Sabra + Shatila massacre – the day the world found out

The horror simply does not disappear.

That there are other horrors in the world does not in any way diminish what happened 28 years ago in Sabra + Shatila, where massacres took place in two undefended Palestinian refugee camps in west Beirut.

It was, indeed, “one of the most horrific crimes of the 20th century” …

What happened was incited — and justified — by repetitious gratuitous and baseless accusations that “terrorists”, with possible weapons caches, were holed up in those camps.

One of the first outsiders to arrive at the scene was British journalist Robert Fisk of The Independent, who came to the camp with other journalists on early Saturday morning, the 18th of September, 1982 — 28 years ago today.

Here, in a video made over a year ago, he recounts what he saw that day:

Leila Shahid, a former PLO Ambassador in Ireland, Netherlands, and France, and now Ambassador to the European Union in Brussels, was born in Beirut and was living there during the 1982 siege masterminded by Israel’s Defense Minister Ariel Sharon.

She and Linda Butler of the Journal of Palestine Studies published — in 2002, the 20th anniversary of the massacres — an abbrieviated version of Shahid’s longer study and some of the witness testimony she had collected.

Here are some excerpts, including important background information:
“Israel’s second invasion of Lebanon, launched on 6 June 1982. Named Operation Peace in Galilee with the stated intention of remaining within twenty-five miles of the Israeli border, the invasion soon expanded in scope. By 13 June, Israeli forces led by Defense Minister Ariel Sharon had pushed all the way to Baabda, seat of the Lebanese presidency, completely encircling West Beirut, where the PLO was headquartered, and trapping thousands of PLO fighters inside the city. The declared goal of the operation also expanded, from protecting the Israeli citizens of northern Galilee into what Sharon called ‘ridding the world of the center of international terrorism’ … The siege of West Beirut continued for seventy days”.

Shahid and Butler report that “the Israelis lost 368 men during the incursion”, while “losses on the Arab side were staggering: During the first three months of the invasion, 17,825 were killed throughout the areas occupied, while in West Beirut alone, 2,461 persons were killed in the systematic air strikes and intensive artillery and naval gunfire directed at the capital”.

Then, “Agreement was finally reached in mid-August, involving the evacuation of more than 11,000 Palestinian fighters and PLO officials and the dismantlement of PLO offices and infrastructure, to be supervised by a multinational force that would leave within thirty days of its arrival. The agreement also involved written guarantees for the security of Palestinians in the camps personally signed by Habib as representing the United States. The evacuation was carried out from 21 August to 1 September 1982. By 10 September, the U.S., French, and Italian troops that had overseen the operation had left the country”.

********************** 14 to 15 September 1982 **********************

Meanwhile, “On 23 August, as the PLO evacuation was in progress, Bashir Gemayel was elected president of Lebanon, with the Muslim deputies boycotting the vote … Then, at 4:30 P .M . on Tuesday, 14 September, a week before Gemayel was to assume office, he was killed in a massive explosion at the Phalange party headquarters in East Beirut … Though the PLO had by this time totally evacuated the city, [Ariel] Sharon did not hesitate to blame the Palestinians. In a declaration that same evening reported by Associated Press, he stated that Gemayel’s killing ‘symbolizes the terrorist murderousness threatening all people of peace from the hands of PLO terrorist organizations and their supporters’ … That same night [14 September], preparations began for an operation that according to Israeli journalist Amnon Kapeliouk had been meticulously planned long in advance. Israel Defense Forces (IDF) chief of staff General Rafael Eitan arrived in Beirut that evening.

Several hours later, at 3:00 A.M. on Wednesday, 15 September, Eitan, Major General Amir Drori, head of Israel’s northern command, and other Israeli officers met with Phalangist military leaders … It was at this meeting, according to Sharon’s testimony to the Knesset on 22 September 1982, that the Phalangist entry into the camps was discussed. Sharon’s instructions regarding entry into West Beirut, recorded by his personal aide on 15 September and presented as testimony to the Kahan Commission of Inquiry Israel set up after the massacre, emphasized that ‘Only one element, and that is the IDF, shall command the forces in the area. For the operation in the camps, the Phalangists should be sent in’…

“Israel’s invasion of West Beirut began at dawn Wednesday morning, scarcely twelve hours after Gemayel’s assassination, with Phantom jets overflying the city at low altitude. Israeli tanks and troops advanced in a six-pronged thrust, with Israeli gunboats taking up position to shell the city. With the PLO gone, resistance from the Lebanese National Movement (the coalition of Islamic and leftist forces) was sporadic and light, and with the mines having been cleared a few weeks earlier by French international forces, Israel lost only seven men during its entire stay in West Beirut”…

********************** Thursday 16 September 1982 **********************

“Sharon arrived at 9:00 A.M. [16 September, apparently] to oversee operations. By noon, while the IDF push into West Beirut continued, the IDF had completely surrounded the camps, setting up checkpoints and roadblocks that controlled all entrances and exits. It also occupied a number of multistoried buildings on the perimeter as observation posts and established its forward command post in a seven-story building at the Kuwait embassy traffic circle…

“Fire by IDF snipers and sporadic tank shelling from higher ground around the camp began that afternoon. Most of the camp residents, mainly old people , women, and children, locked themselves into their houses and waited. That day, a succession of official Israeli statements (and a cabinet statement of 16 September) repeated that the [Israeli] army had been obliged to intervene in West Beirut ‘in order to forestall the danger of violence, bloodshed, and chaos’.

“By 11:30 A.M. on Thursday, 16 September, Israel was able to announce that the ‘IDF is in control of all key points in Beirut. Refugee camps harboring terrorist concentrations remain encircled and closed’…

…”Chief of Staff Eitan in his briefing to the Israeli cabinet on the evening of 16 September—when the massacre was just getting underway—explained that while the IDF would not enter the camps, the Phalangists would be sent in ‘with their own methods’ … [H]e noted that ‘we could give them orders whereas it was impossible to give orders to the Lebanese Army’…

“…Meanwhile, throughout the day, meetings were held between Phalangist commanders…and top Israeli military leaders, including Chief of Staff Eitan, Major General Drori, head of military intelligence General Yehoshua Saguy, a high-ranking representative of Mossad, the head of Shin Bet, and the commander of Israeli forces in Beirut, Brigadier General Amos Yaron. During the meetings, General Yaron coordinated details of the Phalangist entry with the help of aerial photos of the camp and instructed the Phalangists as to the location of the ‘terrorist nests’; there was also a warning ‘not to harm civilians’. The last of these meetings took place at 3:00 P.M .

“An hour later, 1,500 Christian militiamen, who had been assembled at the staging area of the Israeli-occupied Beirut International Airport, began moving toward the camps in convoys of IDF-supplied jeeps, following large arrows painted by the Israelis the day before on the sides of buildings to mark the best route to the Shatila camp.  Most of the forces who participated in the operation were Phalangist, though there was also an undetermined number of militiamen from Saad Haddad’s Free Lebanon forces…

“By 8:00 P .M . Thursday, less than three hours after the entry into the camp, a Phalangist liaison officer reported to the Israeli officers at the forward command post, including General Yaron, that 300 persons, including civilians, had been killed so far.  At 8:40 P .M . a briefing was held chaired by Yaron.   According to the taped transcript of the briefing included in the Kahan Report, the IDF divisional intelligence officer stated that the Phalangists within the camp ‘are pondering what to do with the population they are finding inside.  On the one hand, it seems, there are no terrorists there. . . . On the other hand, they have amassed women, children, and apparently also old people , with whom they don’t exactly know what to do’. When he began to cite a conversation with a Phalangist making clear the fate of these people , he was cut off by General Yaron.

At any event, at 11:00 P.M. a report was sent to IDF headquarters in East Beirut that information received from the Phalangist commander in the Shatila camp indicated that ‘thus far we liquidated 300 civilians and terrorists’.   The report was sent to headquarters in Tel Aviv and, according to Jerusalem Post military correspondent Hirsh Goodman, was seen by more than twenty senior officers…

********************** Friday 17 September 1982 **********************

“Reinforcements were sent into the camp the following morning.

“By Friday morning, 17 September, horrific rumors of massacres had begun to filter out via refugees, several thousand of whom had managed to escape to the Gaza and Akka hospitals during the night, as well as via medical personnel and film crews in the vicinity of the camps; with the camp tightly sealed by IDF troops, the rumors could not be verified. Groups of refugees attempting to flee were turned back by IDF soldiers, under orders to block the exits, but a number of IDF soldiers, dismayed by what they had been told or seen (soldiers at an armored unit 100 meters from the camp themselves witnessed batches of civilians being executed), reported to their superiors. (Throughout the massacres, Christian militiamen, who made no secret of their activities, regularly came to the Israeli posts around the camps for food and water and for additional ammunition; IDF soldiers questioned later also noted the absence of the ‘sounds of combat’.)

“At about 11:30 A .M . on Friday, Yaron, on orders from Drori who had arrived at the forward command post, apparently ordered the Phalangist commanders to advance no further, and Chief of Staff Eitan, back in Tel Aviv and informed that the Phalangists had perhaps ‘gone too far’, returned to Beirut, arriving at 3:30 P.M .

“At 4:00 P .M ., Drori, Eitan, Yaron, and a Mossad representative met with Phalangist commanders at the Phalangist headquarters in
East Beirut.  According to the minutes of the Mossad representative quoted in the Kahan Report, the chief of staff  ‘expressed his positive impression received from the statement by the Phalangist forces and their behavior in the field’ and decided that they could continue their ‘mopping up’ action until 5:00 A.M. the following day, ‘at which time they must stop their action due to American pressure’. The Phalangist request for another bulldozer to ‘demolish illegal structures’ was granted.

“Though it was agreed that no reinforcements would be sent into the camp, in fact fresh fighters were permitted to pass through the Israeli lines.  Meanwhile, despite Yaron’s apparent order from the morning, the pace of the killing had hardly slowed.  As executions, knifings, and point-blank shootings continued, bulldozers were at work digging mass graves inside the camps—one of the largest being in full view of the IDF forward command—and, as witnessed by a Norwegian envoy, loading scoops of bodies onto trucks just outside the camp to be hauled away.

“A pattern had moreover emerged of executing groups and then bulldozing houses to bury the bodies under the rubble. At the same time, truckloads of Palestinian men, women, and children were seen leaving the camp—a Danish TV crew on Friday filmed groups being herded into trucks near Shatila.   The bulldozing and dynamiting of houses (the ‘illegal structures’ referred to by the Phalange to the Israelis), often with the inhabitants inside, accelerated…

********************** Saturday 18 September 1982 **********************

“The militiamen did not leave the camps at dawn the next day, Saturday, as had been agreed at the IDF-Phalange meeting the previous afternoon.  Instead, the killings resumed at dawn after a brief respite after midnight.

At 6 A.M., loudspeakers called upon surviving camp residents to come out and surrender.  The hundreds of people—some reported more than a thousand—who emerged were marched at gunpoint toward a camp exit, with some being taken out of line and executed while others were loaded onto trucks parked in front of the abandoned Kuwaiti embassy and taken away, never to be seen again.  Around 7:00 A.M., militiamen had gone to the Gaza hospital north of Sabra, killing the Arab personnel on the spot and removing the foreign staff, eventually taking them to another part of the city.  (A similar, though far more lethal, operation had been carried out the day before at Akka hospital.)

At 8:00 A.M., the remaining men were herded to the southern entrance, where some, fingered by an informer, were taken away, the others being marched to the Sports City stadium, where interrogations had been taking place.  At 10:00 A.M ., the militiamen left the camp.

The IDF decided not to enter so as not to be implicated, but throughout the day interrogations continued at Sports City conducted by Israelis and their Maronite allies…

Meanwhile, foreign journalists and diplomats began entering the camps as of 9:00 A.M. Saturday to find hundreds of bodies, many mutilated, scattered around the camp as well as hastily dug shallow graves and sandpiles, often with body parts protruding. A little past noon, the first news of the massacre was broadcast to the world…

********************** Sunday 19 September 1982 **********************

[This Shahid-Butler report does not speak about a continuing or secondary massacre on 19 September, but they do refer more than once to “the ‘missing’—those trucked away during the massacre who never returned“.   As reported in our previous post, Franklin Lamb says that some journalists believe that those who went “missing” were killed on 19 September…]

…The Lebanese army took control of the camps on Sunday, 19 September … A unanimous Security Council resolution condemned the ‘criminal’ massacre on 19 September. [[N.B. – This was Resolution 521, in which the SC said it was “appalled” and that it “condemned the criminal massacre of Palestinian civilians in Beirut“; two days earlier, on 17 September, and as the massacre was taking place, the UNSC had adopted Resolution 520, which also passed unanimously, condemning Israeli incursions into Beirut and demanding, as a first step, Israeli withdrawal to positions it occupied before 15 September — i.e., before the Israeli Army entered west Beirut …]]  Even U.S. President Ronald Reagan, who unlike Jimmy Carter during the 1978 invasion had steadfastly refrained from ordering Israel to withdraw in June and had not even protested Israel’s entry into West Beirut in violation of its commitments, now proclaimed his ‘outrage and revulsion’ and blamed the killings on the IDF, demanding its immediate withdrawal from West Beirut.  (Israel began pulling out on 20 September.)

**********************  The Victims  **********************

“In terms of casualties, no census of the dead has ever been attempted. In the days following the massacre, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and other relief agencies collected the bodies and disinterred the shallow graves, giving survivors the chance to identify relatives. But efforts to establish lists of the dead soon fell victim to the priority of ‘national reconciliation’.  Bashir Gemayel’s brother Amin was elected president of the republic on 21 September (with the Muslim deputies this time participating in the vote), and the Phalange role was soon downplayed or even ignored, exclusive blame being placed on Saad Haddad’s men and Israel.

“After going through the motions in October of appointing a commission of inquiry, whose findings were never released, the subject of the massacre was virtually dropped. Any effort to collect names became virtually taboo, to the point that the ICRC has never published the names it did collect, and those conducting field work on the subject had to do so with extreme discretion. Such was the climate that even death certificates became almost impossible to obtain.

“Nonetheless, there were a number of estimates in the days following the massacre. According to official Lebanese sources published in mid-October 1982, 762 bodies had been recovered in Sabra and Shatila: 212 unidentified bodies reburied in mass graves, 302 bodies identified and cremated by local rescue teams, and 248 identified and buried by the ICRC.  In addition, according to the same sources, about 1,200 bodies were claimed and buried by their families.

“This figure of almost 2,000 does not include those buried in mass graves that were never opened, the bodies remaining under the rubble of more than 200 destroyed homes (above and beyond the some 170 bodies dug out of rubble in the first few days, after which the search was abandoned), and the ‘missing’—those trucked away during the massacre who never returned.

“Based on all these categories, Kapeliouk gives a rough estimate of 3,000 to 3,500 dead.

“Bayan al-Hout, who conducted a field study of the massacre from 1982 to 1984, has identified and documented with certainty
the names, with sources, of 1,390 victims: 906 known dead and 484 ‘missing’.  Her total estimate, however, is also around 3,500, based on information concerning mass graves never opened, estimates of dead bulldozed under the rubble (including various neighborhood shelters known to have been bulldozed), and estimated numbers of bodies removed from the area.

“It should be noted that in addition to Palestinians and Lebanese, there were also workers from Egypt, Syria, and Pakistan among the missing.  Certainly, precise figures will never be known. When asked how many Palestinians had been killed during the massacre, a Phalangist militiaman who took part in it replied, ‘You’ll find out if they ever build a subway in Beirut’.”

This report, by Leila Shahid and Linda Butler, and the witness testimonies, can be read in full here.

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