Of Sabra-Shatila

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IT is impossible not to think of the gruesome Sabra-Shatila massacre 38 years ago, when one sees Israeli and UAE foreign ministers bumping elbows at the Berlin memorial to the Holocaust. Would the Israeli foreign minister, along with any of the Arab leaders, have the courage and decency to visit the site of the Sept 16, 1982 slaughter and apologise for his country’s role in the massacre at the Sabra-Shatila camp?

Also, will any Arab minister, especially someone belonging to one of those Arab governments which have recognised the Zionist state, bother some Israeli diplomat and take him to the site of the Deir Yassin massacre, where the rape and murder of Palestinian women was denounced even by a hawk like Ben Gurion, who sent a letter of apology to King Abdullah of Jordan? Not just Deir Yassin, but countless other places drenched in Palestinian blood, like Sidon or Jenin. Deir Yassin has no memorial. How could it be in a town, close to Jerusalem, that has been under Israeli occupation since 1967?

There is irony in Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan’s visit to the Holocaust site because the Arab people had no role in what happened to Jews in Nazi concentration camps. In fact Sheikh al-Nahyan’s country didn’t even exist when the Nazis were out to complete what they called the final solution to the Jewish problem. Yet contrast this with the historical truth that Israel had a role in the Sabra Shatila massacre, because Beirut was under Israeli occupation.

It is true that the massacre was carried out by Phalangist militants, led by Eli Hobeika. But Israel cannot be absolved of the crime because the Sabra-Shatila camp on the outskirts of Beirut was controlled by the Israeli army, whose fanatic efficiency in keeping track of its enemies — and friends — is legendary. (When the Israelis occupied Beirut, they had come with a map of Beirut’s electricity grid.) It is, therefore, hard to believe that the Israelis didn’t know that Sabra-Shatila was being turned into a charnel house; or that they didn’t have a foreknowledge of the Phalangist plans. The brains behind the invasion was Ariel Sharon, the Israeli defence minister, whose responsibility for the pogrom was pooh-poohed by an Israeli court. Hobeika, incidentally, was killed in a car bomb explosion after he agreed to testify against Sharon.

It is hard to believe that the Israelis didn’t know what was happening inside.

In his monumental book, Pity the Nation, Robert Fisk gives a graphic description of what he saw and the devastating psychological effects on him of a cold-blooded, scientifically organised pogrom that would teach a lesson or two in the art of genocide to Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler.

“It was,” he wrote, “the flies that told us. There were millions of them, their hum almost as eloquent as the smell. Big as blue bottles, they covered us, unaware at first of the difference between the living and the dead.” Fisk and his colleagues held handkerchiefs over their mouths and clasped them close to their noses “because the flies moved over our faces. … It made us retch”.

When they had seen a hundred bodies, “we stopped counting. … there were corpses — women, young men, babies and grandparents — lying together in lazy and terrible profusion, where they had been knifed or machine-gunned to death. … Many of the women here had been raped, their clothes lying across the floor, their naked bodies thrown on top of their husbands and brothers”.

All this, wrote Fisk, was “reminiscent of something we had all seen before. Only afterward did we realise how similar it was to those old photographs of executions in occupied Europe during the Second World War”.

The Israelis, he said, “watched it happen, that their allies — Phalangists … had been sent into Shatila and had committed this act of mass murder. Here was the gravest act of terrorism”.

Fisk went home but “felt ill, sick because of the smell of my clothes, I showered for more than an hour, but could not shake off the stench. Four hours after I had gone to bed, I woke up sweating and nauseated, convinced that the corpses of Shatila were piled on the sheets and blankets round me, that I was actually lying between the bodies, that they were all in the room”. In the morning, his cleaning lady refused to wash his clothes: “Please burn them, Mr Robert. They are not good.”

“Oh Jesus Christ! Oh Christ!”, an American journalist kept saying as he saw a baby laid out in two separate pieces on a stretcher after a car had been bombed on the coast road full of refugees fleeing the advancing. Israeli army. “I suppose all this,” he said, “is because of what Hitler did to the Jews”.

The writer is Dawn’s External Ombudsman.

Published in Dawn, October 19th, 2020