Palestine-Israel Conflict

Sabra and Shatila

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs
October/November 1995, PAGES 28, 110
Special Report

13 Years After Massacre, Beirut's Palestinians Are Still Under Siege

by Stephen J. Sosebee
Source: Washington Report

Thirteen turbulent years have passed since Israeli-backed Phalange Christian militiamen massacred some 2,000 unarmed Palestinian and Lebanese civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in west Beirut. Much has changed in the Middle East since those sinister days when the American-led West failed to fulfill President Ronald Reagan's pledge to Yasser Arafat to protect the families left behind when PLO fighters withdrew under U.S., French, Italian and British protection from Israeli-besieged west Beirut.

Since then, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip initiated a tenacious six-year uprising against Israeli military occupation, the world's reaction to its invasion of Kuwait reduced Iraq to a third-rate power, and a new era of U.S.-brokered peacemaking began between Israel on one hand and the PLO, Jordan and Syria on the other.

The fundamental changes in the region have reshaped the political map of the Middle East, but for the Palestinian survivors of Sabra and Shatila, too much has stayed the same. Unlike their brethren in Palestine, the refugees in Lebanon, and particularly in west Beirut, have had little to celebrate over the past 13 years. "We may not be under siege or massacred today," says Mohammed Akel, who as a six-year-old lost two brothers and a sister during the massacre. "But we have not seen any improvement in our condition. We have survived massacres and now we have to survive the Oslo accords."

Few communities have endured such sustained efforts at eradication as the Palestinian refugees of the Sabra-Shatila camps. Less than three years after the Israeli-backed 1982 massacre, the camps again were attacked with almost the same ferocity by the Syrian-backed Shi'i-dominated Amal militia. Amal's full-scale military attack on the Sabra-Shatila and Bourj al-Barajna refugee camps in west Beirut in May 1985 was the first of three separate sieges that lasted through 1988 and became known in Lebanon as "The Camp Wars."

The Amal movement came to power as an arm of the disenfranchised Shi'i Muslims who dominate south Lebanon and the slums of south Beirut. "Like Palestinians, the Shi'i are an oppressed people in Lebanon," explains Nabil Akram, a Palestinian survivor of the camp wars. "We never understood why they would attack and kill us, as we did not oppress them."

On the eve of the attack on the Palestinian camps in Beirut in the spring of 1985, Amal leader Nabih Berri, who now is a member of Lebanon's cabinet, stated that Amal refuses "to go back to the situation prevailing before 1982 and the rebuilding of a [Palestinian] state within a [Lebanese] state." Most Lebanese explained that Amal was doing the dirty work for Syria which, as the occupying power in most of Lebanon, had a vested interest in seeing the Palestinians remain weak and powerless.

"The resistance of the Palestinians impressed even the most seasoned observers."

In fact the withdrawal of the PLO's armed forces from Lebanon, and the demoralization that followed the Sabra-Shatila massacre, left the Palestinians in Beirut's refugee camps in no position to rebuild a "state within a state." Instead, the 1982 Israeli invasion had left the Palestinians at their weakest point since their arrival in Lebanon as refugees in 1948.

As a result, by 1985 the Syrians and Amal calculated that it was a perfect time to ensure that Syrian dominance in Lebanon would never again be challenged by a PLO under Yasser Arafat. However, Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad miscalculated in assuming that leftist Palestinian factions partially or wholly funded by Syria would stand aside as Lebanese Shi'i militiamen crushed Arafat loyalists defending the camps.

"They underestimated the unity of the Palestinian people," recalls Akram. "The DFLP [Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine] and other Palestinian factions stood side by side and fought off the Amal attacks. This was not a war against Arafat, but against Palestinian camps housing Palestinian families of all factions. We made a military pact, but not necessarily a political one."

The first battle of the camps erupted in May and lasted for a month. Some Sabra camp refugees fled deeper into adjoining Shatila camp but when Sabra fell after two weeks, many of the remaining inhabitants were massacred or again made refugees. At Gaza Hospital in Sabra, 70 patients were taken from their beds and killed by Amal soldiers. "What the Israelis and their Christian allies could not finish in Sabra camp in September 1982 was completed by Amal in two weeks," says Akram.

"When Amal attacked us, we were unprepared to defend the camps," recalls Marwan Hamdan, a DFLP veteran of the fighting. "The fall of Sabra made us realize that this was a fight for survival and we became better organized and more determined to resist the aggressors."

Seemingly Easy Targets

To most observers, all three camps in Beirut seemed easy targets that would quickly fall under the onslaught of better-armed, better-trained and far more numerous Amal militiamen and the Shi'i-dominated Sixth Brigade of the Lebanese army. Amal political chief Akif Haydar said his comrades-in-arms launched a "total war" against the Palestinians, whose fighters were outnumbered eight to one. While Amal used tanks, mortars and cannons, the Palestinians had only light weapons. With an estimated 40,000 Palestinian civilians at their backs, a few hundred encircled Palestinian fighters made one of the bravest military stands in modern history.

In Amal and the Palestinians: Understanding the Battle of the Camps, U.S. scholar Elaine Hagopian writes: "The resistance of the Palestiniansóin two of the three campsóright up until the global cease-fire impressed even the most seasoned observers; the military leaders of the Amal movement were the first to be surprised. Such resistance was in major ways the dynamic factor that dictated all the major phases of the battle."

In addition to the stiff Palestinian resistance from within the camps, the shelling of Amal and Shi'i positions around the camps by Druze and Palestinian leftist fighters from the mountains overlooking Beirut helped relieve some of the pressure on the Palestinian fighters. After a month of bloodletting, international and Arab pressure on Syria and Lebanon forced Damascus to impose a cease-fire between the Shi'i and Palestinians.

It lasted until May 1986, when Amal fighters again attacked Shatila and Bourj al-Barajna camps in Beirut and also the Ein el-Hilwa Palestinian refugee camp in Sidon. In her book, Too Many Enemies: The Palestinian Experience in Lebanon, author Rosemary Sayigh (a sister of Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said) says Palestinian fighters were better prepared to defend their camps in 1986 and after one month of bloody fighting had battled Amal to another cease-fire.

In November, 1986, however, the war of the camps resumed and this time the Palestinians were driven to near starvation during a six-month siege. "I didn't even have food for my baby," says Umm Mohammed of Shatila. "We would have to go get water through snipers, and every day a mother was shot down." By March 1987, besieged camp inmates had requested a special religious dispensation to allow those still living to eat the dead. Fortunately the siege was lifted before that happened, but the last battle of the camps was a harrowing test of Palestinian resistance and determination.

The few thousand remaining residents of Shatila camp in Beirut now are faced with a new kind of effort to eradicate their presence in Beirut. Lebanese government authorities are talking of bulldozing the camps and moving the residents to another location in the south. Meanwhile, Palestinians see little hope in the current peace negotiations between Israel and the PLO.

"They do not even speak about refugees from 1948 going back to Palestine," says Khalil Abu Samir. "We are a forgotten nation in Lebanon. After 13 years of resisting massacres and sieges, we have reached the point where our own leaders, who once pointed to us as the example for our people to follow, now ignore our presence. But Shatila was not wiped out by the Israelis or by Amal, and we will not be destroyed by our leaders. They will have to address our national rights eventually, and we are experts at waiting for our rights."

Stephen J. Sosebee, a free-lance journalist, divides his time between the U.S. and Israel/Palestine.

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