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The Palestinians in Lebanon: Remembering the Sabra-Shatila Massacre

[Shatila art from the perimeter of the commemoration area. Image from the author.] [Shatila art from the perimeter of the commemoration area. Image from the author.]

What can we say to their families who left with Arafat, trusting in the promises of Reagan, Mitterrand, and Perini, who had assured them that the civilian population of the camps would be safe? How can we explain that we allowed children, old people and women to be massacred, and that we are abandoning their bodies without prayers? How can we tell them that we don't know where they are buried?
—Jean Genet, “Four Hours in Chatila.”[1]

Fawziyyeh[2] clutched an unframed, black-and-white photograph of her dead son, turned so that people could see it as she walked into the hall.  She held it so that it covered the lower half of her face. With a determined look, she and other survivors of the Sabra-Shatila massacre of 16-18 September 1982, made their way into the auditorium of Baladiyyat al-Ghobeiri, a municipality south of Beirut where the Sabra neighborhood and adjacent Shatila camp are located. Only the women—mothers, daughters, wives, aunts, sisters—held the photos at the commemoration, though doubtless many other survivors attended but did not overtly display their grief. Photographers descended on this group of women, who posed without emotion. Their message clearly was, “Don’t forget the story of our loved ones who were massacred in 1982.” The cameras clicked and flashed.

[Massacre survivors march in Shatila camp. Image from the author.]

The Pope had just visited Lebanon, and he celebrated mass in Beirut coincidentally on the thirtieth anniversary of the massacre’s start, on 16 September. Although his caravan passed within a few hundred meters of Sabra and Shatila, he did not remember or pray for the souls of the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians who died—men, women, children—let alone even mention the tragedy that unfolded during those three days in 1982.

Estimates of how many people were killed vary from 800 to 3,500, depending on one’s sources. The real number is unknown because many corpses were quickly buried in mass graves or not found under the rubble, or because scores of men were marched out of the camp never to be heard from again. The overarching facts of the massacre, however, are known and undisputed: soon after the assassination of Lebanon’s president-elect, Bashir Gemayel, on 14 September 1982, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) surrounded and closed off Sabra and Shatila, allowing the right-wing Lebanese Phalange militia to enter the camps and massacre hundreds of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians. The victims, like sitting ducks, could not escape, and even in the darkness the IDF shot flares to illuminate the killing fields for their Lebanese allies. The Palestine Liberation Organization, which had protected the camps in Lebanon for years, had evacuated the country in August and September, as part of an agreement in the wake of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. They had left with assurances by President Reagan’s special envoy, Philip Habib, that the civilians in the camps would be safe.

[Shatila art from the perimeter of the commemoration area. Image from the author.]

“Is this your son?” I asked Fawziyyeh. She nodded then said, “I also lost three daughters.” The memory of the massacre was still very raw despite the passing of three decades. We hugged each other and cried together. No political proclamations could possibly bring peace to this mother’s heart, grieving for thirty long years. Four of her children had been killed in cold blood and that nightmare would haunt her forever.

In fact, there have been no commissions in Lebanon nor even an international investigation of the massacre to bring the culprits to justice. Many point to the fact that some of the Phalangist leaders who gave the green light for the atrocities have continued to hold posts in the Lebanese government. In Israel soon after the events, the Kahan Commission was set up to investigate and establish culpability for the massacre; it found that Israel was “indirectly responsible,” but made no mention of the need for Israel to provide reparations or even to apologize to the survivors. Defense Minister Ariel Sharon was found personally responsible, as Beirut’s civilian population was under his control at that time, during Israel’s siege of the city; he lost his job. Later, however, he would become prime minister of Israel.

[Massacre survivors with photos of loved ones. Image from the author.]

Fawziyyeh and the other survivors of the massacre continue to demand justice, in their names and in the names of the victims. But she, and hundreds like her, have had no say in the creation of a commission of inquiry into the massacres. Such a commission simply has not materialized; there has been no political will to make it a reality. Ever since the PLO left Lebanon in 1982, the Palestinian refugees in the country have not had a strong or viable entity that protects them, let alone one that champions their basic human and civil rights. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) is charged with providing health, education, and social services to the most destitute Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, but it cannot provide such protection or representation.

[Graffiti on the inside of wall of the former Gaza hospital. Image from the author.]

There are 433,000 refugees registered in the country, although the number residing there is estimated at 260,000-280,000.[3] About sixty-two percent of them live in twelve camps in Lebanon, dependent on UNRWA and international NGOs for basic needs, and the rest reside in “gatherings” near the camps and in other parts of the country.[4] Overcrowded and largely lacking basic infrastructural services, such as appropriate electrical and sewage systems, the camps are set up on finite plots of land that must accommodate new generations without expanding in size or services. And worse, subsequent generations of Palestinians, even if educated, are not allowed by Lebanese law to work in most professions in Lebanon’s labor market. Indeed, I met a middle-aged pharmacist in El-Buss camp who cannot find work because his is one of the twenty-five professions from which Palestinians are barred in the Lebanese economy.[5] By law, they also cannot own property. The final status of their right of return and refugee rights will not be decided anytime soon, but until they are, Palestinians are unable, by Lebanese law, to provide for themselves and their families; their situation in Lebanon is indeed dire.

[Electrical wires inside and outside buildings in the Shatila camp. Image from the author.]

Such conditions—unemployment, basic infrastructural needs, and lack of any political solutions on the horizon, to name a few—have combined to shape an untenable situation for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. Over half the population is under twenty-five years of age,[6] and many are increasingly dropping out of school. Unemployment, at fifty-six percent, perpetuates the poverty of two-thirds of the refugees who live on six dollars per day.[7] One-third of this population suffers from chronic illnesses and 95 percent do not have health insurance of any kind.[8]

Although a sense of hopelessness can easily take over, I witnessed much to be optimistic about in the three camps I had visited—Shatila near Beirut, and Al-Buss and Burj Al-Shemali in southern Lebanon. For example, a Palestinian-run organization called Beit Atfal Assumoud,[9] was thriving in all the camps. It provides a number of services and opportunities to the camp residents such as vocational training and remedial classes, dental clinics, psychological assistance, and cultural activities. Children and adults from Burj Al-Shemali and Al-Buss put on a cultural performance one afternoon that included music featuring many singers and instruments and folkloric dabkeh dancing. A hopeful spirit and deep pride in heritage were on display.

[The Shatila camp scene from above. Image from the author.]

Beit Atfal Assumoud also helps to organize the annual commemoration for Sabra and Shatila, one of a number of massacres in the Palestinians’ pained history, starting with Deir Yassin in 1948. A Palestinian woman who spoke at the commemorations reminded the audience that many others died in Lebanon, especially during the Israeli invasion of the country in 1982. For someone like Fawziyyeh, however, the Sabra-Shatila massacre was a profoundly defining moment in her family history. Yet she and others continue to feel that the world looked the other way regarding this horrific chapter in the Palestinians’ history in Lebanon. Perhaps the work of the late Italian journalist and activist Stefano Chiarini has helped to mitigate such feelings; about ten years ago he established the “Not to Forget Sabra and Shatila” organization, which brings scores of concerned citizens from all over the world to Lebanon each year to take part in the commemoration of the massacre. I participated in these events on 18 September 2012, as one of a group of 120 people from such countries as the United States, Italy, Malaysia, Singapore, Japan, Kenya, Turkey, Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Britain.

[A young Palestinian singer at a cultural event, Burj Al-Shemali. Image from the author.]

We marched with Fawziyyeh and the other survivors to the area in Shatila devoted to the memory of the victims. Around the perimeter are paintings—more like silhouettes—of scenes from the massacre. Young children were playing with a large Palestinian flag as a parachute, holding it from all sides and pulling it up and down. The women with victims’ photographs gathered together among wreaths of flowers. Two nurses—including DC-based Ellen Siegel—and Dr. Swee Chai Ang, who had been working at Gaza Hospital in Shatila in 1982 and were witnesses to some of the atrocities, also attended, as they do almost every year.

[Beit Atfal Assumoud part of the mural. Image from the author.]

Fawziyyeh stayed to the very end and posed silently for anyone who requested to photograph her. She and the tattered photo of her son had survived yet another commemoration. Since that day I have wondered if she has heard about the ad hoc tribunals set up for the massacres in Rwanda, or about the International Criminal Court set up in 2002. Fawziyyeh would certainly ask herself—a question we all should consider—why such justice does not apply to her own family and to the victims and survivors of the Sabra-Shatila massacre.

The author is grateful to Fateh Azzam for his helpful feedback on this article. The views presented here are those of the author.

[2] Not her real name.
[3] UNRWA, “Palestine Refugees: A Special Case.”
[4] Ibid.
[5] Human Rights Watch, World Report 2011: Lebanon. 
[6] UNRWA, “Palestine Refugees: A Special Case.”
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.

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