The Sabra and Shatila massacre was the killing of 3,500 civilians, mostly Palestinians , by a militia of the Kataeb Party, also called Phalange, a predominantly Christian Lebanese right-wing party in the Sabra neighborhood and the adjacent Shatila refugee camp in Beirut, Lebanon. From approximately 6:00 pm 16 September to 8:00 am 18 September 1982, a widespread massacre was carried out by the militia virtually under the eyes of their Israeli allies.The Phalanges, allies to the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), were ordered by the IDF to clear out Sabra and Shatila from PLO fighters, as part of the IDF maneuvering into West Beirut. The IDF received reports of some of the Phalanges atrocities in Sabra and Shatila but failed to stop them.
The massacre was presented as retaliation for the assassination of newly elected Lebanese president Bachir Gemayel, the leader of the Lebanese Kataeb Party. It was wrongly assumed that Palestinian militants had carried out the assassination. In June 1982, theIsrael Defense Forces had invaded Lebanon with the intention of rooting out the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). By mid-1982, under the supervision of the Multinational Force, the PLO withdrew from Lebanon following weeks of battles in West Beirut and shortly before the massacre took place. Various forces — Israeli, Phalangists and possibly also the South Lebanon Army (SLA) — were in the vicinity of Sabra and Shatila at the time of the slaughter, taking advantage of the fact that the Multinational Force had removed barracks and mines that had encircled Beirut’s predominantly Muslim neighborhoods and kept the Israelis at bay during the Beirut siege.The Israeli advance over West Beirut in the wake of the PLO withdrawal, which enabled the Phalangist raid, was considered a violation of the ceasefire agreement between the various forces.The Israeli Army surrounded Sabra and Shatila and stationed troops at the exits of the area to prevent camp residents from leaving and, at the Phalangists’ request, fired illuminating flares at night.
According to Alain Menargues, the direct perpetrators of the killings were the “Young Men“, a gang recruited by Elie Hobeika, a prominent figure in the Phalanges, the Lebanese Forces intelligence chief and liaison officer with Mossad, from men who had been expelled from the Lebanese Forces for insubordination or criminal activities.The killings are widely believed to have taken place under Hobeika’s direct orders. Hobeika later became a long-serving Member of the Parliament of Lebanon and served in several ministerial roles.Other Phalangist commanders involved were Joseph Edde from South Lebanon, Dib Anasta, head of the Phalangist Military Police, Michael Zouein, and Maroun Mischalani from East Beirut. In all 300-400 militiamen were involved, including some from Sa’ad Haddad‘s South Lebanon Army.
In 1983, a commission chaired by Seán MacBride, the assistant to the UN Secretary General and President of United Nations General Assembly at the time, concluded thatIsrael, as the camp’s occupying power, bore responsibility for the violence. The commission also concluded that the massacre was a form of genocide.
In 1983, the Israeli Kahan Commission, appointed to investigate the incident, found that Israeli military personnel, aware that a massacre was in progress, had failed to take serious steps to stop it. The commission deemed Israel indirectly responsible, and Ariel Sharon, then Defense Minister, bore personal responsibility “for ignoring the danger of bloodshed and revenge”, forcing him to resign.
On the night of the 14/15 September 1982 the IDF chief of staff Eitan flew to Beirut where he went straight to the Phalangists’ headquarters and instructed their leadership to order a general mobilisation of their forces and prepare to take part in the forth-coming Israeli attack on West Beirut. He also ordered them to impose a general curfew on all areas under their control and appoint a liaison officer to be stationed at the IDF forward command post. He told them that the IDF would not enter the refugee camps but that this would be done by the Phalangist forces. The militia leaders responded that the mobilisation would take them 24 hours to organise.
On morning of Wednesday 15 September Israeli Defence Minister, Sharon, who had also travelled to Beirut, held a meeting with Eitan at the IDF’s forward command post, on the roof of a five storey building 200 metres southwest of Shatila camp. Also in attendance were Sharon’s aide Avi Duda’i, the Director of Military Intelligence –Yehoshua Saguy, a senior Mossad officer, General Amir Drori, General Amos Yaron, an Intelligence officer, the Head of GSS – Avraham Shalom, the Deputy Chief of Staff – General Moshe Levi and other senior officers. It was agreed that the Phalange should go into the camps. According to the Kahan Commission report throughout Wednesday, R.P.G. and light-weapons fire from the Sabra and Shatilla camps was directed at this forward command post, and continued to a lesser degree on Thursday and Friday (16-17.9.82). It also added that by Thursday morning, the fighting had ended and all was ‘calm and quiet’.
Following the assassination of Lebanese Christian President Bachir Gemayel, the Phalangists sought revenge. By noon on 15 September, Sabra and Shatila had been surrounded by the IDF, which set up checkpoints at the exits and entrances, and used a number of multi-story buildings as observation posts. Amongst them was the seven-story Kuwaiti embassy which, according to TIME magazine, had “an unobstructed and panoramic view” of Sabra and Shatila. Hours later, IDF tanks began shelling Sabra and Shatila.
The following morning, 16 September, the sixth IDF order relating to the attack on West Beirut was issued. It specified: “The refugee camps are not to be entered. Searching and mopping up the camps will be done by the Phalangists/Lebanese Army”.
According to Linda Malone of the Jerusalem Fund, Ariel Sharon and Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan met with Phalangist militia units and invited them to enter Sabra and Shatila, claiming that the PLO was responsible for Gemayel’s assassination.The meeting concluded at 3:00 pm 16 September.
Chatila had previously been one of the PLO’s three main training camps for foreign fighters and the main training camp for European fighters. The Israelis maintained that 2,000 to 3,000 “terrorists” remained in the camps, but were unwilling to risk the lives of more of their soldiers after the Lebanese army repeatedly refused to “clear them out.” No evidence was offered for this claim. There were only a small number of forces sent into the camps and they suffered minimal casualties. Two Phalangists were wounded, one in the leg and another in the hand. Investigations after the massacre, found few weapons in the camps. Thomas Friedman, who entered the camps on Saturday, mostly found groups of young men with their hands and feet bound, who had been then lined up and machine-gunned down gang-land style, not typical he thought of the kind of deaths the reported 2,000 terrorists in the camp would have put up with.
An hour later, 1,500 militiamen assembled at Beirut International Airport, then occupied by Israel. Under the command of Elie Hobeika, they began moving towards the area in IDF-supplied jeeps, some bearing weapons provided by Israel,following Israeli guidance on how to enter it. The forces were mostly Phalangist, though there were some men from Saad Haddad‘s “Free Lebanon forces”.According to Ariel Sharon and Elie Hobeika’s bodyguard, the Phalangists were given “harsh and clear” warnings about harming civilians. However, it was by then known that the Phalangists presented a special security risk for Palestinians. It was published in the September 1st edition of Bamahane, the IDF newspaper, that a Phalangist told an Israeli official: “[T]he question we are putting to ourselves is — how to begin, by raping or killing?” A US envoy to the Middle East expressed horror after being told of Sharon’s plans to send the Phalangists inside the camps, and Israeli officials themselves acknowledged the situation could trigger “relentless slaughter”.
The first unit of 150 Phalangists entered Sabra and Shatila at 6:00 pm. A battle ensued that at times Palestinians claim involved lining up Palestinians for execution. During the night, the Israeli forces fired illuminating flares over the area. According to a Dutch nurse, the camp was as bright as “a sports stadium during a football game”.
At 7:30 pm.the Israeli Cabinet convened and was informed that the Phalangist commanders had been informed that that their men must participate in the operation and fight, and enter the extremity of Sabra, while the I.D.F. would guarantee the success of their operation though not participate in it. The Phalangists were to go in there “with their own methods”. After Gemayel’s assassination there were two possibilities, either the Phalange would collapse or they would undertake revenge, having killed Druze for that reason earlier that day. With regard to this second possibility, it was noted, ‘it will be an eruption the likes of which has never been seen; I can already see in their eyes what they are waiting for.’ ‘Revenge’ was what Bashir Gemayel’s brother had called for at the funeral earlier. Levy commented:’the Phalangists are already entering a certain neighborhood – and I know what the meaning of revenge is for them, what kind of slaughter. Then no one will believe we went in to create order there, and we will bear the blame. Therefore, I think that we are liable here to get into a situation in which we will be blamed, and our explanations will not stand up…”The press release that followed reads:
“In the wake of the assassination of the President-elect Bashir Jemayel, the I.D.F. has seized positions in West Beirut in order to forestall the danger of violence, bloodshed and chaos, as some 2,000 terrorists, equipped with modern and heavy weapons, have remained in Beirut, in flagrant violation of the evacuation agreement.”
An Israeli intelligence officer present in the forward post, wishing to obtain information about the Phalangists’ activities, ordered two distinct actions to find out what was happening. The first failed to turn up anything. The second resulted in a report at 8 p.m. from the roof, stated that the Phalangists’ liaison officer had heard from an operative inside the camp that he held 45 people and asked what he should do with him. The liaison officer told him to more or less “Do the will of God.” The Intelligence Officer received this report at approximately 20:00 hours from the person on the roof who heard the conversation. He did not pass on the report.
At roughly the same or a little earlier at 7 p.m., Lieutenant Elul testified, that he had overheard a radio conversation between one of the militia men in the camp and his commander Hobeika in which the former asking what he was to do with 50 women and children who had been taken prisoner. Hobeika’s reply was: “This is the last time you’re going to ask me a question like that; you know exactly what to do.” Other Phalangists on the roof started laughing. Amongst the Israelis there was Brigadier General Yaron, Divisional Commander, who asked Lieutenant Elul, his Chef de Bureau, what the laughter was about and Elul translated what Hobeika had said. Yaron then had a five-minute conversation, in English, with Hobeika. What was said is unknown.
The Kahan Commission determined that the evidence pointed to ‘two different and separate reports’, noting that Yaron maintained that he thought they referred to the same incident, and that it concerned 45 “dead terrorists”. At the same hour, 8 pm. a third report came in from liaison officer G. of the Phalangists who in the presence of numerous Israeli officers, including general Yaron, in the dining room, stated that within 2 hours the Phalangists had killed 300 people, including civilians. he returned sometime later and changed the number from 300 to 120.
At 8:40 pm. General Yaron held a briefing, and after it the Divisional Intelligence Officer stated that it appeared no terrorists were in the Shatila camp, and that the Phalangists were in two minds as to what to do with the women, children and old people they had massed together, either to lead them somewhere else or that they were told, as the liaison officer was overheard saying, to ‘do what your heart tells you, because everything comes from God. Yaron interrupted the officer and said he’d checked and that ‘they have no problems at all,’ and that with regard to the people, ‘It will not, will not harm them.’ Yaron later testified he had been skeptical of the reports and had in any case told the Phalangists not to harm civilians.
At 11:00 pm the same evening a report was sent to the IDF headquarters in East Beirut, reporting the killings of 300 people, including civilians. The report was forwarded to headquarters in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and to the office of the Bureau Chief of the director of Military Intelligence, Lt. Col. Hevroni, at 5:30 a.m. the following day where it was seen by more than 20 senior Israeli officers. It was then forwarded to his home by 6:15. That same morning an IDF historian copied down a note, which later disappeared, which he had found in the Northern Command situation room in Aley.
“During the night the Phalangists entered the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps. Even though it was agreed that they would not harm civilians, they ‘butchered.’ They did not operate in orderly fashion but dispersed. They had casualties, including two killed. They will organize to operate in a more orderly manner – we will see to it that they are moved into the area.”
Early on that morning, between 8-9 a-m several I.D.F. soldiers stationed nearby noted killings were being conducted against the camp refugees. A deputy tank commander some 200 yards away, Lieutenant Grabowski, saw 2 Phalangistists beating two young men, who were then taken back into the camp, after which shots rang out, and the soldiers left. Sometime later, he saw the Phalangists had killed a group of 5 women and children. When he expressed a desire to make report, the tank crew said they had already heard a communication informing the battalion commander that civilians had been, and that the latter had replied, “We know, it’s not to our liking, and don’t interfere.”
At around 8:00 a.m., military correspondent Ze’ev Schiff received a tip-off a source in the General Staff in Tel Aviv that there had been a slaughter in the camps. Checking round for some hours, he got no confirmation other than that there “there’s something.” At 11:00 a.m. he met with Mordechai Tzipori, Minister of Communications and conveyed his information. Unable to reach Military Intelligence by phone, he got in touch with Yitzhak Shamir at 11:19 asking him to check reports of a Phalangist slaughter in the camps.Shamir testified that from his recall the main thing Tzipori had told him of was that 3/4 IDF soldiers killed, no mention of a massacre or slaughter, as opposed to a “rampage” had been made. He made no check because his impression was that the point of the information was to keep him updated on IDF losses. At a meeting with American diplomats at 12:30 Shamir made no mention of what Tzipori told him, saying he expected that he would hear from Ariel Sharon, the Military Intelligence chief and the American Morris Draper about the situation in West Beirut, At that noontime meeting Sharon insisted that “terrorists” needed “mopping up.”Americans pressed for the intervention of the Lebanese National Army, and for an I.D.F. withdrawal immediately. Sharon replied:
“I just don’t understand, what are you looking for? Do you want the terrorists to stay? Are you afraid that somebody will think that you were in collusion with us? Deny it. We denied it,”
adding that nothing would happen except perhaps for a few more terrorists being killed, which would be a benefit to all. Shamir and Sharon finally agreed to a gradual withdrawal, at the end of Rosh Hashana, two days later. Draper then warned them:
“Sure, the I.D.F. is going to stay in West Beirut and they will let the Lebanese go and kill the Palestinians in the camps.”
“So, we’ll kill them. They will not be left there. You are not going to save them. You are not going to save these groups of the international terrorism.. . If you don’t want the Lebanese to kill them, we will kill them.”
In the afternoon, before 4 p.m., Lieutenant Grabowski had one of his men ask a Phalangist why they were killing civilians, and was told that pregnant women will give birth to children who will grow up to be terrorists.
At the Beirut airport at 4 p.m. journalist Ron Ben-Yishai heard from several Israeli officers that they had heard that killings had taken place in the camps. At 11:30 he telephoned Ariel Sharon to report on the rumours, and was told by Sharon that he had already heard of the stories from the Chief of Staff. At 4 pm. in a meeting with the Phalangist staff, with Mossad present, the Israeli Chief of Staff said he had a “positive impression” of their behavior in the field and from what the Phalangists reported, and asked them to continue ‘mopping up the empty camps’ until 5.am., whereupon they must desist due to American pressure. According to the Kahan Commission investigation, neither side explicitly mentioned to each other reports or rumours about the way civilians were being treated in the camp. Between 6 and 8 pm, Israel diplomats in Bbeirut received complaints from U.S. representatives concerning 18:00-20:00 hours, Foreign Ministry personnel in Beirut and in Israel began receiving various reports from U.S. representatives that the Phalangists had been observed in the camps and that their presence was likely to cause problems. On returning to Israel the Chief of Staff spoke to Ariel Sharon between 8 and 9 pm, and according to Sharon, informed him that the “Lebanese had gone too far”, and that “the Christians had harmed the civilian population more than was expected.” This, he testified, was the first he had ever heard of Phalangist irregularities in the camps. The Chief of Staff denied they had discussed any killings “beyond what had been expected”.
Later in the afternoon, a meeting was held between the Israeli Chief of Staff and the Phalangist staff.
On the morning of Friday, 17 September, the Israeli Army surrounding Sabra and Shatila ordered the Phalange to halt their operation, concerned about reports of a massacre .
Number of victims
The Lebanese army’s chief prosecutor investigated the killings and counted 460 dead (including 15 women and 12 children), Israeli intelligence estimated 700-800 dead, and the Palestinian Red Crescent claimed 2,000 dead. 1,200 death certificates were issued to anyone who produced three witnesses claiming a family member disappeared during the time of the massacre.
- According to the BBC, “at least 800” Palestinians died.
- Bayan Nuwayhed al-Hout in her Sabra and Shatila: September 1982 gives a minimum consisting of 1,300 named victims based on detailed comparison of 17 victim lists and other supporting evidence, and estimates an even higher total.
- Robert Fisk wrote, “After three days of rape, fighting and brutal executions, militias finally leave the camps with 1,700 dead”.
- In his book published soon after the massacre, the Israeli journalist Amnon Kapeliouk of Le Monde Diplomatique, arrived at about 2,000 bodies disposed of after the massacre from official and Red Cross sources and “very roughly” estimated 1,000 to 1,500 other victims disposed of by the Phalangists themselves to a total of 3,000–3,500.