The Horrible Massacres of 20 Years Ago
Twenty years ago this week thousands of mostly women, children, and old men, were literally slaughtered. The horrific deed was done by the forces of the Phalange. The responsibility for what happened is with Israel and the U.S.
Today's Israeli Prime Minister was held 'personally responsible' even by an Israeli Government Commission of Investigation. He, Ariel Sharon, was then forced to resign as Defense Minister and the Commission strongly recommended he never again be allowed to serve in high office.
The origins and motivations for other terrible things that have happened in recent years can be traced back to terrible things that happened in past history, including what happened in the squalid defenseless Palestinian refugee camps near Beirut some twenty years ago this week.
This week marks the 20th anniversary of the Sabra and Shatilla massacres in which 3,500 Palestinians were brutally slaughtered in the two refugee camps in West Beirut at the hands of the “Lebanese Christian Phalangists; Lebanese Forces,” a proxy militia, trained, armed and financed by Israel. This massacre was the culmination of Israel's bloody invasion of Lebanon in the summer of 1982, in which over 20,000 Palestinians and Lebanese, mainly civilians, were killed.
The orgy of killing at the camps commenced in the afternoon of Thursday, Sept. 16, and lasted until the morning of Saturday, Sept. 18, 1982. While the atrocities were committed by Lebanese, Israel's role and prints were everywhere to be seen. Apart from co‑planning the operation, providing aerial photographs of the camps, and introducing the killers into the area; a fact attested to by then Israeli Chief‑of‑Staff Lt. Gen. Rafael Eitan, Israeli troops, whose forward command post was situated a mere 200 meters southwest of the Shatilla camp, looked on most of the time and prevented refugees from fleeing the camps all of the time. Controlling the perimeters, Israeli troops prevented the Palestinians' escape through light shelling and sniping, as well as by blocking the main exits; they also used flares to light up the narrow alleys at night to provide the killers with a clear vision.
And to top it all up, bulldozers, with clear Hebrew markings, were later brought in to “clean up;” they demolished houses over their inhabitants and dug mass graves, something reminiscent of what Israel did last April in the Jenin refugee camp. Furthermore, according to General Amir Drori, commander of the Israeli forces in Lebanon, Eitan, met the head of the Phalangist forces Friday afternoon and congratulated him on the “smooth military operation inside the camps.” Hence, the evidence against Israel as an accomplice is more than mere circumstantial; it is cogent and compelling.
One could also venture to say confidently that the US is jointly responsible for the massacre. The Israeli occupation of west Beirut, which precipitated the massacre, was primarily made possible through the use of American weapons and an American green light. Moreover, the massacre followed written US assurances that Palestinians remaining in Beirut following the evacuation of PLO forces would be safe, an agreement brokered by US mediator Philip Habib. In fact, this responsibility was tacitly admitted by Morris Draper, the US special envoy to the Middle East, who stated in the course of a BBC documentary on the Sabra and Shatilla massacres, which was aired in the UK on June 17, 2001, that “US officials were horrified” when told Sharon had allowed Phalange militias into west Beirut and the camps “because it would be a massacre.”
Well, a massacre did indeed take place, and it was the first televised one, so to speak. Since then, we have grown accustomed to seeing slaughtered and mutilated bodies of civilians, from Rwanda to Bosnia and from Afghanistan to Jenin. Now, 20 years and scores of massacres later, one still vividly recalls the horrific images of piles of swollen bodies or of the pigtailed 7‑year‑old girl with 5 gunshot wounds in her back lying in a pool of blood. But by far the most indelibly printed image is that of the frail old man in his white and blue striped pyjamas lying next to his walking cane with his jaw smashed.
One also remembers the eerie tone of masked foreign reporters and correspondents reporting on the massacre hours after the Israelis lifted their siege of the camps. The horror and disbelief at the magnitude of the massacre overwhelmed a number of reporters and their footage was disrupted. The massacre drew the media from all over the world, evoking reportage that won prizes for meticulous investigation.
The following excerpts would perhaps help give the reader an idea about the extent of butchery that took place. Loren Jenkins of the Washington Post described the ghastly sight in the camps in the aftermath of the massacre in the following telling terms: “The scene at the Shatilla camp 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 thousands of spent cartridges. Houses had been dynamited and bulldozed, 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. Each little dirt alley through the deserted buildings, where Palestinians have lived since fleeing Palestine when Israel was created in 1948, told its own horror story.”
Ralph Schoenman and Mya Shone, two American journalists, described the scene as they entered the camps. “When we entered Sabra and Shatilla on Saturday, Sept. 18, 1982, the final day of the killing, we saw bodies everywhere. We photographed victims that had been mutilated with axes and knives. Only a few of the people had been machine gunned. Others had their heads smashed, their eyes removed, their throats cut, skin was stripped from their bodies, limbs were severed, and some people were eviscerated.”
Researcher Rosemary Sayigh, described the scene as the massacre unfolded: “The targeted area was crammed with people recently returned from the places they had taken refuge during the war, now supposedly over. Schools would soon open, everyone needed to repair their homes, clear the streets and get ready for the winter. People felt some security from the fact that they were unarmed, and that all who remained were legal residents. Many of the massacre victims were found clutching their identity cards, as if trying to prove their legitimacy.”
In spite of calls from the UN to investigate the massacre, nothing of the sort has ever materialized. Both the Security Council and the General Assembly have expressed “their horror” at the “appalling massacre” and called for an “investigation into the circumstances and extent of the massacre” and to make public “the report on the findings as soon as possible.”
In December 1982, the General Assembly affirmed that “genocide is a crime under international law which the civilized world condemns, and for the commission of which principals and accomplices; whether private individuals, public officials or statesmen, and whether the crime is committed on religious, racial, political or any other grounds, are punishable.” In its penultimate statement, the General Assembly classified the massacre at Sabra and Shatilla as an “act of genocide.”
In fact, an Israeli Commission of Inquiry, in 1983, found that then defense minister Ariel Sharon, Israel's current prime minister; described lately by the US president as “a man of peace,” “bears personal responsibility;” it further recommended that he should be removed from office if he does not resign. However, most crucially, the Kahane Commission stopped short of accusing Sharon of intentionally introducing the Lebanese Forces into the camps to carry out the massacre. What makes the Kahane Commission's investigation into the massacre suspect and dubious is that twenty years on, certain evidence submitted to it is still classified as “secret.”
It is now widely accepted under international law that certain crimes are of such an egregious nature that states are able to prosecute individuals charged with committing them regardless of the nationality of the perpetrator and regardless of the geographic location where, or the time in which, the crime was committed. Such principle is predicated on the conviction that perpetrators of such hideous acts should not enjoy the same rights customarily accorded by society to common criminals.
In June 2001, three lawyers representing 28 survivors of the massacre filed a lawsuit in Brussels against Sharon, holding him responsible for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. However, due to a loophole in Belgium's law, the attempt was unsuccessful. Belgian law, under which the complaint was filed, is based on the legal concept of universal jurisdiction and states explicitly that immunity attached to a person's official status is no bar for him being charged. It sets aside limitation of time, citizenship and status. The loophole through which Sharon slipped was that the accused ought to be in Belgium for Belgian courts to exercise jurisdiction. Attempts by Belgian legislators to close this loop are already under way.
Ironically, Israel was amongst the first to invoke universal customary law. In 1960, it kidnaped Adolf Eichmann from Latin America to stand trial for crimes against humanity committed 20 years earlier. He was found guilty by an Israeli court and was executed in 1961. Similarly, in 1985, Israel succeeded in having John Demjanjuk extradited from the US to stand trial for alleged crimes he had committed almost half a century earlier. On appeal from his death sentence, his conviction was quashed on grounds that the evidence was insufficient to prove his guilt.
Lest We Should Forget
What happened at Sabra and Shatilla was not an “act of God” but an “act of genocide.” This means that someone, somewhere, is responsible for it and ought to be answerable. Unfortunately, twenty years on, not a single person has been convicted, let alone charged.
Paradoxically, the perpetrators of one of the most brutal and calculating massacres of the 20th century are neither on the run nor in hideouts. They continue to run the affairs of the Israeli state and continue to shuttle freely between world capitals, taking advantage of the blanket immunity accorded them by the most powerful nation in the world.
As has been shown, war crimes and crimes against humanity are “perpetual crimes” in that they are triable any time. Cognizant of the fact that the hierarchy within the new international order is not conducive to the convening of war crimes tribunal ý la Nuremberg, and until this moral and ethical aberration ameliorates, the task is to strive to keep the memory of the massacre alive in the hearts and minds of all honourable peace‑loving people in the world. This is the least we owe to the mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, spouses and siblings of those who lost their lives.