Lebanon has a great deal to be concerned about: the absence of a president, the most concentrated refugee influx per capita in the world, a poor economic outlook, latent terror threats and failing infrastructure. And whilst perhaps it has become a cliché, the fact is many of the problems affecting the country remain connected to its former civil war and to its neighbours, Israel, Syria and Palestine.
The calm conditions I experienced in Lebanon in June belied the difficult circumstances that face this dysfunctional yet remarkably resilient state. Despite a litany of difficulties, many of which require solutions that lie beyond the capacity of the Lebanese government, the Lebanese are currently doing what they always do and getting on with life. This involves forgetting the past—something that has become a Lebanese way of coping. But the effects of the events they choose to forget refuse to go away, not least because so many of them impact the way Lebanon is today.
Perhaps then it’s unsurprising that last month, the 34th anniversary of one tragic event in Lebanese history came and went without a great deal of fuss.
September 16 is a painful day for Lebanon, marking the massacres that took place in the Palestinian camps of Sabra and Shatila in South Beirut. In the summer of 1982 the southern half of Lebanon was occupied by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) up to Beirut. This was an Israeli strategy to rid it of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), which had established a state within a state and was launching attacks on Israel from Lebanon. Beirut had been under siege for 70 days as part of the IDF campaign and eventually a deal was brokered between the PLO and Israel by the US whereby the PLO agreed to leave Lebanon. From 21 August until 1 September the PLO, supervised by US marines, evacuated from Lebanon for Tunisia with Yassar Arafat still claiming victory. Weeks later, on 14 September, the newly elected Presidentof Lebanon, Bashir Gemayal (a Christian), was assassinated. Pro-Syrian factions are now held responsible for his murder but at the time the Palestinians were blamed.
On the evening of 16 September, tanks rolled up to the Sabra and Shatila camps which lacked military protection because of the PLO withdrawal. A Christian militia called the Phalange, led by a man called Elie Hobeika, entered the camps. They said that they came to cleanse the camps of Palestinian terrorists whom they blamed for Gemayal’s murder. To aid them in their task, the IDF sent flares up into the sky to light up the camps which then—as today— were short on street lighting.
The massacre lasted for between 48 and 72 hours. On the third day, Western journalists entered the camps and produced horrific reports of the death and destruction; victims brutalised included women and children. The number of deaths are still only estimates—from 700 to 3,500; most agree it was no less than 1,700 but the swift cover up made an accurate body count impossible. On 16 December 1982, the United Nations General Assembly condemned the massacre and declared it to be an act of genocide.
The massacres continue to affect Palestinians and Lebanese alike. Firstly, because around a quarter of the victims were Lebanese married to Palestinian women and living in the camps; but also because the party that did the killing was a Lebanese Christian militia that has never been brought to justice. Ironically, Israel has most prominently acknowledged its role in the massacres at Sabra and Shatila through the Kahane Commission, although it did not find the IDF to be directly responsible.
The massacre triggered the resignation—but not the political elimination—of then Defence Minister Arial Sharon and the dismissal of General Raful Eitan, the Israeli Army chief of staff. In 2008, Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman produced a powerful film about the event entitled ‘Waltz with Bashir’. Other states have done less to acknowledge their involvement: Syria and its role in the murder of Gemayal that triggered the massacre; and the US that guaranteed the safety of Palestinians after the withdrawal of the PLO but took reassurances from the Israelis and Lebanese militia at face value at the time of the event.
Sabra and Shatila are not the only forgotten massacres that took place during the civil war. Bashir Gemayal is implicated as the leader of a 1976 attack that wiped out the Palestinian camp, Tal al-Zaatar, that existed in Qarantina just north of Beirut. Today Qarantina is an unoccupied industrial area home to a large nightclub called BO18 which occupies the space where the Palestinian camp was thought to exist before the massacre. In a macabre acknowledgement of the atrocities it is built underground as if a grave and has seats shaped as coffins to acknowledge the gruesome events that occurred in its location. In many ways this is one of the more honest acknowledgements of the events of the civil war.
Anyone wishing to understand why Lebanon has refused to build refugee camps for the Syrians has to be cognisant of the painful legacy of the Palestinian camps in Lebanon. These days the Palestinian camps have a high crime rate and some camps, such as Ain al-Hilweh in the south outside Sidon, are believed to be hotbeds of Islamic extremism.
The war in Syria has driven another wave of refugees into the camps: it is now estimated that one in four residents of the Palestinian camps are Syrian. Resentment towards the Syrians in Lebanon is strong, not just because of the recent influx but because of the years of Syrian occupation during the war. As such, the Lebanese government is not keen to recreate the conditions that might lead to a third nationality—in their view, potentially a fifth column settling permanently in Lebanon.
The Palestinian issue remains unsettled because Lebanese politicians argue that any peace settlement necessarily involves providing a solution for the Palestinians residing in Lebanon. They state that the Palestinian issue is an international issue that requires international solutions, and is not therefore just a Lebanese problem.
Understandably perhaps, the feeling among the Lebanese is that it is the stranger, the other that has caused so much political tension in the country. Often, when I ask Lebanese in Lebanon what started the civil war, they immediately respond “the Palestinians”. It has also been speculated by many that in its attempts to move on, Lebanon continues to be haunted by unresolved past injustices.
Disentangling right from wrongdoing in a system governed by former civil war figures remains too painful and difficult for Lebanon to contemplate.
Dr Vanessa Newby is a scholar at the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at the Australian National University. She obtained her PhD in international relations from Griffith University, and has lived in both Lebanon and Syria.
This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.