The Blanket

Sabra and Shatila
‘The Arabic people will not forget the American support to the Nazi Sharon in his massacres in Sabra, Shatila and Jenin’
- Banner at the site of the mass grave for the victims of Sabra and Shatila.

Anthony McIntyre • 22.9.02

1982 was a year of recuperation - of sorts. The blanket protest had ended the previous October and while the bulk of republican prisoners were still refusing to cooperate with the prison system, the intense heat of death-inducing battle had tempered off. While the camp leadership under Seanna Walsh and Tom McFeeley was strategising about how to secure segregation many of us in the wings had taken time out. We were still trying to come to terms with the loss of ten republican volunteers on hunger strike and seeking to make sense of it all. Not the sense behind their action but a logic for the British behaving as they did. The situation could so easily have been avoided along with its horrendous consequences both inside the prison and on the streets.

For those of us regaining our physical strength, after years of physiologically debilitating cellular confinement, in the prison yard or satisfying our intellectual curiosity through reading there was a sense of guilt that we were actually enjoying things that others had given their lives to achieve; people who would never again enjoy anything. That was all of twenty years ago. It was a year of serious events; locally the RUC were beginning a systematic shoot to kill policy in and around County Armagh while the IRA was bringing to an end the barbarous career, and nihilistic life, of Shankill war criminal Lennie Murphy. Across the ‘shuck’ in England the organisation was exploding bombs amidst British military cavalry and their horses. Politically, Sinn Fein was polling well beyond the expectations of its critics in the party’s first major outing under its own steam in the electoral world and much to the chagrin of the SDLP who had earlier relished with ‘gleeful anticipation’ the prospects of taking on the republicans; Internationally, the British were gung ho in their eagerness to resurrect the glory days of the empire and murdered a few helpless sailors on the General Belgrano to prove their point. Not that the Argentine navy had much to recommend it in terms of respecting human rights. Navy death squads and torturers abounded during the country’s dirty war against the Left and anybody else that happened to dissent from the right wing military dictatorship that plagued the country from 1976 to 1983. Great at bullying their own largely unarmed population, the Argentine armed forces floundered when they came face to face with a larger bully carrying a bigger stick. Argentina's soccer players aided by Diego Maradona fared little better than its army in that years World Cup which saw Italy beat Germany in the final after the most exciting Brazilian team of the past quarter of a century went out in the quarters.

There was no shortage of gory or memorable events to pick from in 1982 but one seemed to stand out over and above the rest for its sheer savagery, and for the manner in which it made us reflect on the organised slaughter practised against civilian populations by Nazi Germany. The American military in My Lai had already reminded us that butchering innocents was not a passing primitive fad indulged in by Hitler and Himmler; and Pinochet was never too far away just in case there was a tendency to forget. When the Lebanese militia waded through the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila massacring in its path a large section of the Palestinian population a war crime that would equal most other post world war two atrocities came into being.

On September 14th, 1982, the Lebanese Maronite president of barely three weeks, Bachir Gemayel, was assassinated by a bomb planted at the Phalangist Party headquarters. During the country’s earlier civil war Israel had begun viewing the right-wing Christian Phalange militia as a natural ally and its June 'Operation Peace for Galilee' invasion of Lebanon enabled it to influence the outcome of the presidential election in August which saw their favoured candidate, Gemayel, take power. On the day after his death the Israeli Army occupied West Beirut. One day later the same military met with Phalangist militia commanders and gave them clearance to enter the camps of Sabra and Shatila on the pretext of finding Palestinian 'terrorists'. It was agreed that Elie Hobeika would be in charge of the operation. He was a leader of the Christian Maronite Lebanese Forces and had effectively functioned as Israel's liaison chief during its occupation of the Lebanon. Many of Hobeika's family along with his fiancée had earlier been assassinated by armed Palestinians at Damur in 1976, an event which had heavily shaped his intensely hostile attitude towards Palestinians. Despite the potential for brutal revenge that clearly existed, the then Israeli Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Rafael Eitan told his own country’s Kahan Commission that the decision to permit the Phalangists into the refugee camps was taken by himself and Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Defence Minister.

That night the genocide began. Although the following day Israel's General Drori directed the Phalangists to halt their orgy of murder, this was rescinded and the death squads were given a further day to complete their work. According to a report in the Irish Times ‘the Phalangists rampaged until Saturday morning, killing and raping indiscriminately. Robert Hatem, a bodyguard to Hobeika, described how he 'was doing what I was told, throwing people out of upper-storey windows, shooting others in the swimming pool." He also described the Phalangist leader as a 'war criminal'. By the time his 38 hours war crime spree of slaughter, rape and mutiliation was completed, according to the writer Ghada Khouri 'some 2,000 civilians lay dead - some so badly mangled that they were unrecognisable'.

In February 1983 the Kahan Commission found that the massacre leader Elie Hobeika was asked by a Phalangist subordinate over the radio what should be done with 50 Palestinian women and children prisoners. The reply was curt: 'This is the last time you are going to ask me a question like that. You know exactly what to do.'

In March this year I went along to a meeting in Belfast City centre to listen to Fatima El Hilou, a survivor of the massacres. It was not a pleasant experience. Reading of these matters is distasteful enough but to listen to someone who escaped with her life added a poignancy to the account. Ten years of age at the time, she lived with her family in the centre of Shatila. Before they realised their fate the refugees housed there thought that the incursion into the camps was the beginning of a search operation to seize all the men of fighting age. But the Palestinian fighters were elsewhere. Then, when the true horror set in, pandemonium erupted. Fatima spoke of seeing a Falangist militiaman wielding a knife dripping with blood; of entire families being butchered in the alleyways that ran through the camp; a woman wandering through the carnage carrying nothing but her own entrails in her hands; her nine months pregnant cousin having her stomach slit open and a baby boy pulled out to hear the only words he would ever hear in this world, ‘you will be a Palestinian fighter’ before his murderer took his seconds old life. Fatima then spoke of the frantic search to find her brothers after the Falangists pulled out; of the friends and neighbours who lay dead on the streets. She holds Ariel Sharon responsible. In that she is not alone.

In a bid to bring the carnage to a halt, Morris Draper, a US envoy informed Sharon:

You must stop the massacres. They are obscene. I have an officer in the camp counting the bodies. You ought to be ashamed. The situation is rotten and terrible. They are killing children. You are in absolute control of the area, and therefore responsible for the area.

The Khan Commission found Ariel Sharon, Defence Minister at the time, as one who 'bears personal responsibility.' for the slaughter.

A separate International Commission of Inquiry reported that

the extent to which Israeli participation in prior massacres against the Palestinian people creates a most disturbing pattern of a political struggle carried on by means of mass terror directed at civilians, including women, children and the aged.

This has led to the US writer Peggy Thomson, in Counterpunch, claiming that:

One theory is that the massacre took place, not because the Christian Phalangists wished to avenge their leader, but rather because the Israelis wished to frighten the Palestinians into fleeing, possibly to Jordan. The theory behind such an idea was that the Palestinians from Lebanon would then be joined, voluntarily or otherwise, by those living in the West Bank, thus effecting a wholesale Jordanian "transfer," an option for solving the Palestinian "problem" still favoured today by many Israeli right-wingers.

Elie Hobeika is now dead, victim of a bomb attack at his Beirut home in January of this year. Few committed to justice for the victims of Sabra and Shatila will mourn his passing. But his death came just as he had agreed to give evidence in a Belgian court against Ariel Sharon. The cover up, it seems, is set to continue.






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We must dare to think 'unthinkable' thoughts. We must learn to explore all the options and possibilities that confront us in a complex and rapidly changing world. We must learn to welcome and not to fear the voices of dissent. We must dare to think about 'unthinkable things' because when things become unthinkable, thinking stops and action becomes mindless.
-James W. Fulbright

Index: Current Articles

22 September 2002


Other Articles From This Issue:


Pipedream Peace
Joe Graham


Can The Course of Labour Afford to Wait?
Billy Mitchell


Easily Annoyed
Peter Urban


Academics on Independence, Part 1

Paul Fitzsimmons


Sabra & Shatila

Anthony McIntyre


Palestine & Iraq
Brendan Hughes


Not In Our Name
Davy Carlin


Death Fasts and Oppression Continue in Turkey


19 September 2002


Belfast's "Poor White Trash" and the Dead Dogmas of the Past
Brian Kelly


Top Cat

Anthony McIntyre


Lower Than The Lowest of the Low
Liam O Ruairc


Civil Rights Vets Launch Status Campaign
Fionnbarra Ó Dochartaigh


Peace Rather than Pipedreams
Sean Smyth


Bush War
Anthony McIntyre




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