing in 2002 as he was involved in the Belgian trial for the accusation against Ariel Sharon.
Testimonies[change | change source]
Nowadays, many scholars and journalists have written about the massacre. Also, numerous testimonies depicting the massacre have spread through journalists's work. Many testimonies witness the fact that Israeli soldiers saw the massacres occurring from where they were. We can illustrate that, non-exhaustively, through the testimonies collected by Pierre Péan, or Leila Shahid. These allegations however could have been discussed and their authenticity could not have always been proved.
These testimonies represent an important part of the actual memory of the massacres. In addition to their memorial role, they are also used by journalists and scholars who study the importance of the massacre. .They can also study sources today put to disposition in order to establish precisely the actions and responsabilities of every actors. Seth Anziska has for exemple worked on American actions during the war. He based his works on elements such as the communications between Israel and the USA or the record of the military movements.
Cultural Evocations[change | change source]
Cinema[change | change source]
- Waltz with Bashir, an animated movie realized by Ari Foldman in 2008, tells the autobiographical story of an Israeli soldier who served during the Israeli intervention in Lebanon, in 1982, and who was involved in assisting Lebanese Phalanges during the Sabra and Shatila massacre.
- Massaker, realized by Monika Borgmann, Lokman Slim and Hermann Theissen in 2004. The massacre of Sabra and Shatila is narrated by soldiers who have been directly involved in the killings.
- Al-Manam, realized by Mohammad Malas, is a documentary about Palestinian refugees during the Lebanese civil war.
- Incendies, realized by Denis Villeneuve, refers without telling it explicitely to a scene of the Sabra and Shatila massacre.
Literature[change | change source]
- Sabra and Chatila, by Bayan Nuwayed, Pluto Press, Londres, 2004.
- Le Quatrième Mur, by Sorj Chalandon, 2013.
- Anima, by Wajdi Mouawad, 2015.
- Quatre heures à Chatila, by Jean Genet, 1991.
- From Israel to Damascus the Painful Road of blood, betrayal, and deception, by Robert Maroun Hatem. Often known colloquially as "Cobra", the author of this biography was one of the bodyguards to the book's main person of interest. It is the account of Phalangist leader Elie Hobeika's life, in which his former employee, Hatem, portrays the violence of the war from an inside perspective and offers a decidedly negative overall picture of Hobeika.
Bibliography[change | change source]
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- The Irish Times. (2002, January 26). Led Christian Lebanese militia which massacred 2,000 refugees. The Irish Times. https://www.irishtimes.com/news/led-christian-lebanese-militia-which-massacred-2-000-refugees-1.1048147.
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- Wakim, J. (2021). The Lebanese Civil War 1975–90. Contemporary Arab Affairs, 14(3), 105–124. https://doi.org/10.1525/caa.2021.14.3.105.
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