Sabra and Shatila, 1982

Sabra and Shatila, 1982
A Massacre by Proxy

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Sabra and Shatila



16 September 1982
The Palestinian Museum Digital Archive, Palestine Red Crescent Society Collection

The Sabra and Shatila massacre in Beirut, the slaughter of more than 3,000 Palestinian and Lebanese civilians over a three-day period (16–18 September 1982), happened on the heels of the departure of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), despite assurances of protection. In less than twenty-four hours, the massacre had become the most important event in world news. Foreign and domestic television channels broadcast images from the massacre, and many prominent foreign writers and journalists—including French writer Jean Genet and British journalist Robert Fisk—visited the site the day after the attackers had left.

Shatila refugee camp was one of the first Palestinian refugee camps set up in Beirut and one of the smallest in area. As the number of inhabitants grew, the refugees’ modest houses stretched to the adjacent neighborhood of Sabra, which is why these two “camps” were commonly referred to as Sabra and Shatila. In addition to Palestinian residents, they were home to many Lebanese, Syrians, Egyptians, Jordanians, and others before the massacre occurred.

On 6 June 1982, Israeli forces invaded Lebanon from the south until they reached the outskirts of Beirut. They imposed a siege on the city for nearly three months, which the joint Palestinian-Lebanese forces fiercely resisted. After intense diplomatic efforts, on 11 August, American envoy Philip Habib and Lebanese prime minister Shafik Wazzan reached an agreement stipulating that the PLO  would evacuate its troops from West Beirut, under the supervision of a multinational force made up of American, French, and Italian forces. This was in exchange for the Israeli government promising that its forces would not enter West Beirut and providing guarantees—which the United States, primarily, committed to—about protecting Palestinian civilians inside the camps.

On 1 September, a few days after the last wave of Palestinian fighters had left Beirut, Yasir Arafat, President of the PLO, told the two French envoys who visited him at his headquarters in Tunis that “he was deeply concerned about the security of Palestinian civilians who remained in Beirut.” He asked them to try to convince their government to keep a French military unit in Beirut past the set withdrawal date. After American and Italian units had withdrawn, the French unit was the last one left, but the French government decided to withdraw it on 11 September.

On 14 September 1982, Bashir Gemayel, who the Lebanese parliament had elected President on 23 August 1982, was assassinated. Gemayel was the leader of the “Lebanese Forces,” a militia affiliated to the Lebanese Phalanges party. The Israeli army invaded West Beirut the next morning, on the pretext of maintaining security in the city. They also surrounded the Palestinian refugee camps, closed all roads leading to them, and prevented the residents from leaving. On the morning of 16 September, they began to intensify bombing on Shatila camp, especially the south entrance, where the massacre began.

Lebanese Forces militia, units from the South Lebanon Army (a break-away force under Major Saad Haddad, a  proxy of Israel in South Lebanon), and militias from the right-wing Guardians of the Cedars entered the city after sunset on 16 September, under the supervision and protection of Israeli forces. For nearly three days, they tortured and killed everyone they came across, without discriminating between Palestinians and Lebanese. Not even hospitals were spared their hostilities—on 17 September, armed militias stormed Akka Hospital and brutally killed several Palestinian patients, doctors, and nurses who were there.

Israeli journalist Amnon Kapeliouk described scenes from the massacre:

The massacre began immediately, and lasted for forty hours without stop ... in the first hour, the gunmen killed hundreds of people; they were shooting at anything that moved in the alleys. They broke down front doors and wiped out entire families eating dinner. Some families were murdered in bed, still wearing their pajamas. In many homes, children, three or four years old, were found in their pajamas, and blood-soaked blankets.... in many cases, the attackers dismembered their victims before killing them. They crushed the heads of children and babies against walls. Women and girls were raped before they were slaughtered with hatchets. Often, men were dragged out of their homes to be quickly and collectively executed in the street with hatchets and knives. The militants spread terror as they indiscriminately slaughtered men, women, children and the elderly ... a woman’s arm was found chopped off at the wrist so that her jewelry could be stolen.

The killing continued for forty-three hours, from 6 p.m. at sundown on Thursday, 16 September, until 1 p.m. on Saturday, 18 September. Sources vary in estimating the number of people killed in the massacre; while some sources estimate the number of victims between 4,000 and 4,500, it is almost certain the number is no less than 3,500. During the three days of the massacre, bulldozers were able to hide hundreds of bodies under the rubble or bury them in mass graves. Amnon Kapeliouk believes the Sabra and Shatila massacre “was committed intentionally” and that it was aimed at “effecting a mass exodus by the Palestinians from Beirut and Lebanon.”

The Israeli government did not deny that it had overseen the Palestinian refugee camps during the days of the massacre; the Israeli army had surrounded them from the first hours it entered Beirut. Yet it denied any knowledge that the massacre had happened, noting that order number 6 of the Israel Defense Forces command, on the morning of 16 September, had stated that “the refugee camps are not to be entered” because “searching and mopping up the camps will be done by the Phalangists/Lebanese Army.” The pretext for conducting this operation, after the camps were attacked, was that 2,500 Palestinian fighters has remained there after the evacuation of the PLO forces from Beirut. With this as background, as the massacre was at its height, the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper quoted Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin himself saying, “Many terrorists have remained there with their weapons, and we have ascertained this in the last two nights.”

Yet all these arguments did not convince large segments of the Israeli public, who were shocked by news and images of the massacre. On 25 September, at the call of the Peace Now movement, around 400,000 Israeli men and women demonstrated on the streets of Tel Aviv, condemning the massacre and demanding the formation of a commission of inquiry, to find out whether the Israeli government was responsible for what had happened.

Due to Israeli pressure in the street, Menachem Begin and his government were forced to form, on 28 September, a commission of inquiry to investigate “the atrocities committed by a unit in the Lebanese Forces against the civilian population in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps”; it was chaired by Judge Yitzhak Kahan, President of the Supreme Court. On 7 February 1983, the commission issued a report (which has become known as the Kahan Report) amid great media coverage—not because of the details and judgments it contained, but in order to highlight the Israeli state's “democracy” and  its leaders’ “abiding” by the rule of law. The report held the Lebanese Forces militias directly responsible for the massacre and was careful to absolve senior Israeli officials—particularly Menachem Begin, his minister of defense, Ariel Sharon, and the chief of staff, General Rafael Eitan—of direct responsibility, denying that the Israeli army had participated in the events at all. However, the report did hold Sharon “personally responsible for ignoring the danger of bloodshed and revenge.” Faced with mounting pressure, Sharon was eventually forced to resign from his post on 14 February 1983.

In the wake of the massacre, units from the Lebanese Army entered the refugee camps and deployed throughout the neighborhoods of West Beirut and in Beirut’s southern suburbs. The Lebanese Council of Ministers officially invited the American, French, and Italian governments to send a multinational force to help the Lebanese army maintain security and ensure residents’ safety. On 21 September, the Lebanese National Assembly elected Amin Gemayel as president, successor to his brother Bashir, and from the beginning of the last week in September, Israeli units began to withdraw from West Beirut as the multinational force began to arrive in Beirut. French units deployed around Sabra camp, and Italian units deployed along the southern border of Shatila camp.

Selected Bibliography: 

Al-Hout, Bayan Nuwayhed. Sabra and Shatila: September 1982. London: Pluto Press, 2004.

Genet, Jean. “Four Hours in Shatila.Journal of Palestine Studies 12, no.3 (Spring 1983): 3–22.

Kapeliouk, Amnon. Sabra and Shatila: Inquiry into a Massacre. Beirut: Association of Arab-American University Graduates, 1984.

Sayigh, Rosemary. Too Many Enemies: The Palestinian Experience in Lebanon. London: Zed Books, 1994.

Shahid, Leila, with an introduction by Linda Butler. “The Sabra and Shatila Massacres: Eye-witness Reports.Journal of Palestine Studies 32, no.1 (Autumn 2002): 36–58.

Shaikh, Zakaria. “Sabra and Shatila 1982: Resisting the Massacre.Journal of Palestine Studies 14, no.1 (Fall 1984): 57–90.

Walker, Steven (Producer). See No Evil: The Sabra and Shatila Massacre [motion picture]. London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1993.