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Posted: June 06, 2001

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Why Sharon is a War Criminal
An eye-witness report of the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre 

by Dr. Ben Alofs 

I am a Dutch doctor, currently living in North-Wales. In the summer of 1982 I was working as a nurse in West-Beirut, which at the time was being besieged by the Israeli army.

The American negotiator Philip Habib had mediated an agreement, according to which the Israeli army would refrain from occupying West-Beirut, after the Palestinian fedayeen had left. A second fundamental aspect of the agreement was that the US would guarantee the security of the remaining Palestinian civilian population. The evacuation, supervised by an international peacekeeping force, went smoothly, and was completed on September 1st. Much earlier than September 26th, the date that had been agreed on, the international peacekeeping force left between September 10th and 13th. On September 3rd the first violation of the Habib-agreement took place, when Israeli forces occupied Bir Hassan, in the southern suburbs of Beirut. Before that, Sharon had stated he wanted the peacekeeping forces out of Beirut.

After the assassination of Bashir Gemayel, the charismatic and ruthless leader of the Phalangist allies of Israel, Ariel Sharon ordered the invasion of West-Beirut under the pretext of restoration of ‘law and order’. Contrary to this statement, West-Beirut was perfectly quiet at that moment. The invasion was a serious violation of the Habib agreement. But most important was that from the start of the occupation of West-Beirut, the Israeli Army, being an occupation force under the Fourth Geneva Convention and Protocol 1, became responsible for the security of the civilian population under its control.

The Israeli journalists Zeev Schiff and Ehud Ya’ari describe how Sharon insisted on sending Phalangist militiamen into the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila (see "Israel’s Lebanon War"). To accomplish this, Sharon had held meetings on September 15th with Elie Hobeika, Fadie Frem and Zahi Bustani (leaders of the militiamen) as well as with Amin and Pierre Gemayel, the political leaders of the Phalangist party. The leaders of the Israeli army, Sharon included, were very well aware of the mood of the Phalangists, shortly after the murder of their leader. Anyone with even the slightest knowledge of the feelings of the Phalangists towards the Palestinians knew what would happen if they were let into the refugee camps.

"Tell al-Zaater" is a well-known name in Lebanon as well as in Israel. This camp in East-Beirut, where I met Palestinian refugees for the first time in 1975, had been besieged for 53 days by the Phalangists and Maronite Tiger-militiamen during the summer of 1976. After the Palestinians surrendered, the International Red Cross, which was to give a ‘safe passage’ to the camp’s population, was unable to prevent the murder of over 1000 civilians.

Israeli army commanders Eitan, Drori and Yaron made comments on how obsessed the Phalangists were with revenge, talking about a ‘sea of blood’ and ‘kasach’ (Arabic for ‘slashing’ or ‘cutting’). As they made these observations Ariel Sharon gave the green light for the Phalangists to enter Sabra and Shatila. They did so as dusk fell on the 16th of September.

While the massacre was being committed, I was working in the Gaza hospital in Sabra. The situation was chaotic and confusing. Many wounded were carried into the hospital and our morgue was full within a short time. Most of the victims suffered bullet wounds, but a few were injured by shrapnel. On September 17th it became clear that the ‘Kataeb’ (Phalangists) and/or the militiamen of Saad Haddad (funded and armed by Israel) were slaughtering the civilian population. A 10-year old boy was carried into the hospital. He had been shot, but was alive. He had spent the whole night wounded, lying under the dead bodies of his parents, brothers and sisters. At night the murderers were assisted by Israeli flares.

I was working with a team of Scandinavian, British, American, Dutch and German doctors and nurses. We had insisted that the Palestinian hospital staff flee to the northern part of West-Beirut. On Saturday morning September 18th, we were arrested by the Phalangists/Haddad militiamen. They forced us to leave our patients behind and took us outside Sabra and Shatila via the main road. We passed by hundreds of women, children and men who had been rounded up. We saw bodies in the road and the small alleyways. The militiamen shouted at us and called us ‘Baader Meinhof’. A Palestinian nurse who thought he would be safe with us, was identified and taken away behind a wall. A moment later came the gunshots.

Just before we reached the exit of the camp I saw an image that will forever be in my mind: a large mound of red earth with arms and legs sticking out. Alongside the mound stood an army bulldozer with Hebrew markings. Just outside the camp we were ordered to take off our hospital clothing and we were lined up against a wall. It was at that moment that an Israeli army officer drove up in an army vehicle. He saved our lives, ordering the militiamen to hand us over to the Israelis. Alongside the southern and western borders of the camps we saw Israeli tanks and halftracks.

After interrogation in their military headquarters the Phalangists took us to the Israeli forward command post just 75 meters (250 feet) away. It was a 4 or 5 story building at the edge of Shatila. (Some weeks later I was on the top floor. It offered excellent views of the destruction in Shatila). The Israeli soldiers were clearly uncomfortable, being confronted with more than 20 Europeans and Americans. They asked us what we wanted. We told them we wanted to go back to Gaza hospital. Impossible, we were told, too dangerous. Finally, two of us were permitted to go back to the hospital with a laisser-passer in Hebrew and Arabic.

There certainly was coordination between the Israelis and the militiamen. The Israelis were largely in control. It was impossible for them to see exactly what was happening in the narrow alleyways of Sabra and Shatila. But soon after the massacre started, reports came in from individual Israeli soldiers about killings. Not once did the Israeli military command try to respond by putting an end to the slaughter. Groups of civilians, coming out of the camps with white flags, were being sent back.

Even on Saturday morning, September 18th, when we were taken out of the camps, we saw fresh groups of Phalangist militiamen entering the camps under Israeli supervision. About 20 minutes after we had passed the large group of women, children and elderly in the main road of Sabra, we heard an orgy of machinegun fire. Swee, an orthopedic doctor, told me that a Palestinian mother had tried to give her baby to Swee, as if she knew what was going to happen. The baby was pulled out of Swee’s hand and given back to her mother. On Sunday September 19th I went back to Sabra and Shatila together with two Danish and a Dutch journalist. The Lebanese army had surrounded the camp and tried to keep journalists out. We found a way in. All of us were deeply shocked by the extent of the destruction and the savagery of the murders. The Israelis had told the militiamen to leave the camps some time during Saturday. The latter had managed to cause an awful lot more of destruction and slaughter after we had been taken out of the camps on Saturday morning. The Lebanese Civil Defense had begun with the recovery of those bodies that had not been buried by the bulldozers. We will never know how many people were exactly butchered during those terrible days of September 16th, 17th and 18th in 1982. 1500 perhaps? 2000? Or even more?

When the autumn rains began to fall at the end of November, congested sewers flooded Sabra and Shatila. The congestion was caused in part by bodies that had been dumped in the sewers. The bodies that had been recovered by the Lebanese Civil Defense had been buries in a mass grave in Shatila. A large mass grave at a golf course nearby, and other mass graves were never to be opened. Prohibited by the Lebanese government and its new president Amin Gemayel, brother of Bashir. Prime minister Begin said: "Goyim kill goyim and they accuse the Jews". Of course, Hobeika, Frem and their gangs were directly responsible for the massacre. But this could never have happened, if Sharon had not willingly and knowingly given the green light for the operation.

Sharon wanted to destroy the last remains of the PLO infrastructure in Lebanon at any cost. I was in Sabra and Shatila. There were no ‘2000-3000 terrorists’, as Sharon claimed. The only ‘terrorists’ left were a number of 10-12 year old boys who tried to protect their families with the tiny rifles used for bird hunting. If only one hundred Fedayeen had stayed behind, none of this would have happened.

When someone puts a venomous snake in a baby’s cradle and the baby dies, the responsibility lies directly with the person who put the snake in the cradle. Therefore Israeli commanders Eitan, Dori and Yaron are directly responsible, but Ariel Sharon above all. He was the boss. He could have prevented this tragedy, but he wanted to force the Palestinians out of Beirut into Jordan, which was the ‘Palestinian state’ according to Sharon. Deir Yassin revisited. ‘Two-legged animals’ is how Begin called the Palestinians in 1982. Eitan talked about ‘drugged cockroaches in a bottle’. This dehumanization of the Palestinians was and still is the cause of the callous disregard in the Israeli army for Palestinian life.

The 400.000 Israelis who demonstrated in Tel Aviv are to be commended. In Israel at least there was an enquiry into the massacre by the Kahane commission. The Lebanese investigative judge Germanos, to his shame, could not even determine the identity of the Lebanese perpetrators. The conclusions of the Kahane commission were fatally flawed and Sharon was merely deemed to be indirectly responsible and therefore not fit to be a minister of defense. But does this make him fit to be prime minister of Israel? How does the Israeli Supreme Court explain this? It is my opinion that in the light of what I described above, Ariel Sharon is a war criminal. Victims of war crimes cry out for justice. That’s why Augusto Pinochet should be on trial, Radovan Karadzjic, Ratko Mladic, and Slobodan Milosevic.

The murder of Intissar Ismail cries out for justice. Intissar was an attractive 19-year old Palestinian nurse, with whom I was working in Akka hospital in Shatila in the night of September 14th to 15th. It was quiet in our department and we were listening to the radio. The newsreader confirmed the death of Bashir Gemayel. I could see the fear on the face of Intissar. I tried to reassure her. The next morning at seven o’clock, I left the hospital and went to the main road of Shatila.

All of a sudden Israeli warplanes roared over the camps at low altitude. Outside of the camps I took a taxi to Ras Beirut.

At the street corners I saw young Lebanese men. They were armed and were looking towards the south. What were they waiting for? Six days later than planned, I returned to burnt-out Akka hospital. An ambulance driver told me that Intissar had been in the nurses’ residence in the underground department of the hospital when the Phalangists entered. She was gang-raped and then murdered. Her body was mutilated beyond recognition. Only by the rings on her fingers could her parents identify her.

Intissar cries out for justice. 2000 innocent people cry out for justice. It would give satisfaction, if Sharon –on a visit to Europe- would be arrested and transferred to Scheveningen prison. Am I being too cynical when I say that Europe is failing when it comes to putting Israeli war criminals on trial? And am I too pessimistic when I say that ‘Sabra and Shatila’ was neither the first, nor the last war crime committed by Ariel Sharon?


by courtesy & © 2001 Sander Maatman & Dr. Ben Alofs

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