For forty hours, between September 16 and 18, 1982, hundreds of Palestinian civilians, mostly women and children, were massacred in the Sabra and Shatila camps. Forty years later, we know a little more about this carnage for which no one has ever been convicted.
On the morning of September 17, 1982, a disturbing clamor spread through the neighborhoods surrounding the Palestinian camps of Sabra and Chatila, south of Beirut.
Women, children and the elderly flock in great disorder to these areas populated by a majority of Lebanese. The haggard gaze, the voice trembling with emotion, they swear that carnage is taking place in these camps left to themselves after the evacuation of the last fighters of the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) by sea on August 25, and the withdrawal, on September 11, of the multinational force, made up of Americans, French and Italians.
Residents of neighborhoods where Palestinians are hosted find it hard to believe the chilling stories told by civilians still in shock. A few hours later, the appalling truth comes to light, supported by the testimonies of survivors.
In the afternoon, while the killing continued in certain sectors, the first journalists, including Europeans, entered Shatila. The scenes they immortalize in their photographs or their writings are unbearable. The streets are littered with the corpses of children, women and men. Some have their fists and ankles tied, others, surprised in their sleep, are in their underwear or pajamas.
Mutilated bodies with knives
Many bodies bear traces of mutilation and torture. Here, a disembowelled pregnant woman. There, an infant cut in two, further on, a man with his head cut off. The killers displayed unspeakable cruelty, massacring everything that moved with bladed weapons, sparing nothing and no one, not even the horses.
” The fingers of both hands were fanned out and the ten fingers were cut as with garden shears […] The tips of the fingers, the knuckles, with the nail, were in the dust “Wrote Jean Genet in a poignant story entitled Four hours in Shatilapublished in January 1983. The French writer and poet had been one of the first Europeans to visit the disaster camp, on September 19, when the bloated bodies in decomposition still lay in the streets from which emerged a unbearable stench.
The force of the images causes stupor all over the world. The Israeli army, which had just invaded the western part of Beirut, the day after the assassination of Lebanese President-elect Bachir Gemayel, on September 14, is singled out. The Israeli media accuse, for their part, the militias of the Christian right (Lebanese Forces, party of the phalanges-Kataëb and militias of the dissident commander of the Lebanese army Saad Haddad), of having perpetrated the carnage to avenge the death of Bashir Gemayel.
To date, no final assessment has been published. The figures vary from 460 dead, provided by the Lebanese justice system, to 3,500 victims, advanced by the Israeli journalist and writer Amnon Kapeliouk, author of Sabra and Chatila, Investigation of a massacre (The threshold). The Israeli army speaks of 800 dead.
A famous Palestinian historian, Bayan Nouyawhed al-Hout, published the names of 1,400 victims, identified through testimonies from survivors and relatives.
Hundreds of missing men
But that’s without counting the hundreds of missing persons, mainly men, systematically separated from their families and loaded into military vehicles without ever reappearing.
The enormity of the crime provokes great emotion throughout the world. Under strong pressure, the Israeli government ended up forming, on September 28, a “commission of inquiry into the events in the refugee camps in Beirut”, headed by the president of the Israeli Supreme Court, Yitzhak Kahane.
After months of investigation, the commission published the Kahane report in 1983, which concluded that the Christian militias were directly responsible and that Israel was indirectly responsible. Investigators believe that Ariel Sharon, Minister of Defense at the time, had not taken “appropriate measures” likely to avoid the massacre. He was asked to resign, which he did in February 1983, to be appointed minister without portfolio a few days later.
Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, Minister of Foreign Affairs, are blamed for having acted with “indifference” or “levity”. No sanction is recommended against Rafael Eytan, chief of staff of the army. General Yehoshua Saguy, head of military intelligence, must be dismissed, as well as the director of the Mossad, while General Yaron, commander of the Beirut sector, must be excluded from any command post for three years. The Lebanese investigation, carried out under the mandate of President Amine Gemayel, himself from the Kataeb party, will never succeed.
Over the years, new revelations made by researchers and journalists make it possible to better understand the role of each actor in this massacre.
In 2012, the American researcher at University College London, Seth Anziska, had access in Israel to secret declassified annexes to the Kahane report. In an article written for the New York Times (NYT), he points out that American officials were aware of what was happening in the camps and had not reacted to stop the massacre.
The researcher writes that following a meeting, on September 17, 1982, between the American diplomat Morris Draper and the ambassador in Tel-Aviv Sam Lewis, on the one hand, Ariel Sharon, Rafael Eytan and Yehoshua Saguy of the ‘other, ” the Israelis obtain from the Americans the maintenance of the Phalangist militiamen in the camps for another 48 hours “.
A long-planned massacre
Last June, Ronen Bergman, an Israeli investigative journalist, published in the Yediot Aharonot a report that sheds light on Israel’s role in the carnage.
Mr. Bergman evokes a secret meeting, on September 19, 1982, between, on the one hand, Lebanese Christian leaders and, on the other, Raphaël Eytan and other Israeli military officials. The purpose of the meeting, “to establish a unified version of the facts to present it internationally”, while condemnations of the massacre began to gain momentum. ” Raphaël Eytan was not concerned about the moral aspect, but about the possible withdrawal of Israeli forces from Beirut under pressure “, says Ronen Bergman.
The report suggests that the massacre had been planned weeks before Bachir Gemayel’s assassination. The researcher reports that during a meeting on July 11, 1982, Ariel Sharon would have expressed remarks according to which it was necessary ” wipe out the southern part of Beirut “, which contradicts the official version according to which the former Israeli defense minister had never suggested ” no attack against the Lebanese capital.
Despite all these revelations and although 40 years have passed, no one has ever been convicted for this massacre. The Amnesty Law enacted in Lebanon in 1991 prohibits prosecution for crimes committed during the civil war.
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