Remembering Sabra and Shatila

Twenty-five years ago this September — after its 1982 invasion of Lebanon had achieved its military objectives by forcing an evacuation of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) to Tunisia — Israel unleashed the Lebanese Christian Phalangist militia on the defenceless civilians of Beirut refugee camps Sabra and Shatila. Under the Israeli occupation of West Beirut, the Phalangists, armed by and in liaison with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), carried out a three-day spree of killing and rape, massacring an estimated 3000 Palestinian and Lebanese civilians.

Journalist Robert Fisk, who arrived on the scene with others in the aftermath of the massacre, described what they saw: "There were women lying in houses with their skirts torn up to their waists and their legs wide apart, children with their throats cut, rows of young men shot in the back after being lined up at an execution wall. There were babies — blackened babies because they had been slaughtered more than 24-hours earlier and their small bodies were already in a state of decomposition — tossed into rubbish heaps alongside discarded US army ration tins, Israeli army equipment and empty bottles of whiskey."

Then-Israeli "defence" minister Ariel Sharon, architect of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, announced on September 11 that 2000 PLO "terrorists" remained in the Beirut refugee camps. Under his direction, over the following days, the IDF encircled Sabra and Shatila with troops and tanks, sealing the camps from the outside world.

On September 14, the Phalangist-aligned, Lebanese president-elect (Israel's hand-picked candidate elected under Israel's occupation) Bashir Gemayel was assassinated. The following day, the IDF began shelling the camps. On September 16, a special unit of 150 Phalangists was granted entry to the camps, with the IDF firing flares throughout the massacre to light up the sky for the militia. The Palestinian Red Crescent estimates that at least 2000 civilians were killed in the camps; other estimates range up to 3500 deaths. Hundreds are also estimated to have been disappeared, in the backs of Phalangist trucks.

While a formal Israeli investigation into the massacre found Sharon — from then on dubbed "the Butcher of Beirut" by Palestinians and Lebanese — "personally responsible" in 1983, the only action taken against him was that he was forced to resign as defence minister. He was allowed to remain in the government as a minister without portfolio, and was elected Israeli prime minister in 2001.

After the Jordanian regime expelled the PLO in 1970, Lebanon had become the major centre for the organisation, based among the 300,000 Palestinian refugees living as second-class citizens in Lebanon. The civil war that broke out in Lebanon in 1975 was largely a result of the confessional system imposed under colonial rule. It stipulated that power remain permanently in the hands of the Maronite Christian community, which by the 1970s no longer constituted a majority. The Palestinian refugee population, mainly Muslim, was viewed as a threat by the right-wing Maronite forces, and the PLO was drawn in on the side of the Lebanese National Movement (LNM), a coalition of Arab nationalist and Muslim forces. At the invitation of the Maronite government, a "peacekeeping" force of 30,000, mainly Syrian, troops was deployed to back up the government against the LNM in 1976.

As well as supporting proxy forces in the civil war, Israel began intervening more directly and aggressively into Lebanon, invading in 1978 in an operation that killed 2000 people and led Syria to switch allegiance to the LNM. In June 1982, Israel launched a major invasion that resulted in more than 20,000 Palestinian and Lebanese deaths. Beirut was bombarded for 75 days in "Operation Peace for Galilee".

PLO and Syrian forces were pounded; by August the PLO was militarily beaten and negotiated a protected evacuation from Lebanon under an international force.

In an August 2006 ZNet article discussing the more recent Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Noam Chomsky wrote: "Though there are many interacting factors, the immediate issue that lies behind the latest US-Israeli invasion of Lebanon remains, I believe, what it was in the four preceding invasions: the Israel-Palestine conflict ... the devastating US-backed 1982 Israeli invasion was openly described in Israel as a war for the West Bank, undertaken to put an end to annoying PLO calls for a diplomatic settlement (with the secondary goal of imposing a client regime in Lebanon)."

The similarities between the 1982 and 2006 Israeli wars on Lebanon are stark: the same targeting of resistance forces and civilian infrastructure, the same indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, and the same calculated indifference from the "international community", especially the US.

However, differences are even starker. The 1982 invasion and subsequent occupation of southern Lebanon led directly to the rise of the indigenous Lebanese resistance movement Hezbollah, which has grown in strength, efficiency and popularity since. Hezbollah, a deeply entrenched political force in Lebanon, was the target of last year's brutality, for daring to resist Israeli expansionism and offering solidarity to the Palestinians being bombarded in Gaza. This time there was no Israeli military victory, no easy passage north to Beirut. The result was a major, still unfolding, political crisis for the Israeli regime.

To remember Sabra and Shatila is to bring the ever-worsening plight of Palestinian refugees into focus. A September 12 media release by BADIL, an Israel-based Palestinian refugee advocacy group, reported: "In 2006-2007, there were approximately 7 million Palestinian refugees and 450,000 internally displaced Palestinians representing 70 percent of the entire Palestinian population worldwide (10.1 million)."

The report also discussed the impact of the recent and ongoing US-Israeli wars on the people of the Middle East on the Palestinian refugees: "The forced displacement of Palestinians, both refugee and non-refugees is ongoing in the OPT [Occupied Palestinian Territories] and Israel as well as in some host countries, in particular in Iraq and Lebanon. Displacement in 2006-2007 occurred as a result of Israel's war on Lebanon (16,000 refugees displaced), the events surrounding the destruction of Nahr el-Bared camp (31,000 refugees displaced) in Lebanon and the persecution faced by Palestinian refugees in occupied Iraq (over 15,000 refugees displaced)."