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The Massacre of Sabra and Chatila in 1982

By Professor Dr. Ahmad Al-Tal


The Sabra and Chatila massacre is one of the most barbarous events in recent history. Thousands of unarmed and defenseless Palestinian refugees-- old men, women and children-- were butchered in an orgy of savage killing. On December 16, 1982 the United Nations General Assembly condemned the massacre and declared it to be an act of genocide.

Background of the massacre

The Sabra and Chatila massacre was an outcome of the alliance between Israel and the Lebanese Phalangists. In its long-standing war against Palestinian nationalism and against the Palestine Liberation Organization, Israel found an ally in the Lebanese Phalangists. Despite the fact that Israel was itself responsible for the Palestinian exodus, the common feelings of hostility of Israel and the Phalangists to the Palestinians led to a secret alliance between them. In execution of this alliance Israel supplied the Phalangists with money, arms and equipment to fight the PLO in Lebanon.

Terror had led to the exodus of a large number of Palestinians in 1948. Therefore, the motivation for causing by similar means another exodus of Palestinians, this time from Lebanon, was a common objective of Israeli leaders, and their Phalangist allies. 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. Israel’s participation in prior massacres directed against Palestinian people creates a most disturbing pattern of a political struggle carried on by means of mass terror directed at the civilians, including women, children, and the aged.


Israel moves into West Beirut

The decision to move into West Beirut was taken by Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, although it constituted a violation of the cease-fire and the agreement which governed the PLO evacuation. It was also a breach of Israel’s word to President Reagan not to enter West Beirut after the PLOs departure. On the morning of September 15, 1982 the Israel Defense Forces moved into West Beirut and completely occupied it by the following day, notwithstanding the protests of the Lebanese and US Governments. The IDF, however, did not enter the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps, but encircled and sealed them off with troops and tanks.

As to the decision for the entry of the Lebanese militiamen into the Sabra and Chatila camps, it appears from the testimony of Rafael Eitan, Israel’s Chief of Staff, before the Israeli Commission of Inquiry that it was taken by him and by Sharon on September 14, 1982. This was followed by meetings between those two military chiefs and the Phalangist commanders to coordinate the operation of the militiamen’s entry into the camps. The decision to allow the militiamen’s entry into the camps was approved by the Israeli Cabinet on September 16 after it began to be put into execution.


The Massacre

Three units of 50 militiamen each stood ready in the afternoon of Thursday, September 16, 1982 at the edge of Sabra and Chatila camps awaiting orders from the Israeli military command. At 5:00 p.m. they were sent into the refugee camps in accordance with the agreed program of action and they then commenced an orgy of killing which lasted until the morning of Saturday, September 18.

According to General Amir Drori, Commander of the Israeli Forces in Lebanon, Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan met the head of the Phalangist forces in East Beirut on Friday afternoon and congratulated the Phalangists on their smooth military operation inside the camps. At this meeting, the Phalangist leader asked for bulldozers. One or more were supplied. The bulldozers were used to dig mass graves into which were heaped the bodies of victims that filled the alleys. A number of houses were also bulldozed to cover up the bodies of the victims.

Description of the scene is given by Loren Jenkins of the Washington Post service on September 23, 1982:
“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 thousands 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. 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 who spent six weeks in Lebanon, gave evidence before the International Commission of Inquiry and the following is an extract from their testimony:
“When we entered Sabra and Chatila on Saturday, September 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 we photographed had been machine-gunned. Others had their heads smashed, their eyes removed, their throats cut, skin was stripped from their bodies, limbs were severed, some people were eviscerated. The terrorists also found time to plunder Palestinian property as well as books, manuscripts and other cultural material from the Palestinian Research Center in Beirut.”


The number of victims

The precise number of victims of the massacre may never be exactly determined. The International Committee of the Red Cross counted 1,500 at the time but by September 22 this count had risen to 2,400. On the following day 350 bodies were uncovered so that the total then ascertained had reached 2,750. Kapeliouk points out that to the number of bodies found after the massacre one should add three categories of victims: (a) Those buried in mass graves whose number cannot be ascertained because the Lebanese authorities forbade their opening; (b) Those who were buried under the ruins of houses; and (c) Those who were taken alive to an unknown destination but never returned. The bodies of some of them were found by the side of the roads leading to the south. Kapeliouk asserts that the number of victims may be 3,000 to 3,500, one-quarter of whom were Lebanese, while the remainder were Palestinians.



References:

Cattan, Henry, The Palestine Question, Croom Helm, London, New York, 1998.






Professor Dr. Ahmad Tell, of Jordanian origin, is Dean of Zarka Private National Community College. In 1980 he received an Award of Distinction from the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. He is the author of several books and publications: Higher Education in Jordan, published in 1997, including Abdullah Tell, the Hero and Why Did the Arabs Fail?, both of which are currently under print. Dr. Tell also wrote a research paper about the former Prime Minister Samir Rifai and the Palestinian cause in 1997.

He was an officer in the Arab Legion from 1946-1950 and fought in the Arab-Israeli War of 1948.

 




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