Sabra and Chatila

14 Mars, 2008
Signoles Aude

The Sabra and Shatila massacre took place between the 16th and the 18th of September 1982 in Lebanon. It was perpetrated by a Lebanese Christian militia, the Phalangists, which was under the political and military control of the State of Israel. The victims were mostly civilians from Sabra and Shatila. Sabra and Shatila are two Palestinian adjoining refugee camps located in the southwest of Beirut (see maps).

On the 18th of September, after about forty hours of killing, the first images of the massacre showing civilian victims appeared on TV. They provoked worldwide indignation and compassion.

A. Context

At the time of the massacre, the question of Palestine and the Palestinian presence in Lebanon were major stakes on the regional and internal political arena.

Palestinians have settled in Lebanon in the aftermath of the creation of the State of Israel. “During the summer of 1948, some 110,000 Palestinians were driven out of Galilee and crossed the border into Lebanon” (Picard 2002:79). Most of them became refugees. During the seventies, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) set up its headquarters in Lebanon after its leaders and activists had been expelled from Jordan. The PLO was responsible for some 340,000 Palestinians. It provided social services and basic infrastructures and built institutions in various domains (economic, cultural, social and political). In the same time, Yasser Arafat, the PLO’s historic leader, developed a military apparatus to lead the armed struggle against Israel. Thousands of Palestinian fighters (the fedayin) were sheltered and trained in the refugee camps. The camps were under the sole control of the Palestinian military police, according to an agreement signed by Y. Arafat and the chief of the Lebanese army in 1969. In that context, refugee camps became symbols of Palestinian resistance.

In 1975, civil war broke out in Lebanon, opposing two camps: the “Christian-conservatives” and the “Islamic-progressives” (Picard, 2002). The first group mainly included Christians (Maronites, in particular) and formed “a bloc around the presidency for the preservation of the traditional order” (Picard, 2002:108). The Phalangists (or Kataeb), founded in 1936 by Pierre Gemayel, increasingly ruled the coalition. The second group, which constituted “a heterogeneous coalition with three focuses - leftist, Muslim, and Palestinian” (Picard, 2002:108), shed a doubt on the prevailing leadership. Its leaders “wanted Lebanon to make a decisive commitment to the cause of Palestinian resistance”, whereas the “Christian conservatives” supported the status quo from which they benefited.

In 1976, the Syrian armed forces took part in the Lebanese civil war, invading Lebanon and strengthening one camp first and then, the other. Israel’s support to the Christians was instituted almost at the same time. It was agreed that Israel would help if the existence of Lebanese Christians were to become endangered. According to the Phalangists, the number of Palestinian refugees, for the most part Muslims, threatened the demographic balance between Christians and Muslims in the country. They also feared that it may weaken their (profitable) position in the political game.

From the mid-onwards, the South of Lebanon became the favourite battlefield of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Palestinian fighters carried out commando raids against Israeli interests and citizens throughout the world and planned more and more attacks at the Northern border of Israel. The Israeli government reacted by interfering on Lebanese soil and directing “policing” or “preventive” operations towards Palestinians – in total contradiction with International Law. The everyday lack of security caused by these policing interventions and by bombings affected not only the Palestinians, but also the Lebanese, especially in the South. The Israeli Prime Minister Menahem Begin also put pressure on the Lebanese Army, as he wanted the latter’s command to play a role in protecting Israeli interests by attacking the PLO’s apparatus.

In March 1978, the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) invaded the South of Lebanon up to the Litani River. The Israeli leaders reproached the Lebanese army with not being able to secure the border. Forced to withdraw in July due to international protests, the IDF decided thereafter to create a Lebanese border militia. The Army of Free Lebanon (AFL) was formed with deserters from the Lebanese army and placed under the command of Saad Haddad. Its purpose consisted in protecting the northern border of Israel from Palestinian incursions. S. Haddad coordinated the AFL’s actions directly with the Israeli military command.

On the 6th of June, 1982, the IDF invaded Lebanon for a second time. The Israeli troops rapidly encircled West Beirut where the PLO had established its headquarters, and met with the Phalangist forces, posted in the eastern part of the city. This military operation, named “Peace for Galilee”, officially aimed at ensuring the security of the inhabitants of Northern Israel. But the weakening of the PLO’s infrastructure and apparatus was also on the agenda.

Although the military balance of forces was largely in favor of the IDF, the “Islamic-progressives” stood up to air strikes, naval gunfire and tank artillery launched on the Lebanese capital. The siege of Beirut, which lasted all summer, found an issue in negotiations that aimed at preparing the PLO’s withdrawal from Lebanon. The negotiations were conducted by US envoy Philip Habib with spokespersons of the Palestinian side, as the United States did not recognize the PLO.

An agreement was reached in the middle of August on the principle of an evacuation of the Palestinian fighters and PLO officials and the dismantlement of PLO offices and infrastructures. The “Habib Roadmap” put the evacuation under the supervision of a multinational force formed by some Italian, French and American troops and scheduled to remain on the battlefield during thirty days from the date of their arrival. It also guaranteed security to the Palestinian civilians that were to remain in the camps after the PLO’s departure. Indeed, Y. Arafat feared retaliations against his people.

The evacuation was carried out from the 21 th of August to the 1st of September 1982 and was followed by the withdrawal of the multinational force, which came sooner than scheduled.

A new Lebanese President was elected by the Parliament in the aftermath of the PLO’s evacuation. Bechir Gemayel, chief of the Phalangists, won the ballot on the 23rd of August. But the “Islamic-progressives” had boycotted the elections, for they considered the leader of the “Christian-conservatives”’ as the candidate of Israel. Indeed, it is a fact that the Israeli authorities - and especially the Minister of Defence Ariel Sharon - wanted to install a friendly Lebanese government, which could be brought to sign a formal peace agreement with Israel.

However, B. Gemayel was killed on the 14th of September before assuming office. This political assassination gave the Israeli government an opportunity to condemn the Palestinians, and an argument to enter West Beirut. The massacre of Sabra and Shatila started two days later.

B. Instigators and perpetrators

At the time of the massacre, the Sabra and Shatila camps were under the military control of the IDF. Soon after the announcement of Gemayel’s death and in contradiction with “Habib’s roadmap”, M. Begin and A. Sharon decided to enter West Beirut. The invasion began on Wednesday the 15th in the early morning, with tank shelling and gunboats. A. Sharon arrived on the field at 9:00 to oversee the operation. By 12:00 noon on Thursday the 16th of September, he announced the military takeover of the city. The IDF’s headquarters were located at the traffic circle of the Kuwaiti embassy near the Sabra and Shatila camps. Israeli tanks surrounded the camps, sealing the main entrances with checkpoints.

The Israel’s invasion of West Beirut led to worldwide protest. As indignation rose, even among some members of the Israeli government who were not kept informed as well as in the United States, the Israeli Prime Minister, the Minister of Defence, and the top military leaders, claimed that they entered Beirut in order to prevent violence and pogroms. In their opinion, Gemayel’s death could produce disorder. As for Y. Arafat, he reiterated his fear for the fate of Palestinian civilians who had remained in Lebanon after the PLO’s departure.

The Phalangists entered the Sabra and Shatila camps in the afternoon on Thursday the 16th. As proven by a multitude of sources, their entrance was coordinated with, and authorized by, the IDF. According to the inquiry of an Israeli Commission (The Kahan Commission, 1983) (see below), which was based upon testimonies of the political and military hierarchy, the Israeli leaders decided to send the Phalangists in the camps during a meeting on Wednesday the 15th. Those present were A. Sharon, IDF chief of staff General Rafael Eitan, Major General Amir Drori, head of Israel’s northern command, Fadi Ephram, the Phalangists’ commander in chief, and Elias Hobeika, chief of intelligence. The Israelis ordered the Christian militiamen to enter the camps in search of “terrorists” and weapons. According to them, 2000-armed terrorists had remained in the camps despite the PLO’s evacuation; they should be forced out.

In the afternoon of September the 16th, meetings were held between the Phalangists and the Israeli military command, including General Amos Yaron, IDF chief in Beirut. Around 17:00 - 18:00, the first Phalangists’ unit (about 150 men) entered the camps with E. Hobeika at its head. Saad Haddad’s troops were not part of the operation, contrary to what was asserted by some direct witnesses and the Lebanese authorities. The Israeli Commission of inquiry (The Kahan Commission, 1983) and A. Kapeliouk’s field research (Kapeliouk, 1982) showed that the Israeli leadership neither ordered, nor coordinated the entry in Sabra and Shatila with the Army of Free Lebanon. But it could be possible that a few of its members were deserters and had joined the Phalangists before the massacre occurred.

The killing started almost immediately after the Phalangists’ entrance, according to the inhabitants’ testimonies. Electricity had been cut off since the end of the afternoon but the camps were well-lit thanks to flares fired by the IDF over the camps. The militiamen entered houses, shooting people, slitting them with knives, axes or hatchets, raping women and girls. Injured refugees started to arrive at the Gaza hospital north of Sabra, carried by their relatives. Furthermore, scared inhabitants seeking protection asked the medical teams to take them in.

On the morning of Friday the 17th, new Phalangists’ units entered the camps. At the height of the assault, the militiamen were about 400. The killing went on all day long with its share of summary executions, house demolitions, and looting of private goods such as money or jewellery. Corpses were lying on the streets, abandoned under ruins or bulldozed in mass graves. Witnesses saw many inhabitants piled up onto trucks and driven outside the camps to unknown destinations. Nobody knows what became of them. They are the “missing” of the Sabra and Shatila massacre.

The first rumours of massacre reached journalists from refugees who had escaped. They also reached the Israeli command as some of the IDF soldiers, posted at the entrances of the camps, witnessed killings of civilians and reported it to their hierarchy. The Israeli Commission of inquiry (The Kahan Commission, 1983) revealed that at 12:00 noon, General A. Drori warned his superior General R. Eytan in Tel Aviv who, then, decided to fly to Beirut to check. The IDF chief of staff met F. Ephram and E. Hobeika in the following hours: they agreed on a withdrawal of the militiamen for the next morning.

Early in the morning on Saturday the 18th, the Phalangists ordered the camps’ inhabitants by loudspeaker to surrender. They gathered them outside, separated the Lebanese from the Palestinians, men from women, executed some of them, let others go, threw some inside trucks and forced the majority of the men to enter the Sports City stadium, where IDF officers and Phalangists questioned them. Meanwhile, a group of militiamen went to the Gaza hospital, asked the foreign medical team to leave the building, and killed the Arab personnel.

At 10:00, the Phalangists left the Sabra and Shatila camps. But testimonies certify that the interrogations continued at the Sports city (Fisk, 2001). The Lebanese army took control of camps on the following day, Sunday the 19th.

C. Victims

The exact number of victims from the Sabra and Shatila massacre is not and will never be precisely known. Estimations have always varied widely between 700 to 3500. The lowest number (between 700 and 800 victims) has been produced by the IDF and was used by the Israeli Commission of inquiry, as « this may well be the number most closely corresponding to reality » (The Kahan Commisssion, 1983). The Lebanese authorities published higher figures in the middle of October 1982. According to official sources, casualties reached the number of 2 000, and are divided as follows: 762 identified corpses have been buried by the Lebanese army or the Red Cross, whereas 1200 others have been buried by families on their own initiative and registered with the Red Cross.

The Lebanese historian Bayan al-Hout (2004) conducted fieldwork between 1982 and 1984 on casualties in Sabra and Shatila. She identified 1390 cases: 906 dead and 484 “missing”.

Amnon Kapeliouk, an Israeli journalist, worked on a reconstitution of the events soon after the slaughter. He based his personal inquiry upon primary sources, such as testimonies, IDF archives and declarations, press reports, evidences gathered by the Israeli Commission of inquiry, etc. and published the results of his research in 1982: Sabra and Shatila. Inquiry Into a Massacre [Sabra et Chatila: enquête sur un massacre], which became a reference book.

In A. Kapeliouk’s opinion, the number of victims reached 3 000 - 3 500. He added to the 2000 death formally listed and recognized by the Lebanese authorities three other kinds of victims:

-* Those who were buried in mass graves dug up by the assailants and whose bodies have not been brought up;

-* Those who died under the ruins of their houses;

-* The “missing” who were taken alive to unknown destinations and never returned. According to the Red Cross, the number of the “missing” reached 359 between the 18th and the 20th of September.

No estimation of the number of injuried was given, but cases of mutilation are numerous.

The victims of the Sabra and Shatila massacre presented several features. First, a large number of them were civilians. The massacre was perpetrated on the fringers of Beirut, inside refugee camps which are densely populated and mostly residential areas. Moreover, the slaughter occurred a week after the departure of the majority of the PLO’s fighters. Even if the Israelis claimed that some combatants remained in the camps, no clear evidence has been provided. On the contrary: whereas a three-month-siege was not able to force the Palestinian resistance to lay down its arms, only one day was needed for the IDF to take over Beirut after the PLO’s departure.

Secondly, males were the majority of victims of the massacre, although one witnessed women, eldery people or babies among the victims. Indeed, men were most systematically searched, lined up and/or executed by the Phalangists.

Thirdly, most of the victims were 1948-Palestinian refugees and their descendents living in the Sabra and Shatila camps. Some of the dead were Lebanese. The Lebanese casualties either shared their lives with a Palestinian man or woman and had settled in camps, were visiting relatives, or had escaped from the shelled South Lebanon and found refuge in Beirut’s suburbs. A few foreign workers were also to be counted among the victims, according to the Palestine Red Crescent and the Lebanese authorities. Indeed, the Syrians, Pakistanis, Iraqis or Egyptians who work in Lebanon as unskilled and under-employed workers, often live in Palestinian refugees camps where the cost of living is cheaper.

This leads to a fourth remark: the dead of the Sabra and Shatila massacre were poor. They came from the lower class settled in Beirut. The Lebanese who had come from the South had left their land behind and were forced to work as unskilled workers in Beirut. By law, Palestinians in Lebanon are not allowed to practice a large number of professions, such as doctor, advocate, ingeneer, civil servant, etc. They therefore cannot earn a decent salary and are financially dependant on international organizations and reminittescences from the diaspora.

Fifth, the victims of the massacre were mostly Muslims, even if some Lebanese Christians (civilians or militiamen) have been killed during the slaughter. The Muslim dead were Sunni, in keeping with the general characteristics of the Palestinian population as most Palestinians follow Sunni Islam. But the Lebanese from the South were Shi’i.

Finally, violence inflicted on human bodies as witnessed by some journalists and broadcasted worldwide after the massacre contributed to distinguish the Sabra and Shatila slaughter from other carnages that have been perpetrated during the civil war. This kind of “savagery” and the fact that the victims were mostly civilians also contributed to it being considered a “striking” event in the genealogy of political violence in Lebanon and in collective and individual memories.

D. Witnesses

Many people saw and spoke to victims in the immediate aftermath of the massacre. A few hours after the slaughter, testimonies were recorded or written down by foreign journalists, diplomats and Red Cross teams.

Leila Shahid (1983; 2002) was among the first to directly interview victims. She was the leader of the General Union of Palestinian Students (GUPS) in France at that time and was visiting Beirut with Jean Genet, a French novelist (J. Hankins, 1992) who wrote a famous essay based on his direct experience as an eye witness (1997). There is also a play issued from J. Genet’s novel, entitled “Quatre heures à Chatila”. The testimonies L. Shahid compiled are personal reminiscences by the camps’ inhabitants who considered themselves “survivors”. Like other testimonies (al-Shaikh, 1984), they emphasized the following facts:

-* Rumours of massacre rapidly emerged inside the camps, but were not taken seriously by the inhabitants; “Thursday night, we were sitting at home when the sky over the camp was lit by flares. A man came in and said the Phalangists are massacring people. We didn’t believe him and went to bed”. Testimony from Sobhia F. (Shahid, 2002:45).

-* People did not know exactly what was going on, nor precisely who was behind the persecutors;

-* The assailants proceeded neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood, house-by-house, threatening and killing in cold blood in front of relatives or neighbours. “They killed the men right in front of us. There was my husband, Hamid Mustafa, who was only forty-seven. My son Hussein was fifteen, and my son Hassan was fourteen. There was also the son and brother of our neighbour, and others too. In all, seven men they killed and piled one on top of the other in front of the house. They emptied their pockets, taking their watches and whatever they were carrying. Then they dug a pit and buried them”. Testimony from Umm Hussein (Shahid, 2002:57).

Similar narratives have been heard during the commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the massacre, as well as during the trial that was held in Belgium against A. Sharon in 2001-2003 (Revue d’Etudes Palestiniennes, 2003 ; Péan, 2002) [See below].

A few foreigners were direct witnesses of the massacre. They were mostly Western doctors and nurses. The majority of them had arrived in Lebanon during the Israeli invasion and were working at the Akka and Gaza Hospitals, both located in Sabra and Shatila camps. Their testimonies were widely broadcasted on Western media, as they spoke other languages than Arabic. They were also asked to testify in front of the Israeli inquiry commission (Siegel, 2001). Their version was very similar to the Palestinian refugees’ testimonies.

Some IDF soldiers also directly witnessed the massacre, as was revealed by the Israeli Commission of inquiry (The Kahan Commission, 1983). Their testimonies confirmed the killing of civilians. For example, Lieutenant Grabowsky declared to the magistrates, that on Friday the 17th, « in the early morning hours, he saw Phalangists soldiers taking men, women and children out of the area of the camps and leading them to the area of the stadium. Between 8:00 and 9:00, he saw two Phalangist soldiers hitting two young men. The soldiers led the men back into the camp, after a short time he heard a fex shots and saw the two Phalangist soldiers coming out. At a later hour he went up the embankment with the tank and then saw the Phalangist soldiers had killed a group of five women and children” (The Kahan Commission, 1983).

Foreign journalists and diplomats entered the camps in the aftermath of the massacre after the IDF had withdrawn from the entrances. Their reports and photographs all expressed despair and brutality. Loren Jenkins, from the Washington Post, wrote on September the 23th: “The scene at the Chatila camp when foreign observers entered Saturday morning was like a nightmare. Women wailed over the deaths of loved ones, bodies began to swell under the hot sun, and the streets were littered with thousand of spent cartridges. Houses had been dynamited and bulldozed into rubble, many with the inhabitants still inside. Groups of bodies lay before bullet-pocked walls where they appeared to have been executed. Others were strewn in alleys and streets, apparently shot as they tried to escape”.

In 2004, a German film-documentary, entitled Massaker (produced by Monika Borgmann, Lokman Slim et Hermann Theissen, this documentary was awarded several times at film festivals), gave the floor to executioners. Six Phalangists who remain anonymous tell about how they killed civilians in Sabra and Shatila, but also how they had been trained by the IDF during all of the civil war and how they were under their orders when they perpetrated the slaughter (Mandelbaum, 2006).

E. Memories

There are several narratives on the Sabra and Shatila massacre, which vary widely from one another, and even sometimes contradict each other.

After the massacre had occurred, the Israeli leaders denied any responsibility in it. They argued that no Israeli forces were patrolling the camps when the slaughter was perpetrated. They also pretended that they could not have been aware of what was going on, as they could neither see, nor hear anything in the camps, from their positions. “I can say clearly and immediately that no soldier and no commander in the Israel Defence Forces participated in this terrible act. The hands of the IDF are clean”, the Minister of Defence A. Sharon stated in his address to Parliament on September 22nd, 1982 (Journal of Palestine Studies, 1982:213). The Prime Minister, M. Begin, declared on his side, that he learned of the massacre only on Saturday the 18th from a radio report.

The Israeli leaders also claimed that they had not had any direct contact with the Phalangists on the field. “We don’t give the Phalangists orders, and we are not responsible for them”, General Eitan said (Journal of Palestine Studies, Winter 1983:103). Moreover, the Israeli leaders insisted on the fact that their orders were clear: the militiamen should target the “terrorists”, but should not harm the civilians.

Finally, the Minister of Defence explained that the IDF’s non-interference in the camps had prevented casualties inside Israeli ranks. He added: “We did not imagine in our worst dreams that the Phalangists would act thus (...). The inhuman tragedy, which took place, was beyond our control, notwithstanding all the pain and the sorrow. We cannot bear the responsibility on our shoulders” (Journal of Palestine Studies, 1982:216-217). But, according to the Israeli officials, the Phalangists, and especially their chief of intelligence E. Hobeika, should be charged.

A part of the Israeli population reacted to the Israeli public statements with scepticism. On the 25th of September, about 400 000 people (almost 10% of the population) demonstrated against the government’s actions. It was the largest demonstration in the Israeli national history. “Begin is a murderer” or “Fascism will not take over” were slogans chanted by the protesters. Zeev Shiff, the military correspondent of the newspaper Haaretz, accused Begin’s government of lying: “ It is not true that these atrocities came to our attention only on Saturday afternoon after foreign correspondents had filed reports on them from Beirut (...). I myself heard of the massacre in the camps on Friday morning, and I immediately informed a senior official. This means that the slaughter started on Thursday night, and that whatever I learned on Friday morning was certainly already known to other people by the time it reached my ears” (Journal of Palestine Studies, Winter 1983:175). He goes on blaming: “It is not true that the Phalangists sneaked into the camps without our knowledge. When the IDF surrounds the camps with such huge forces, it is impossible for scores of armed men to pass through without arousing our attention” (Journal of Palestine Studies, Winter 1983:176).

Popular pressure, in addition to international condemnations, led Begin’s government to accept the idea of setting up a national Commission of inquiry (see below). But the latter’s report largely called into question the Israeli official narrative. Indeed, it considered the political and military hierarchy indirectly responsible for the tragedy. Yet some of the leaders have continued denying any kind of responsibility. This denial is particularly evident since the Second Intifada has begun in September 2000 in the Palestinian Territories. In fact, as A. Kapeliouk rightly asserts (REP, 2003), there have been attempts from the Israeli to reformulate national history as soon as the relationship with the Palestinian neighbours became increasingly tense.

In Lebanon, after the massacre, the political authorities accused S. Haddad’s troops (Israel’s traditional ally) of being responsible for it. They also accused the Israeli government of complicity, as the camps’ entrances were under the IDF’s control. But the authorities never blamed the Phalangists for their actions in the camps, although they were the perpetrators. Moreover, the Christian militia was cleared of any kind of responsibility by all political parties, even the leftists. One could explain the sudden Lebanese consensus by the priority given to « national reconciliation » in the aftermath of the Israeli invasion and the siege of Beirut. The « Christian conservatives » and the « Islamic-progressists » gathered behind their new President, Amin Gemayel (Beshir’s brother) to put an end to the Israeli occupation of South Lebanon. Thus, the accusations towards a common foreign enemy - the State of Israel - momentarily helped the Lebanese overcome their internal divisions.

As for the Palestinian refugees, they also considered the Israeli government as the main instigator of the Sabra and Shatila massacre. They particularly charged A. Sharon who was suspected of having planned their expulsion. The Israeli Minister of Defence has been named, from that time onwards, “the butcher of Sabra and Shatila”.

In 2002, the 20th anniversary of the slaughter was commemorated in all Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. Candles were lit in order to keep alive the memory of the slaughter. Mass graves in front of the Sabra and Shatila entrances have been used as memorials. Many witnesses were asked to testify on what happened, in order for the new generations to remember (Péan, 2002 ; Revue d’Etudes Palestiniennes, 2003 ; Sayigh, 2001). Lebanese and Palestinian political parties also organized a march in solidarity with the Palestinian people, which gathered 2000 people. European activists and even European deputies, took part in the demonstration, and called for A. Sharon’s sentence. Indeed, at the same period in Brussels, A. Sharon was personally accused of “war crimes” for his actions in Sabra and Shatila [see below]. A. Sharon’s trial in front of a Belgian Court, as well as the ceremonies of the anniversary, have strengthened the Palestinian narrative of the Sabra and Shatila massacre. Furthermore, A. Sharon’s arrival to power as the Prime Minister of Israel in 2002 has crystallized enmity against his person. His policy of repression towards the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and especially the “massacre of Jenin” in 2002 (in which the IDF launched a military operation against the refugee camp of Jenin in the Northern West Bank. The battle lasted for more than a week. Its aim, according to the Israeli authorities, was the weakening of armed groups supposed to be responsible of suicide-bombings. The number of victims has been subject to controversy. During the attack, civilians were killed and many houses from the same camp’s neighbourhood bulldozed. Access to the camps was prohibited to humanitarian organizations and media, even some days after the end of the attack), has reinforced the Palestinian narrative, according to which A. Sharon wants to destroy the social organisation of the Palestinian people and to weaken its national identity (Nab’aa, 2006).

1982: Israel faced a moral crisis

In Israel, the Sabra and Shatila massacre aggravated the moral crisis the Israeli society was facing since June 1982 and the invasion of Lebanon. Throughout the summer, a growing protest movement emerged in the country calling into question the legitimacy of the war. For the first time in its national history, a military operation appeared to have been unnecessary for Israel’s survival. For the first time too, some anti-war actions were conducted. The dissenters came from the opposition in Parliament (Labour party), the intellectual elite, the mass media and even some IDF soldiers. They criticized the army’s strategy as not appropriate (for fighting the PLO), the military methods as disproportionate (to the threat) and considered the Israeli government as morally responsible for the killing of civilians (Journal of Palestine Studies, 1982:214-225).

In the days following the Sabra and Shatila massacre, protest and emotion grew in intensity. The population was shocked by the TV images coming from Beirut and the first testimonies of survivors. How could the “only true democracy” of the Near East could have gone this far astray?

F. General and Legal Interpretations

The question of whether the Israeli forces had been involved, directly or indirectly, in the massacre that was reported to have been carried out by the Phalangists, divided (and still divides) the legal experts’ and researchers’ communities. Several bodies tried to describe in legal terms what occurred in the Sabra and Shatila camps.

At the international level, the Security Council of the United Nations immediately « condemn[ed] the criminal massacre of Palestinian civilians in Beirut » (resolution 521, September 19th, 1982). On December 16th, 1982, the General Assembly declared the massacre as « an act of genocide » (resolution 37/123). Some members asked for an official United Nations investigation authority to be created, but in vain. A few international experts, mainly lawyers, therefore established an “International Commission to enquire into reported violations of International Law by Israel during its invasion of the Lebanon”. Sean McBride, President of the International Peace Bureau in Geneva, was its Head. The experts’ conclusions were mainly based upon the fourth Geneva Convention. They asserted that “the Israeli authorities bear a heavy legal responsibility, as the occupying power, for the massacres at Sabra and Chatila. From the evidence disclosed, Israel was involved in the planning and the preparation of the massacres and played a facilitative role in the actual killings” (McBride, 1983). They also labelled the Israeli invasion as a “cultural genocide” or “sociocide”. Most of them considered that one could substantiate “the allegation of the deliberate destruction of the national and cultural rights and the identity of the Palestinian people and (...) this constitutes a form of genocide”.

In Lebanon, a commission of inquiry was established after the massacre and placed under the chairmanship of As‘ad Germanos. But it never published its findings since the Lebanese authorities wanted to support “national reconciliation” and downplay, in that context, the Phalangists’ implication in the Sabra and Shatila killing. However, one should note that E. Hobeika, the Phalangist chief of intelligence, was killed in Beirut in a car-bomb attack on January 25th, 2005. Two days before his death, he had declared that he was ready to testify about the Sabra and Shatila massacre in front of the Belgian Court that charged A. Sharon for “genocide”, “war crimes”, and “crimes against humanity” (see below).

On the Israeli side, a national commission of inquiry was also set up on September 28th, 1982 and was headed by Itzhak Kahan, Head of the High Court. I. Kahan was asked, with the help of Aharon Baron, Judge in the High Court and General Yona Efrat, “to investigate all the facts and factors connected with the atrocity which was carried out by a unit of the Lebanese Forces against the civilian population of the Shatilla and Sabra camps” (The Kahan Commission, 1983). On February 7 th, 1983, the Kahan Commission published clear conclusions: the Phalangists perpetrated the atrocities; none of the Israeli leaders had been directly involved in it. Nevertheless, the Commission considered that the Israeli political and military top command bears indirect responsibility. Indeed, the leaders should have foreseen that the danger of a massacre existed: “it is evident that the forces who entered the area were steeped in hatred for the Palestinians, in the wake of the atrocities and severe injuries done to the Christians during the civil war in Lebanon by the Palestinians and those who fought alongside them; and these feelings of hatred were compounded by a longing for revenge in the wake of the assassination of the Phalangists’ admired leader Bashir and the killing of several dozen Phalangists two days before their entry into the camp” (The Kahan Commission, 1983). Moreover, “no energetic and immediate actions were taken to restrain the Phalangists and stop their actions” (The Kahan Commission, 1983), although IDF soldiers had reported about illegal activities in the camps. Nonetheless, no legal proceedings were taken against the Israeli leaders. Only A. Sharon was blamed personally and asked to “draw the appropriate personal conclusions arising out of the defects revealed (...) and if necessary, (...) consider whether he should exercise his authority” (The Kahan Commission, 1983), or not. He resigned from his office on February 11th, 1983. But he remained part of the government as a Minister without portfolio.

The conclusions of the Israeli Commission of inquiry are partly called into question by the scientific community. A. Kapeliouk (1982), G. de La Pradelle (2003) and the McBride Commission (in which G. de La Pradelle was also one of the lawyers, 1983), but also journalists (Péan, 2002; Fisk, 2001), rejected, for instance, the argument that the IDF’s officers posted near the camps were not able to see what happened. According to them, the Israeli headquarters were located on a several-floor building, which was overlooking the camps.

Their main objection to the conclusions of the Kahan Commission, however, concerns the assessment of the level of Israel’s responsibility. A. Kapeliouk (1982) and G. de La Pradelle (2003) argued that the massacre of Sabra and Shatila was not an isolated incident, contrary to what the Commission inferred. The Sabra and Shatila slaughter was part of a long Palestinian drama, which had started in 1948 with the creation of the Israeli State and the expulsion of Palestinians from their land. For both authors, the 1982 massacre should be considered as the prolongation of an old Israeli policy, which has consisted in threatening the PLO, or even try to eliminate it. As the McBride Commission noticed: “there has been a conscious attempt to disrupt the social organisation of the Palestinian people to ensure that through their dispersal, their sense of identity and group loyalty would be weakened, if not destroyed” (Race & Class, 1983:469).

Finally, researchers pointed out signs of the existence of a “plot” planned by the Israeli top command and the Phalangist chiefs. They asserted: “The massacre was not a spontaneous act of vengeance for the murder of Bashir Gemayel, but an operation planned in advance aimed at effecting a mass exodus by the Palestinians from Beirut and other parts of Lebanon” (al-Tal, without date). The Kahan Commission vigorously rejected the idea of a conspiracy “between anyone from the Israeli political echelon or from the military echelon in the IDF and the Phalangists, with the aim of perpetrating atrocities in the camps” (The Kahan Commission, 1983). It explained that the entry of the Phalangists into the camps had been carried out without prior knowledge that a massacre would be perpetrated.

To conclude, one can say that the Israeli hierarchy had probably not ordered the Phalangists to perpetrate a slaughter. But at the same time, one should emphasize that the weakening of the PLO’s infrastructures and the national feelings of Palestinians by military means have been consistent aims of Israeli politics.

G. Judicial actions

In June 2001, 23 victims of the Sabra and Shatila massacre brought a complaint against A. Sharon in front of a Belgian Court. They charged him with “genocide”, “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity”. The same complaint was brought against General A. Yaron. Indeed, according to the Belgian “Law of Universal Competence”, an alleged victim could charge somebody whatever his nationality and place of residence.

Mr. Chebli Mallat, a Christian Maronite from Lebanon, was one of the plaintiffs. Being a well-known lawyer, he explained his commitment to A. Sharon’s trial by his will to “put an end to impunity” (Naïm, 2001).

But in June 2002, the Belgian justice declared the complaint inadmissible. The Court based its argument on two grounds:

-* Firstly, the defendant must be found and arrested in Belgium. At the moment of the trial, however, A. Sharon and General A. Yaron were living in Israel.

-* Secondly, according to Israeli law, the defendant cannot be prosecuted if he holds a political office. Indeed, A. Sharon was Prime Minister when the charges were brought against him.

The group of plaintiffs decided, therefore, to appeal the case to the Belgium’s Supreme Court of Appeal. In February 2003, the highest court of Belgium called into question the first argument that was given by the magistrates’ court. The Supreme Court asserted that pursuits could be instituted even if the defendant does not live in Belgium. But the Supreme Court of Appeal confirmed the second argument which deals with A. Sharon’s political immunity. In fact, it is likely that some political pressure was exercised in order to downplay the case.

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Signoles Aude, Sabra and Chatila, Mass Violence & Résistance, [en ligne], publié le : 14 Mars, 2008, accéder le 17/05/2021,, ISSN 1961-9898
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