The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) had invaded Lebanon in June 1982 with the goal of pushing out the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). After newly-elected President Bashir Gemayel was assassinated on September 14th, the IDF invaded West Beirut, which included the Sabra neighborhood and the Shatila refugee camp, which predominately housed Muslim refugees. The IDF ordered their allies in Lebanon, the Kataeb Party (also called the Phalange), a right-wing Maronite Christian party, to clear the area of PLO militants to facilitate the IDF advance.
On the night of September 16th, Phalange militants entered the camp and began to massacre refugees. The killing continued throughout the night until a halt was called by the IDF the next day. Since the massacre, there have been several investigations into Israeli involvement and whether or not an order to kill civilians came from the Israeli government. A commission by the Israelis shortly after the massacre found that the IDF had not called for the attack but had not made adequate attempts to stop it after learning of the situation.
Robert Dillon was the Ambassador to Lebanon and recalls the events which led up to the massacre during a 1990 interview with Charles Stuart Kennedy. Anne Dammarell was a USAID (United States Agency for International Development) officer in Beirut at the time, and visited Sabra and Shatila shortly after the massacre took place. She recounts that trip to Charles Stuart Kennedy in 2013.
You can read other Moments on Lebanon as well as Ambassador Dillon’s and Anne Dammarell’s account of the 1983 Beirut embassy bombing. Go here to read about the death of Ambassador Meloy and Robert Waring in 1976.
Bashir Gemayel’s Assassination
Robert Dillon, Ambassador to Lebanon, 1981-1983
DILLON: When Bashir Gemayel was elected President, even though some people considered him a “thug” and a fighter, many of us thought he was a good choice…He had progressed from being a fighter to a fairly astute politician. He had covert relations with the Israelis, which was an anathema to other Lebanese.
On the other hand, he had a vision of Lebanon which included Muslims, unlike many Maronites who did not see such a multi-religious community. He recognized the necessity of dealing with the Shiites and was elected with a good deal of support from that community. He didn’t get any support, nor did he seek it, from the old line Sunni Muslim leadership which was the traditional leadership that the Maronites and American administrations had always dealt with.
In Beirut, there was a vacuum; only local police were patrolling the streets. No armies or militias were in the city. A very few days after the evacuation of PLO [Palestinian Liberation Organization] forces, Bashir went to a Phalange Party meeting in Ashrafiyah, which was its stronghold.
The Phalange was the right-wing party led by Bashir’s father. In effect, what Bashir was doing was having a series of victory celebrations and was using them with some skill, not simply to gloat on the victory, but to prepare for what had to be done after the victory — repair ties, reassure people who might not have been enthusiastic that he would be cooperative and so on.
The Phalange by this time had came to understand that their name was an unfortunate one stemming from Franco’s fascist regime in Spain….So they simply called themselves Kataeb, which simply meant “The organization” and that is how we in the Embassy referred to them. A Kataeb headquarters was in an apartment in Ashrafiyah, which was in East Beirut.
Since all the Muslims had been expelled from that area, there were only Christians in that neighborhood, mostly Maronites. The apartment house in addition to holding offices had also people living in it. One of the families that lived there was the Shartouni family who were Greek-Orthodox. As we later found out, some members of that family had been involved with groups that favored the union of Lebanon and Syria. People who subscribed to this policy were mainly Greek-Orthodox, although undoubtedly there were members of other faiths who believed in a “greater” Syria.
Bashir’s murder was caused by a large bomb being placed in the apartment above the Phalange headquarters…When the bomb went off, a number of people were killed. A number of hours passed before it was established that Bashir had been among the dead. In the meantime, there were many rumors that he was still alive, although within a couple of hours we were certain that he had been assassinated….
“They entered Sabra and Shatila and began to kill people systematically”
So now Bashir is dead. Some hours later, the Israelis announced that they were moving into Beirut to “restore order.” There was no disorder. People were stunned; the Muslims were extremely apprehensive because they were afraid that the assassination would open them to massacres.
The Israelis moved in, over our objections, and took over the entire city. Subsequently some Muslims professed to believe that Bashir had been killed by the Israelis because he had made it clear that he would not front for them. He had had a stormy meeting with [Prime Minister Menachem] Begin during which he had made it clear that he intended to be the President of all of Lebanon.
As far as we know, the Israelis did not kill Bashir, but I would guess that they were looking for a pretext to occupy Beirut because they believed that “enemies” lived there and they wanted to get them. The Israelis are big on “enemies”. They did over-run Beirut and killed some people in the process….
On the edge of the city was a neighborhood called Sabra; in its center was a refugee camp called Shatila. The Israelis surrounded Sabra, cut it off completely. They mounted searchlights from buildings nearby to illuminate Sabra and Shatila.
They allowed a group of Maronite fighters, all part of the militia, under the command of Eli Hobeika, who had been Bashir’s personal bodyguard, and whom I had known well. He was a pathological killer. The group was fairly large.
They entered Sabra and Shatila and began to kill people systematically. All the Palestinian fighters had been evacuated; there were almost no adult males. There were elderly men, women and children.
By this time, I was in Washington. I was actually at the White House when the report of Bashir’s assassination came in. I remember someone asking me who the next President would be; I immediately said it would be his older brother, Amin, which turned out to be correct. We all became very apprehensive about the Israeli entrance into the city.
Then word came that “something was going on in the camps.” As soon as I heard that, I felt sick because I guessed what would be going on. Our political officer, Ryan Crocker, and a couple of newspaper men got into Sabra and Shatila, about 48 hours after the beginning of the massacre. They were absolutely sickened by the mounds of bodies they saw. At a minimum, there were several hundreds of people killed, but the murders were still going on.
Then there was an international outcry and the Maronite operation came to a halt. The Maronites withdrew. The Palestinians estimated that 2,000 people were killed; later an Israeli inquiry established the number at 850, which I think was a whitewash. The area stunk with the smell of bodies.
“You promised us they’d be taken care of, that they’d be safe”
Anne Dammarell, USAID-General Development Officer, Beirut, 1980-1984
DAMMARELL: After Bashir was killed that Thursday night I was in Yarze and I stood outside on the terrace. Underneath there was a swimming pool, I think. We were high up on the hill, so I could look out and see the city. The city was ablaze with yellow flares in the sky.
It looked like a 19th century stage because of the yellow sulfur-like glow. You could see everything. I had no idea — I had not seen flares like that before, I had heard fighting before, I had seen rockets before, but I had not seen it so constant like that. I had no idea what it meant. But I remember being very relaxed and having a beer with some guy who had recently arrived….
On Saturday morning Bob Pierson [a USAID intern] and I went to a meeting in West Beirut called by the UN Rep, Iqbal Akhund. He wanted to discuss housing. So when we got there — by this time we were able to drive — I think it was 8:00 in the morning — we found Iqbal and he was confused. He looked really worried. And he said, “I don’t know what to make of it, of that woman that just left.” We didn’t see anybody.
“The woman that just left told me a story, I can’t believe it…” She was working in a hospital in Sabra-Shatila and reported that people came in and asked if anybody was a Palestinian. When the doctor raised his hand or indicated that he was, they took him out and shot him. She became — hysterical was the word.
She wanted to save the children and was told, “Well, you can only save as many as you can carry out.” So she picked up two children and left. I told Iqbal we’d go back to Yarze — because the telephones didn’t work we had only walkie-talkies — and report what he’d said and when he got that written report — because he had asked her to write up a report — we’d pick that up and bring it back to Yarze.
As we left Bob said, “We’ve got to go to the embassy first to check if they know anything.” Well, I should say, we had already moved out of West Beirut and the embassy was closed. We were located to the east side when it had become too dangerous living in West Beirut. So, we were living on the eastside.
When we went to the embassy there was somebody at the door. He said, “No, he had heard nothing.” A couple of foreigners, Europeans, came by and Bob talked to them. They had heard similar stories. But they didn’t have much information….Bob said, “Let’s go to Sabra-Shatila.” And I said no…
When the Palestinians left Jordan and they settled in — originally they were welcomed into Lebanon — Sabra-Shatila area. They’re called camps, but they were suburbs….It was a slum area. It was a poor area. They were mainly Palestinians, but they had other foreign nationals living there too. So when Bob wanted to go there to check it out personally, I said no because I didn’t want to — I said, “I don’t want to risk it” and also I wanted to go back and report.
So we drove back and went out to Yarze. Morrie Draper was there and he was very upset. He was very worried and pacing about. “What are you doing over there?” Because we were AID we had a little more latitude to travel. We were allowed to visit project sites….
[The massacre] stopped Saturday morning when word got out. The women, I understand it was the women, took the bodies of the dead because Muslims have to be buried within 24 hours. There were bodies that they couldn’t get because the slabs of cement, the sides of the walls of the building covered them.
So once again, Iqbal Akhund called a meeting and the reps — I don’t know who was there — a lot of Europeans and asked if anybody would like to go with him to the Prime Minister to seek permission to have [prominent businessman and later Prime Minister of Lebanon] Rafik Hariri’s construction workers remove the slabs that covered the dead…
We knew the engineers because of our projects and Hariri said it would be all right for them to help, so that the dead could be found. I volunteered to go with Iqbal. Surprisingly there was another — the only other person was a woman. She was Shia from the south. We had worked together….
The three of us went to see the Prime Minister to get permission. My French is not that strong, but it was strong enough to know what he was saying. He was livid. He kept looking at me and he would do this. He said, “You promised us, you promised us they’d be taken care of, they’d be safe. They’d be safe.” Meaning that when the PLO fighters left we promised that we would take care of their families, we would protect the families…
I felt like I was a worm. It was terrible. Then he gave us permission. So we go off …to Sabra-Shatila to see what to report. When we were there, it was isolated. When you walked into that section of town it was like a huge football field, everything was plowed down. It was empty.
Then we got to a point where the buildings were still standing. The houses were made of cement. And the façades on the houses that we could see were falling down. They were like dollhouses. You could look inside.
And the first thing that caught my eye was a picture of The Last Supper. So I thought, “Oh my God, Christians lived here.” I just assumed they would all be Muslims. There was a plate of olives and children’s toys.
The woman with me said to me, “Look at this — can we look at this?” It was a huge circle of fresh earth. We found out later that’s where a lot of people were dumped, the bodies were dumped.
She said, “Can’t you see that child’s hand?” And I instinctively turned around, didn’t look at it. Then we walked into this maze of houses. You know what these communities are like. You just twist around — you could easily get lost.
There was blood everywhere. By this time it was brown globs and congealed. And it was against the wall. It was everywhere. I didn’t step in it, but it was prevalent. There were arrows on the walls. I remember in one section seeing arrows pointing this way to exit, to show you how to get out. There was graffiti. They wouldn’t translate for me, so it must have been vulgar. But there was the icon of a little Christmas tree, of the Phalange, that’s their symbol. That was there. And they had a penis and testicles next to it. There was something written in Arabic.
We went around to the hospital area — the blood is the thing that came to me, and the stench. The stench, the sweet smell of death is horrible. We heard a woman wailing, really a wail. Kind of a rhythmic wail. There was a woman dressed in black sitting on the ground with her back against a tree wailing.
The Phalange did the killing, but they couldn’t have done it alone
Her husband came out and talked to us. He said, “We’ve just come back. This is our home. When I had heard them yell — when I heard them yell I got into my truck and put my children and my wife in the truck and we went out the back way.” He worked for the city and had a truck, a city truck. And that’s how he got out. It turned out he had two boys. Eventually they came out from inside their home. They were hiding. After about five minutes they came out. They were like 14, 15. They were kind of stunned, they seemed dumbfounded. So that was our first exposure. Then after — I don’t know if it was the next day or not — we had talked to the Prime Minister, we went back.
This time Peter McPherson must have come a second time, because I think Peter [Cody, United States Agency for International Development representative] was there. But I’m not sure. Maybe it was just Iqbal. But there was a lot of activity.
The ICRC, International Committee of the Red Cross, came in and they had thrown lime over the bodies. So you didn’t see bodies. The bodies were desiccated. And Hariri’s people were pulling away the debris. It was sad. The only time other than that that I had ever seen a body was in the south….
Q: This Sabra-Shatila was done by essentially Christian militia…But there’s been many accusations, probably credible, of Israeli, at least of nothing else they didn’t stop it.
DAMMARELL: Israelis were very active in Beirut. First of all, Israel had occupied, they were the occupiers of that city. They stood around. They had guards standing around so that the Phalange militia could go in and not be interrupted. Every Lebanese I ever knew talked politics at a drop of a hat. With Sabra-Shatila, they didn’t want to say peep. They didn’t want to discuss it. People wept, they cried, but it was a taboo topic.
At first we didn’t know what had happened. I mean who knew — at least I didn’t know. I wasn’t a political analyst, mind you. The first credible account came from an Israeli journalist. Some guy, I thought I’d never forget his name, several days later called for an official inquiry and he laid blame on the Israelis for their role.
It was definitely the Phalange who did the killing, but they couldn’t have done it alone.