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6 December 2001 Edition

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Middle East bleeds again


This week has been a grim one for Palestinians, Israelis and the troubled search for a workable Middle East peace process. First, 26 people were killed in Jerusalem in attacks by two Hamas suicide bombers, an act of retaliation for the Israeli assassination of a leading Hamas figure. Israeli premier Ariel Sharon's response was swift and predictable, his rocket attacks ensuring that the Palestinian body count, as always, would be higher.

Wednesday 28 November, before this week's tragic events, marked the United Nations International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People and on that significant day, the Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Group was launched. The force behind the project is Tom Hyland, better known for his tireless and successful campaign in support of an East Timor free from Indonesian rule.

In the spring of this year, Tom was invited to travel around the world to speak about his East Timor experience, and one of the places he visited was Palestine. He was shocked by what he saw, and mostly by the military presence of the Israeli army in the Occupied Territories.

Speaking at the launch of the group in Dublin's Trinity College was Palestinian Ambassador to Ireland Ali Halimeh, who spoke about the collapse of the peace process in Palestine and its effects on the Middle East. Halimeh reiterated the need for the Israeli government to recognise the needs of Palestinians, as otherwise "there will not be peace in the region. And we keep repeating that without providing the Palestinians the right to self-determination and the establishment of a Palestinian sovereign state on national Palestinian soil, there will not be peace or security.

"The solution has to be worked out, it cannot be imposed," said Halimeh.

Day after day, the number of casualties in this conflict increases. More than 1,000 Palestinians and 200 Israelis have been killed in the fighting, which erupted in September 2000, after a visit by Ariel Sharon to one of the Muslim holy places in Palestine. The violence immediately brought down the government of Labour leader Ehud Barak and after elections, Sharon was elected prime minister of Israel. Since then, the Israeli government has held Arafat's administration responsible for the upsurge of violence in the Occupied Territories, while maintaining an unswervingly confrontational stance.

Since his arrival to power, Ariel Sharon has been seen by Palestinians as the main obstacle to efforts to reinitiate negotiations aimed at achieving a peaceful resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. His extreme right-wing approach to politics and his more than dark past in previous governments are not the best references for a peace broker. The massacres in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila have come back to haunt him. Sharon was declared responsible for the massacre of at least 2,000 Palestinian refugees by a Tribunal of Inquiry set by Israel's government. The United Nations Security Council condemned the massacre with Resolution 521 in September 1982. This condemnation was followed by a 16 December 1982 General Assembly resolution qualifying the massacre as an "act of genocide".

But the more than a thousand people who disappeared in the aftermath of the massacre are now emerging as the key element in the efforts of the relatives of the victims to bring Sharon to trial for war crimes. A suit that has been filed in a Belgian court - under legislation that allows Belgium to prosecute foreigners for war crimes regardless where these have been carried out - charges that Sharon had command responsibility of the disappearance of those refugees handed to the Israeli Army by the Lebanese militias.

Shabra and Shatila massacres

On 6 June 1982, the Israeli army launched operation "Peace in Galilee" and invaded Lebanon. After occupying the south of the country, the Israeli troops penetrated as far as Beirut, and by 18 June 1982 they had surrounded the Palestine Liberation Organisation's armed forces in the west side of the city. The Israeli offensive, particularly the intensive shelling of Beirut, caused 18,000 deaths and 30,000 injuries, mostly civilians.

A ceasefire was negotiated through the intermediary of United States envoy Philip Habib. It was agreed that the PLO would evacuate Beirut, under the supervision of a multinational force deployed in the evacuated part of the town. The evacuation of the PLO (more than 14,000 people) ended on 1 September 1982.

On 10 September 1982, the multinational forces left Beirut. The next day, Ariel Sharon announced that "2,000 terrorists" had remained inside the Palestinian refugee camps around Beirut.

The intention to send the Phalangist forces into West Beirut had already been announced by Sharon on 9 July 1982. From dawn on 15 September 1982, Israeli fighter-bombers were flying low over West Beirut and Israeli troops had secured their entry. From 9am, General Sharon was present to personally direct the Israeli penetration.

From midday, the camps of Sabra and Shatila were surrounded by Israeli tanks and soldiers and bombarded with shells. Shortly after 5pm on 16 September, a unit of approximately 150 Phalangists entered Shatila camp from the south and southwest. At that point, General Drori telephoned Ariel Sharon and announced, "Our friends are advancing into the camps. We have coordinated their entry."

For the next 40 hours, the Phalangist militia raped, killed and injured a large number of unarmed civilians, mostly children, women and old people. These actions were accompanied or followed by systematic roundups, backed or reinforced by the Israeli Army, resulting in dozens of disappearances.

The Israeli Army, whose officers knew perfectly what was going on in the camps, as they were in permanent contact with the militia leaders, did not intervene until the morning of Saturday 18 September 1982. Instead, they prevented civilians from escaping the camps.

The count of victims varies between 700 (the official Israeli figure) and 3,500. The exact figure will never be determined because in addition to the approximately 1,000 people who were buried in communal graves by the ICRC or in the cemeteries of Beirut by members of their families, a large number of corpses were buried under bulldozed buildings by the militia themselves. Also, particularly on 17 and 18 September, hundreds of people were carried away alive in trucks towards unknown destinations, never to return.

After 400,000 people took to the streets in protest, the Israeli parliament (Knesset) named a commission of inquiry presided over by Yitzhak Kahan in September 1982. In spite of the limitations of the commission's mandate (it was a political and not a judicial mandate) and the total absence of the voices and demands of the victims, the Commission concluded that the Minster of Defence was personally responsible for the massacres. Sharon resigned from his post of Minister of Defence but remained in the government as Minister Without Portfolio.

In spite of the evidence of what the UN Security Council described as a 'criminal massacre' and the sad ranking of the Sabra and Shatila massacres in humankind's collective memory as among the great crimes of the 20th century, the man found "personally responsible", his associates and the people who carried out the massacres have never been pursued or punished.

In 1984, Israeli journalists Schiff and Yaari concluded their chapter on the massacre with this reflection: "If there is a moral to the painful episode of Sabra and Shatila, it has yet to be acknowledged." This reality of impunity remains true to this day, but the victims and their relatives will keep fighting to challenge it by all possible means. Today, their hopes centre on a court in Belgium.

Death of Tulay Korkmaz

Tulay Korkmaz has become the latest hunger striker to die in the ongoing Turkish Death fast. She died on the 193rd day of her fast in Bayrampasa State Hospital. She was just 25 years old.

Tulay Korkmaz lay down to die on 11 May in the cells of Kartal Special Type Prison. She was brought to hospital on about the 130th day because her condition had worsened. While Tulay was in hospital, Justice Minister Sami Turk tried to legalise the torture of forcible medical intervention for the death fasters. Alone, for about two months in hospital, she was subjected to the torture of forcible medical treatment.

Tulay was born on 24 September 1976 in Iskenderun, Hatay province (southern Turkey). She was of Turkish nationality and her family are Sunnis.

A protest will be held at the Turkish Embassy in Dublin on Thursday 6 December to mark her death and to support the death fasters' demands for an end to the 'F' Type prisons.

The protest will take place at the Turkish Embassy, 11 Clyde Road, Ballsbridge, Dublin 4, at 6pm on Thursday 6 December. All are welcome and encouraged to attend.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1

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