Sabra and Shatilah, the forgotten massacre

Sept. 17, 2012 at 1:42 PM
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BEIRUT, Lebanon, Sept. 17 (UPI) -- The day Pope Benedict XVI ended an acclaimed "peace pilgrimage" to Lebanon, urging an end to the Syrian bloodbath, Palestinians marked the 30th anniversary of the massacre of hundreds of their compatriots by Christian militiamen in Beirut.

There's a vivid counterpoint there, the Middle East's past as present, an unending spiral of conflict with no end in sight.

The killers in the slaughter in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in West Beirut have never been brought to justice, although some of those involved have been stricken down in other ways.

Some have joined a long list of political assassinations in Lebanon, a grisly process that continues to this day.

The massacre took place Sept. 16-18, 1982, three months into an invasion in which the Israeli military seized Beirut at the height of the Lebanon's civil war. In 72 hours of that mind-boggling chaos, of wars within wars, Phalangist militiamen systematically and mercilessly murdered unarmed men, women and children.

No one really knows how many bodies are buried in Sabra. The death toll ranges from 800-3,500.

Whatever the body count, the massacre's considered to be the worst atrocity in the 15-year civil war and possibly during the entire Arab-Israeli conflict.

The slaughter was supposedly an act of revenge for the assassination a few days earlier of President-elect Bashir Gemayel, the Phalangists' charismatic leader who was Israel's closest ally in Lebanon.

Palestinians were blamed for the bombing at Gemayel's party headquarters in East Beirut but it was more likely carried out by Syria to prevent Lebanon falling under Israeli control.

The killing in the camps even went on at night. Israeli troops ringing the squalid shantytowns left defenseless by the retreat of Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization, fired illumination flares to help the Phalangists carry out the attack.

An Israeli government inquiry later ruled that Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon was indirectly responsible by "ignoring the danger of bloodshed and revenge."

Sharon, who supposedly duped Israel's government into launching a full-scale invasion of Lebanon without the government knowing he wanted to turn the country into a Christian-dominated ally, was dismissed as defense minister.

No Israeli official, however, has ever been brought to book.

Sharon later became prime minister. Five years ago, he suffered two massive strokes, fell into a coma. He's still on life-support.

An Israeli commission concluded that the Lebanese Christian who led the death squads in Sabra and Shatila, Elie Hobeika, then intelligence chief of the Phalangist Lebanese Forces militia, bore direct responsibility for the killings.

Hobeika, one of the most notorious warlords of the 1975-90 civil war, defected to the Syrians and masterminded the assassination of political rivals of Damascus with what one observer called "reckless abandon."

He later held several Cabinet positions in Syrian-approved post-war government.

In one of those twists of bizarre irony, his portfolios included minister for the displaced, the hundreds of thousands of Lebanese left homeless by a conflict in which some 150,000 people were killed.

The Syrians found Hobeika to be something of a liability in the post-war years and withdrew their protection, a serious problem for a man with as many enemies as he had.

Things got worse in June 2001, when Palestinian survivors of Sabra and Shatila filed charges against Sharon in Belgium under a 1993 law that allows the prosecution of foreign nationals for war crimes.

In July 2002, Hobeika, apparently seeking to redeem himself, declared he was innocent of the massacre and was ready to testify against Sharon.

By then he was also reportedly secretly meeting with Lebanese opponents of Syria's quasi-occupation of Lebanon. He was even said to have contacted the CIA to help them track down Imad Mughniyeh, Hezbollah's elusive military chief blamed for a 1983 suicide bombing in Beirut that killed 241 U.S. Marines.

On Jan. 24, 2002, Hobeika was killed in a bomb ambush as he drove to his office in East Beirut. The bombing, still officially unsolved like so many political assassinations in Lebanon, was widely attributed to Israel's Mossad intelligence agency.

Another theory is it was the Palestinians finally taking revenge. But for many, a Hezbollah hit makes more sense.

"While there's no direct evidence linking Mughniyeh to the assassination, he had the most compelling motive," the Middle East Intelligence Bulletin observed at the time.

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