Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Sabra and Shatila: September 1982

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Sabra and Shatila: September 1982

Article excerpt

LEBANON Sabra and Shatila: September 1982, by Bayan Nuwayhed al-Hout. London, UK and Ann Arbor, MI: Pluto Press, 2004. xiv + 324 pages. Notes to p. 343. Appends, to p. 434. Bibl. to p. 462. $24.95 paper.

The September 1982 massacre of more than a thousand Palestinian refugees and others in the Beirut outskirt settlements of Sabra and Shatila surfaced again as news in June 2001, when lawyers in Brussels filed a criminal complaint on behalf of 28 survivors and witnesses charging Ariel Sharon, retired Israeli Major General Amos Yaron, and several members of Lebanon's Phalangist Party militia with war crimes and crimes against humanity. The suit occasioned great controversy, though Sharon would have enjoyed immunity from possible prosecution as long as he remained Israel's head of state. The Belgian Supreme Court in March 2003 ruled the case admissible, under the Belgian law incorporating the doctrine of universal jurisdiction. But any criminal investigations and possible trials were foreclosed after an unrelated complaint was filed under the same law against former US President George H.W. Bush on behalf of Iraqi victims of the bombing of a Baghdad bomb shelter in February 1991. In August 2003 Belgium, responding to US threats of "diplomatic consequences" such as the withdrawal of NATO headquarters from the country, revised its law to cover only cases in which the accused or the victim is Belgian or resided in the country at the time the alleged offense was carried out. The Sabra and Shatila complaint was dismissed.1

There are good reasons to question whether the victims of Sabra and Shatila will ever get their day in court, but this new book by Bayan Nuwahed al-Hout makes a powerful case. It serves as a monumental reminder that terrible things were done in those days, and that issues of accountability remain outstanding. The author writes 20 years later that she had no "comprehensive plan" when she started what became this book in late 1982, and that she initially began recording testimonies of families of victims and witnesses "for their own sake" (p. 4). Such a plan took shape only several years later, in 1985, well after it had become clear that the truth would not be available from the official (but secret) Lebanese report of late 1982 or Israel's Kahan Commission inquiry of February 1983, which held that Ariel Sharon bore "indirect" but "personal responsibility" but whose annex remains classified. A full account, in other words, would not be forthcoming from either of the official parties directly implicated in the slaughter. Al-Hout was determined, she writes now, to preserve first-hand testimonies and document the names of the victims, to disclose the identity of the perpetrators among the militias who carried out the slaughter, and to demonstrate that what occurred in those days of unspeakable horror was a massacre, not a lop-sided "battle" involving Palestinian fighters alleged to have remained when the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) was evacuated to Tunis. …

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