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The Sabra and Shatila Massacre by a Lebanese Christian and Phalangist Militia 1982

The Sabra and Shatila massacre was the massacre of between 762 and 3,500 Palestinian and Lebanese Shiite civilians, by a Lebanese Christian Phalangist militia, in the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps in BeirutLebanon between September 16 and September 18, 1982, during the Lebanese civil war.

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, which is now generally attributed to pro-Syrian militants.

Shortly before the massacre, Israel had been at war with the PLO in Lebanon, whom it managed to drive out of the territory. Various forces (IsraeliPhalangist and possibly SLA) were in the vicinity. The actual killers were “the Young Men“, a gang recruited by Elie Hobeika, the Lebanese Forces intelligence chief, from men who had been expelled from the Lebanese Forces for insubordination or criminal activities. The massacre is widely believed to have taken place under Hobeika’s direct orders. Hobeika’s family and fiancée had been murdered by Palestinian militiamen, and their Lebanese allies, at the Damour massacre of 1976, itself a response to a previous massacre of Palestinians at the hands of Christian militants. Hobeika later became a long-serving Member of theParliament of Lebanon and served in several ministerial roles.

The Israel Defense Forces surrounded the Palestinian refugee camps, controlled access to them, and fired illuminating flares over the camps. In 1982, an independent commission chaired by Sean MacBride concluded that the Israeli authorities or forces were, directly or indirectly, responsible for the events. The Israeli government established the Kahan Commission to investigate, and in early 1983 it found that Israeli military personnel were aware that a massacre was in progress without taking serious steps to stop it. Therefore it regarded Israel as having indirect responsibility. The commission held Ariel Sharon personally responsible for having disregarded the prospect of acts of bloodshed by the Phalangists against the population of the refugee camps and not preventing their entry.


From 1975 to 1990, groups in competing alliances with neighboring countries fought against each other in the Lebanese Civil War. Infighting and massacres between these groups claimed several thousand victims; notably the Syrian-backed Karantina (January 1976) by the Lebanese Christian militia against KurdsSyrians and Palestinians in the predominantly Muslim slum district, Damour (January 1976) by the PLO against Christians in Beirut, including the family and fiancée of the Lebanese Forces intelligence chief Elie Hobeikaand Tel al-Zaatar (August 1976) by Phalangists against refugees living in a camp administered by UNRWA. The total death toll in Lebanon for the whole civil war period was around 200,000–300,000 victims.

The Civil War saw many shifting alliances among the main players; the Lebanese Nationalists, led by the Christian Phalangist partyand militia, were allied initially with Syria then with Israel, which provided them with arms and training to fight against the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO); other factions were allied with Syria and other states of the region. In addition, Israel had been training, arming, supplying and uniforming the Christian-dominated South Lebanon Army (SLA), led by Saad Haddad, since 1978.

Sabra is the name of a poor neighborhood in the southern outskirts of West Beirut, which is adjacent to the Shatila UNRWA refugee camp set up for Palestinian refugees in 1949. Over the years the populations of the two areas became ever more mingled, and the loose terminology “Sabra and Shatila camps” has become usual. Their populations had been swelled by Palestinians and LebaneseShiites from the south fleeing the wars.

The PLO had been attacking Israel from southern Lebanon, and Israel had been bombing PLO positions in southern Lebanon. The attempted assassination of Israeli Ambassador Shlomo Argov in London on June 4, 1982 by Abu Nidal‘s organization became a casus belli for a full-scale Israeli invasion of Lebanon. This was despite Abu Nidal having assassinated numerous PLO diplomats, and attempted to kill both Arafat and Mahmud Abbas, and was in fact condemned to death by the PLO. Additionally, British intelligence reported that the attempt had likely been sponsored by Iraq, and Israeli intelligence agreed. However, Ariel Sharon and Menachem Begin ordered a retaliatory aerial attack on PLO and PFLP targets in West Beirut that led to over 100 casualties.

Israel launched Operation Peace for Galilee on 6 June 1982, where Israeli forces attacked PLO bases in Lebanon and quickly drove 40km into Lebanon, in an act that was heavily criticised by the UN Security Council five days later in the United Nations Security Council Resolution 425. Two months later, amid escalating violence and civilian casualties, Philip Habib was sent to restore order, which he accomplished on 12 August on the heels of IDF’s intensive, day-long bombardment of West Beirut. The Habib-negotiated truce called for the withdrawal of both Israeli and PLO elements, as well as a multinational force composed of U.S. Marines along with French and Italian units that would ensure the departure of the PLO and protect defenseless civilians.

On August 23, 1982, Bachir Gemayel, who was very popular among Maronites, was elected President of Lebanon by the National Assembly. Israel had relied on Gemayel and his forces as a counterbalance to the PLO, and as a result, ties between Israel and Maronite groups had grown stronger.

On September 1, the expulsion of the PLO fighters from Beirut was completed. Two days later, Israel deployed its armed forces around the refugee camps.

The Israeli Premier Menachem Begin met Gemayel in Nahariya and strongly urged him to sign a peace treaty with Israel. According to some sources, Begin also wanted the continuing presence of the SLA in southern Lebanon (Haddad supported peaceful relations with Israel) in order to control attacks and violence, and action from Gemayel to move on the PLO fighters which Israel believed remained a hidden threat in Lebanon. However, the Phalangists, who were previously united as reliable Israeli allies, were now split because of developing alliances with Syria, which remained militarily hostile to Israel. As such, Gemayel rejected signing a peace treaty with Israel and did not authorize operations to root out the remaining PLO militants.

On September 11, 1982, the international forces that were guaranteeing the safety of Palestinian refugees left Beirut. Then on September 14, Gemayel was assassinated in a massive explosion which demolished his headquarters. Eventually, the culprit, Habib Tanious Shartouni, a Lebanese Christian, confessed to the crime. He turned out to be a member of the Syrian Social Nationalist Partyand an agent of Syrian intelligence. The Palestinian and Muslim leaders denied any connection.

Within hours of the assassination, Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, supported by Begin, decided to occupy West Beirut, informing only then Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir and not consulting the Israeli cabinet. The same night Sharon began preparations for entering the Sabra-Shatila refugee camps. Thus on September 15, the Israeli army reoccupied West Beirut. This Israeli action breached its agreement with the United States not to occupy West Beirut; the US had also given written guarantees that it would ensure the protection of the Muslims of West Beirut. Israel’s occupation also violated its peace agreements with Muslim forces in Beirut and with Syria.


Following the assassination of Lebanese Christian President Bashir Gemayel, tensions built as Phalangists called for revenge. By noon of September 15, the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) had completely surrounded the Sabra-Shatila camps, and controlled all entrances and exits by the means of checkpoints. The IDF also occupied a number of multi-story buildings as observation posts. Amongst those was the seven-story Kuwaiti embassy which, according to TIME magazine, had “an unobstructed and panoramic view” of the camps. Hours later, IDF tanks began shelling the camps.

Ariel Sharon and Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan met with the Lebanese Phalangist militia units, inviting them to enter the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps and telling them the PLO fighters were responsible for the assassination of their leader Bashir Gemayel. Under the Israeli plan, Israeli soldiers would control the perimeters of the refugee camps and provide logistical support while the Phalangists would enter the camps, find the PLO fighters and hand them over to Israeli forces. The meetings concluded at 3:00 p.m. September 16.

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 camps in IDF supplied Jeeps, following Israeli guidance on how to enter the camps. 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. Bamahane, the IDF newspaper, wrote on 1 September, two weeks before the massacre, that, in a conversation with an Israeli official, a Phalangist said: “the question we are putting to ourselves is — how to begin, by raping or killing?” The Phalangists had also told the Israelis that only by means of violence could they achieve their objective: to bring about a Palestinian. General Amos Yaron was on record saying that it was known the Phalangists meant to destroy the camps.

The first unit of 150 Phalangists entered the camps at 6:00 p.m. 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 camps. According to a Dutch nurse, the camp was as bright as “a sports stadium during a football game”.

At 11:00 p.m. 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, where it was seen by more than 20 senior Israeli officers.

Further reports of these killings followed through the night. Some of these reports were forwarded to the Israeli government in Jerusalem and were seen by a number of Israeli senior officials.

For the next 36 to 48 hours, the Phalangists massacred the inhabitants of Sabra and Shatila, while Israeli troops guarded the exits and allegedly continued to fire flares at night.

At one point, a militiaman’s radioed question to his commander Hobeika about what to do with the women and children in the refugee camp was overheard by an Israeli officer, who heard Hobeika’s reply: “This is the last time you’re going to ask me a question like that; you know exactly what to do.” Phalangist troops could be heard laughing in the background. The Israeli officer reported this to his superior, Brig. Gen. Amos Yaron, who warned Hobeika against hurting civilians but took no further action. Lt. Avi Grabowsky was cited by the Kahan Commission as having seen (on that Friday) the murder of five women and children, and gave a hearsay report of a battalion commander saying of this, “We know, it’s not to our liking, and don’t interfere.” Israeli soldiers surrounding the camps turned back Palestinians fleeing the camps, as filmed by a Visnews cameraman.

Later in the afternoon, a meeting was held between the Israeli Chief of Staff and the Phalangist staff. On Friday morning, the Israelis surrounding the camps ordered the Phalange to halt their operation, concerned about reports of a massacre. According to the Kahan Commission’s report (based on a Mossad agent’s report), the Chief of Staff concluded that the Phalange should “continue action, mopping up the empty camps south of Fakahani until tomorrow at 5:00 a.m., at which time they must stop their action due to American pressure.” He stated that he had “no feeling that something irregular had occurred or was about to occur in the camps.” At this meeting, he also agreed to provide the militia with a tractor, supposedly to demolish buildings.

On Friday, September 17, while the camps still were sealed off, a few independent observers managed to enter. Among them were a Norwegian journalist and diplomat Gunnar Flakstad, who observed Phalangists during their cleanup operations, removing dead bodies from destroyed houses in the Shatila camp.

The Phalangists did not exit the camps at 5:00 a.m. on Saturday as ordered. They forced the remaining survivors to march out of the camps, to the stadium for interrogations; this went on for the entire day. The militia finally left the camps at 8:00 a.m. on September 18. The first foreign journalists allowed into the camps at 9:00 a.m. found hundreds of bodies scattered about the camp. The first official news of the massacre was broadcast around noon.

Many of the bodies found had been severely mutilated. Many boys had been castrated, some were scalped, and some had theChristian cross carved into their bodies.

Janet Lee Stevens, an American journalist, later wrote to her husband, Dr. Franklin Lamb,

“I saw dead women in their houses with their skirts up to their waists and their legs spread apart; dozens of young men shot after being lined up against an alley wall; children with their throats slit, a pregnant woman with her stomach chopped open, her eyes still wide open, her blackened face silently screaming in horror; countless babies and toddlers who had been stabbed or ripped apart and who had been thrown into garbage piles.”

Before the massacre, it was reported that the leader of the PLO, Yasir Arafat, had requested the return of international forces, from Italy, France and the United States, to Beirut to protect civilians. Those forces had just supervised the departure of Arafat and his PLO fighters from Beirut. Italy expressed ‘deep concerns’ about ‘the new Israeli advance’, but no action was taken to return the forces to Beirut. Henry Kamm, Special to The New York Times, in a report dated 16 September 1982, from Rome:

“Yasir Arafat, leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization, demanded today that the United States, France and Italy send their troops back to Beirut to protect its inhabitants against Israel…The dignity of three armies and the honor of their countries is involved, Mr. Arafat said at his news conference. I ask Italy, France and the United States: What of your promise to protect the inhabitants of Beirut?”

Number of victims

Memorial in Sabra, South Beirut

The exact number of victims of the massacre is disputed. It is estimated that at least a quarter of the victims were Lebanese, the rest Palestinians. Here follow the main bodycounts and estimates that have circulated, ordered by number of deaths:

  • A letter from the head of the Red Cross delegation to the Lebanese Minister of Defense, cited in the Kahan Commission report as “exhibit 153”, stated that Red Crossrepresentatives had counted 328 bodies; but the Kahan Commission noted that “this figure, however, does not include all the bodies …”
  • The Kahan Commission said that, according to “a document which reached us (exhibit 151), the total number of victims whose bodies were found from 18.9.82 to 30.9.82 is 460”, stating further that this figure consists of “the dead counted by the Lebanese Red Cross, the International Red Cross, the Lebanese Civil Defense, the medical corps of the Lebanese army, and by relatives of the victims.” Thirty-five women and children were among the dead according to this account.
  • Israeli figures, based on IDF intelligence, cite a figure of 700–800. In the Kahan Commission’s view, “this may well be the number most closely corresponding with reality.”
  • 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, one of the first journalists to visit the scene, quotes (without endorsing) unnamed Phalangist officers as saying “that 2,000 Palestinians – women as well as men – had been killed in Chatila.” In a 2002 article in The Independent, Fisk speaks of “1700 civilians murdered.” The Palestinian Red Crescent put the number killed at over 3,000.
  • 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 – 1,500 other victims disposed of by the Phalangists themselves to a total of 3,000–3,500.

International reactions

The attack was explicitly grieved and condemned in Muslim countries in and surrounding the Arab Middle East, and in Western countries as well.

U.N. condemnation

On December 16, 1982, the United Nations General Assembly condemned the massacre and declared it to be an act of genocide. The voting record on section D of Resolution 37/123, which “resolves that the massacre was an act of genocide”, was: yes: 123; no: 0; abstentions: 22; non-voting: 12. The abstentions were: Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany (Federal Republic), Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, United Kingdom, U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Israel,Ivory CoastPapua New GuineaBarbados and Dominican Republic.

Disputes with U.N. verdict

Some delegates disputed the claim that the massacre constituted genocide.

The delegate for Canada stated: “The term genocide cannot, in our view, be applied to this particular inhuman act”. The delegate ofSingapore – voting ‘yes’ – added: “My delegation regrets the use of the term ‘an act of genocide’ … [as] the term ‘genocide’ is used to mean acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.” Canada and Singapore also questioned whether the General Assembly was competent to determine whether such an event would constitute genocide.

The United States commented that “While the criminality of the massacre was beyond question, it was a serious and reckless misuse of language to label this tragedy genocide as defined in the 1948 Convention …”.

Such comments led William Schabas, director of the Irish Centre for Human Rights at the National University of Ireland, to state: “the term genocide … had obviously been chosen to embarrass Israel rather than out of any concern with legal precision”.

Israeli Role

MacBride commission report

In 1982, an independent commission, the International Commission to enquire into reported violations of International Law by Israel during its invasion of the Lebanon, was formed. Chaired by former Irish foreign minister Sean MacBride, the commission included the following members:

  • Professor Richard Falk, Vice Chairman, Albert G. Milbank Professor of International Law and Practice, Princeton University,
  • Dr Kader Asmal, Senior Lecturer in Law and Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Trinity College, Dublin,
  • Dr Brian Bercusson, Lecturer in Laws, Queen Mary College, University of London,
  • Professor Géraud de la Pradelle, Professor of Private Law, University of Paris, and
  • Professor Stefan Wild, Professor of Semitic Languages and Islamic Studies, University of Bonn.

The commission toured the area of fighting and examined witnesses in Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Syria, UK, and Norway. The government of Israel refused to cooperate. The commission’s report, Israel in Lebanon, concluded that the Israeli authorities or forces were directly or indirectly responsible in the massacres and other killings that have been reported to have been carried out by Lebanese militiamen in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in the Beirut area between 16 and September 18.

Kahan Commission report

300,000 demonstrating Israelis put pressure on their government to investigate on the massacre. The Kahan Commission concluded in February 1983 that Israel bore part of the indirect responsibility for the massacres, advised Minister of Defense Ariel Sharon to be dismissed from his post and not to hold public office again.

Israeli population demands investigation

In its initial statements, the Israeli government declared that those critics who regarded the IDF as having responsibility for the events at Sabra and Shatila were guilty of “a blood libel against the Jewish state and its Government.” However, as the news of the massacre spread around the world, the controversy grew, and on September 25, 300,000 Israelis—roughly one-tenth of the country’s population at the time—demonstrated in a Tel Aviv square demanding answers. The protest, known in Israel as the “400,000 protest” (the number of protesters was first exaggerated) was one of the biggest in Israel’s history.

Israel “indirect responsibility”

On September 28, the Israeli Government resolved to establish a Commission of Inquiry, which was led by former Supreme Court Justice Yitzhak Kahan. The report included evidence from Israeli army personnel, as well as political figures and Phalangist officers. In the report, published in February 1983, the Kahan Commission stated that there was no evidence that Israeli units took direct part in the massacre and that it was the “direct responsibility of Phalangists.” However, the Commission recorded that Israeli military personnel were aware that a massacre was in progress without taking serious steps to stop it, and that reports of a massacre in progress were made to senior Israeli officers and even to an Israeli cabinet minister; it therefore regarded Israel as bearing part of the “indirect responsibility.”

In a book about Lebanese history, British journalist David Hirst accused the Commission of inventing the concept of indirect responsibility so as to protect Israel from sharing with the Phalangists real responsibility for the massacres. He further states that the Commission was only able to achieve that verdict by means of errors and omissions in the analysis of the massacre.[38]

Sharon “personal responsibility”

The Kahan commission found that Ariel Sharon “bears personal responsibility”, recommended his dismissal from the post of Defense Minister and concluded that Sharon should not hold public office again, stating that:

“It is our view that responsibility is to be imputed to the minister of defense for having disregarded the prospect of acts of vengeance and bloodshed by the Phalangists against the population of the refugee camps and for having failed to take this danger into account when he decided to have the Phalangists enter the camps. In addition, responsibility is to be imputed to the minister of defense for not ordering appropriate measures for preventing or reducing the chances of a massacre as a condition for the Phalangists’ entry into the camps.”

At first, Sharon refused to resign, and Begin refused to fire him. It was only after the death of Emil Grunzweig after a grenade was tossed into the dispersing crowd of a Peace Now protest march, which also injured ten others, that a compromise was reached: Sharon would resign as Defense minister, but remain in the Cabinet as a minister without portfolio. Notwithstanding the dissuading conclusions of the Kahan report, Sharon would later become Prime Minister of Israel.

Other conclusions

The Kahan commission also recommended the dismissal of Director of Military Intelligence Yehoshua Saguy and the effective promotion freeze of Division Commander Brig. Gen. Amos Yaron for at least three years.

Additional views

In the 2005 Swiss-French-German-Lebanese co-produced documentary Massaker six former Lebanese Forces phalangist soldiers who participated personally in the massacre stated there was Israeli participation in two ways: one of them said that he saw Israeli soldiers driving bulldozers into inhabited houses inside the camp; another said that Israeli soldiers provided the Lebanese Forces soldiers with material to dispose of the corpses lying around in the streets. Several of the soldiers said that they had received training in Israel. However, these claims are controversial.

“Noam Chomsky and Robert Fisk have said that Israel could have predicted that a massacre by Phalange fighters who entered the camps might have taken place. In particular, such commentators do not believe it is possible that there were “2000 PLO terrorists” remaining in the camps, because

(1) the Kahan Commission documents that the Israeli army allowed only 150 Phalangist fighters into the camps and

(2) the Phalangists suffered only two casualties; an improbable outcome of a supposedly 36-hour battle of 150 militants against 2000 experienced “PLO terrorists”.

Opinions on Hobeika’s responsibility

Robert Maroun Hatem, Elie Hobeika‘s bodyguard, stated in his book From Israel to Damascus that Hobeika ordered the massacre of civilians in defiance of Israeli instructions to behave like a “dignified” army.

Pierre Rehov, a documentary filmmaker who worked on the case with former Lebanese soldiers, while making his film Holy Land: Christians in Peril, came to the conclusion that Hobeika was definitely responsible for the massacre, despite the orders he had received from Ariel Sharon to behave humanely.

Hobeika was assassinated by a car bomb in Beirut on January 24, 2002. Lebanese and Arab commentators blamed Israel for the murder of Hobeika, with alleged Israeli motive that Hobeika would be ‘apparently poised to testify before the Belgian court about Sharon’s role in the massacre. Prior to his assassination, Elie Hobeika had made it clear that he would testify against Sharon.

Sharon sues Time for libel

Ariel Sharon sued Time magazine for libel in American and Israeli courts in a $50 million libel suit, after Time published a story in its February 21, 1983, issue, implying that Sharon had “reportedly discussed with the Gemayels the need for the Phalangists to take revenge” for Bashir’s assassination. The jury found the article false and defamatory, although Time won the suit in the U.S. court because Sharon’s defense failed to establish that the magazine’s editors and writers had “acted out of malice,” as required under the U.S. libel law.

Relatives of victims sue Sharon

After Sharon’s 2001 election to the post of Prime Minister of Israel, relatives of the victims of the massacre filed a lawsuit in Belgium alleging Sharon’s personal responsibility for the massacres. The Belgian Supreme Court ruled on February 12, 2003, that Sharon (and others involved, such as Israeli General Yaron) could be indicted under this accusation. Israel maintained that the lawsuit was initiated for political reasons.

On September 24, 2003, Belgium’s Supreme Court dismissed the war crimes case against Ariel Sharon, since none of the plaintiffs had Belgian nationality at the start of the case.