It was 33 years ago, in September 1982, that large numbers of Palestinians – estimates vary from 700 to a few thousand – were slaughtered in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps by members of the Phalange militia amid Israeli collusion and assistance.
Israel’s Kahan commission, tasked with investigating the massacre, found that Israel’s defense minister at the time, Ariel Sharon, bore personal responsibility for allowing the Phalangists into the camps without taking any measures to prevent the massacre. He was forced to resign as defense minister but was later elected prime minister. Sharon died in 2014 without ever facing justice, despite sustained but ultimately unsuccessful efforts to prosecute him in Belgium under the country’s universal jurisdiction laws.
Amos Yaron, who commanded the Israeli army’s forward post on the roof of a building 200 meters from Shatila, was disciplined by being moved out of operational roles for three years after the Kahan report but in 1999 ended up director-general of Israel’s Defense Ministry.
While Israel never held its officials accountable, Lebanon has done even less to shed light on the role of the Lebanese perpetrators. The Kahan commission – in the absence of a Lebanese investigation – found that the Phalange unit that entered the camp was an intelligence unit headed by Elie Hobeika. Yaron told the Kahan commission that Hobeika himself did not go into the camps but was on the roof of the forward command post during the night. One of the Israeli soldiers who was on the roof told the commission that he heard a Phalangist officer inside the camps tell Hobeika over the radio that there were 50 women and children, and ask what should he do. Hobeika’s reported reply over the radio was: “This is the last time you’re going to ask me a question like that. You know exactly what to do.”
Nevertheless, after the war, Hobeika was elected to Parliament for two terms and served as a government minister multiple times. His crimes – particularly his role in Sabra and Shatila – were never investigated in Lebanon or elsewhere. He was assassinated in 2002. A day before his murder, Hobeika had told two visiting Belgian senators that he was willing to go to Brussels to testify in the Belgian court case against Sharon. The identity of the killers of Hobeika – a man with many enemies – was never established.
Hobeika is not the only one who evaded justice in Lebanon. Like him, Lebanon’s warlords benefitted from a general amnesty at the end of the conflict in 1990, as he did, and traded their military fatigues for fancy suits and ministerial portfolios. Attempts to overturn Lebanon’s legacy of impunity since the end of the war have generally failed to generate momentum.
There are still no national monuments for civilian victims of the war, no national commission to provide the families of the disappeared with answers about the fate of their loved ones, and no prosecution for the multiple massacres that took place. One of the few serious judicial efforts to prosecute militia members for wartime kidnappings – the case of Mahieldeen Hashisho, who disappeared over 30 years ago – was dismissed by a Lebanese court for lack of evidence in September 2013.
Some activists and intellectuals have tried to challenge this collective amnesia through their artistic production. For example, a 2005 documentary by Monika Borgman and Lokman Slim told the story of the Sabra and Shatila massacres through the testimony of six former Phalange militiamen who participated. Yet, these important efforts have generally remained solitary cries in the wilderness.
Part of the challenge in Lebanon has been how to deal with the violent legacy of the past while confronting an ever-violent present. How to hold past perpetrators accountable when more recent crimes – the new rounds of political fighting in May 2008 or more recently in Tripoli, for example – go unpunished.
And yet, it may be that the only way out of Lebanon’s never-ending cycle of violence and impunity, is to finally deal head-on with the past. It is too late to hold Hobeika accountable, but it is not too late to ask questions about his role and that of his men in the massacre. Such questions about the past are the essential first step to end the rampant impunity and complacency in the country.
Up until a few weeks ago it seemed almost hopeless to expect any popular mobilization around such issues in Lebanon’s fragmented politics. Yet, the recent citizenship movement around the garbage crisis with its strong undercurrent of demands for accountability and transparency from a corrupt political class sends a strong signal that all is not lost. War criminals who killed with impunity in the past cannot be expected to govern responsibly in the present.