The 16th of September marks the anniversary of the Sabra and Shatila massacre in Beirut, Lebanon. Commemorations are held yearly in remembrance of between 700 to 3,500 Palestinian refugees who were murdered over two full days in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, West Beirut, in 1982. This was a year that saw Beirut in flames; gun battles and tanks, tower blocks falling as streets burned. A long running brutal civil war raged as Israel invaded a country already occupied by Syria.
Lebanon’s Christian Maronite President Bachir Gemayel was assassinated on September the 14th in a bomb attack targeting his political office. Enraged Christian Phalangists, aided by occupying Israeli forces, planned to enact violent revenge against civilian Palestinians in West Beirut, whom they held responsible for the assassination. The true assassin was Habib Shartouni, a Christian Maronite with links to the Syrian Intelligence Service. A political killing. Some factions within a fragmented Lebanese society figured Gemayel was too accommodating with the Israelis. Others saw the killing as a pro-Syrian strategy. On the night of the 16th of September Phalange militia’s descended on the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. Israeli forces manned the perimeters, shot flares to illuminate the nights sky over the camp and sealed off any escape for the fleeing residents. The whole operation, led by the Israeli Defence Ministry, was at the time said to try and flush out ‘terrorists’ opposing Israeli occupation; albeit utilising a revenge-driven Phalange militia.
Many Palestinian men, women and children were murdered in their homes. Hundreds of men were taken to the nearby stadium for questioning by the Israeli army but were never seen again. An exact number of the fatalities has never been determined as many remain on missing lists. Their graves still lay unmarked and unknown around Beirut. Wrongful vengeance taken out on innocents with no inclination of the impending ‘finish’ that was to engulf their neighbourhood and homes. Children played with friends on the street. Games were still in motion as the darkness came upon them. Elderly family members sat inside their homes not knowing the violence on the way. Gaza Hospital on the edge of the camps dealt with the aftermath, unable to cope with the aftermath of two full days of violence and barbaric killing.
In the intervening years politics has sabotaged any hope of justice for the victims and the missing. No accountability has ever been attributed despite attempts to hold the perpetrators responsible. The Kahan Commission investigating the massacre, set up by the Israeli government in 1983, cited Ariel Sharon as personally responsible for the events. The commission’s findings stated Ariel Sharon "...disregarded the danger of acts of vengeance and bloodshed by the Phalangists against the population of the refugee camps. He failed to take this danger into account when he decided to have the Phalangists enter the camps." The report also stated that Sharon failed to take "...appropriate measures for preventing or reducing the danger of massacre as a condition for the Phalangist entry into the camps."
In one of the first detailed investigative programmes of the Sabra and Shatila massacre, Irish reporter Fergal Keane came under scrutiny and criticism by many political lobbies both inside and outside the Middle East. The programme was shown on western television screens via the BBC’s Panorama. In the programme Fergal Keane stated “Ariel Sharon lost his job as Defence Minister but stayed in the cabinet. He's never accepted the finding of indirect responsibility. But Sabra and Shatila was a war crime. The question never asked by the Kahan Commission was whether there should be indictments. Let us ask that question first of the Phalange. None has ever been arrested or charged in relation to what happened in the camps. Some are now successful businessmen living in Beirut.”
In defence of the documentary aired in 2001 Fergal Keane stated “The job of a reporter is to deal with the facts. And the facts of Sabra and Shatila are deeply shocking.”
In another interview defending his investigation into events decades in the past, Fergal Keane said “If one was to ignore human rights abuses on the basis that they happened many years ago or on the basis that we knew most of the facts - I think we would be in a very dangerous world. Some facts bear repeating and more importantly they bear being put in context - they bear legal examination and critically these facts need to be put to the people concerned.“
The Sabra and Shatila massacre remains one of the largest mass killings ever to have taken place in the Middle East.
Living in Sabra and Shatila today
“Living conditions are inadequate. Like all Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, refugees in Sabra and Shatila are banned from most professions and from owning property, yet they must still pay taxes for public services they do not receive.”
~ Omar Ghannoum is a member of Ma’an Youth Group, made up of 17 young people from the Shatila and Bourj El-Barajneh refugee camps in Beirut, Lebanon. They stand in for their community where society has failed them repeatedly...with consistency.
Today Sabra and Shatila still stands, but more impoverished and overcrowded, isolated from the modern glitzy Beirut beyond its checkpoints. Omar tells me what life is like nowadays.
OMAR: I study at Beirut Arab University where most of the Palestinian students study; it’s in Beirut. Some of the Lebanese have no idea about the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, they think we live in tents and some of them they don’t know that there are Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon! The camp is in a poor neighbourhood while Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, also has its tall towers and rich neighbourhoods. So we do feel the class struggle.
Do you think there is a climate of fear in Beirut today between different factions and people?
Sure, especially after the revolution in Syria and after the situation became worse there. Now the Lebanese parties are divided, some of them support Al Assad while others support the revolutionaries. It has created a special kind of fear here.
Do you think Lebanese youth are inclusive of the Palestinian youth? Or are they distant? Are the Palestinian refugee camps very isolated from other communities in Beirut?
I can say that the Lebanese youth in general are still distant from the Palestinian youth in Lebanon. Because of the Lebanese army check points in front of the Palestinian camps and the legal discrimination against us, we are forced into isolation here.
What do you think of Mahmoud Abbas attempts to get UN statehood for Palestine? Where do you see the future of Palestine going? Have you ever been to your homeland?
I understand Abbas and PLO’s attempts but it doesn’t satisfy our demands. The Palestinian statehood is going to be on the 1967 borders (Gaza strip, West Bank and East Jerusalem), while we are from North Palestine! Which it is Israel today! The Palestinian statehood (Gaza strip, West Bank and east Jerusalem) makes no sense to us here. Our demand is to apply ‘194’ the right of return and compensation. Our struggle is not with the Jewish people; our struggle is with the Zionists. The Jewish people represent a part of the Palestinian nation as much as Christians and Muslims. Violence from both sides will never lead to a solution, especially from the Israeli regime. I have never been in my homeland of North Palestine and my dream in this life is to go to Acre (Akka).
Have you seen Palestinian refugees from Syria arriving in Beirut recently?
Last year in late 2012 we had over 100 Syrian-Palestinian refugee families and over 140 in Burj Al Barajneh; now we have much, much more. Their situation is much harder than the Syrian refugees, nobody cares for them, our youth group donated clothes to families and we are trying to find any way we can to help them.
Tell me what life is like for Palestinians today in West Beirut?
We see firsthand how the Palestinian refugee community here in Lebanon are deprived of basic needs. Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are banned from most professions, from owning property or accessing public services. They do not have equal rights. The majority of Palestinian refugees live under the UN-defined poverty line, and almost 60% of Palestinian refugee children drop out of school around the age of 15. Our challenge is to overcome these obstacles by doing everything we can to help and empower our deprived community.
Syria, Lebanon, War and Racism
OMAR: The Syrian conflict is affecting Lebanese society and of course the security in Lebanon also. Currently Salafist groups are growing and what is happening in the north of Lebanon is proof of this. Also what happened in Sidon recently is more proof of this. In the north of Lebanon there are daily clashes between Salafists and Alawis, and in Sidon a Salafist group attacked a Lebanese army checkpoint killing 21 soldiers.
With Syria in turmoil next door how is Beirut handling life today?
Beirut is divided into three main communities: Christian community in North and East Beirut, a Muslim Shiite community in south Beirut and a Muslim Sunni community in west Beirut. It is unsafe to travel from community to community, especially in south Beirut after Hezbollah’s intervention in the Syrian conflict. Salafist groups consider Hezbollah their enemy today and they are trying to hit south Beirut with car bombs. Last month they succeeded in hitting South Beirut twice; 25 civilians were murdered in the last explosion.
Has the influx of Syrian refugees to Beirut made life more difficult in the city?
Economically prices have increased due to increase in demand and wages decreased due to the excess in the supply of labour. The unemployment rate is increasing. Socially, especially for the Syrian refugees, some are homeless and most are facing difficulties in receiving education and medication. In general Lebanon is overcrowded of refugees.
Has the UNHCR helped Syrian refugees a lot? Does Ma'an group feel things are getting more out of control? Are things slowly getting easier when trying to help these refugees and your own communities?
UNHCR helps Syrian refugees but what UNHCR offers does not meet the needs. Ma’an today focus on education. We opened a centre in Burj El Barajneh camp in Beirut that offers educational services for Syrian children. Two months ago Ma’an and Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM) organized a concert at the American University of Beirut (AUB) and we raised funds that helped in opening Al Nakab centre. The funds we raised will keep the centre sustainable for 6 months. Already things are out of control, but we have to stand with our people.
Some people think Lebanon may be dragged into the Syrian conflict more and that Sectarianism will grow - do you agree?
I agree and everyone in this country agrees that Lebanon will be dragged in to the Syrian conflict. Sectarianism is growing and you can see this in the dialogue of Lebanese political parties and the tone of the Lebanese media. Daily clashes all over Lebanon and the recent explosions that happened in the southern suburbs of Beirut tell us that Lebanon is on the way to being dragged into the Syrian war.
What are your main concerns right at this moment in time?
I want to highlight the racism against the Syrian refugees and the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. It is still very common. Racism has led to people taking advantage of cheap labour. We also see it in the stopping of people at checkpoints for longer periods because they are Palestinians or Syrians. It’s an action by the Lebanese government to show us and Syrians that we are not accepted in this country.
Lebanon now hosts over 1.3 million Syrian refugees, a quarter of Lebanon’s total population. The spill over from Syria has rocked the country to its foundations, economically and socially. Tripoli in Northern Lebanon is now seeing deaths from street battles between pro and anti Assad factions and the divisions between different communities across the country continue to grow. The Palestinians of West Beirut like Omar still try and live on as best they can amid a country that’s, sadly again, feeling the tremors of unrest and violence.