The Sabra & Shatila massacre echoes past & ongoing Palestinian suffering

The Sabra & Shatila massacre echoes past & ongoing Palestinian suffering
Still no justice for Palestinians 41 yrs since the Sabra & Shatila massacre when 3,500 were killed by Israel’s Lebanese militia allies. Given Palestinian refugees' ongoing oppression, their struggle must be constantly remembered, writes Rami Rmeileh.
6 min read
18 Sep, 2023
Today, violence continues to be inflicted on Palestinians in Lebanon who are strangled by the country’s legal system and its economic restrictions, writes Rami Rmeileh.

On 16 September 1982, the residents of Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut, most of whom were women, children, and the elderly, thought that the terror of the Lebanese Civil War and the Israeli invasion was to halt after the departure of their defenders, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). They were left completely unarmed and defenceless.

The two camps’ residents, many refugees from East Beirut and other camps that had been destroyed by either Israel or Lebanese militias, were gathering the little pieces of hope left after 34 years of displacement and 7 years of bloody clashes. They had blind trust in humanity, believing that innocent, unarmed lives would not to be killed, particularly following the promise that was made by the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) to US diplomat, Philip Habib, who had facilitated the withdrawal of the PLO from Lebanon. However, the IOF and their right-wing allies in Lebanon had other plans.

Palestinians who had escaped death in previous massacres, were far from safe.

''Whilst Palestinians continue to live in the shadow of death, often referring to themselves as ‘forgotten’, they also describe themselves as ‘never forgetting’. They remain unwaveringly loyal to the struggle for liberation, and continue to live for the return to Palestine.''

No life spared

Before sunset, Israeli tanks and troops sieged the parameters of Sabra and Shatila, positioning their snipers around the camps’ exits. The Israelis handed out body bags to fighters from the right-wing Christian Kataeb party (also known as the Phalange) and the South Lebanon army and gave them the green light to storm the camp. These fighters were motivated by the assassination of Lebanese Forces commander Bachir Gemayel, who had been elected president weeks prior, which they wrongfully blamed the Palestinians for.

For 43 hours, day and night, entire families were rounded up and killed in horrific ways while the Israelis used flares to light up the area. Women were raped and killed in front of their children, new-born babies were mutilated and stabbed, there were disembowelled pregnant women, others were buried alive and/or dumped in mass graves. Testimonies reveal that the Lebanese used even IOF bulldozers to destroy houses in order to make sure the people were dead.

No life was spared.

In total, around 3,500 Palestinians, Lebanese, and others from undocumented nationalities were brutally murdered. The UN called it an act of genocide, and international audiences were outraged when horrific images were circulated. This only dehumanised the victims further in their deaths.

As for the global condemnations, the only action that followed was aid donations.

The absence of justice

To this day the perpetrators have not been brought to justice.

Although Ariel Sharon, Israel’s defense minister, was found ‘indirectly’ responsible for the massacre by the Israeli Knesset’s Kahan Commission of Inquiry, he was later rewarded with the position of Prime Minister. A group of 28 survivors brought a lawsuit against Sharon in the Belgian courts in 2001, but their case was dismissed under pressure from the US and Israel.

Further to this, Elie Hobeika, the Lebanese Christian warlord who commanded the force that entered the camp and carried out the massacres, had agreed to testify against Sharon in court, but was assassinated in 2002.

Other leaders remain free, including Fadi Ephram, who was the Phalangist chief of staff, and several other militia leaders are still in positions of power in the right-wing parties in Lebanon.

As for the militia fighters, when film director Lokman Slim interviewed six of the perpetrators in his documentary Massaker (2005), none showed any remorse and even narrated in detail their horrific acts. They explained how prior to the massacre, the IOF took them to training camps in Occupied Palestine and made them watch Holocaust documentaries where the fighters were told it would happen to them too as a minority in Lebanon if they did not take action against the Palestinians. The fighters subsequently developed newfound hatred for Palestinians. Israel had bred monsters.

Indeed, the Sabra and Shatila massacres signalled a new and difficult era for Palestinians in Lebanon where they faced terror and exclusion. Simultaneously, they were also being denied the right of return by Israel, were neglected by the Palestinian leadership, and were met with global silence.

Furthermore, the massacre was followed by years of torture, interrogations, kidnapping, shootings and intimidation. The goal of this violence, facilitated and incentivised by Israel, was to push Palestinians out of Lebanon and as far as possible from their uprooted villages in occupied Palestine.

Today, violence continues to be inflicted on Palestinians in Lebanon who are strangled by the country’s legal system and its economic restrictions.

Even the strategy of Lebanon’s right wing in the 80s, to push Palestinians out of the country, has now become practically impossible. The people are trapped in closed camps– suffocated with chronic poverty, unemployment, poor health, and lack of education.

The situation has forced Palestinians to take drastic measures, at times paying with their lives in an attempt to leave Lebanon. Just last year, 25 Palestinians, including 6 from Shatila, drowned when the Tartus boat sank off the coast of Tripoli.

Palestinians are also left without resources to combat the drug lords and Islamist militias that use the camps as their bases. The clashes in Ain al Hilweh seen in recent weeks, are facilitated by the Lebanese government and other complicit factions whose goal is the destruction of the Palestinian camps and their social fabric.

Just like the massacres, such events serve to satisfy the long-awaited aspirations of some Lebanese parties, whilst also aiding Israel’s goal of distancing Palestinians from its borders.



Refugee camps in Lebanon have always been sites of intensified suffering by some of the worst systems of oppression that humanity has produced. And Palestinians have known all too well that their hardship is the product of intersecting issues that play out within the camps: imperialism, settler colonialism, capitalism and neoliberalism. This is why they have revolted in the past, rather than waited to be further abandoned by external forces.

Whilst the population continues to live in the shadow of death, often referring to themselves as ‘forgotten’, they also describe themselves as ‘never forgetting’. They remain unwaveringly loyal to the struggle for liberation, and continue to live for the return to Palestine.

They may have been betrayed by nations and neighbours, but they still have faith in humanity. For this to continue to be the case, and in the absence of a united Palestinian leadership, it is the role of the Palestinian diaspora and global allies, to reinforce a commitment to the struggle of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. They must be remembered not only during significant anniversaries.

Praising Palestinians for their resilience and marking horrific moments in their history is insincere if it is not followed by the political commitment to achieve their right of return, and justice.

The Sabra and Shatila massacre echoes the ongoing demand for the rights of all Palestinians – the living and the martyred.

Rami Rmeileh is a social psychologist and a doctoral researcher at the University of Exeter - Institute of Arab and Islamic studies.

Follow him on Twitter: @RamiRmeileh

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.