1983 Sabra refugee

The Sabra-Shatila Massacre And The End Of A Love Affair

It is time for western activists, academics and journalists dealing with the Middle East to look at the region with an objective eye when covering conflicts and condemning human rights abuses. All parties to conflicts should be judged by the same standard.


1983 Sabra refugee


Last autumn marked the 30th anniversary of the Sabra-Shatila massacre, the most well-known incident of the Lebanese Civil War. Between the 16th and 18th of September 1982, Christian militiamen rampaged through the alleyways of the Sabra & Shatila Palestinian refugee camps in West Beirut, raping, butchering, and executing unarmed Palestinian civilians. Many of their bodies were horrifically mutilated. Some were castrated, scalped, or marked with Christian crosses etched into the skin. When asked why they killed pregnant women in the camps, militiamen answered to the effect that the unborn children were destined to become Palestinian terrorists and therefore represented legitimate targets. The militiamen responsible for these actions were mostly from the Phalange, a right-wing Lebanese Christian paramilitary group allied to the Israeli military forces that had invaded Lebanon three months earlier. The exact number of people killed in the massacre is unknown, and subject to dispute. It is likely that 1000-1500 civilians died.

Israel faces a string of accusations for its role in the massacre. The Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) had fully secured the camps’ perimeters prior to the Phalangists’ operations. It granted the Phalangists access to Sabra and Shatila ostensibly to seize Palestinian militants’ weapons. It guarded the exits throughout the Phalangists’ operations, fired flares for illumination, and turned back civilians attempting to flee. Israeli troops had a direct line of sight into the camp, and Israeli officers received radio calls bringing their attention to the killing of civilians. Still they failed to act to stop them.

Though extremely brutal, the Sabra-Shatila massacre was by no means unique within the context of the Lebanese Civil War. Thousands of civilians also died in the massacres of Karantina, Damour, and Tel al-Zaatar. At Tel al-Zaatar, the perpetrators and victims were precisely the same: primarily right-wing Christian militiamen massacring unarmed Palestinian civilians.

Indeed, the Tel al-Zaatar massacre was likely even bloodier than Sabra and Shatila. The United Nations-administered camp was besieged on-and-off by Christian militiamen for several months, and eventually overrun. Most estimates state that at least 2000 Palestinian civilians lost their lives. Even more shocking than this is the fact that Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) militants defending the camp repeatedly and deliberately aggravated the situation in order to increase the number of civilian “martyrs” slain and earn correspondingly greater media attention and sympathy for their cause. According to Robert Fisk, Arafat personally ordered his men to fire upon Christian fighters during a ceasefire in order to provoke a bloody counter-attack.

Both Tel al-Zaatar and Sabra-Shatila stand as bloody and horrific examples of the cynical inhumanity often characteristic of armed conflict. They are examples, too, of the great suffering experienced by Palestinian refugees in the Lebanese civil war.

And yet the Sabra -Shatila massacre was unlike the massacre of Tel al-Zaatar in one significant respect: it generated a massive international response. Where Arafat had failed, for all his “martyrs”, to generate a lasting story at Tel Al-Zaatar, Sabra-Shatila would change the world’s impression of Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict forever. In the fallout, the New York Times ran a ten-thousand word article on the massacre. The United Nations General Assembly voted in favour of condemning it as genocide. The largest demonstrations in Israel’s history took place in Tel Aviv. The Israeli “Kahan” Commission was set up, and called for Ariel Sharon to be dismissed as Defence Minister. Defence Appropriations Committee member and pro-Israeli lobbyist within Congress, Charlie Wilson, pointed to Sabra and Shatila as marking the moment when he fell out of love with Israel. The massacre remains important in popular culture. As recently as 2009, freshly-released film Waltzing with Bashir won a Golden Globe. The film follows the story of an Israeli war veteran seeking to remember his experiences in the 1982 war who finally discovers that he was suppressing memories of his involvement at Sabra-Shatila.

Meanwhile, Tel Al-Zaatar remains forgotten. Whereas many major international news agencies (including, amongst others, Al-Jazeera; the Independent; the New York Times; Euronews; the Huffington Post; Press TV) ran stories about Sabra-Shatila on the day of its 30th anniversary last year, a search for news articles relating to the Tel al-Zaatar massacre dated August 2006 (the 30th anniversary of the Tel al-Zaatar massacre) returns no results at all. Even pro-Palestinian blogs are mute. Why is that? Why did the massacre of a comparable number of civilians not prompt similar international concern and media coverage? Why was the Tel al-Zaatar massacre not important enough for the UN’s time? Why wasn’t that also genocide?

The answer to all these questions is that Israel was not involved.

Israelis have often complained of international media and foreign governments applying double-standards when they report on, or involve themselves in, Israeli foreign policy. Israelis are not wrong when they do this: the example of Tel al-Zaatar and Sabra-Shatila is a clear-cut case of double-standards. Not only is Sabra-Shatila remembered only because of Israeli involvement, but only Israeli involvement in Sabra-Shatila is remembered. It will be recalled that the Israelis were not the direct perpetrators. No Israeli soldier engaged in the massacres. It was the Phalangists who were directly responsible for the slaughter. Yet the Israelis received such disproportionate blame for their lesser part in the events that the Phalangists’ role became all but forgotten. Journalistic reports at the time focused not on criticising Phalangist militiamen for the ruthless rapes and murders they had committed, but rather on condemning the Israeli military for failing to have predicted the violence the Christians were inevitably going to unleash upon Palestinians in the camps, and for failing to stop it once they became aware of it.

In order for this narrative to be maintained, it must be assumed that the Phalangists had lesser capacities for moral thought and action. It must be assumed that it is natural that they will act violently when given the opportunity. It must be assumed that they are nothing more than amoral, sectarian killing machines: clockwork toy soldiers wound up on a predetermined path of violence intrinsic to their very natures. It is not worth spending valuable column-inches deploring the acts of fighters who lack any capacity for knowing or doing any better. Meanwhile, a second premise of the same narrative is that Israeli soldiers are capable of understanding the barbarity of other combatants, of making independent ethical judgements, and of policing accordingly.

Put simply, in order to be more shocked at the behaviour of a party which has failed to prevent a murder than with the conduct of the murderer himself, we must be forming judgements on the basis of deeply biased opinions of the two parties. We must consider the murderer inherently inferior, or less capable of making moral judgments than the aloof witness in the first place. After all, if the farmer fails to lock the door to the chicken coop and the fox kills the chickens, we blame the farmer. What sense is there in blaming a fox, an animal without reason?

It is often claimed that the extra criticism Israel receives in such situations is rooted in anti-Semitism. This charge has been levelled against scores of academics, journalists and government officials, and has ended many a career. However, it is not anti-Semitism at the heart of this hypocrisy. The opposite is true. We hold Israelis to be superior to their Arab neighbours rather than inferior. The hypocrisy stems from the deeply ingrained, sub-conscious, racist views we in the West continue to hold of Arabs and of Orientals generally. We consider them to be less moral than us, and to be naturally more at ease with violence. Israel has re-enforced this image by presenting itself as a lonely outpost, flying the flag of democracy in a dangerous and savage land in which it is surrounded by nothing but tyranny and threat. It is the fact that we consider Israel superior to the Arabs that leads to our noisily reproaching it.

It is not the case that we go too far in our criticisms of Israel. It is right and proper that we should condemn Israeli activities when they appear to go against international law or common morality, as they clearly did at Sabra and Shatila. What is unacceptable is that when Arab groups and governments commit far greater crimes we do not respond in the same terms. We say nothing because we consider it normal as a result of institutionalised and racist beliefs. We think it natural that governments throughout the Arab World continue to engage in the vicious oppression of their own peoples, opposition groups, and minorities. Most guilty of all are the likes of George Galloway: pro-Palestinian activists willing to express support for dictators like Saddam Hussein and violent sectarian militias like Hezbollah in the same breath as denouncing Israeli human rights abuses.

It is time for western activists, academics and journalists dealing with the Middle East to look at the region with an objective eye when covering conflicts and condemning human rights abuses. All parties to conflicts should be judged by the same standard. If that were achieved there would be a great deal more criticism of Arab governments and militias. If that were achieved, the victims of the Tel al-Zaatar massacre would be as well remembered by everyone, including “pro-Palestinian activists”, as those of Sabra and Shatila.


Photo Credit: Cliff1066™

2 thoughts on “The Sabra-Shatila Massacre And The End Of A Love Affair”

  1. You might have a leg to stand on if the culprits of other massacres were routinely described as western style democracies, and ‘beacons’ etc etc. Fact is, they’re not. If you claim a higher standing than others around you, don’t cry if your crimes are held higher than others. Nobody likes hypocrisy.

  2. Obvious Joe-
    Ultimately you seem to be totally in agreement with my argument.

    I quite agree that the countries surrounding Israel are not regularly described as “western style democracies”, or “beacons”. You will find that that forms a fundamental tenet of the argument in the article. What was argued is that the west views the region through the prism of hitherto predominantly western concepts, such as democracy, human-rights etc (and, as you point out, Israel also pushes this line). Through this prism, Israel looks like the good-guy.This is, in turn, precisely why westerners are more inclined to criticise Israel than its neighbours when it does something that goes against western ideas and principles…

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