By Joharah Baker
September 16 and 17 mark a very difficult anniversary for the Palestinians. Twenty-six years ago, approximately 2,000 Palestinian men, women and children were massacred in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla in Lebanon by Israeli-aligned Phalangist troops under the chief of the Lebanese Intelligence Forces Elie Hobeika and Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon.
Unarguably some of the darkest days of Palestinian history, the Sabra and Shatilla massacres are now a reminder of a cause we as Palestinians should never allow ourselves to forget. The plight of Palestinian refugees has remained unresolved since its creation in 1948, with atrocities such as Sabra and Shatilla painful reminders of why a just resolution to it must be found.
Israel’s part in the massacre should also not be forgotten. In 1982, Beirut was under siege by the Israelis. The Palestinian resistance was to quit Beirut under an American-brokered deal but only after the PLO was given guarantees by the US that the Palestinian civil population would be immune from attack. Days after Palestinian troops had evacuated, Israel occupied West Beirut and encircled the Sabra and Shatilla camps. It then allowed the Phalangists in. Israel provided them with weapons, protection and most importantly, a green light, to enter the two camps – now devoid of armed Palestinian fighters – and carry out one of the most gruesome massacres in history. Thousands of Palestinians were killed, women raped and slaughtered, men lined up on walls and shot down and babies killed alongside their horror-stricken mothers.
Once the Phalangists’ 40-hour rampage was done, the Israelis let them return to their bases, unscathed and unpunished. In the independent Israeli investigation, the Kahan Commission, Sharon was found indirectly responsible for the massacre. It did not, however, hinder him from moving forward in his political life. Although he resigned his post as defense minister at the time he eventually became Prime Minister of Israel. Still, Sharon’s intentions towards the Palestinians were never disguised and even certain Israelis understood this. Following the massacre, one Israeli commentator wrote, "…you can’t toss a snake into a cradle, then act surprised when the baby gets bitten."
The fact that Israel was never held accountable for the horrendous atrocities that took place in the two camps is indicative of Israel’s status in the international community; Israel believes it can operate above the law – international and otherwise – and for good reason. It has proven time and again that it is immune to internationally- imposed punitive measures for the violations it commits against the Palestinians, the Sabra and Shatilla massacre being the most glaring of them all.
It is not however, only the deaths of innocent people for which Israel should be held accountable. These innocent people would never have been left unprotected in squalid and impoverished refugee camps if Israel had heeded international resolutions demanding that they be allowed to return home. Every year, the United Nations reaffirms Security Council Resolution 194, passed in December, 1948 which calls for the return of Palestinian refugees to their homes and every year it is tossed aside along with the other disregarded resolutions concerning the Palestinians.
Not only does Israel shun these resolutions, it does not take responsibility for the creation of 800,000 refugees who were forced to flee their homes in 1948, never to return. Furthermore, any mention of the refugee right of return has been immediately shot down by Israel irrespective of the governments in place. Left wing Israeli leaders have rejected the right of return just as vehemently as right wing governments with the main argument being that any major influx of refugees to what is now Israel would severely compromise the Jewish character of the state. Last week, outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert came as close as any Israeli leader has ever come to recognizing the refugee problem when he said, "I share in expressing regret over what happened to the Palestinians in 1948," but said he would never accept the right of return almost in the same breath.
The result, no doubt, has been devastating. With approximately seven million refugees today scattered across the world, for the Palestinians, the refugee cause is as alive today as it was 60 years ago, precisely because it is ageless. Whether refugees are granted the right to return in their lifetimes or not, it is an inalienable right that cannot be invalidated with the passing of time.
For those who live in refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan and for those who survived the Sabra and Shatilla massacre, the right of return has shaped the course of most, if not all of their lives. The slaughtering that took place 26 years ago in these two camps was an atrocity against humanity and one which has gone unpunished despite Palestinian and some international efforts to bring Sharon before an international war crimes tribunal. It was a crime that should forever lay heavy on the conscience of the world. It should also remind it that the people who endured the unspeakable horrors that went on over the course of two days have also endured another formidable injustice over the course of 60 years.
The camps have since been rebuilt as well as possible. For the newest generation of refugees, born and raised in exile, the stench of dead bodies rotting in the hot sun has most likely vanished. But for those who still remember the horrors of the massacre, the images of people executed in the streets and dead mothers clutching dead babies will always be an indelible image in their minds’ eye. That is the cross they must bear. As for the world, the United Nations in particular, it is high time it puts its resolutions into action. The massacre of Sabra and Shatilla in addition to a long list of other grievances is a direct product of the unresolved refugee problem. "Never Again," should be a vow printed in bold letters above the entrances to Sabra and Shatilla, where atrocities no less horrifying than those of a concentration camp took place and, unlike the Holocaust, have never been recognized.
– Joharah Baker is a Writer for the Media and Information Programme at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. (Originally published in MIFTAH – www.miftah.org. Republished in PalestineChronicle.com with permission.)