[News] And so it continues: 26 years after the massacre
news at freedomarchives.org
Thu Sep 18 13:44:32 EDT 2008
And so it continues: 26 years after the massacre
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. 
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,
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.
 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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