Sabra and Shatila – Atrocities of Partition?

For 40 continuous hours between sunset on Thursday 16 September and midday on Saturday 18 September 1982, the massacre of Sabra and Shatila took place, one of the most barbaric of the twentieth century.

So begins Bayan Nuwayhed al-Hout’s account of the massacre of Palestinian refugees nearly four decades ago during Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon based on the testimonies of eye-witnesses and survivors.

The massacre stands out in the history of the struggle over Palestine in part because of the sheer number of victims—estimated to be as many as several thousand—and the brutality of their killing by Lebanese militia allied with Israeli military forces. Sadly, the failure of the international community to protect Palestinian civilians, refugees and non-refugees alike, and the lack of accountability for such atrocities is all too familiar.

These latter issues come to the fore in military historian Matthew Hughes’ study of atrocities committed by British forces in the Palestinian villages of al-Bassa and Halhul as part of counter-insurgency measures to suppress the Arab Palestinian revolt against Zionist colonization and related British Mandate rule. According to Hughes, such atrocities were not isolated incidents with local sources identifying twenty-two villages and towns where similar incidents had occurred.

All too familiar are the accounts of the massacre of Palestinian civilians by Israeli military forces during the 1948 war. This includes Deir Yassin which has become synonymous with the war. Describing the nearly seventy atrocities identified in his study as a conservative count, Palestinian historian Saleh Abd al-Jawad further observes that Israel’s air war on civilian areas “brought the ‘industrialization of massacres’ (mass killings on a wide and speedy basis from a distance) to the Middle East”).

Five years later, Israeli military forces killed close to seventy Palestinians in the West Bank village of Qibya killing nearly fifty more of its own Palestinian citizens in the village of Kafr Qassem on the eve of 1956 Sinai war. A special report by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees submitted to the UN two months later described two further incidents in the towns of Khan Younis and Rafah in the Gaza Strip in which Israeli forces killed close to four hundred Palestinians of whom nearly two thirds were refugees from the 1948 war.

A survey by Peter Dodd and Halim Barakat in the aftermath of the 1967 war found that fear of a repeat of such atrocities was among the factors that contributed to the second mass displacement of Palestinians in barely two decades. Since the launch of the Middle East peace process nearly thirty years ago, the list of atrocities has further grown from Hebron and Jenin to numerous incidents in the Gaza Strip as a whole.

This year the anniversary of the Sabra and Shatila massacre aligned with Israel’s national election which pitted Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister during two of the last three Gaza wars, and Benny Gantz who was army chief during the 2014 war. It also occurred against the backdrop of legal proceedings in the Netherlands against Gantz who is being sued by Ismael Ziada for the bombing of his home in al-Bureij camp in Gaza which killed six members of his family.

The commission of atrocities over the course of more than a hundred years of struggle has, of course, never been one-sided nor is it fruitful to engage in competition for victimhood. The ongoing pattern of atrocities committed by state actors in the still to be resolved struggle over Palestine is nevertheless striking. Those whose lives were snuffed out in the Palestinian refugee camps of West Beirut in the early fall of 1982 are far from alone when one steps back and looks at the massacre from a long range view.

“What one sees in the present may be attributable to a passing phenomenon”, wrote the late American historian Howard Zinn, “[but] if the same situation appears at various points in history, it becomes not a transitory event, but a long-range condition, not an aberration, but a structural deformity requiring serious attention”.[1] Zinn’s insight is helpful in understanding the past, but given the unresolved nature of the struggle over Palestine and the apparent pattern described above, the urgency in identifying and addressing the related structural deformity has much more to do with the future.

Writing about Ireland, India and Palestine, Arie Dubnov and Laura Robson’s recent collection of studies on the violent history of partition in the twentieth century certainly gives pause for reflection. Having situated the emergence of the idea in European imperial politics and conversations around ethnicity, nationhood and citizenship in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, the editors conclude that

[t]here is no historical evidence that partition as a political practice has done anything whatsoever to provide a “solution” to ethnic conflict—or indeed that it was ever intended to do so; its primary rationale was to smooth the path for imperial powers to create new forms of informal authority and friendly client states for a new postcolonial era, without regard for the human costs. If a historically informed examination of the concept of partition tells us anything, it is that past attempts to enforce ethnic homogeneity as a condition of viable statehood—in Ireland, Palestine, and India alike—now stand as some of the greatest tragedies of the twentieth century.

The massacre of Palestinian refugees in Sabra and Shatila nearly four decades ago, in light of this reading of the historical record, is part of the tragedy of the partition of Palestine that continues to unfold well into the twenty-first century. In the conclusion of her book, Bayan al-Hout returns to the question of responsibility, one that reverberates in Hughes telling of the massacres at al-Bassa and Halhul and in the testimonies being given in a Dutch court room about Benny Gantz’s complicity in the killing of a Palestinian family nearly a hundred years later.

During the campaign against the war in Vietnam, Rabbi Abraham Heschel said: ‘In a free society, some are guilty but all are responsible.’ But who are these ‘all’? Really they are all the people, wherever they might be on the face of this earth. As the Argentinian singer Alberto Cortez sang, in the aftermath of Sabra and Shatila:

Where was the sun when anger burst at Sabra and Shatila? …

Where was I? At what party, careless, when I read the news?

And where were you – you so eager to defend the oppressed – when the massacre happened?

Where is the pride of men? …

Where were you, my friend with the sleeping conscience? Were you clapping the attacker, as he killed the children at Sabra and Shatila?

Twenty years ago, Cortez admitted responsibility as he sang these words about Sabra and Shatila; in Buenos Aires in the presence of 7,000 people from the Argentinian and Arab communities.

When will others be ready to admit their responsibility? First among them should be those who, in September 1982, laid siege to Sabra and Shatila. And those who, in September 1982, attacked Sabra and Shatila.


[1] The quote appears in Ardi Imseis, The United Nations and the Question of Palestine: A Study in International Legal Subalternity, September 2018.

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