Sabra and Shatila Massacre

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The Sabra and Shatila massacre (or Sabra and Chatila massacre) was carried out in September 1982 by Lebanese Maronite Christian militias in then-Israeli-occupied Beirut, Lebanon, when Palestinian refugees were killed in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. The Maronite forces stood under the direct command of Elie Hobeika, who would later become a longtime Lebanese parliament member and in the 1990s also a cabinet minister.

The camps were externally surrounded by Israeli soldiers throughout the incident, and the militias had been sent in by Israel to find PLO members. However, Israel's culpability in the killings is hotly disputed, and Israel has denied direct responsibility, while finding certain Israelis, among them Ariel Sharon, indirectly personally responsible.



From 1975 to 1990, Lebanon was involved in a civil war between groups in competing alliances with neighboring countries. The Lebanese Maronite Christians, led by the Phalangist party and militia, were allied initially with Syria then with Israel, which provided them with arms and training to fight against the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) faction; other factions were allied with Syria, Iran, and other states of the region. In addition, Israel had been training, arming, supplying and uniforming the Christian South Lebanon Army, led by Saad Haddad, since 1978. Infighting and massacres between these groups claimed several thousands of victims; notable massacres in this period included the Karantina Massacre (January 1976) by Phalangists against Palestinian refugees, Damour Massacre (January 1976) by the PLO against Maronites and the Tel el-Zaatar Massacre (August 1976) by Phalangists against Palestinian refugees. The two major invasions of Lebanon by Israel (in 1978 and 1982), claimed around 20,000 lives, mostly Lebanese and Palestinian civilians. The total death toll in Lebanon for the whole civil war period was up to 100,000 victims. ([1] (

Sabra is the name of a poor neighborhood in the southern outskirts of West Beirut, which is adjacent to the Shatila UNRWA refugee camp set up for Palestinian refugees in 1949. Over the years the populations of the two areas became ever more mingled, and the loose terminology "Sabra and Shatila camps" has become usual. Their populations had been swelled by Palestinians and Shiites from the south fleeing the war.

The PLO had been using southern Lebanon as a base for attacks on Israel, and Israel had in turn been bombing positions in southern Lebanon. The attempted assassination of Israeli Ambassador Shlomo Argov in London on June 4 provided a casus belli (although it ultimately turned out to be by an group hostile to the PLO, Abu Nidal) and turned the mutual hostilities into full-scale war; on June 6, 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon with 60,000 troops. Two months later, under a U.S.-sponsored cease-fire agreement signed in late August, the PLO agreed to leave Lebanon under international supervision, and Israel agreed not to advance further into Beirut and to guarantee the security of Palestinian civilians left behind in the refugee camps.

On August 23, 1982, Bachir Gemayel, who was very popular among Maronites, was elected President of Lebanon by the National Assembly. Israel had relied on Gemayel and his forces as a counterbalance to the PLO.

On September 1, the evacuation of the PLO fighters from Beirut was completed. Two days later, Israel deployed its armed forces around the refugee camps; this was a clear breach of the cease-fire agreement, but Israel was not asked to withdraw by the supervising forces, the international forces which were overseeing the PLO withdrawal and guaranteeing the safety of the Palestinian refugees left on September 11, following the early withdrawal of U.S. forces.

The next day Ariel Sharon, Israeli Defense Minister at the time, claimed that 2,000 PLO fighters had remained in Beirut. This claim was disputed by Palestinians. The Israeli Premier Menachem Begin brought Gemayel to Nahariya and strongly urged him to sign a peace treaty with Israel. According to some sources ([2] (, he also demanded acceptance of a military presence in southern Lebanon under control of Major Saad Haddad (a supporter of Israel), and action from Gemayel to move on the Palestinian fighters Israel claimed had remained hidden in refugee camps including Sabra and Shatila.

However, the Phalangists, who were previously united as reliable Israeli allies were now split because of developing alliances with Syria, which opposed Israel. Gemayel now had to balance interests of many competing factions within Lebanon. In addition, according to several eyewitness accounts, he personally took offense at what he saw as Begin's high-handed attitude towards him. He refused Israel's demands to sign the treaty or to authorize operations in the refugee camps.

On September 14, 1982, Gemayel was assassinated in a massive explosion which demolished his headquarters. The Palestinian and Muslim leaders denied any responsibility. However, Ariel Sharon blamed the assassination on Palestinians, which inflamed the animosity of Phalangists towards Palestinians.

The next day, on September 15, the Israeli army reoccupied West Beirut, killing 88 people and wounding 254. This Israeli action breached its agreement with the United States not to occupy West Beirut ([3] (; the US had also given written guarantees that it would ensure protection of the Muslims of West Beirut. Israel's occupation also violated its peace agreements with Muslim forces in Beirut and with Syria.

Menachem Begin justified the occupation as "necessary to prevent acts of revenge by the Christians against the Palestinians” and to "maintain order and stability after Gemayel’s assassination". However, several days later, Ariel Sharon told the Knesset, Israel’s parliament: “Our entry into West Beirut was in order to make war against the infrastructure left by the terrorists”.

The Israeli army then disarmed, as far as they were able, non-pro-Israeli militias and civilians in West Beirut, while leaving the Christian Phalangist militias in East Beirut fully armed.


Ariel Sharon then invited Lebanese Phalangist militia units, trained and equipped by Israel, to enter the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps to “clean out the terrorists". Under the Israeli plan, Israeli soldiers would control the perimeters of the refugee camps and provide logistical support while the Phalangists would enter the camps, find the PLO fighters and hand them over to Israeli forces.

However, ultimately no persons were handed over to Israeli forces, there was no fighting and no weapons were reported to be found in the camps. Documents presented in the Belgian war-crimes lawsuit against Ariel Sharon allegedly show that the claim about presence of the PLO fighters in the camps was a cover story prepared by Israel. [4] (

Sharon's instructions to the Phalangists emphasized that the Israeli military was in command of all the forces in the area.

The Israeli military had completely surrounded and sealed off the camps and set up observation posts on the roofs of nearby tall buildings on September 15. The next day Israel announced that it controlled all key points in Beirut. The Israeli military met throughout the day with top Phalangist leaders to arrange the details of the operation. For the next two nights, from nightfall until late into the night the Israeli military fired illuminating flares above the camps to assist the militia.

On the evening of September 16, 1982 the Phalangist militia, under the command of Elie Hobeika, entered the camps. For the next 36 to 48 hours, the Phalangists massacred the inhabitants of the refugee camps, while the Israeli military guarded the exits and continued to provide flares by night.

A unit of 150 Phalangists (including some Haddad fighters, according to Saad Haddad as quoted by Robert Fisk) was assembled at 4:00 p.m. These militiamen armed with guns, knives and hatchets entered the camps at 6:00 p.m. A Phalangist officer reported 300 killings, including civilians, to the Israeli command post at 8:00 p.m., and further reports of these killings followed through the night. Some of these reports were forwarded to the Israeli government in Tel Aviv and were seen by a number of Israel's senior officials.

At one point, a militiaman's radioed question to his commander Hobeika about what to do with the women and children in the refugee camp was overheard by an Israeli officer, who heard Hobeika reply that "This is the last time you're going to ask me a question like that; you know exactly what to do". Phalangist troops could be heard laughing in the background [5] ( The Israeli officer reported this to his superior General Yaron, who warned Hobeika against hurting civilians but took no further action. Lt. Avi Grabowsky was cited by the Kahan Commission as having seen (on that Friday) the murder of five women and children. He spoke to his battalion commander about it; he replied "We know, it's not to our liking, and don't interfere." Israeli soldiers surrounding the camps turned back refugees fleeing the massacre, as filmed by a Visnews cameraman.

Phalangist militia troops regularly returned to Israeli units and were given food, water and ammunition throughout the massacre. Later in the afternoon, a meeting was held between the Israeli Chief of Staff and the Phalangist staff. According to the Kahan Commission's report (based on a Mossad agent's report), the Chief of Staff concluded that the Phalange should "continue action, mopping up the empty camps south of Fakahani until tomorrow at 5:00 a.m., at which time they must stop their action due to American pressure." He claimed that he had "no feeling that something irregular had occurred or was about to occur in the camps." At this meeting, he also agreed to provide the militia with a tractor, supposedly to demolish buildings.

On Friday, September 16, while the camps still were sealed off, a few independent observers managed to enter. Among them were a Norwegian journalist and a Norwegian diplomat, who observed Phalangists during their cleanup operations, removing dead bodies from destroyed houses in the Shatila camp". [Harbo, 1982]

The Phalangists did not exit the camps at 5:00 a.m. on Saturday as ordered. They forced the remaining survivors to march out of the camps, randomly killing individuals, and sending others to the stadium for interrogations; this went on for the entire day. The militia finally left the camps at 8:00 a.m. on September 18. The first foreign journalists allowed into the camps at 9:00 a.m. found hundreds of bodies scattered about the camp, many of them mutilated. The first official news of the massacre was broadcast around noon.

The number of victims of the massacre is disputed. It is thought that three quarters of the victims were Palestinians, the rest Lebanese. Here follow the main claims ordered by number of deaths:

  • A letter from the head of the Red Cross delegation to the Lebanese Minister of Defense, cited in the Kahan Commission report as "exhibit 153", stated that Red Cross representatives had counted 328 bodies; but the commission noted that "this figure, however, does not include all the bodies..."
  • The Kahan Commission said that, according to "a document which reached us (exhibit 151), the total number of victims whose bodies were found from 18.9.82 to 30.9.82 is 460", claiming that this figure consists of "the dead counted by the Lebanese Red Cross, the International Red Cross, the Lebanese Civil Defense, the medical corps of the Lebanese army, and by relatives of the victims."
  • Israeli figures, based on IDF intelligence, cite a figure of 700–800. In the Kahan Commission's view, "this may well be the number most closely corresponding with reality."
  • According to the BBC, "at least 800" Palestinians died[6] (
  • Bayan Nuwayhed al-Hout in her Sabra And Shatila: September 1982 (Pluto, 2004) gives a minimum consisting of 1,300 named victims based on detailed comparison of 17 victim lists and other supporting evidence, and estimates an even higher total
  • Robert Fisk, one of the first journalists to visit the scene, quotes (without endorsing) unnamed Phalangist officers as saying "that 2,000 'terrorists' - women as well as men - had been killed in Chatila."
  • According to several sources, including an Al-Jazeera report and Prof. Ahmad Tall, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) ultimately counted 2,750 victims: 1,500 at the time, a further 900 by September 22, and an extra 350 on September 23 as more bodies were uncovered.[7] ([8] (
  • Many Palestinians claim between 3,000 and 3,500.[9] (

The massacre provoked outrage around the world. On December 16, 1982 the United Nations General Assembly condemned the massacre and declared it to be an act of genocide. [10] (

Israel's role in the massacre

In its initial statements, the Israeli government initially declared that those critics who regarded the IDF as having responsibility for the events at Sabra and Shatila were guilty of "a blood libel against the Jewish state and its Government." However, as the news of the massacre spread around the world, the controversy grew, and on September 25, 300,000 Israelis demonstrated in Tel Aviv demanding answers.

On September 28, the Israeli Government resolved to establish a Commission of Inquiry, which was led by former Supreme Justice Kahan. The report included evidence from Israeli army personnel, as well as political figures and Phalangist officers. In the report, published in the spring of 1983, the Kahan Commission stated that there was no evidence that Israeli units took direct part in the massacre and that it was the "direct responsibility of Phalangists". However, the Commission recorded that Israeli military personnel was aware that a massacre was in progress without taking serious steps to stop it, and that reports of a massacre in progress were made to senior Israeli officers and even to an Israeli cabinet minister; it therefore regarded Israel as bearing part of the "indirect responsibility". Among those it considered to bear a part of this "indirect responsibility", the commission found that Ariel Sharon bore "personal responsibility" and recommended his dismissal from the post of Defense Minister; it also recommended the dismissal of Director of Military Intelligence Yehoshua Saguy, and the effective demotion of Division Commander Amos Yaron for at least three years. These recommendations were carried out. Even though the Kahan Commission concluded that Sharon should not hold public office again, he would later become Prime Minister of Israel [11] (

Critics of the commission report pointed to the fact that Israel was investigating itself and argued the report amounted to a whitewash; for instance, Noam Chomsky says:

"The Kahan Commission report was a shameful whitewash; see Fateful Triangle, chapter 6, and Shimon Lehrer, Ha'ikar Hehaser ("The Missing Crucial-Point"; Amit, Jerusalem, 1983). In a close critical analysis of the events and the Kahan Commission report, Lehrer shows that its conclusions were untenable and argues that the Defense Minister and Chief of Staff should have faced 20-year jail sentences for premeditated murder under Israeli law. While sharply criticized in Israel, in the U.S. the Kahan Commission report was depicted, without analysis, as most impressive or even approaching the sublime."[12] (

Some commentators, such as Noam Chomsky and Robert Fisk, have suggested that Israel could have prevented the massacre. Furthermore, they have doubted that there were any PLO members in the camps, because (1) the Kahan Commission claim that the Israeli army sent only 150 Phalangists to fight what it said was 2,000 PLO members would be an unrealistic and poor military decision and (2) the Phalangists suffered only two casualties, an improbable outcome of a supposedly 36-hour battle of 150 militants with 2,000 experienced PLO soldiers [FT].

Defenders of Israel point out that Israel never claimed all of the PLO members (as opposed to Fatah militants) were armed or tried to organize a defense. Also, on several previous occasions, the Phalangists were used by the Israeli army to filter out PLO members from the rest of the Lebanese population. They claim that on those other occasions, the conduct of Phalangists was good. Israel points out that the Phalangist field commander, Elie Hobeika, was at that time already maintaining contacts with Syria (he openly switched allegiance to Syria at a later date), suggesting that he may have orchestrated the massacres as a political provocation against his Israeli allies. Finally, Israel argues that it never issued an order (on this occasion or any other) that would authorize the killing of unarmed civilians.

However, Israel had given a written commitment that it would protect Palestinian civilians (as was its duty as an occupying power under international law), yet Israel did nothing to protect the civilians when it became aware of the massacre.

Sabra and Shatila After the Israeli Invasion

Israel began to leave Beirut shortly after the news of the massacre broke. The protection of the camps was entrusted to Italy. Following attacks on the peacekeepers, Italy left Lebanon. The safety of the camps was then entrusted to the Amal militia.

In 1985, Amal turned on the Palestinians and the PLO. Beginning that year, Amal began a three year siege of Sabra and Shatila. By the end of the siege, and some intra-Palestinian fighting, only seven families were left alive in the camps. (See War of the Camps)

Belgian court proceedings

After Sharon's 2001 election to the post of Prime Minister of Israel, a lawsuit was filed by relatives of the victims of the massacre in Belgium alleging his personal responsibility for the massacres, under a 1993 law first used against people implicated in the Rwandan Genocide. The Belgian Supreme Court ruled on February 12, 2003, that Sharon (and others involved, such as Israeli General Yaron) could be indicted under this accusation. Israel claimed that the lawsuit was initiated for political reasons. As another case was filed in Belgium alleging responsibility of the former U.S. President George H. W. Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell for war-crimes in the first Iraq War. The U.S. questioned the jurisdiction of Belgian courts to try war crimes committed elsewhere, asked European allies to pressure Belgium and threatened to move NATO headquarters from Belgium. Additionally, a variety of cases against other world leaders, such as Fidel Castro, Augusto Pinochet, and Yasser Arafat, were filed in Belgian courts, causing some diplomatic difficulties. Eventually, Belgium amended its law to require that human rights complaints could only be filed if the victim or suspect was a Belgian citizen or long-term resident at the time of the alleged crime. The Belgian Parliament also guaranteed diplomatic immunity for world leaders and other government officials visiting the country.

Elie Hobeika, the Phalangist commander at the time of the massacre never stood trial and held a post of a minister in Lebanese government in the 1990s. He was assassinated by a car bomb in Beirut on January 24, 2002, as he was preparing to testify in Sharon's trial [13] (

On September 24 2003, Belgium's highest court dismissed the war crimes complaints against Ariel Sharon, ruling there was no longer a legal basis for the lawsuit.


  • Transcript of "The Accused" ( (June 17, 2001). BBC World News (BBC-1). Retrieved December 4, 2004.
  • White, Matthew (update July 2004). Secondary Wars and Atrocities of the Twentieth Century ( Retrieved December 4, 2004.
  • Shashaa, Esam (no date). The massacre of Sabra and Shatila Camps - 16.09.1982 ( Retrieved December 4, 2004.

See Also

External links

de:Sabra und Schatila es:Matanzas de Sabra y Chatila fr:Massacre de Sabra et Chatila he:טבח סברה ושתילה ms:Penyembelihan Sabra dan Shatila nl:Sabra en Shatila fi:Sabran ja Shatilan verilyly


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