|SABRA and SHATILA: Let us not Forget|
SHATILA REFUGEE CAMP, Beirut, Sept 18, 2011 – Plaster and decay have healed the bullet scars on the concrete walls but not the scars in the collective memory of those who continue to live here - 29 years after an Israeli-armed and commandeered Christian militia shot, knifed and beat to death thousands of unarmed Palestinian refugees during a three day killing spree for which no one has yet been brought to justice.
Under banners reading ‘Justice for Sabra and Shatila’ the new generation of Palestinian refugees (and thirty Italian sympathisers who come annually) this year commemorated the massacre with flowers laid on the mass graves of the martyrs, holes hurriedly dug, filled with corpses and earth by Israeli army bulldozers and finally cemented over.
In the rest of the Beirut life went on as usual on September 16 this year. No one here wants to remember those days of shame in 1982, certainly not the Maronite Phalangists, allies of the occupying Israeli army, who carried out the massacres while the Israelis provided transport and pretended they did not see. Israeli commander, former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, claimed ‘I did not know.’
Many of the Maronite killers from the Kataeb Party still live in Beirut and openly express hatred for their fellow Moslem citizen.
Like every anniversary Abu Jammal stood on the concrete covering the main mass grave. A white-haired frail old man in his late seventies dressed in an immaculate dark suit he held up a large framed portrait of his son Jammal. The son was nineteen years old when together with other Palestinian youths from Sabra, the residential zone next to Shatila camp, he was forced at gunpoint to climb onto an Israeli army truck.
The son was never seen again.
Abu Jammal says Israeli soldiers ordered everyone out of their homes in Sabra, lined the men up and then separated the young men from the old men. The young men were crammed onto army trucks, the old men were told to leave the area.
“I believe one day there will be a knock at my door, I will open and my son will stand there,” Abu Jammal said. The other mourners smiled compassionately. No one wants to spoil the old man’s dream or tell him not one of those young men ever came back. Nor were their corpses ever found. All are listed as one of the three thousand ‘Dead or Missing’.
And there were those who miraculously escaped that three day killing frenzy, people like Jamileh Shehad who was a kindergarten teacher in Shatila refugee camp and today is still in charge of Shatila’s kindergarten, a concrete four-floor high tower that acted initially as an orphanage for the children whose parents were murdered. Jamileh today keeps adding floors to accommodate more children from broken homes. Shatila is only allowed to build upwards - though the population has more than doubled to 15,000 since 1982.
She never married. “I have all the children I want every day. They are my life. I am married to them,” she said, sitting over accounts and ways to figure out how to make ends meet with the small donations from compassionate donors around the world.
“In 1982 my family lived deep inside the camp. The Falangistas came from one side and people rushed into the camps screaming ‘they’re killing everyone.’ My father was away, my mother was dead. My sister and I ran to the opposite end of the camp and walked six hours to Hamra (a suburb) where friends had an apartment. We lived there for a month before we dared to go back.“
“My father was one of the elders of the camp. Eight of them decided to go to the Israelis and ask them to protect the camp. The eight went, except my father who was held back by a friend offering him a cup of coffee and telling him not to go. Not one of the seven elders who went to the Israelis was seen alive again. But my father survived.”
Like Jamileh those who survived did not see the killings. Witnesses did not survive. But many saw the bodies later, women with their legs spread, their skirts up, their throats cut; children knifed to death, men shot or stabbed.
The survivors still live in the same camp. So are the second, third and fourth generation of refugees, crammed into Shatila and the scores of refugee camps in Lebanon that hold 52 per cent of the 430,000 Palestinians in Lebanon who dream of returning to a homeland, a statehood whose creation these days is at the mercy of the U.N. Security Council and the General Assembly.
But the right to return for the four million Palestinians in the international Diaspora is not included in negotiations for statehood. Even as they commemorated their ‘martyrs’ here on September 16-18 their undying hopes of going home were dashed by the ambassador of the Palestinian Authority in Lebanon, Abdullah Abdullah. He pointed out in case of Statehood passports would only be issued to those living in what is now commonly known as the Israeli-occupied territories.
Hope once again had to be postponed, as it has been for sixty years in these shoulder-width alleys of the concrete warren that is Shatila, a place where electric wiring hangs so low the unaware can be garrotted, a place so spooky one can almost hear the cries and pleas of the butchered, where graffiti on walls asking for justice has faded with age, where homes remain concrete bunkers, people amble about like zombies, eyes spent, a place as bare and as primitive as it was in 1949 when the camp was opened. Here electricity is on tap only for a few hours a day and water is as precious as finding odd jobs in a Lebanon that rarely gives a refugee a work permit and disqualifies its 430,000 Palestinians refugees of their basic civil rights, among them the right to property, to health care and the right to work – legally.
This is a country in conflict. Over past decades a flourishing Lebanon was battered into ruins by Israeli invasions and bombings and torn apart by ethnic and religious strife, a civil war and the presence of so many Palestinian refugees who unbalanced the delicate demography. Today Lebanon has rebuild a country once considered the Switzerland of the Middle East, yet it retains that fragile balance between Christians and Moslems, each split into different groups ad militias who have never quite managed to set aside their squabbles over who should have what spoils and who is getting a better deal.
A coalition government now runs Lebanon. The Shiite Hitzbollah, the leading anti-Israeli resistance movement and classified as a ‘terrorist’ organization by the United States is a member of this ruling coalition. For the first time, though it might turn out to be mere lip service, a Lebanese government is tabling amendments to the restrictive laws by which the Palestinians have lived on its territory for six decades.
In fact it was the Hitzbollah whose officials attended and commemorated the anniversary, at least at dinners in honour of the visiting Italian Committee Justice for Sabra and Shatila. Like Hamas in the Gaza Strip the militant resistance of Hitzbollah has found ready followers among people who have been left without a future and only scant help from an international community that has for decades swallowed American and Israeli propaganda based on one-sided versions and fabricated facts, among them the myth the Palestinians left their homes voluntarily.
“Hitzbollah are the only ones who try to help us. While we might not agree with them on certain issues you do not bite the only hand that protects you,” quipped one Palestinian official at the commemoration.
Currently Hitzbollah has its own problems. The Syrian protests generated by the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt are jeopardising the arms and aid supply pipeline between Iran and Hitzbollah. Should Syria fall to a government with a pro-western policy this would severely diminish the efficiency of Hitzbollah by severing its traditional supply route.
In a rare comment on the Syrian situation Sheikh Ahmad Mrad, Hitzbollah’s head in Southern Lebanon told me at Tyr while he was hoping President Bashar Assad would survive the protests his movement was in favour of the right of the people of Syria to have a democratic say in government.
“We hope President Assad will make the necessary reforms and we hope the protesters will have the necessary patience to allow him time to make these reforms. We do think he will survive but there will have to be democratic changes in Syria. Whatever happens it will not affect our movement in Lebanon,” the Sheikh said.
As expected he vehemently rejected the American label of Hitzbollah as a terrorist organization, pointing out most organizations who fought against occupation were labelled ‘terrorists’ by those who occupied their country though history later reclassified such terrorists as ‘patriots.’
“When we talk about terrorism why has there never been a tribunal to investigate and punish those responsible for what happened at Sabra and Shatila?” he asked.
The Sheikh had a point. While every child knows the horrors of the holocaust how many have heard about Sabra and Shatila?
Perhaps the spectre of a Palestinian State with access to International War Crimes tribunals and other U.N. agencies is what really frightens those vehemently opposed to a settlement of a Palestinian issue and the plight of a people whose unjust fate has been at the root of conflicts in the Middle East for seventy years now.
Uli Schmetzer is a former foreign correspondent for Reuters and the Chicago Tribune. He has covered the Middle East periodically since 1988. He is the author of ‘Gaza,’ ‘Times of Terror’ and ‘The Chinese Juggernaut’ all available in print or e-book on www.amazon.com