Thirty Years Ago This Week: 1,700 Palestinians are massacred in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps under the direct responsibility of the then Israeli defense minister Ariel Sharon, who was later elected prime minister
The 1982 massacres of Palestinians at Sabra and Shatila refugee camps claimed the lives of 1,700 civilians, murdered by Lebanese Christian militiamen allied to Israel during its brief occupation of the Lebanese capital, Beirut.
The killings are considered the worst atrocity of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war and perhaps during the entire Middle East conflict.
The victims had been left defenceless after Israel drove the Syrian army and fighters belonging to Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) from the Lebanese capital.
The expulsion of the PLO was the result of Israel’s “Operation Peace for Galilee” invasion, masterminded by then-Defence Minister Ariel Sharon, to eradicate the “terrorist threat” posed by the Palestinians’ military presence in Lebanon.
The slaughter was carried out by fighters from the Lebanese Forces militia (LF), linked to the Christian Phalange group, who were hungry for revenge for the killing of the Phalange leader Bashir Gemayel in a car bomb two days earlier.
PLO forces withdrew in a US-mediated ceasefire at the beginning of September.
Mr Sharon declared that “2,000 terrorists” remained in Palestinian refugee camps around Beirut. Sabra and Shatila were surrounded by Israeli tanks and soldiers, with checkpoints to monitor the entry or exit of any person.
But on the afternoon of 16 September about 150 LF fighters moved into the camps.
Survivors say that the killers went from house to house, threatening to blow up buildings if the residents did not come out.
The survivors reported overhearing the Phalangists telling one another to use axes to kill their victims, because the sound of gunfire would alert others to their fate.
"They killed my sister’s husband in front of me," said survivor Nadima Nasser. "I saw them shooting at the men. They killed them all. I fled."
Mrs Nasser is one of 23 survivors who have lodged a legal case against Mr Sharon in Belgium, where the law allows him to be tried for alleged crimes committed abroad.
Her testimony, along with others is included on a newly-launched internet site about the massacres, Justice for the Victims of Sabra and Shatila.
Mr Sharon resigned his post after an Israeli commission of inquiry established that he bore indirect responsibility for the deaths for “having disregarded the danger of acts of vengeance” by the militias when he allowed them into the camps.
The Kahane Commission inquiry said LF intelligence chief Elie Hobeika had direct responsibility, because he ordered the killings.
Mr Hobeika denied involvement in the killings right up to his death in a car bomb attack on 24 January 2002.
Outside Israel, human rights groups have long argued that Mr Sharon and the Lebanese Christian perpetrators should be tried for war crimes.
In January 2001, in the run-up to Israeli elections in which he won a resounding victory, Mr Sharon expressed regret about the “terrible tragedy,” but refused to apologise or accept any responsibility for the massacres.
The Belgian court is still deciding whether to pursue charges of crimes against humanity against Mr Sharon.
Hobeika had said he would testify against the Israeli Prime Minister and had “important revelations” to make.
Photo: (World Press Photo Winner 1982) Aftermath of massacre of Palestinians by Israeli soldiers and Christian Phalangists in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, Beirut, Lebanon, 18 September 1982. Robin Moyer / Black Star for Time