17 September 2018

Remembering Sabra and Shatila

On 16 September 1982, about 150 members of a right-wing fascist paramilitary affiliated with the Uniate (Maronite) Phalange in Lebanon, entered the Palestinian refugee camp at Shatila and the Beirut neighbourhood of Sabra with the express blessing of the Israeli Defence Forces. Immediately, they began waging a sadistic, brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing – torture, rape, mutilation, murder – of the Palestinian refugees and Lebanese Shia Muslims who lived there. Their victims were mostly women, children and elderly civilians: somewhere between 1,000 and 3,500 innocent people (the exact figure is still unknown, though the higher one is likely) perished at the hands of the Phalange, while the Israeli armed forces watched and did nothing to prevent it. It was the single bloodiest event of the conflict between Israel and the Arab world, and is still remembered as a war crime in which the Israeli and American governments were complicit.

The ostensible reason for this horrific bloodbath was the assassination of the leader of the Phalange, Bachir Gemayel. They believed that a member or sympathiser of the Palestine Liberation Organisation was responsible; however, when the dust cleared the assassin turned out to have been a member of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party instead. In fact, the actual culprit did not matter. The bloodthirst of the Phalange has roots deeper in history. It is arguable – as William Dalrymple does, for example – that the more fanatical followers of the monothelite heresiarch Marun have been waging war against their neighbours since the Council of Chalcedon. They made the best of the Crusades by acting as native informants for the French, and eventually joining the Catholic Church in 1181 – the first instance of uniatism in Eastern Christian history. There is certainly something more to be written at a later date, for the ease with which Uniate Catholicisms adopt far-right racist and fascist ideologies like that which the Phalange promoted. But in the case of Sabra and Shatila, the ideology was a veneer and a ready excuse to indulge a deeper cultural hatred of the Syrian Arabs and the religious beliefs they represented – both Islamic and Byzantine Christian.

However, what the Phalange did to the Palestinian people in 1982 simply could not have been accomplished without the direct support of the Israeli armed forces, and the duplicity of the Reagan administration in dealing with the Arab leadership. Israel – particularly the Likudniks and the military hard-liners under Ariel Sharon – had been planning an invasion of Lebanon for a long time in order to root out the PLO, and they would have done so anyway even if the Maronites had not offered themselves as accomplices in that action. And when the massacre did occur, the Israeli army used flares to aid the Phalange in its bloody business, and also blocked off all routes leading out of West Beirut and from the Shatila refugee camp so that the Palestinians could not escape. When the Phalangists had finished their work, the Israeli armed forces furnished the bulldozers that allowed them to pile the bodies in mass graves.

Our own government was very far from innocent. The Reagan government had brokered the ceasefire which the Israelis broke when Bachir Gemayel was assassinated. One of the terms of that ceasefire was that Palestinian civilians like those in the Shatila camp and those in Beirut would be protected from violence after a PLO withdrawal. Of course, without the PLO, the Palestinians had no one to guarantee their safety, no one to advocate for them or vouch for them or protect them. They provided the perfect scapegoats for the Phalange – who calculated their massacre in the full knowledge that they wouldn’t face any sort of retribution from the authorities who brokered the ceasefire. The United States would not materially oppose Israeli interests in Lebanon, and certainly not to defend a few camps full of stateless indigents.

I had only just graduated from college when I saw Waltz with Bashir. I actually don’t remember the film all that well – I only remember the newsreel clips of Sabra and Shatila in the aftermath. The blood and the bodies in the streets. The mutilated limbs, the charred flesh, the weeping elderly women. But not only on film – it is a crime still within living memory, and the Palestinians still remember it with sober grief. Palestine must be free, if the innocent human beings murdered at Sabra and Shatila are ever to rest in peace.

EDIT: Today in the OCA we also commemorate the 156 Martyrs of Palestine, Christians of Egypt and the Holy Land who suffered under the persecutions of the pagan Roman Emperor Maximian Galerius in the fourth century AD. For your long-suffering people, O Holy Peleus, Nilus, Zeno, Patermuthius, Elias and your laudable Fellow Sufferers, intercede with Our Lord Christ for their salvation and ours!

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