Remembering the Killing Fields of Sabra and Shatila

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Saturday, September 16th, 2002 marks 20 years since the worst atrocity of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. On that date, Lebanese Christian Phalangists began a three-day killing spree in the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps. They had been let in after Israeli soldiers sealed off the two camps when they occupied the western sector of Beirut, the Lebanese capital. This horrific operation cost the lives of 17,500 Lebanese and Palestinians, almost all of them civilians — defenseless old men, women, children, and infants. Three months later, on December 16, 1982, the terrorism at Sabra and Shatila was condemned by the United Nations General Assembly, which declared it an act of genocide.

Responsibility for the original decision to move troops into west Beirut was taken by then Israeli prime minister, Menachem Begin, and his defence minister Ariel Sharon, now Israel’s current PM. The Lebanon invasion, designed to drive out the PLO, was given the green light by then U.S. secretary of state, Alexander Haig.

“While the actual slaughter was carried out by the Lebanese Phalangists, responsibility for the massacre rests on the shoulder of the Israelis who armed and paid them, and lit the skies above camps with flares as the killing went on through the night, and who had planned the massacre. It also rests on the United States, which undertook to guarantee the safety of the population of the two camps after the PLO had departed from Lebanon.” (Bitter Harvest)

Former American under-secretary of state, George Ball, says in his book, Error and Betrayal: “In America our nation’s responsibility for the whole tragic incident has gone largely unnoticed, yet the facts are clear enough. We put our own good faith behind Israel’s word of honor, otherwise the PLO would have never agreed to leave. The PLO trusted America’s promise that the Palestinians left behind will be safeguarded. When America promised ‘to do its utmost’ to ensure that Israel kept its commitments, they took that commitment at face value. They would never have trusted an Israeli promise, but they trusted us. We betrayed them.”

As we emerge from honouring and remembering the first anniversary of September 11th, 2001– when more than 3,000 lost their lives in the terrorist acts that resulted in the collapse of New York’s twin World Trade Centre towers — I wonder how many American and Canadian politicians and media moguls will recall September 16th,1982, to honour those thousands who lost their lives in the killing fields of Sabra and Shatila. The toll there was about five times higher than at the World Trade Centre, but there have been no candlelight vigils, memorials, or other public observances to mourn the death of these innocent Palestinian and Lebanese civilians.

There were no fiery speeches about democracy, freedom and liberty by an American head of state, no high-profile condemnations of the evil committed by the Israeli army and the Lebanese Christian Phalangist militias. All America did during those bloody months of July and August 1982 was to plead with its client state Israel to show “restraint.”

Ariel Sharon, who the current U.S. president George W. Bush calls a “man of peace,” is still an indicted but unrepentant war criminal for his role in facilitating the Sabra and Shatila massacre, a role confirmed by the Israeli government’s own investigation. And according to historian Avi Shlaim in his recent book, The Iron Wall, three decades earlier the same Sharon, as a young military officer, led an elite Israeli commando force, Unit 101, on brutal raids against Palestinian civilians, of which the massacre in the West Bank village of Qibya, on October 14, 1953, was perhaps the most notorious. Sharon’s unit blew up 45 houses there, killing 69 civilians. Two- thirds of them were women and children.

Empowered by George Bush, war criminal Ariel Sharon is once gain causing havoc in the lives of Palestinians, who are being forced to live under conditions reminiscent of concentration camps, hemmed in by Israeli tanks, helicopter gunships, missiles, walls, and barbed wire. This is all made possible because American taxpayers are footing the bill to make Israel the dominant military power in the Middle East.

It was an American-made missile that recently missed its target and killed two children, aged 10 and six, in the courtyard of their home near Jenin. In the article, Bush is Walking into a Trap, veteran journalist Robert Fisk writes: “America’s name is literally stamped onto the missiles fired by Israel into Palestinian buildings in Gaza and the West Bank. And what did the developer of the missile say to me when I showed him photographs of the children his missile had killed? ‘Whatever you do,’ he told me, ‘don’t quote me as saying anything critical of the policies of Israel’.”

No wonder Palestinians remain fearful. On Saturday, August 31, there were 11 Palestinians killed within the space of only 24 hours, two of them children. Yet there have been no suicide attacks on Israeli civilians since August 4.

During April of this year, Israel’s fierce military assault on the Palestinian refugee camp at Jenin in the West Bank became another horrific reminder of Israeli genocidal policies. Helicopter gunships fired rockets into homes, some with people trapped inside, while huge armoured bulldozers ripped a wide swath through the camp, leaving thousands homeless and possibly hundreds buried under the rubble. Terje Roed-Larsen, United Nations Mideast envoy and no enemy of Israel, described the aftermath of Jenin as “shocking and horrifying beyond belief.” He feared it would fuel “hatred and aggression” against Israelis.

Despite the solemn pledges proclaimed in its charter to reaffirm fundamental human rights and the dignity and worth of the human person, the United Nations has consistently failed to protect Palestinian lives. Israel has broken every international law concerning human rights, yet has never been punished for its ongoing defiance and genocidal acts of terrorism. Along with America’s failure to act with justice in the Middle East and its parallel disregard for Palestinian lives, these two intractable powers have created a very dangerous and desperate world.

There could be no better way to honour the lost lives of innocent Americans and Palestinians than to get Israel out of Palestine as soon as possible and to support meaningful steps to ensure peace with justice in all of the occupied territories. As Canadians and people of conscience, we have a clear moral duty to work towards that end.

Mrs. Valiante is national vice-chair of the Canadian Islamic Congress. She is a professional family counselor who recently visited Palestine as part of a fact-finding medical team. While there, the team visited refugee camps, health care clinics, hospitals, orphanages, local and international charities and women’s refugee centres, and spoke with social workers and local Palestinian families.

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