The Sabra and Shatila massacre (or Sabra and Chatila massacre; Arabic: مذبحة صبرا وشاتيلا) was a massacre carried out between the 15 and 16 September 1982 by the Lebanese Forces militia group. It is alleged that Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) allowed Lebanese Christian Phalangist militiamen to enter two Palestinian refugee camps, and that the militia massacred civilians inside. It was argued that the Israelis should have known that a massacre could occur, considering the assassination of Phalangist leader and prospective president Bachir Gemayel the day before, and given the long history of bad blood between the Palestinians and the Phalangists.
The exact number killed is a matter of dispute, with estimates ranging from hundreds to thousands. The number of victims of the massacre varies according to source: the lowest estimate is 328; the highest is placed at 3,500 (see below).
The Phalangists stood under the direct command of Elie Hobeika, who later became a long-serving Lebanese Member of Parliament and, in the 1990s, a cabinet minister. The Israeli military's Chief of Staff was Lt. General Rafael Eitan, and Israel's Defence Minister was Ariel Sharon.
A major outcry erupted both in Israel and internationally, because the Sabra and Shatila camps had been under the control of Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). Yet the Phalangists, who committed the killings, were spared the brunt of the condemnations. Some commentators have suggested that the Israeli military may have been involved in the incident to some extent (see below).
The Israeli government established the Kahan Commission to investigate, and it subsequently found Israel indirectly responsible for the event. The report said that Israeli commanders should have recognized the possibility of a revenge attempt, and not permitted Phalangists into the camps. Ariel Sharon was found to bear personal responsibility for "ignoring the danger of bloodshed and revenge" and for "not taking appropriate measures to prevent bloodshed." The commission recommended that Sharon be removed as head of the Defence Ministry, and Sharon, after initial resistance, resigned.
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 Lebanese Shiites from the south fleeing the war.
The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) had been using southern Lebanon as a base for attacks on Israel, and Israel had been bombing PLO positions in southern Lebanon. The attempted assassination of Israeli Ambassador Shlomo Argov in London on June 4 by Abu Nidal's organization became a casus belli for a full-scale Israeli invasion of Lebanon. On June 6, 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon with 60,000 troops in an act condemned by the UN Security Council. 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.
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, and ties between Israel and Maronite groups had grown stronger.
On September 1, the expulsion of the PLO fighters from Beirut was completed. Two days later, Israel deployed its armed forces around the refugee camps.
The Israeli Premier Menachem Begin met Gemayel in Nahariya and strongly urged him to sign a peace treaty with Israel. According to some sources, Begin also wanted the continuing presence of the South Lebanon Army in southern Lebanon led by Major Saad Haddad (who supported peaceful relations with Israel) in order to control attacks and violence, and action from Gemayel to move on the PLO fighters which Israel believed remained a hidden threat in Lebanon. However, the Phalangists, who were previously united as reliable Israeli allies, were now split because of developing alliances with Syria, which remained militarily hostile to Israel. As such, Gemayel rejected signing a peace treaty with Israel and did not authorize operations to root out the remaining PLO militants.
On September 14 1982, Gemayel was assassinated in a massive explosion which demolished his headquarters. Eventually, the culprit, Habib Tanious Shartouni, who confessed to the crime turned out to be a member of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party and an agent of Syrian intelligence. The Palestinian and Muslim leaders denied any connection.
Within hours of the assassination, Ariel Sharon, Israeli Defense Minister at the time, and then Prime Minister Menachem Begin, decided to occupy West Beirut, informing only then Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir and not consulting the Israeli cabinet. The same night Sharon began preparations for entering the Sabra-Shatila refugee camps. Thus on September 15, the Israeli army reoccupied West Beirut. This Israeli action breached its agreement with the United States not to occupy West Beirut; the US had also given written guarantees that it would ensure the protection of the Muslims of West Beirut. Israel's occupation also violated its peace agreements with Muslim forces in Beirut and with Syria.
Ariel Sharon and Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan met with the Lebanese Phalangist militia units, inviting them to enter the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps to clean out terrorist nests. 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. The meetings concluded at 3:00 p.m. September 16.
An hour later, 1,500 militiamen assembled at Beirut International Airport, then occupied by Israel. Under the command of Elie Hobeika, they began moving towards the camps in IDF supplied jeeps, following Israeli guidance on how to enter the camps. The forces were mostly Phalangist, though there were some men from Saad Haddad's "Free Lebanon forces".
The first unit of 150 Phalangists entered the camps at 6:00 p.m. A battle ensued that at times Palestinians claim involved lining up Palestinians for execution. During the night the Israeli forces fired illuminating flares over the camps. According to a Dutch nurse, the camp was as bright as "a sports stadium during a football game".
At 11:00 p.m. a report was sent to the IDF headquarters in East Beirut, reporting the killings of 300 people, including civilians. The report was forwarded to headquarters in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, where it was seen by more than 20 senior Israeli officers.
Further reports of these killings followed through the night. Some of these reports were forwarded to the Israeli government in Jerusalem and were seen by a number of Israel's senior officials.
For the next 36 to 48 hours, the Phalangists massacred the inhabitants of the refugee camps, while the Israeli military guarded the exits and allegedly continued to provide flares by night.
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. The Israeli officer reported this to his superior, Brig. Gen. Amos 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, and gave a hearsay report of a battalion commander saying of this, "We know, it's not to our liking, and don't interfere." Israeli soldiers surrounding the camps turned back Palestinians fleeing the camps, as filmed by a Visnews cameraman.
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 stated 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 17, while the camps still were sealed off, a few independent observers managed to enter. Among them were a Norwegian journalist and diplomat Gunnar Flakstad, who observed Phalangists during their cleanup operations, removing dead bodies from destroyed houses in the Shatila camp".
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. The first official news of the massacre was broadcast around noon.
The number of victims of the massacre is disputed. There is general agreement that the exact numbers are very hard to pin down, due to the chaotic conditions during and after the massacre, burials and initial victim-counting, as well as the fact that it has been an extremely politically sensitive issue even to the present day. It is thought that at least a quarter of the victims were Lebanese, the rest Palestinians. Here follow the main estimates that have circulated, ordered by number of deaths:
According to William Schabas, director of the Irish Centre for Human Rights at the National University of Ireland, "the term genocide (…) had obviously been chosen to embarrass Israel rather than out of any concern with legal precision”. This opinion is a reflection of the comments made by some of the delegates who took part in the debate. While all acknowledged that it was a massacre, the claim that it was a genocide was disputed, for example the delegate for Canada stated "The term genocide cannot, in our view, be applied to this particular inhuman act". The delegate of Singapore added that "My delegation regrets the use of the term "an act of genocide" (…). [as] , the term 'genocide' is used to mean acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group". and that "We also question whether the General Assembly has the competence to make such determination", and the United States commented that "While the criminality of the massacre was beyond question, it was a serious and reckless misuse of language to label this tragedy genocide as defined in the 1948 Convention (…)".
Citing Sabra and Shatila as an example, Leo Kuper notes the reluctance of the United Nations to respond or take action in actual cases of genocide for most egregious violators, but its willingness to charge "certain vilified states, and notably Israel", with genocide. In his view:
This availability of a scapegoat state in the UN restores members with a record of murderous violence against their subjects a self-righteous sense of moral purpose as principled members of 'the community of nations'... Estimates of the numbers killed in the Sabra-Shatila massacres range from about four hundred to eight hundred - a minor catastrophe in the contemporary statistics of mass murder. Yet a carefully planned UN campaign found Israel guilty of genocide, without reference to the role of the Phalangists in perpetrating the massacres on their own initiative. The procedures were unique in the annals of the United Nations.
Characteristic features were the suspension of critical thinking by journalists who normally exercise a salutary skepticism; unhesitating acceptance and publication of what soon proved to be self-evident propaganda from partisan sources. Most striking and revealing, was the frequent usage of language evocative of the Nazis... Such words as "blitzkrieg", "lebensraum", "genocide", and "final solution" were freely used to reinforce the comparison, sometimes stated and often implied, between Israelis in Lebanon and the Nazis in conquered and occupied Europe... Most reports concentrated their whole attack on the Israelis who, as was known from the start, had not actually participated in the massacre and whose negligence or complicity had not yet been established, and almost failed to mention the Lebanese Christian militias who actually did the deed. The careless reader or viewer could have got the impression that this was a massacre unique in the modern history of the Middle East, and that it was perpetrated directly by the Israelis. Neither was true.
In Europe news of the massacre resulted in a backlash against Jews and Israel. In Italy, airport workers boycotted the Israeli airline El-Al, badges were distributed with the star of David and swastika intertwined, and the slogan "Nazisrael" came to be used. Bombs were exploded in synagogues in Milan and Rome — the latter resulting in the death of a two-year-old boy and the wounding of 34 other people. At the demands of labor unions, a Milan hotel cancelled a scheduled bar mitzvah reception. In France, on September 21, a group of teachers at Lycée Voltaire, one of the leading French high schools, stopped all classes between 10 a.m. and midday. They drafted two letters, one to the French president, demanding the breaking of all diplomatic and economic relations with Israel and official recognition of the PLO; the other to the Israeli embassy in Paris, demanding the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon. The letters were read to the students of the school assembled in the courtyard.
Bernard Lewis argues that the response to the massacre was so overwhelming because the event presented an opportunity to blame Jews: "There is no evidence that the teachers of [the Lycée Voltaire] had ever been moved to such action by events in Poland or Uganda, Central America or Afghanistan, South Africa and Southeast Asia, or for that matter in the Middle East where the massacre of Sabra and Shatila... lacked neither precedents nor parallels". He contrasts the reactions to the Sabra and Shatila massacre with those to the Hama massacre which was perpetrated in the same year by the Syrian army and in which tens of thousands were killed, but on which, according to Lewis, "not a dog barked".
On September 28, the Israeli Government resolved to establish a Commission of Inquiry, which was led by former Supreme Court Justice Yitzhak 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 were 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."
The Kahan commission found that Ariel Sharon "bears personal responsibilityand recommended his dismissal from the post of Defense Minister, stating that:
It is our view that responsibility is to be imputed to the minister of defense for having disregarded the prospect of acts of vengeance and bloodshed by the Phalangists against the population of the refugee camps and for having failed to take this danger into account when he decided to have the Phalangists enter the camps. In addition, responsibility is to be imputed to the minister of defense for not ordering appropriate measures for preventing or reducing the chances of a massacre as a condition for the Phalangists' entry into the campsThe Kahan commission also recommended the dismissal of Director of Military Intelligence Yehoshua Saguy, and the effective promotion freeze of Division Commander Brig. Gen. Amos Yaron for at least three years.
At first, Sharon refused to resign, and Begin refused to fire him. It was only after the death of Emil Grunzweig after a grenade was tossed into the dispersing crowd of a Peace Now protest march, which also injured ten others, that a compromise was reached: Sharon would resign as Defense minister, but remain in the Cabinet as a minister without portfolio. Even though the Kahan Commission concluded that Sharon should not hold public office again, he would later become Prime Minister of Israel.
Noam Chomsky and Robert Fisk have said that Israel could have predicted that a massacre by Phalange fighters who entered the camps might have taken place. In particular, such commentators do not believe it is possible that there were "2000 PLO terrorists" remaining in the camps, because (1) the Kahan Commission documents that the Israeli army allowed only 150 Phalangist fighters into the camps and (2) the Phalangists suffered only two casualties; an improbable outcome of a supposedly 36-hour battle of 150 militants against 2000 experienced "PLO terrorists" [FT].
However, other commentators point out that Israel never asserted that all of the PLO members (as opposed to Fatah militants) were armed or tried to organize a defense.
Moreover, on several previous occasions, the Phalangists successfully assisted the Israeli army to filter out PLO fighters from the rest of the Lebanese civilian population. 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 never issued an order to kill unarmed civilians in Sabra and Shatila.
Robert Maroun Hatem, Elie Hobeika's bodyguard, stated in his book From Israel to Damascus that Hobeika ordered the massacre of civilians in defiance of Israeli instructions to behave like a "dignified" army.
Ariel Sharon sued Time magazine for libel in American and Israeli courts in a $50 million libel suit, after Time published a story in its February 21 1983, issue, implying that Sharon had "reportedly discussed with the Gemayels the need for the Phalangists to take revenge" for Bashir's assassination. Time won the suit in the U.S. court because Sharon's defense failed to establish that Time had "acted out of malice," as required under the U.S. libel law, although the jury had earlier found the article false and defamatory.
Pierre Rehov, a documentary filmmaker who worked on the case with former Lebanese soldiers, while making his film Holy Land: Christians in Peril, came to the conclusion that Hobeika was definitely responsible for the massacre, despite the orders he had received from Ariel Sharon to behave humanely.
Benny Morris, in Israel's Secret Wars, stated that Israeli forces provided the bulldozers used to bury the massacred Palestinians. In the 2005 Swiss-French-German-Lebanese co-produced documentary Massaker six former Lebanese Forces soldiers who participated personally in the massacre stated there was direct Israeli participation. One of them said that he saw Israeli soldiers driving bulldozers into inhabited houses inside the camp. Another said that Israeli soldiers provided the Lebanese Forces soldiers with material to dispose of the corpses lying around in the streets. Several of the soldiers said that they had received training in Israel. However, these claims are controversial.
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 maintained that the lawsuit was initiated for political reasons.
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; some speculated he was preparing to testify in the Belgian war-crimes tribunal investigating the massacre, though others doubted he intended to testify at all.
Michael Nassar, a former Phalangist who became a millionaire selling weapons formerly owned by the Lebanese Forces, was murdered along with his wife in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where he had been living since he fled Lebanon in 1996. He was very close to Elie Hobeika.
On September 24 2003, due to changes in Belgian Universal Jurisdiction law that occurred since the initiation of the case, Belgium's Supreme Court dismissed the war crimes case against Ariel Sharon, since none of the plaintiffs had Belgian nationality at the start of the case.