FOR those who are old enough to remember news breaking in 1982, the names Sabra and Shatila conjure up a violent and bloody image. The 17th of September 2012 is the 30th Anniversary of the massacre at the two refugee camps in Beirut that shocked the world.
I visited the still-functioning camps in 2006 following the Israeli bombing of Lebanon. They are still not for the faint-hearted. Conditions are poor and Palestinian populations yearn for their right to return to their homeland or a Palestinian state. More than 60 years after the camps first emerged, they are still waiting.
The camps were set up by UNWRA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency) in 1949, as over half a million Palestinians were driven from their homes following the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. They believed their exile would only be brief. We now know that it is permanent with no end in sight as the eternal peace process is now non-existent.
These refugees should have been safe, given their vulnerable status. The then PLO chairman, Yasser Arafat, was given a written undertaking by Philip Habib, the US special envoy of the time, that the civilian population in Beirut would not be harmed. The US was clearly not a restraining force for Israel in this war and, history now records, not in any other subsequent war either. Although figures are disputed, it is believed 3,000-3,500 died or are still missing. Civilians died in violent, degrading and inhumane ways. A significant number of the victims were Lebanese.
The most vivid account I have read is by journalist Robert Fisk, who dared to enter the camps with other journalists on the morning after. He recalls they entered at 10am on 18 September, 1982, and knew almost from the start that something really evil had happened.
“The stench in Shatila made us retch, after some minutes we began to smell the dead. They were everywhere. The Christian Militia men, whom Israel had let in to the camps to flush out “terrorists”, had only just left. When we had seen 100 bodies, we stopped counting.
“Hundreds were shot unarmed, women lying with their skirts to their knees, legs wide apart, children with their throats cut, young men shot in the back after being lined up, babies blackened already in a state of decomposition tossed in to rubbish heaps, buildings dynamited to the ground, young men shot at point blank range, some as young as 12 or 13 were castrated. 1,500 men disappeared after being taken for questioning. All killed.”
Fisk said: “There can be no doubt that Israeli forces knew there was a massacre inside the camps”
Fatima Helow, a friend of mine who has been living in Glasgow, was 10 years old when she witnessed the Israeli forces enter the camp on the first day of the massacre. She describes that the forces locked people inside the camp so that they could not escape. She says they were used as human shields to hunt down the PLO. Her cousins were killed, women were raped and she recalls pregnant women who had been attacked.
To date, there has not been not been proper accountability for this tragic event, All that happened was that the Kahan commission, Israel’s inquiry in to the massacre, concluded that Ariel Sharon, the defence minister, “bears personal responsibility” and was forced to resign. Worse still, the prospects of creating a state for Palestinians is as far way now as ever. Israel is still building hundreds of new homes in the West Bank and they have demolished thousands of Palestinian homes unlawfully.
I believe that Israel is losing the moral argument around the world about how it responds to conflict and the attacks upon itself. In Gaza, the rubble remains from the bombing of UN shelters, schools and mosques in 2009 due to the permanent siege of the tiny Palestinian enclave. There was no justice either for Rachael Corrie, the British activist killed in 2003 by a military-driven Caterpillar bulldozer when she was peacefully protesting and Turkey still awaits an apology for the nine civilians shot dead on board the protest ship the Mavi Marma in 2010.
The root of the conflict is, and remains, the occupation of the West Bank and the failure of the international community to stop the settlement building, which is now the biggest physical obstacle to a two-state solution.
Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas will very soon ask again for UN support for recognition of Palestinian statehood. Do we not at least owe the Palestinians that recognition?
We should not forget the innocents and the tragedy of Sabra and Shatila because Palestinians deserve a country and not eternal sympathy for their tragedies. For those who believe in justice and for the memory of all innocent people who have died on all sides of the conflict, we cannot be silent. «
• Pauline McNeill is a former Labour MSP and Chair of the Middle East and North Africa Forum in Scotland