Today marks 39th anniversary of Sabra and Shatila massacre
The massacre at Sabra and Shatila in 1982 was a watershed moment in Lebanon's turbulent political history. In that massacre, a force from a Lebanese Christian right-wing militia entered the south Beirut neighborhood of Sabra and the nearby Shatila Palestinian refugee camp and murdered thousands of people, mostly civilian Palestinians and Muslim Lebanese (some sources claim more than 3,000).
The militiamen entered the neighborhood, which housed many Palestinian leaders, and the camp after the Israeli occupation forces had already taken control of the Lebanese capital following the 1982 invasion.
According to some sources, the mass murders took place in plain sight of Israeli forces from around 6 p.m. on Sept. 16 to 8 a.m. on Sept. 18. Indeed, sources claim that the Israelis "ordered" the Christian militias to "clear out" Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) fighters from Sabra and Shatila as part of their advance into predominantly Muslim west Beirut. Later reports suggested that, despite receiving reports of the atrocities, the Israelis did nothing to prevent or stop them.
The massacre, which occurred at the height of the Lebanese Civil War, encapsulated several elements and shed light on the complex regional dimensions of the conflict.
Sectarianism has almost always been at the heart of the conflicts that have shaped Lebanon's shifting maps and power balance. Even before the Ottoman Empire, of which modern-day Lebanon was a part, was defeated in World War I, the Mount Lebanon region experienced scattered sectarian clashes, beginning in 1840 and culminating in 1860 in massacres that prompted French military intervention. However, the Ottoman reaction, as well as the combined efforts of major European powers, were decisive in halting the French advance.
In 1861, the autonomous Mount Lebanon district was established as a result of the political outcome. It was ruled by a Christian Ottoman official whose appointment would be confirmed by European powers. However, following the Ottoman defeat in World War I, the Paris Peace Conference of 1920 annexed several areas to Mount Lebanon, including Beirut, and placed the newly enlarged Lebanon under French Mandate.
Mount Lebanon's Christian-majority population was greatly diluted in the new Lebanon as a result of the annexation of major Sunni and Shiite cities and areas. The Christians, on the other hand, believed that the French mandate would be sufficient for them to dominate the political scene. That assumption, however, was proven incorrect, particularly after Lebanon's independence in 1943. By then, the three Muslim sects (Sunnis, Shiites, and Druze) had formed a clear majority, according to many estimates. Furthermore, as a result of the Palestinian "Nakba" in 1948, which quickly radicalized Arab politics, the tide of Arab nationalism rose. The Palestinian refugee crisis exacerbated grievances in host countries such as Lebanon and Jordan.
The Arab defeat in June 1967 fueled radicalization even more, giving rise — and enormous credibility — to the Palestinian resistance movement (the “feda'yeen”). Following battles between the feda'yeen and the Jordanian army in the fall of 1970, the Palestinian resistance movements relocated their headquarters from Amman to Beirut.
Lebanese Muslims, Arab nationalists, and leftist leaders supported the Palestinians and joined forces with them. On the other hand, Christian political elites and the general public became concerned that the emerging alliance would pose a mortal threat to their dominant position and, as a result, the country's regime, identity, and sovereignty.
I lived through those times and have vivid memories of them. The Christian-led Lebanese Army attempted to contain the feda'yeen's power in the camps in 1973, but a Muslim-leftist uprising against the army paved the way for the impending civil war. Soon, Christian militias were openly armed and trained by army officers, while leftist and Arabist militias obtained weapons and training from Palestinians and some Arab regimes.
The war began in 1975 and lasted until 1990, in various stages.
The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in June 1982 was designed to demolish the Palestinian military and political infrastructure and to install a “friendly” regime in Beirut. In August 1982, the Palestinian resistance movements were militarily expelled from Lebanon, and the presidency was handed over to Bachir Gemayel, leader of the Lebanese Forces, the most powerful Christian militia. However, Gemayel was assassinated on September 14, before taking the oath of office. His assassination in a major explosion in Beirut shocked the Christians and enraged their militias, who retaliated two days later by attacking Sabra and Shatila.
By this time, the Arab world was weak and deeply divided following Egypt’s recognition of Israel, which resulted in an Arab boycott. The Israelis were, thus, able to collude in this massacre without fearing any substantial Arab reaction. In fact, it was the global furor against the massacre that led, in 1983, to the establishment of a commission chaired by Sean MacBride, the assistant to the UN secretary-general and president of the UN General Assembly at the time. The commission concluded that Israel, as the camp’s occupying power, bore responsibility for the violence, and that the massacre was a form of genocide.
Even in Israel, there was a strong reaction to the massacre. The Kahan Commission was also appointed to investigate the incident in 1983. It discovered that, despite being aware of a massacre in progress, Israeli military personnel failed to take serious steps to stop it. The commission also held Israel indirectly responsible, and Defense Minister Ariel Sharon personally accountable for “ignorantly ignoring the danger of bloodshed and revenge,” forcing him to resign.