Connecticut and the Sabra-Shatila Massacre


We heard about it on radio on September 18, thirty years ago. There had been a terrible massacre at two Palestinian camps in Beirut, Lebanon. By the afternoon a score of us mounted a protest on the New Haven Green.

Our little group had been planning a teach-in to protest Israel's invasion of Lebanon. Israeli troops had invaded in June 1982, taken over all of southern Lebanon and were bombing the capital. PLO fighters and leftist Lebanese militias were resisting. Over 15,000 people had been killed. By mid-August Ronald Regan's diplomat Philip Habib (a Yale honorary degree holder) had worked out a deal. PLO militants would leave Lebanon and a multi-national force led by the U.S. would guarantee the safety of the Palestinian civilians. Over 9,000 fighters left Beirut. Then just a few weeks later the foreign protection force left Beirut, too.

On September 14 a huge bomb blast killed Bashir Gemayel, the President of Lebanon, and a score of others. He had headed the Phalange party/militia that was a fearsome force in the Lebanese civil war and an ally of Israel. Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon then made the incredible claim that there were 2,000 heavily armed Palestinian fighters still in the Beirut camps. To root them out he sent in the very same Phalange militia. The commander of the force was supposedly Eli Hobeika whose fiancée a few years earlier had been murdered in a Palestinian massacre of a Lebanese Christian town called Damour.

The Phalange went into the Palestinian camps take revenge for the assassination of Gemayel even though it was extraordinarily unlikely that Palestinians had been involved. Hundreds and hundreds of Palestinians were killed in the camps from the 15th to the 18th. Israeli searchlights provided illumination and Israeli bulldozers were leant to the Phalange to bury bodies. Estimates of the dead range from 700 to over 3,000. Few were shot. Most were knifed or bayoneted, some with gruesome sadism. A German filmmaker interviewed some of the killers about ten years ago and they explained in his film "Massaker" their mad logic of why simple killing was not enough. In '82 the U.N. declared the massacre "an act of genocide".

Our group followed its first protest rally with a bigger one a week later. One of the speakers was Richard Arens, a law school professor at the University of Bridgeport who passionately denounced the Israeli government leaders for the invasion and the massacre. What made that remarkable was that his brother, Moshe Arens, was the Israeli Ambassador to the United States.

That fall the Greek Students at Yale held a meeting about the invasion of Lebanon. Two of the speakers were Ralph Schoenman and Maya Shone. They were journalists who had been in Lebanon and were some of the first to get into the camps on the 18th. They stayed in the camps for four days, taking hundreds of photographs. The Yale meeting was tumultuous. A rabbi in the audience claimed the photos were fakes. Schoenman and Shone had to be escorted out by Yale police.

There was an immense protest rally in Israel about the massacre. Upwards of 400,000 people turned out in a country of 4 million people. Israeli Prime Minister Begin reluctantly set up a commission to study what happened and Ariel Sharon and a few others lost their government posts. That was pretty much it, however. The assassinated Lebanese Prime Minister was replaced by his brother Amin Gemayel, but he made no move to investigate the massacre. No official in the Israeli or U.S. government asked that any of the killers be arrested. No one served a day in jail for the murders. Sharon eventually became Israeli Prime Minister.

Amin Gemayel a few years later spoke at the Yale Law School. We (and by now we had formed a permanent committee, the Middle East Crisis Committee) protested his appearance. He was received with full honors. Philip Habib's reputation in Washington wasn't hurt by the betrayal of the U.S. government pledge to protect the Palestinian civilians. President Reagan awarded him the Medal of Freedom. After Habib's death in '92 his likeness was put on a U.S. postage stamp.

We haven't forgotten what happened on those September days. On the 15th of September we sponsored a grim program at the New Haven library and then marched through downtown New Haven with a drum band to memorialize and honor the victims. Thirty years after this horrible crime there has been no justice.

Well known facts about the massacre here

Richard Arens views in 1983 (by then his brother was Defense Minister)

UN declare massacre Genocide

A Lebanese confessed to killing Bashir Gemayel