On September 16, 1982 the Lebanese Christian Phalangist militia entered the Beruit refugee camps called Sabra and Shatila. Their mission was authorized by the Israeli IDF, under the command of Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, that held the territory around Beruit at that point in time as a result of the June 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon.
The Phalangists were looking for PLO fighters who, it was feared, had avoided evacuation from Beruit by hiding among the refugees. There were estimates of perhaps 200 armed men in the camps working out of the countless bunkers built by the PLO over the years, and stocked with generous reserves of ammunition.
The Phalangists, whose Maronite Christian president, Bachir Gemayel, had just been assassinated on September 14, entered the camps on the afternoon of the 16th and carried out a 62-hour rampage of rape and murder until Saturday morning, September 18th. They were motivated by revenge for the Gemayel killing and also for the years of brutality Lebanese suffered at the hands of Palestinians during the PLO occupation of Lebanon. [Later information revealed that Gemayel was assassinated by the Syrians, who opposed his alliance with the Israelis, and not by the PLO].
When Israeli soldiers were alerted to the massacre and ordered the Phalangists out, they found hundreds dead, including as many as 35 women and children. The rest were men: Palestinians, Lebanese, Pakistanis, Iranians, Syrians and Algerians. This was a small toll when compared to the tens of thousand who had died in the years of civil war and fighting with the PLO in Lebanon, but these deaths kindled crys of outrage in Israel, and internationally outside the Middle East.
Curiously, there was little protest at the time in the Arab world, although “Sabra-Shatila” has now become a mantra of the Palestinian Arabs as a code word for their allegations of Israeli brutality. Most protests were (and are) directed at the Israelis, not the the Phalangists, who perpetrated the crime.
Estimates of the number killed range from 460 according to the Lebanese police, to 700-800 calculated by Israeli intelligence. Palestinians claim 3,000 to 3,500 dead and call the action “genocide”.
When the scale of the massacre became known and photographs of the bodies in the refugee camps began to be published in the world press, Israel was held directly responsible for the atrocity.
The Israeli public was shocked. On September 25, a huge demonstration of 300,000 Israelis was held in Tel Aviv demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Menahem Begin and Sharon and the establishment of a judicial commission of inquiry to investigate the massacre.
A commission was appointed to investigate, headed by Supreme Court President Yitzhak Kahan, and its members included Supreme Court Justice Aharon Barak and Major General (Res.) Yona Efrat. The Kahan Commission issued its report on February 8, 1983. With regard to Sharon, the panel recommended that he:
… draw the appropriate personal conclusions arising out of the defects revealed with regard to the manner in which he discharged the duties of his office” – in other words, that he resign; or, if necessary, that the prime minister exercise his authority to remove a minister from office.
The key paragraphs relating to Sharon’s responsibility are these:
In our view, the minister of defense made a grave mistake when he ignored the danger of acts of revenge and bloodshed by the Phalangists against the population in the refugee camps … It is our view that responsibility is to be imputed to the minister of defense for having disregarded the danger of acts of vengeance and bloodshed by the Phalangists against the population of the refugee camps, and having failed to take this danger into account when he decided to move the Phalangists into the camps.
In addition, responsibility is to be imputed to the minister of defense for not ordering appropriate measures for preventing or reducing the danger of massacre as a condition for the Phalangists’ entry into the camps. These blunders constitute the non-fulfillment of a duty with which the defense minister was charged.
Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said of the Kahan Commission:
[It was] a great tribute to Israeli democracy… There are very few governments in the world that one can imagine making such a public investigation of such a difficult and shameful episode.
Although Sharon insists that he had received no intelligence and could not have known that the Phalangists were about to commit a massacre in the camps, he was forced to resign his post as Defense Minister and faced widespread public opprobrium that nearly ended his political career. Sharon is still asking for release of all classified documents from the Kahan Commission, saying he would be vindicated if they were released.
Elie Hobeika, the Phalangist leader directly responsible for carrying out the massacres (and other gruesome acts over the years) became a crucial ally of Syrian subjugation of Lebanon, and had a long career until he was killed in a massive bomb attack at his house in a Beirut suburb in January 2002.
In May 1985, Muslim militiamen attacked the Shatila and Burj-el Barajneh Palestinian refugee camps. According to UN officials, 635 were killed and 2,500 wounded. There is no record of any protests or public investigation.
In 2001, Palestinian survivors of the massacre demanded that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon be indicted on war crime charges in Belgium under a 1993 Belgian law that allows this type of complaint to be filed by non-nationals. This case is unlikly to proceed since, under international law, heads of state and prime ministers cannot be brought to trial while serving.
There may also be other legal barriers based on Belgian non-conformity with international law and that would deny them jurisdiction.
International law experts believe it is highly unlikely Sharon will be brought to trial, given the rulings contained in the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention, which deals with the protection of people in times of war. Sanctions apply only to a person who either has committed the acts himself or has ordered them to be committed, not the kind of indirect responsibility Sharon is alleged to have.
On the question of a failure to act to prevent a war crime, the International Committee of the Red Cross’ interpretation of the Geneva Convention suggests no legal responsibility is incurred by those who do not intervene to prevent or to put an end to a breach of the convention.