The history of the Middle East’s only democracy is soaked in the blood of Arabs who tried to destroy the new state of Israel from the day it was proclaimed and Israelis who died defending their homeland. Both sides have perpetrated atrocities that seem unbelievable to outside observers, who do not share or entirely understand traditional passions that drive the combatants. No atrocity was more awful than Israel’s failure to stop (let alone give tacit encouragement for) the brutal massacre of Palestinians in Lebanon’s long-established Shatila refugee camp and the surrounding Sabra area.
Lebanon was in the grip of civil war from 1975 to 1990. Although alliances constantly shifted, the conflict was essentially between the Christian Phalangists (backed and armed by Israel) and the Palestine Liberation Army (backed by Arab states). The PLO was attacking Israel from Southern Lebanon and Israel invaded Lebanon in June 1982 – a move condemned by the United Nations.
A deal was done between Israel and Lebanon’s President Bachir Gemayel, a Phalangist, whereby Beirut would not be occupied by Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) if PLO fighters were evicted from the city. This was going smoothly when Gemayel was assassinated in a massive bomb blast set by a Syrian agent, further destabilizing an already volatile situation. In defiance of international agreements, Israeli Defence Minister Ariel Sharon ordered an invasion of
Palestinian-dominated West Beirut to gain control of Sabra and Shatila camp – hotbeds of PLO activity.By mid-September the IDF had completely surrounded Sabra- Shatila and sent in Christian militia forces to ‘clean out terrorist nests’. Bent on avenging their leader, Phalangists swept through the refugee communities indiscriminately slaughtering men, women and children. The IDF knew full well what was happening, but prevented any Palestinians or local Lebanese from escaping and lit the area by night with flares so the killing could continue around the clock. The United Nations later declared that this terrible massacre was an act of genocide.
When: September 16-18 1982
Where: West Beirut, Lebanon
Death toll: Unknown. Estimates vary wildly from 700 dead to over 3,500, but the probable figure is around 2,000.
You should know: in 1983 a government enquiry found that Israel was ‘indirectly responsible’ for the Sabra and Shatila killings. Ariel Sharon was found personally culpable for ‘ignoring the danger of bloodshed and revenge’ and forced to resign, which he did reluctantly. Such is the nature of Israeli politics that Sharon returned triumphantly to serve as prime minister from 2001 to 2006.