18 September 2003 Edition

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Sabra, Chatila and the butcher Sharon


Beirut, 16 September

"No one will preach to us moral values or respect for human life, on whose basis we were educated and will continue to educate generations of fighters in Israel. Christians killed Muslims, how are the Jews guilty?" These were the words spoken by Menachem Begin, Israel's prime minister in 1982, as an answer to the first accusations after the Sabra and Chatila massacre. Israeli soldiers watched the slaughter of defenceless Palestinian refugees unfold without taking any action, not even to limit the extent of it. But, in reality, it will later emerge, that Israel had done far worse.

Twenty-one years have passed since then, but looking at the present day Intifada in Palestine, nothing has really changed. That is why it was important to be here: to keep the memory of the event alive, to ask that that disregard for life shall not be forgotten, to demand that the uncovered mass graves be revealed, and also to oppose the US and Israeli's attempt to take the war crimes issue off the international political agenda and more specifically, the principle of universal jurisdiction.

Before 1982, Sabra and Chatila, situated in the Southern suburbs of Beirut, known as the "belt of misery", were the heart of the Palestinian resistance in Lebanon. The leader of the Phalangist militia wanted to transform Sabra into a parking lot and Chatila into a zoo. They turned them into a huge mass grave. The alleyways were covered with dead bodies, scattered like snowflakes, frozen in horror, slumped, decapitated, ripped apart, burnt to ashes, mutilated, blackened with death. Sabra and Chatila was not only one of the worst "incidents", using Israeli vocabulary, but one of the most ruthless and sadistically executed episodes in 54 years of turmoil in the Middle East.

The carnage was executed by Lebanese pro-Israeli militia but the policy had been outlined by the government in Tel Aviv. It was part of a wider plan for ethnic cleansing against the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, trying to provoke a new Palestinian exodus towards Syria and Jordan. The architect behind this Napoleonic plan was then the Minister for Defence, Ariel Sharon. From June 1982, he gave the order to eliminate thousands of Palestinians, victims of aerial bombings in Bury el Barajneh (west Beirut) and the camps around Sidon e Tyre. To annihilate and exile them was the objective of Sabra and Chatila, this had been asked of the militia leader who Sharon met just two days before the events.

In only 30 hours, the Israeli Army (IDF) had invaded Southern Lebanon and from the morning of 16 September they entirely controlled West Beirut. Only a few days earlier, the peace-keeping force (US, France and Italy) that could have defended the refugee camps after the departure of the PLO from Beirut and make sure the Israelis respected their word not to enter West Beirut, had prematurely withdrawn. By midday on 16 September, the IDF had completely surrounded the camps, already devastated by three months of heavy bombings.

The Phalangist militia, led by Elias Hobelka, entered the Sabra and Chatila camps in trucks. One of their officers was heard saying: "The only problem we have is deciding if to start killing or raping first." Entering from the Chatila camp, the Israeli proxi-militia not only killed but also maimed their victims, crushed children's and babies' heads against walls, raped women of all ages, hacked civilians with axes. I many cases they also shot dead all but one member of entire families, to ensure the horror would be relived and told.

During the first few hours of the pogrom, they show intense viciousness with knifes and machetes in unthinkable acts of cruelty; the following day, against a background of mounting US pressure, mass executions started, even if a torturing squad kept cracking skulls and disemboweling pregnant women throughout the whole attack. No prisoners were taken. They seemed to be particularly ferocious against children and they entered the nearby hospitals of Hakka and Gaza (in Sabra), murdering, raping and devastating everything they came across.

It was an orgy of cruelty that lasted 40 hours. A macabre and barbaric "party" filled with hate, revenge, blood, whiskey, rape and torture in honour of the spectators positioned on the roofs of the surrounding buildings. The Israeli soldiers were equipped with binoculars and infrareds but they didn't really need them: they were only 200 metres from the epicentre of the slaughter. From those rooftops they could hear the children screaming and see the injured dying. Still, they did nothing.

Yet, the Israeli collusion does not end here: the IDF has completely destroyed all the Palestinian Archives in Lebanon as in the West Bank and Gaza, trying to delete the historical memories of the Palestinian people, but the evidence remains of the presence of Israeli officers amongst the Phalangists in Sabra and Chatila.

Officers of the IDF conducted interrogations of men in a semi-destroyed stadium bordering on the Sabra camp. Every executioner seems to have his stadium of shame, from Pinochet to Sharon. People here talk about communal mass graves underneath the stadium which cannot be excavated because of the Lebanese government's refusal to do so and which has been recently rebuilt, erasing any traces of the past tragedy. However, the memories of those who survived will forever haunt Sharon and all involved in this atrocious crime against humanity. Many of those brought to the stadium are "disappeared". Of them we know nothing and no bodies were ever found. Some were given to the Israelis, the rest were taken away in lorries southbound, only to be slaughtered - 2,000 of them, according to France Press.

On Saturday 18 September, the militia left the camps, behind them there were 2,750 dead bodies, according to the international Commission of Inquiry headed by the late Sean MacBride. The UN Security Council labeled what happened here 22 years ago as "an act of genocide" (Resolution 521).

The internal commission nominated in Tel Aviv to investigate the massacre recognised that Sharon was "indirectly, personally responsible" for the onslaught; he did not pull the trigger directly but he ordered others to do it, committing a war crime more vicious than the ones committed by the Phalangist killers. Exactly in the same fashion as the Nazis had done 40 years before by using Ukrainian paramilitaries to "clear" Jewish ghettoes.

A minister for defence instigates the proxy-militia, his army surrounds and isolates the camps, illuminating them with flares at night, sending back those trying to escape the butchery, nourishing the killers, providing them with the bulldozers to dig mass graves: the outcome is an atrocity of such extent that it almost beggars description. But, in theory, Sharon's responsibility is only "indirect". At the end of the inquiry, he had to resign (even if he remained in the cabinet) but no court of justice would prosecute him and although he was declared unfit to command the army, he would later be deemed fit to lead the Israeli government.

On the other hand, the Lebanese launched their own inquest headed by... Elias Hobelka; none of the Phalangists has ever paid for their crimes (thanks to political pressures and an amnesty in the early '90s), even if many of the higher ranking ones are presently dying in strange circumstances. In fact, when Hobelka decided to bear witness before a Belgian court last year to Israel's involvement in the events, a powerful car bomb blew him up before he could testify.

Twenty two years have gone by: poverty and misery are still the same; the butcher is still the same. Just like then, he explains he wants to flush out 'terrorist' infrastructures. Then Sabra and Chatila, today Jenin, are a stain on the morality and conscience of the international community.

About five million refugees, more than half of the entire Palestinian population, are still scattered throughout the Middle East: in theory they do not exist, notwithstanding Resolution 194 establishing their right to return to their land. Recognition of the refugees' rights is an essential part of any just and lasting peace.

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