State of Israel Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, pictured during a defense meeting held at the Pentagon in Washington, District of Columbia (DC). (Photo: DoD)

The American novelist William Faulkner noted that “the past isn’t dead – it isn’t even past.” As another anniversary of the September 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre comes and goes, the past speaks to us in new ways, telling us that some things we always suspected might actually be true. Every massacre is equally horrific, but every massacre is also uniquely particular to its time, place, perpetrators, victims, and survivors. Comparing massacres can quickly devolve into an ugly numbers game in which final death tolls are debated and survivors’ suffering minimized or even denied. Lebanon witnessed numerous massacres during the war of 1975-1990. The names Karantina, Damour, and Tel Az-Zaatar conjure up painful memories of carnage and horror, yet these massacres haven’t cast a long shadow down through the years like the Sabra and Shatila massacre has. Although the final death tolls at Tel Az-Zaatar and Sabra and Shatila were similarly high, the 1982 massacre registers in historical memory beyond Lebanon as a water-shed atrocity, comparable to Srebrenica, Guernica, Wounded Knee, and Deir Yassin.

The Sabra and Shatila massacre, which took place from 16-18 September 1982, marked the gruesome and deadly intersection of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Lebanese Civil War. The killings took place in a war-damaged and besieged city, then occupied by the Israeli Army under the command of Ariel Sharon. The refugees in Sabra and Shatila were particularly vulnerable; their leadership, the PLO, with Yasser Arafat at its head, and most of their armed protectors had left a month earlier, upon obtaining solemn and written guarantees that the women, children, and elderly they were leaving behind would be protected. Those solemn guarantees came from and were backed by the government of the United States through its officials and diplomats, most notably Lebanese-American Philip Habib. The killers were Lebanese Christian rightwing militia members, under the direct command of the Israeli Army. The spark for launching the massacre was the assassination of Bashir Gemayel, Israel’s key ally in Lebanon, on September 14th.

In those long-ago days before the cell phones, social media, Instagram, and YouTube, narratives of the unfolding massacre were largely verbal and after-the-fact. No one had pictures or film footage of the actual killings in the camps to prove conclusively that the Israelis had orchestrated the massacre and helped carry it out. Immediately after the massacre became known to the world, and for years after that, Israel denied direct involvement. The late Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who was head of the Israeli government throughout the 1982 invasion and the massacre, said “Goyim kill goyim, and the world blames the Jews!” dismissively repudiating questions about Israel’s culpability. But anyone who was in or near the camps during those three chilling days in September 1982 knew unequivocally that Israel was very much involved in the massacre.

A Jewish American nurse from Baltimore, Maryland, Ellen Siegel, was working as a volunteer in the Gaza Hospital in the camp, and gave testimony months later before the Kahane Commission in Israel, an investigative body that had no judicial force. Siegel related that Christian militia men had led her and other foreign doctors and nurses out of the hospital, lined them up against a wall, presumably to be executed, but then suddenly halted their plans upon hearing from someone outside the camps over a walkie-talkie who could see—and stop–what was happening. Someone gave the killers the order not to kill foreigners. Someone was orchestrating the killings. That someone was undoubtedly Israeli, watching the killings from a command post atop the nearby Kuwaiti Embassy.

In the award-winning 2009 Israeli animated film, Waltz with Bashir, the main character, a middle aged Israeli man disturbed by nightmares of his time serving in the IDF in Lebanon, leads us on a journey of conversations with his friends and comrades, trying to remember exactly what happened in Sabra and Shatila, and wondering whether he was responsible. By the end of the film, we see him and his fellow soldiers swimming at night in the sea, as illumination flares launch and fill the skies with a sickly yellow light. The audience sees that the flares, launched by the Israeli Army, were meant to facilitate the killers’ gruesome tasks. We get the message: Israel was involved, and perhaps it’s only 30 years later that some of the soldiers are coming to terms with their guilt and questioning the official narrative. For Arab audiences, Israel’s culpability seems laughably obvious, but for Israeli audiences, it was still controversial to discuss Israel’s role in the massacre in such a public manner.

In 2001, some survivors of the Sabra and Shatila massacre were transformed from objects of pity and horror into active legal subjects in an international criminal case brought before the courts in Brussels under the principle of universal jurisdiction for international humanitarian crimes. Their eyewitness testimonies and their painful narratives of how the massacre affected them over their entire lives found permanent, printed form in a landmark legal case. Although the trial never came to pass, thanks to interference from Donald Rumsfeld, then Defense Secretary in the Administration of George W. Bush, the killers and orchestraters of the massacre certainly experienced anxieties over prosecution for the first time in their lives. One of the accused, Elias Hobeika, was killed by a car bomb soon after indicating he was willing to travel to Brussels to give testimony about his role in the massacre, which would have also provided information about Israel’s role and command responsibility for everything that happened over those three days. [Readers can find the complete archive of the 2001-2003 Belgian Court Case at this weblink: ]

Over the past few years, we have learned more not only about Israeli responsibility for the massacre, but about U.S. complicity and collusion as well. Of course, for anyone who lived through the war and the massacre, this is not a surprise. But for Americans, especially, the testimonies of Palestinians are not deemed as trustworthy as the words of Israelis. Which is ironic, since written records of meetings between Ariel Sharon and American diplomats that took place during the massacre show clearly that Sharon repeatedly lied to and verbally abused American officials. These documents, part of the secret appendix to the Kahane Commission report, were released in 2013, and are available in the Israeli state archives, as well as online at

Thirty-six years after a massacre that lives on in the nightmares of the world, at a time when there is little or no distance between the views, policies, and tactics of the US and Israeli governments, the failings and weaknesses of the US government in controlling the viciousness of Ariel Sharon back in 1982 is particularly disturbing. In 1982, some American officials were ready and willing to call the Israelis what they were – monsters. Now, however, the rhetoric of Donald Trump, his so-called Middle East Peace team, and Binyamin Netanyahu are virtually indistinguishable. As we watch the US carry out long-held Israeli desires to erase Palestinian refugees as legal and political actors—if not as living, breathing human beings–by cutting funds to UNRWA and targeting the Palestinians’ right of return at the United Nations, we see that the past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past for refugees who are now every bit as vulnerable as they were that long ago September in Sabra and Shatila.

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