Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Remember the Sabra and Shatilla Tragedy on 16th September 1982

16hb September in History

If 16th September is the date to commemorate the formation of Malaysia, on the same date twenty years later, a tragedy has unfolded on the Palestinian people. On that infamous day in 1982, a grim massacre took place in the camps of Sabra and Shatila, in Lebanon.

The background

Sabra and Shatila

Sabra is a Lebanese residential area on the southern end of West Beirut. Shatila is a Palestinian refugee camp, run by UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East). The refugee camp of Shatila has existed since 1949 in the aftermath of the creation of the illegitimate state of Israel in 1948. By 1949 more than 100,000 Palestinian took refuge in Lebanon including at Shatila.

Since Sabra and Shatila lie side by side, the close interactions between residents in these two poor areas eventually lend the name ‘Sabra and Shatila camp’.

Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO)

PLO was formed in 1964. It is an umbrella organization that brought together a number of Palestinian resistance organizations including Fatah, the dominant group that controls PLO.

Al-Fatah (and PLO) had been under the leadership of the late Yasser Arafat . These organizations has agreed to join forces under PLO for a common goal i.e to liberate the whole of Palestine from the Zionist occupation.

In 1969, at a meeting in Cairo, the then Lebanese Prime Minister has given the permission for PLO to use Lebanon as a base to launch it’s operation against Israel. PLO grew in strength in Lebanon by the presence of many PLO fighters who were driven out from Jordan in the early 70’s. This situation did not only bring troubles to Israel but also lead to clashes with the local residence and militia groups including the Phalangists of the Maronite Christians.

From Southern Lebanon, PLO fighters launched continuous attack on Israel.

Israel attack Lebanon

To deal with the attack and threats on Israel from Southern Lebanon, especially from PLO, Israel launched a series of military operations. This culminated in the massive attack on Lebanon on 6th June 1982. Israel claimed the attack was in retaliation to a failed assassination attempt on its ambassador in London. It was estimated around 60,000 Israeli troops entered Lebanon even though the move recieved strong condemnation by the UN security council.

The main reason behind the attack was to remove the PLO from Lebanon. To meet this objective, Israel was aided by a number local militias including the Phalangists.

By June 18, Israeli troops had encircled beleagured PLO fighters in West Beirut. A major humanitarian crises awaited the PLO fighters and the local population if Israel decide to launch the final strike.

Ceasefire and Betrayal

Two months into the siege, in mid August 1982, through the mediation by Philip Habib, from the US government, a ceasefire agreement was concluded between Israel and the PLO.

Under the provisions of the “Habib Roadmap”, ordinary PLO fighters and their commanding officers agreed to lay down their arms and depart from Lebanon. They were also required to close down and cease all office operations and PLO infrastructures. The withdrawal process was to be monitored by an international force comprising of the Italian, the French and American forces. The international force was scheduled to stay over a 30 day period from their arrival. They were also responsible to ensure the safety of the inhabitants of Sabra and Shatila including the families left behind by the fighters. Israel on the other hand has agreed to stop its advance to Beirut.

The withdrawal of PLO fighters commenced on August 24th and completed by 1st September 1982. Two days later, Israel started to place its troops around the perimeters of the two camps. Shortly after, the international forces began to withdraw, much earlier than the scheduled timetable.


On 11th September 1982, Ariel Sharon, Israeli Minister of Defense who orchestrated the attack on Lebanon made an announcement that there were 2,000 Palestinian terrorists hiding among the refugees in the camps around Beirut. On Wednesday, September 15th 1982, a day after the assassination of Bashir Gemayil, Lebanese President candidate, Israel troops entered Beirut and surrounded Sabra and Shatila. By midday, the whole area was besieged by Israeli tanks and soldiers. Military checkpoints were set up to monitor every movements in the camp. By the evening of the same day, they started shelling the two camps.

Around noon thursday 16th September 1982, a group of up to 150 Phalangists, Israel allies, moved into the camp area. Witnessed by the whole world, within the next 40 hours the Phalangist militias engaged in an orgy of rape and murder of unarmed civilians. Most victims were women, children and the elderly. They could not escape as every exit has been blocked by the Israeli army.

The killing spree continued until 18th Sepetember.

The death toll estimates varied from 700 (official report of Israel) to 3500 people. The report by the International Red Cross put the figure at 2,400.

Until this day, no one has been charged for such a gross crime against humanity, conducted in the clear view of the Israeli army.

Triggered by the September 11th 2001 attack, the US has launched the war against terrorism.

Under the pretext of fighting terror, two countries, Afghanistan and Iraq became the target of American military might.

Compare this to the reaction of the US and the world on the massacre of Sabra and Shatilla on 16th September, 2003. The victims were supposed to be under the protection of an international peacekeeping force, through a security arrangement mediated by the US. Yet they were mercilessly murdered in cold blood.

No actions nor no condemnations were forthcoming from The United Nations. Islamic countries despite of the presence of OIC failed to address the tragedy. The victims of Sabra and Shatila were forgotten, just like the countless other tragedies the Palestinians have endured since 1948.

Hj. Ridzuan Harun
Senior Fellow Researcher
Palestine Centre of Excellence