[News] And so it continues: 26 years after the massacre

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Thu Sep 18 13:44:32 EDT 2008


And so it continues: 26 years after the massacre

http://electronicintifada.net/v2/article9837.shtml

Laurie King, The Electronic Intifada, 17 September 2008

This week marks the 26th anniversary of the Sabra and Shatila 
massacre, one of the bloodiest events of the second half of the 
twentieth century. A Google search for recent news reports on this 
year's commemoration of the atrocity, however, brought up very 
little. Yes, there were some emotional blog posts, as well as a link 
to the BBC's "On this Day" page, featuring quick facts and figures 
about the massacre, alongside an archival, and iconic, photograph of 
twisted corpses lying in a heap next to a cinderblock wall, the 
victims of an execution-style killing.

It has been more than a quarter of a century since more than 1,000 
unarmed men, women, and children were raped, maimed and slaughtered. 
The massacre occurred at the dividing point of the 1975-1990 Lebanese 
war. Some might say that the killings were the marker or the catalyst 
of the war's horrible turning point. Before the Israeli invasion of 
Lebanon and siege of Beirut in the summer of 1982, the Lebanese civil 
war had taken many lives and introduced new images and phrases into 
the Arabic and English languages. The Lebanese war involved many 
players and funders, not all of them local. But with the entry of the 
Israeli army and air force, Lebanon witnessed more death and 
destruction in three months than it had suffered during the previous 
seven years. Sabra and Shatila, a Palestinian refugee camp on the 
outskirts of Beirut, marked the site of the Israeli-Palestinian and 
the internal Lebanese conflicts' intersection. The front lines of 
these conflicts slashed through the refugee camps for three dark days 
and three eerily bright nights illuminated by flares that the 
surrounding Israeli army fired over the camps to assist their 
Lebanese client militia, the Phalange, in their gruesome tasks.

This is the fifth year since the Belgian cour de cassation, the 
nation's highest court, ruled that Israeli and Lebanese individuals 
who bore "command responsibility" for the massacres could be tried, 
under the principle of universal jurisdiction, for war crimes and 
crimes against humanity in Belgium. Palestinian and Lebanese 
survivors of the massacre had filed a case against the Israeli 
invasion architects, Generals Ariel Sharon and Amos Yaron, as well as 
Phalange militia commander Elie Hobeika, among others, in the Belgian 
courts in June 2001. [1]

The legal case made headlines and stirred controversy. It also gave 
the survivors a new role and identity on the world stage: engaged 
actors, not just passive victims subjected to the ancient calculus of 
war, aptly described by Thucydides: "In war, the strong do as they 
will, and the weak suffer as they must." Retelling the nightmarish 
events of the massacre was trying. Taking the risk of lodging a legal 
complaint against very powerful and influential people was brave. 
Placing faith in international justice and universal human rights was 
noble, inspiring -- and ultimately naive.

In the summer of 2003, former United States Secretary of Defense 
Donald Rumsfeld gave the Belgian government an ultimatum: either they 
rescind their universal jurisdiction law (termed the "anti-atrocity 
law" in Belgium), or the US would see to it that NATO headquarters 
was moved elsewhere. Rumsfeld was keen to protect US military 
personnel and political leaders from future prosecution for war 
crimes in Iraq. There is no statute of limitations on war crimes, and 
since universal jurisdiction holds that it is not just the right, but 
also the duty, of every state to bring war criminals to justice, 
regardless of their nationality, any state that attempted to put 
"teeth" into the principles of international humanitarian law clearly 
had to be brought back into line.

It is no exaggeration to say that the death of Belgium's universal 
jurisdiction law was another massacre, this time of ideals, hopes and 
principles. By removing a venue for the pursuit of truth, 
accountability and justice, the US administration (which, it must be 
noted, enjoyed the tacit and not-so-tacit support of other states 
fearful of being brought to account for past or current crimes) ended 
a promising chapter in the history of international justice as 
practice, not just theory.

The legal proceedings in Belgium brought press coverage and 
international expressions of solidarity and empathy to Sabra and 
Shatila -- no small feat in the immediate aftermath of the 11 
September 2001 attacks when Arabs, Muslims and Palestinians were 
being demonized as subhuman evil-doers unworthy of basic legal 
protection. Perhaps legal activism on behalf of the victims and their 
surviving families also spurred new responses to the massacres and 
their meaning in the camp itself. The mass grave site, for years an 
unkempt area that served as both a garbage dump and a soccer field, 
was cleaned up and planted with trees and roses.

Survivors-turned-plaintiffs had a chance to experience a sense of 
dignity and agency on the world stage. Lawyers and activists who 
worked on the case had a valuable opportunity to talk to audiences 
large and small throughout the world about the importance of 
international law and accountability for, and perhaps prevention of, 
heinous crimes.

The guilty got nervous; some of them, like Elie Hobeika and his 
former associate, the Phalangist leader Michael Nassar, got 
assassinated. The ultimate planner of the massacres, former Israeli 
general and then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, had to retain legal 
counsel in Belgium.

Legal proceedings in Belgium would have decisively ascertained who 
was personally responsible for the massacres. One result of the 
compilation of the testimonies and legal arguments was the discovery 
of new dimensions of the massacre, most notably the fact that over 
1,000 men and boys were trucked away from the nearby sports stadium 
(then under the complete control of the Israeli army and intelligence 
officers) in the hours after the massacre ended. They have never come 
back, and no one knows to this day exactly where they are buried. A 
court case could have answered a lot of questions and brought some 
form of closure to the bereaved.

A court case might also have clarified how and why it is that 
Palestinians can be killed, then as now, with impunity. The case in 
Belgium was dismissed in many quarters, even before Rumsfeld dealt 
the Belgian universal jurisdiction a coup de grace, as an 
"anti-Semitic" initiative, or a "politicized stunt." Harvard law 
professor Alan Dershowitz derided the case as "foolishness on 
stilts." In the first months of the case, well-meaning people asked, 
"Why Sharon? Why not Saddam? Certainly he has committed more crimes 
against humanity." Yes. Certainly there should be one yardstick for 
human rights, and grave violations of human rights continue to 
destroy lives daily in places like the Sudan and Burma. Although 
Saddam Hussein was soon toppled (in an illegal invasion) and 
eventually hanged in a Baghdad prison, no one ever said "Well, now 
that Saddam has been dealt with, I guess it would be okay to 
prosecute people responsible for the Sabra and Shatila massacre."

The US and "coalition forces" have now killed more Iraqis in a few 
years than Saddam slaughtered in decades. It is doubtful that anyone 
will ever be held accountable. The legal framework for doing so has 
virtually disappeared, and with it, the political will and emotional 
stamina to pursue justice. That is probably the whole point, though: 
to render apathy preferable to outrage, and resignation easier than hope.

In the years since the Belgian court case was filed and then quashed, 
Palestinians were subjected to "Operation Defensive Shield" in 2002. 
Gaza has been brutalized by numerous and multifarious Israeli army 
punishments. Indeed, Gaza is now the world's largest open-air prison 
and a laboratory for testing new ways to break people's spirits. 
Lebanon got to re-experience the ferocity of the Israeli air force 
again in the summer of 2006.

By and large, the international press, world leaders and even the 
United Nations remained mute and unconcerned in the face of these and 
other crimes. Even Israel's killing of American and British activists 
and journalists failed to curb the daily crimes committed in 
Palestine. Apparently, there is no bottom, no limit, and thus, no 
hope. No surprise, since there is clearly no accountability.

Despite the growth of alternative news sources and new media 
initiatives, such as The Electronic Intifada, which render the excuse 
"We did not know!" ridiculous, the killing and crushing continues. 
Paradoxically, the more that is known about human rights violations 
in Palestine, the less that seems to be done. Perhaps the immediacy 
and intensity of Internet communications lulls us into thinking we 
are doing something simply by reading or forwarding an article.

In her landmark book, On the Origins of Totalitarianism, the German 
philosopher Hannah Arendt pithily summed up why law is so important: 
"All that is necessary to achieve total domination is to kill the 
juridical in Man." The history of the Palestinian people offers a 
textbook study in the dangers of massacring law and justice. And not 
only Palestinians are affected. The denial of justice is a denial of 
humanity, a form of soul murder. There are worse things than dying. 
Ask anyone in Gaza, where the entire population is daily subjected to 
genocide on the installment plan.

These atrocities can be and are being committed, because the Sabra 
and Shatila massacre (among other crimes) was committed, and 
international justice, or at least the hope of it, was undone. 
Consequently, it is no exaggeration to say that the Sabra and Shatila 
massacre did not end 26 years ago today. It's still going on, and all 
of us are accountable.

Laurie King, a co-founder of The Electronic Intifada, was the North 
American Coordinator of International Campaign for Justice for the 
Victims of Sabra and Shatila 
(<http://indictsharon.net>http://indictsharon.net) from 2001 until 
2003. She is now the managing editor of The Journal of Palestine 
Studies in Washington, DC.


Endnotes
[1] The case lodged in Belgium on 18 June 2001 by 23 survivors of the 
1982 Sabra and Shatila massacres charged Ariel Sharon, former Israeli 
defense minister and prime minister, retired Israeli Defense Forces 
Gens. Amos Yaron and Rafael Eitan, as well as other Israelis and 
Lebanese, with war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide 
related to the massacres committed between 16-18 September 1982 in 
two refugee camps in Beirut. The central argument of the case hinges 
upon Ariel Sharon's and other Israelis' Command Responsibility as 
General and high officers of the Israeli Defense Forces, which were 
in full control of Beirut when the massacres took place in the 
contiguous refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. Although the killings 
of between 1,000-2,000 unarmed Lebanese and Palestinian civilians 
were carried out by Lebanese militia units directly or indirectly 
affiliated with the Israeli-allied Christian Lebanese Forces (the 
Phalange), the legal, military, and decision-making responsibility 
for the massacre ultimately rests with Ariel Sharon under established 
and recognized principles of international law, most notably the 
Fourth Geneva Convention.



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