The Sabra and Shatila massacre took place between the 16th and the 18th of September 1982 in Lebanon. It was perpetrated by a Lebanese Christian militia, the Phalangists, which was under the political and military control of the State of Israel. The victims were mostly civilians from Sabra and Shatila. Sabra and Shatila are two Palestinian adjoining refugee camps located in the southwest of Beirut (see maps).
On the 18th of September, after about forty hours of killing, the first images of the massacre showing civilian victims appeared on TV. They provoked worldwide indignation and compassion.
At the time of the massacre, the question of Palestine and the Palestinian presence in Lebanon were major stakes on the regional and internal political arena.
Palestinians have settled in Lebanon in the aftermath of the creation of the State of Israel. “During the summer of 1948, some 110,000 Palestinians were driven out of Galilee and crossed the border into Lebanon” (Picard 2002:79). Most of them became refugees. During the seventies, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) set up its headquarters in Lebanon after its leaders and activists had been expelled from Jordan. The PLO was responsible for some 340,000 Palestinians. It provided social services and basic infrastructures and built institutions in various domains (economic, cultural, social and political). In the same time, Yasser Arafat, the PLO’s historic leader, developed a military apparatus to lead the armed struggle against Israel. Thousands of Palestinian fighters (the fedayin) were sheltered and trained in the refugee camps. The camps were under the sole control of the Palestinian military police, according to an agreement signed by Y. Arafat and the chief of the Lebanese army in 1969. In that context, refugee camps became symbols of Palestinian resistance.
In 1975, civil war broke out in Lebanon, opposing two camps: the “Christian-conservatives” and the “Islamic-progressives” (Picard, 2002). The first group mainly included Christians (Maronites, in particular) and formed “a bloc around the presidency for the preservation of the traditional order” (Picard, 2002:108). The Phalangists (or Kataeb), founded in 1936 by Pierre Gemayel, increasingly ruled the coalition. The second group, which constituted “a heterogeneous coalition with three focuses - leftist, Muslim, and Palestinian” (Picard, 2002:108), shed a doubt on the prevailing leadership. Its leaders “wanted Lebanon to make a decisive commitment to the cause of Palestinian resistance”, whereas the “Christian conservatives” supported the status quo from which they benefited.
In 1976, the Syrian armed forces took part in the Lebanese civil war, invading Lebanon and strengthening one camp first and then, the other. Israel’s support to the Christians was instituted almost at the same time. It was agreed that Israel would help if the existence of Lebanese Christians were to become endangered. According to the Phalangists, the number of Palestinian refugees, for the most part Muslims, threatened the demographic balance between Christians and Muslims in the country. They also feared that it may weaken their (profitable) position in the political game.
From the mid-onwards, the South of Lebanon became the favourite battlefield of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Palestinian fighters carried out commando raids against Israeli interests and citizens throughout the world and planned more and more attacks at the Northern border of Israel. The Israeli government reacted by interfering on Lebanese soil and directing “policing” or “preventive” operations towards Palestinians – in total contradiction with International Law. The everyday lack of security caused by these policing interventions and by bombings affected not only the Palestinians, but also the Lebanese, especially in the South. The Israeli Prime Minister Menahem Begin also put pressure on the Lebanese Army, as he wanted the latter’s command to play a role in protecting Israeli interests by attacking the PLO’s apparatus.
In March 1978, the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) invaded the South of Lebanon up to the Litani River. The Israeli leaders reproached the Lebanese army with not being able to secure the border. Forced to withdraw in July due to international protests, the IDF decided thereafter to create a Lebanese border militia. The Army of Free Lebanon (AFL) was formed with deserters from the Lebanese army and placed under the command of Saad Haddad. Its purpose consisted in protecting the northern border of Israel from Palestinian incursions. S. Haddad coordinated the AFL’s actions directly with the Israeli military command.
On the 6th of June, 1982, the IDF invaded Lebanon for a second time. The Israeli troops rapidly encircled West Beirut where the PLO had established its headquarters, and met with the Phalangist forces, posted in the eastern part of the city. This military operation, named “Peace for Galilee”, officially aimed at ensuring the security of the inhabitants of Northern Israel. But the weakening of the PLO’s infrastructure and apparatus was also on the agenda.
Although the military balance of forces was largely in favor of the IDF, the “Islamic-progressives” stood up to air strikes, naval gunfire and tank artillery launched on the Lebanese capital. The siege of Beirut, which lasted all summer, found an issue in negotiations that aimed at preparing the PLO’s withdrawal from Lebanon. The negotiations were conducted by US envoy Philip Habib with spokespersons of the Palestinian side, as the United States did not recognize the PLO.
An agreement was reached in the middle of August on the principle of an evacuation of the Palestinian fighters and PLO officials and the dismantlement of PLO offices and infrastructures. The “Habib Roadmap” put the evacuation under the supervision of a multinational force formed by some Italian, French and American troops and scheduled to remain on the battlefield during thirty days from the date of their arrival. It also guaranteed security to the Palestinian civilians that were to remain in the camps after the PLO’s departure. Indeed, Y. Arafat feared retaliations against his people.
The evacuation was carried out from the 21 th of August to the 1st of September 1982 and was followed by the withdrawal of the multinational force, which came sooner than scheduled.
A new Lebanese President was elected by the Parliament in the aftermath of the PLO’s evacuation. Bechir Gemayel, chief of the Phalangists, won the ballot on the 23rd of August. But the “Islamic-progressives” had boycotted the elections, for they considered the leader of the “Christian-conservatives”’ as the candidate of Israel. Indeed, it is a fact that the Israeli authorities - and especially the Minister of Defence Ariel Sharon - wanted to install a friendly Lebanese government, which could be brought to sign a formal peace agreement with Israel. However, B. Gemayel was killed on the 14th of September before assuming office. This political assassination gave the Israeli government an opportunity to condemn the Palestinians, and an argument to enter West Beirut. The massacre of Sabra and Shatila started two days later.