Shatila Camp, BEIRUT — Each year, during the third week of September, Lebanon and this region, as well as international supporters, pause to reflect upon and commemorate the victims one of the twentieth century’s most horrific and cynical crimes perpetrated by a member state of the United Nations. The Sabra-Shatila massacre took place September 16-19th in Beirut, a well-documented 48 hours of slaughter that saw the Shatila Palestinian refugee camp surrounded and sealed off by the occupying Israeli army, whose intent was to block and force back inside the killing field anyone seeking to escape the predicted orgy of butchery (see Bayan al Hout, Sabra and Shatila September 1982, Pluto Press).
Under a sky illuminated by night flares, and within close earshot of the screams emerging from the horror, IDF commanders sat perched above the camp watching through binoculars as if at a coliseum sporting event, looking down, occasionally pointing, monitoring the killers through line- of-sight as well as by radio contact. The victims were a defenseless civilian population. The instrument used to kill them? A drug, alcohol, and a hate-filled militia which had been provided abundant aid and assistance, including a bulldozer to bury evidence of its crimes. Israel, whose continued occupation of Palestine is possible only because of arms, funding, and diplomatic cover from the United States, and despite its accelerating pariah status, has largely escaped international legal accountability for its crimes at Sabra-Shatila, even though universally condemned for the carnage it organized and oversaw there.
Justice for the victims of Israel’s “Peace for Galilee” aggression in mid-September of 1982 has been delayed for three decades, and though the bloodbath which took place has been studied and documented—along with the suffering of the Palestinian people as a whole at the hands of the Zionists occupying their country—no legal recourse is available to those whose families were slaughtered 31 years ago. The international community has failed to recognize their fundamental human rights for justice, denying them even the right to be heard and have their claims adjudicated.
But this quest for justice—and that is what it is—has intensified, continuing to gain momentum in a variety of forms.
However long it takes we will work relentlessly for full accountability from those responsible for Sabra-Shatila,” Palestinian Authority negotiator Saeb Erekat declared this week.
One young man from Shatila who lost five relatives during the slaughter three decades ago put it somewhat differently: “Long after Palestine is liberated, our country and the world will remember this horrific crime and those who continue to protect the criminals with arms, their taxpayer’s money, diplomatic cover, and political collaboration.”
This year’s commemoration, as is the case every year, is impacted by local and regional conditions and political developments. The socio-economic status of the nearly 90,000 Palestinian refugees forced into Lebanon as a result of the 30-month-old civil war in Syria was among several topics this observer heard frequently discussed this week. To the already-tightly-packed Shatila camp, 230 more families have been added. Also much talked about are the effects of the war in Syria on Lebanon’s economy, travel warnings by various Western countries against coming to Lebanon, as well as the impact this may have upon people from around the world wishing to be in Beirut at this time of year to express their solidarity with Palestine and their respect for the victims of the 1982 massacre.
During this week, international delegations are visiting Shatila and other camps as well as the notorious Al Khiam Prison and torture center. The latter facility was under Zionist control for 22 years—from 1978 all the way up until the expulsion of the occupiers in May of 2000, a retreat that was induced by the National Lebanese Resistance led by Hezbollah and which included some Palestinian fighters.
Internationals this week are also visiting the village of Maron el Ras, which overlooks Palestine and which historically has been a main path into Lebanon from Palestine, including during that dark spring of 1948 as the Nakba was occurring. Tradition has it that Virgin Mary, the Mother of Issa, or Jesus, used this road with her son to attend a marriage ceremony at Qana, and that on arrival she asked him to please arrange for more wine to accommodate the unexpectedly large number of guests. It is written in the New Testament that he obliged his mother and turned water into wine, an act recorded as his first miracle. Maron el Ras, perhaps also miraculously, is where Israel forces were battered into retreating during the 33-day July 2006 war with Hezbollah.
Many of the international visitors additionally attended events organized by the Palestinian NGO Beit Atfal Assumoud, events also attended by some of the massacre survivors.
The brilliant Palestinian researcher and activist, Leila el-Ali, director of the NGO Najdeh (Help) briefed guests on a recent study carried out on the flood of Palestinians arriving from Syria. Entitled Palestinian-Syrian Refugees in Lebanon: Numbers and Facts, the study documents the approximately 65,000 newly arrived refugees, their living situations, and health conditions. Numbers of men, women, and children, their education level, employment, if any, and other social indexes are also included. Lebanon’s population is nearly four million today and is projected to grow to 6.4 million (a more than 33 percent increase) by 2014 if the UN Economic and Social Commission for West Asia’s estimates of Syrian refugee growth prove accurate.
Najdeh’s director pointed out that that while approximately three dozen NGOs are offering some modest help to Palestinian refugees, including food vouchers, a few dollars, and used clothing, nothing at all has been forthcoming from the Lebanese government, which has now all but blocked virtually every Palestinian fleeing death in Syria from entering Lebanon.
The latest regulations at the Masnaa border crossing (from Syria to Lebanon) are appalling. This observer was advised on September 10 by immigration officials at Masnaa that a new regulation has been put into effect requiring that all Palestinian refugees either (a) show, by means of a lease, that she/he has rented housing and paid in advance, or (b) possesses a paid-in-full airline ticket to depart Lebanon for somewhere/anywhere within 48 hours. It is an absurd, Kafkaesque condition that fundamentally violates the 1952 Refugee Convention—binding on Lebanon via international customary law as well as the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights.
Not to be outdone by Lebanon, Zionist ally Jordan, as well as “Camp David” Egypt, have also issued bans upon Palestinian refugees from war-torn Syria. In fact, much of the help Palestinians from Syria receive comes from their own kin. We see Palestinians helping Palestinians in a heartening exhibition of sisterhood and brotherhood.
Other commemoration events included parties at the Palestinian embassy, a visit with massacre survivors in their homes, and a community lunch. Also each year a march takes place—from Ghobeiry Municipality Cultural Center, located across from Shatila camp, to the cemetery off Rue Sabra. It is here where nearly 1,100 Sabra-Shatila massacre martyrs were hastily buried on Sunday, September 20, 1982. As witnessed and reported by the late American journalist Janet Lee Stevens, the corpses, of mainly women and children, were in a state of rapid decomposition, due to the hot weather, and piled into a mass grave. The site later became a garbage dump, and then a football field, until the Hezbollah led Ghobeiry Municipality insisted on its sanctity, cleaning up the area and planting some shrubs, while Europeans donated a rose garden.
Despite delayed justice for the victims, the quest, as I say, continues and is accelerating. Another subject much discussed this year is why after 31 years, Israel and its officials who oversaw the massacre have in the main avoided legal consequences and accountability. But the culture and era of international sanctions to dismantle the apartheid Zionist regime is rapidly spreading and gaining momentum. Two examples are the BDS movement and the EU sanctions. The new European Union guidelines, it emerged today, will prevent Israeli ministries, public bodies, and businesses that operate in occupied Palestinian territory from receiving loans worth hundreds of millions of Euros each year from the European Investment Bank. The EU will also stop awarding grant funding for activities that take place in occupied Palestinian territory, even if they are headquartered inside Israel’s pre-1967 borders. As the Palestinian BDS National Committee counseled on July 18, no one seeking the liberation of Palestine and the full right of return must sit by in despair. It remains for all of us to put as much pressure on apartheid Israel and its accomplices, whose numbers seem to be dwindling every month.