Anatomy of a Massacre


After the Lebanese civil war broke out in March 1975, Israel began cultivating Maronite militias fighting the PLO, particularly the Phalangists under the leadership of Bashir Gemayel, a ruthless leader who had not hesitated to carry out massacres against his Maronite rivals. For instance, Gemayel ordered the execution of the son of former president Suleiman Frangieh and his family, along with thirty-two followers in 1977. He was, nonetheless, Israel’s client. Since 1976, his forces had been trained, armed, supplied, and even uniformed by Israel.

Israel’s second invasion of Lebanon, launched on June 6, 1982, had two objectives. One was to smash the PLO, and the other was to put in place a puppet/friendly regime in Beirut. Billed by Arial Sharon as a “48-hour” operation, the invasion expanded to a full-scale attack. During the first three months, 17,825 were killed in areas occupied by Israeli forces. Airstrikes, artillery, and naval bombardment claimed 2,461 lives in West Beirut alone. US envoy Phillip Habib tried to bring about an end to the siege by arranging for the PLO to be evacuated to Tunis. A sticking point was the protection of Palestinian refugees. Representing the United States, Habib himself signed written documents guaranteeing the security of the Palestinians remaining in Lebanese camps.

As the PLO evacuation from Lebanon was unfolding in late-August, Bashir Gemayel was elected president of Lebanon. On Tuesday, September 14, 1982, a week before he was to assume office, Gemayel was killed in the bombing of the Phalange party headquarters. It turned out later to have been orchestrated by Syrian intelligence. Even though the PLO had by this point totally evacuated the city, Sharon was quick to blame the PLO, stating that the killing “symbolizes the terrorist murderousness threatening all people of peace from the hands of PLO terrorist organizations and their supporters.” The Phalangists were only too willing to the Israelis’ insistent argument that the Palestinians had killed Bashir and should be made to pay.

Hours after Gemayel’s death, Israeli PM Benin, Defense Minister Sharon, and Foreign Minister Shamir, decided to occupy Beirut, without informing the Israeli cabinet, and despite explicit commitments to the United States to the contrary. Sharon’s instructions specified that “Only one element, and that is the IDF, shall command the forces in the area. For the operation in the camps, the Phalangists should be sent in.” Chief of Staff Eitan briefed the Israeli cabinet that the Phalangists were dealing with the camps “with their own methods,” and that sending them in is advisable because “we could give them orders whereas it was impossible to give orders to the Lebanese Army.”

On Wednesday, September 15, Arial Sharon arrived in Beirut at 9 AM to supervise the operation. By noon, the IDF had surrounded the camps, setting up checkpoints and roadblocks that controlled all exits. They also established observation posts around the area, including a command post at the Kuwait embassy traffic circle, which enjoyed “an unobstructed and panoramic view” of the Shatila camp 200 meters away. That afternoon, Israeli tanks shelled the camp and snipers fired at the residents, Back on September 10, Sharon had claimed that “2,000 armed terrorists” remained in the camp. A claim that was patently false, given that no weapons were recovered in the aftermath of the massacre. Moreover, Sharon knew that the claim was false, since only a small number of Maronite militiamen were sent into the camps to carry out the killings.

Shortly after noon on Thursday, September 16, 1,500 armed Phalangists began moving to the camps in convoys of IDF-supplied jeeps. The first unit of 150 men entered at sunset with hatchets and guns. The killing began immediately, with groups of militiamen entering homes and slitting throats, axing, shooting, and raping, often taking people outside and lining them up for executions. At 8 PM, a Phalangist liaison officer reported to General Yaron at the Israeli command post that 300 people had been killed so far. At 11 PM, a report was sent to IDF headquarters in East Beirut which was being personally supervised by Arial Sharon, that information received from the Phalangist commander in the Shatila camp indicated that “thus far we have liquidated 300 civilians and terrorists.”

By Friday morning, September 17, rumors of horrific massacres had begun filtering out. Groups of refugees attempting to flee were turned back by the IDF. A number of IDF soldiers, who had witnessed several mass executions, reported to their superiors. Nevertheless, at a 4 PM meeting held at the Phalangist headquarters, Chief of Staff Eitan, General Yaron and other senior Israeli officers told Phalangist commanders to continue their “mopping up” operations until 5 PM the following day, at which point they were ordered to stop due to American pressure.


Predictably, the killing accelerated. Bulldozers, supplied by Israel to demolish “illegal structures,” dug mass graves – one of the largest in full view of the IDF forward command. Mass executions continued, with the Phalangists killing families and then bulldozing their houses to bury the bodies under the rubble. A Norwegian envoy witnessed a bulldozer loading scoops of bodies under the rubble. On both Thursday and Friday, the IDF illuminated the night with flares long into the night. A Dutch nurse remarked that the camp was as bright as “a sports stadium lit up for a football game.”

On Saturday, September 18, the Phalangists did not leave the camps as they had agreed. At 6 AM, loudspeakers called on the survivors in the camp to “surrender.” Nearly a thousand emerged and marched at gunpoint, with some being taken out of line and executed, while others were loaded on to trucks to be never seen again. At 8 AM, the remaining were marched to Cité Sportive, a stadium and a major landmark of Beirut. At 10 AM, the militiamen left the camp. IDF decided not to enter the camp so as not to be implicated, especially given American pressure. On this very day, American Secretary of State Shultz told the Israeli Ambassador,

From all accounts, and the accounts vary, what we have here is a massacre. Women and children were murdered. Defenseless people were killed. Mass graves. It’s a horrible picture. So there is no point in belaboring this. The basic facts are known.

No census of casualties of the massacres in the camps was ever carried out. According to official Lebanese sources, 762 bodies were recovered in Sabra and Shatila. In addition, about 1,200 bodies were claimed and buried by their families. However, many mass graves were never opened. Bayan al-Hout, identified and documented with certainty the names, and sources, of 1,390 victims. Her estimate is around 3,500, which concurs with Kapeliouck’s estimate of 3,000-3,500 dead. The New York Times claims that the dead numbered ‘in the hundreds,’ while the Financial Times claims ‘more than 1,000.’

The Kahan commission ended its inquiry on September 18. The killings at the contiguous camps ended on that day but other massacres were unfolding. The Israelis went on handing over prisoners to their blood-thirsty militia allies. Robert Fisk reported the testimony of victims from the Cité Sportive, who reported the existence of mass graves in the stadium itself, where “interrogations” were being conducted by Israeli soldiers. Years later, the ruins of the stadium were torn down, and a brand new one constructed in its place. The ground beneath was never examined. Hundreds of women, caught on videotape pleading at the gates of the stadium for their menfolk inside were tracked down sixteen years later, when Karsten Tveit of Norwegian television tracked them down and interviewed them. None had seen the disappeared again. A Christian Phalangist described to Tveit how three hundred Palestinians, handed over by the Israelis after the massacres came to light, were, three weeks later, machine-gunned to death in a mass grave.

Belgian prosecutors opened an inquiry in July 2001 following a complaint filed by 23 survivors of the massacres, under universal jurisdiction law that allowed for genocide and war crimes complaints against foreign leaders. A case against Bush Senior had been filed on February 13, 1991, for the bombing of the al-Amiriya shelter in Baghdad, which killed 403 people, and the United States was arm-twisting the Belgian government. Under intense diplomatic pressure, the government brought in a law that allows cases to be brought only if the victim or suspect is a Belgian citizen or long-term resident at the time of the alleged crime. Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel explained that “as long as complaints based on the universal jurisdiction law were not thrown out, we cannot resume [high level] official contacts with the United States.” International law applies to the weak, not the strong.

A campaign to rehabilitate Arial Sharon in the public mind is already well-underway. The New York Times, as well as much of the Western media, is trying to spin his legacy as one of ‘a strong leader’ of a ‘beleaguered democracy,’ and an ‘Israeli hawk who sought peace on his own terms,’ although a ‘polarizing figure.’ Amid all this spin, we should not forget that we are talking about a war criminal who should’ve been tried under the Nuremberg laws.

Neither is it the case that his record is otherwise unsullied. He pioneered the Israeli policy of ‘collective punishment.’ In 1953, he brought Israel its first condemnation by the United Nations for the Qibya massacre, wherein he presided over the slaughter of 69 people, thirty-two of them women and children. He was a superhawk, even by the standards of the Knesset. He voted against the peace treaty with Egypt in 1979; against withdrawal from South Lebanon in 1985; opposed the peace conference in Madrid in 1991; and again in Oslo in 1993. He personally undertook the establishment of the first illegal settlements in both the West Bank and Gaza.

Mass media firms devote considerable resources to indoctrinate us. It is our civic duty to practice what Chomsky calls “intellectual self-defense.” It is a hard and tiring exercise, one that can get even more tiring on a day like today,  but it does get easier over time. 

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