The forgotten massacre

Thirty years after 1,700 Palestinians were killed at the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps, Robert Fisk revisits the killing fields

The memories remain, of course. The man who lost his family in an earlier massacre, only to watch the young men of Chatila lined up after the new killings and marched off to death. But – like the muck piled on the garbage tip amid the concrete hovels – the stench of injustice still pervades the camps where 1,700 Palestinians were butchered 30 years ago next week. No-one was tried and sentenced for a slaughter, which even an Israeli writer at the time compared to the killing of Yugoslavs by Nazi sympathisers in the Second World War. Sabra and Chatila are a memorial to criminals who evaded responsibility, who got away with it.

Khaled Abu Noor was in his teens, a would-be militiaman who had left the camp for the mountains before Israel's Phalangist allies entered Sabra and Chatila. Did this give him a guilty conscience, that he was not there to fight the rapists and murderers? "What we all feel today is depression," he said. "We demanded justice, international trials – but there was nothing. Not a single person was held responsible. No-one was put before justice. And so we had to suffer in the 1986 camps war (at the hands of Shia Lebanese) and so the Israelis could slaughter so many Palestinians in the 2008-9 Gaza war. If there had been trials for what happened here 30 years ago, the Gaza killings would not have happened."

He has a point, of course. While presidents and prime ministers have lined up in Manhattan to mourn the dead of the 2001 international crimes against humanity at the World Trade Centre, not a single Western leader has dared to visit the dank and grubby Sabra and Chatila mass graves, shaded by a few scruffy trees and faded photographs of the dead. Nor, let it be said – in 30 years – has a single Arab leader bothered to visit the last resting place of at least 600 of the 1,700 victims. Arab potentates bleed in their hearts for the Palestinians but an airfare to Beirut might be a bit much these days – and which of them would want to offend the Israelis or the Americans?

It is an irony – but an important one, nonetheless – that the only nation to hold a serious official enquiry into the massacre, albeit flawed, was Israel. The Israeli army sent the killers into the camps and then watched – and did nothing – while the atrocity took place. A certain Israeli Lieutenant Avi Grabowsky gave the most telling evidence of this. The Kahan Commission held the then defence minister Ariel Sharon personally responsible, since he sent the ruthless anti-Palestinian Phalangists into the camps to "flush out terrorists" – "terrorists" who turned out to be as non-existent as Iraq's weapons of mass destruction 21 years later.

Sharon lost his job but later became prime minister, until broken by a stroke which he survived – but which took from him even the power of speech. Elie Hobeika, the Lebanese Christian militia leader who led his murderers into the camp – after Sharon had told the Phalange that Palestinians had just assassinated their leader, Bashir Gemayel – was murdered years later in east Beirut. His enemies claimed the Syrians killed him, his friends blamed the Israelis; Hobeika, who had "gone across" to the Syrians, had just announced he would "tell all" about the Sabra and Chatila atrocity at a Belgian court, which wished to try Sharon.

Of course, those of us who entered the camps on the third and final day of the massacre – 18 September, 1982 – have our own memories. I recall the old man in pyjamas lying on his back on the main street with his innocent walking stick beside him, the two women and a baby shot next to a dead horse, the private house in which I sheltered from the killers with my colleague Loren Jenkins of The Washington Post – only to find a dead young woman lying in the courtyard beside us. Some of the women had been raped before their killing. The armies of flies, the smell of decomposition. These things one remembers.

Abu Maher is 65 – like Khaled Abu Noor, his family originally fled their homes in Safad in present-day Israel – and stayed in the camp throughout the massacre, at first disbelieving the women and children who urged him to run from his home. "A woman neighbour started screaming and I looked out and saw her shot dead and her daughter tried to run away and the killers chased her, saying "Kill her, kill her, don't let her go!" She shouted to me and I could do nothing. But she escaped."

Repeated trips back to the camp, year after year, have built up a narrative of astonishing detail. Investigations by Karsten Tveit of Norwegian radio and myself proved that many men, seen by Abu Maher being marched away alive after the initial massacre, were later handed by the Israelis back to the Phalangist killers – who held them prisoner for days in eastern Beirut and then, when they could not swap them for Christian hostages, executed them at mass graves.

And the arguments in favour of forgetfulness have been cruelly deployed. Why remember a few hundred Palestinians slaughtered when 25,000 have been killed in Syria in 19 months?

Supporters of Israel and critics of the Muslim world have written to me in the last couple of years, abusing me for referring repeatedly to the Sabra and Chatila massacre, as if my own eye-witness account of this atrocity has – like a war criminal – a statute of limitations. Given these reports of mine (compared to my accounts of Turkish oppression) one reader has written to me that "I would conclude that, in this case (Sabra and Chatila), you have an anti-Israeli bias. This is based solely on the disproportionate number of references you make to this atrocity…"

But can one make too many? Dr Bayan al-Hout, widow of the PLO's former ambassador to Beirut, has written the most authoritative and detailed account of the Sabra and Chatila war crimes – for that is what they were – and concludes that in the years that followed, people feared to recall the event. "Then international groups started talking and enquiring. We must remember that all of us are responsible for what happened. And the victims are still scarred by these events – even those who are unborn will be scarred – and they need love." In the conclusion to her book, Dr al-Hout asks some difficult – indeed, dangerous – questions: "Were the perpetrators the only ones responsible? Were the people who committed the crimes the only criminals? Were even those who issued the orders solely responsible? Who in truth is responsible?"

In other words, doesn't Lebanon bear responsibility with the Phalangist Lebanese, Israel with the Israeli army, the West with its Israeli ally, the Arabs with their American ally? Dr al-Hout ends her investigation with a quotation from Rabbi Abraham Heschel who raged against the Vietnam war. "In a free society," the Rabbi said, "some are guilty, but all are responsible."

Timeline: Sabra and Chatila

14 September 1982

Lebanon's Christian President-elect, Bashir Gemayel, is assassinated by a pro-Syrian militant but his loyalists blame the Palestinians.

16 September 1982

Lebanese Christian militiamen enter camps at Sabra and Chatila to carry out revenge attacks on Palestinian refugees, with occupying Israeli forces guarding the camps and firing flares to aid the attacks at night.

18 September 1982

After three days of rape, fighting and brutal executions, militias finally leave the camps with 1,700 dead.

Rob Hastings

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
New Articles
tvDownton Abbey Christmas special
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
News
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
News
news
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: Stanley Tucci, Sophie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvSo Sky Atlantic arrived in Iceland to film their new and supposedly snow-bound series 'Fortitude'...
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald in the Doctor Who Christmas special
tvForget the rumours that Clara Oswald would be quitting the Tardis
Arts and Entertainment
Japanese artist Megumi Igarashi showing a small mascot shaped like a vagina
art
News
The Queen delivers her Christmas message
newsTwitter reacts to Her Majesty's Christmas Message
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Life and Style
fashion
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all