Shatila camp, Beirut, 20 September 1982. (UNRWA/Beirut)
This week marks the 26th anniversary of the Sabra and Shatila massacre, one of the bloodiest events of the second half of the twentieth century. A Google search for recent news reports on this year’s commemoration of the atrocity, however, brought up very little. Yes, there were some emotional blog posts, as well as a link to the BBC’s “On this Day” page, featuring quick facts and figures about the massacre, alongside an archival, and iconic, photograph of twisted corpses lying in a heap next to a cinderblock wall, the victims of an execution-style killing.
It has been more than a quarter of a century since more than 1,000 unarmed men, women, and children were raped, maimed and slaughtered. The massacre occurred at the dividing point of the 1975-1990 Lebanese war. Some might say that the killings were the marker or the catalyst of the war’s horrible turning point. Before the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and siege of Beirut in the summer of 1982, the Lebanese civil war had taken many lives and introduced new images and phrases into the Arabic and English languages. The Lebanese war involved many players and funders, not all of them local. But with the entry of the Israeli army and air force, Lebanon witnessed more death and destruction in three months than it had suffered during the previous seven years. Sabra and Shatila, a Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of Beirut, marked the site of the Israeli-Palestinian and the internal Lebanese conflicts’ intersection. The front lines of these conflicts slashed through the refugee camps for three dark days and three eerily bright nights illuminated by flares that the surrounding Israeli army fired over the camps to assist their Lebanese client militia, the Phalange, in their gruesome tasks.
This is the fifth year since the Belgian cour de cassation, the nation’s highest court, ruled that Israeli and Lebanese individuals who bore “command responsibility” for the massacres could be tried, under the principle of universal jurisdiction, for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Belgium. Palestinian and Lebanese survivors of the massacre had filed a case against the Israeli invasion architects, Generals Ariel Sharon and Amos Yaron, as well as Phalange militia commander Elie Hobeika, among others, in the Belgian courts in June 2001. 
The legal case made headlines and stirred controversy. It also gave the survivors a new role and identity on the world stage: engaged actors, not just passive victims subjected to the ancient calculus of war, aptly described by Thucydides: “In war, the strong do as they will, and the weak suffer as they must.” Retelling the nightmarish events of the massacre was trying. Taking the risk of lodging a legal complaint against very powerful and influential people was brave. Placing faith in international justice and universal human rights was noble, inspiring — and ultimately naive.
In the summer of 2003, former United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld gave the Belgian government an ultimatum: either they rescind their universal jurisdiction law (termed the “anti-atrocity law” in Belgium), or the US would see to it that NATO headquarters was moved elsewhere. Rumsfeld was keen to protect US military personnel and political leaders from future prosecution for war crimes in Iraq. There is no statute of limitations on war crimes, and since universal jurisdiction holds that it is not just the right, but also the duty, of every state to bring war criminals to justice, regardless of their nationality, any state that attempted to put “teeth” into the principles of international humanitarian law clearly had to be brought back into line.
It is no exaggeration to say that the death of Belgium’s universal jurisdiction law was another massacre, this time of ideals, hopes and principles. By removing a venue for the pursuit of truth, accountability and justice, the US administration (which, it must be noted, enjoyed the tacit and not-so-tacit support of other states fearful of being brought to account for past or current crimes) ended a promising chapter in the history of international justice as practice, not just theory.
The legal proceedings in Belgium brought press coverage and international expressions of solidarity and empathy to Sabra and Shatila — no small feat in the immediate aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks when Arabs, Muslims and Palestinians were being demonized as subhuman evil-doers unworthy of basic legal protection. Perhaps legal activism on behalf of the victims and their surviving families also spurred new responses to the massacres and their meaning in the camp itself. The mass grave site, for years an unkempt area that served as both a garbage dump and a soccer field, was cleaned up and planted with trees and roses.
Survivors-turned-plaintiffs had a chance to experience a sense of dignity and agency on the world stage. Lawyers and activists who worked on the case had a valuable opportunity to talk to audiences large and small throughout the world about the importance of international law and accountability for, and perhaps prevention of, heinous crimes.
The guilty got nervous; some of them, like Elie Hobeika and his former associate, the Phalangist leader Michael Nassar, got assassinated. The ultimate planner of the massacres, former Israeli general and then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, had to retain legal counsel in Belgium.
Legal proceedings in Belgium would have decisively ascertained who was personally responsible for the massacres. One result of the compilation of the testimonies and legal arguments was the discovery of new dimensions of the massacre, most notably the fact that over 1,000 men and boys were trucked away from the nearby sports stadium (then under the complete control of the Israeli army and intelligence officers) in the hours after the massacre ended. They have never come back, and no one knows to this day exactly where they are buried. A court case could have answered a lot of questions and brought some form of closure to the bereaved.
A court case might also have clarified how and why it is that Palestinians can be killed, then as now, with impunity. The case in Belgium was dismissed in many quarters, even before Rumsfeld dealt the Belgian universal jurisdiction a coup de grace, as an “anti-Semitic” initiative, or a “politicized stunt.” Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz derided the case as “foolishness on stilts.” In the first months of the case, well-meaning people asked, “Why Sharon? Why not Saddam? Certainly he has committed more crimes against humanity.” Yes. Certainly there should be one yardstick for human rights, and grave violations of human rights continue to destroy lives daily in places like the Sudan and Burma. Although Saddam Hussein was soon toppled (in an illegal invasion) and eventually hanged in a Baghdad prison, no one ever said “Well, now that Saddam has been dealt with, I guess it would be okay to prosecute people responsible for the Sabra and Shatila massacre.”
The US and “coalition forces” have now killed more Iraqis in a few years than Saddam slaughtered in decades. It is doubtful that anyone will ever be held accountable. The legal framework for doing so has virtually disappeared, and with it, the political will and emotional stamina to pursue justice. That is probably the whole point, though: to render apathy preferable to outrage, and resignation easier than hope.
In the years since the Belgian court case was filed and then quashed, Palestinians were subjected to “Operation Defensive Shield” in 2002. Gaza has been brutalized by numerous and multifarious Israeli army punishments. Indeed, Gaza is now the world’s largest open-air prison and a laboratory for testing new ways to break people’s spirits. Lebanon got to re-experience the ferocity of the Israeli air force again in the summer of 2006.
By and large, the international press, world leaders and even the United Nations remained mute and unconcerned in the face of these and other crimes. Even Israel’s killing of American and British activists and journalists failed to curb the daily crimes committed in Palestine. Apparently, there is no bottom, no limit, and thus, no hope. No surprise, since there is clearly no accountability.
Despite the growth of alternative news sources and new media initiatives, such as The Electronic Intifada, which render the excuse “We did not know!” ridiculous, the killing and crushing continues. Paradoxically, the more that is known about human rights violations in Palestine, the less that seems to be done. Perhaps the immediacy and intensity of Internet communications lulls us into thinking we are doing something simply by reading or forwarding an article.
In her landmark book, On the Origins of Totalitarianism, the German philosopher Hannah Arendt pithily summed up why law is so important: “All that is necessary to achieve total domination is to kill the juridical in Man.” The history of the Palestinian people offers a textbook study in the dangers of massacring law and justice. And not only Palestinians are affected. The denial of justice is a denial of humanity, a form of soul murder. There are worse things than dying. Ask anyone in Gaza, where the entire population is daily subjected to genocide on the installment plan.
These atrocities can be and are being committed, because the Sabra and Shatila massacre (among other crimes) was committed, and international justice, or at least the hope of it, was undone. Consequently, it is no exaggeration to say that the Sabra and Shatila massacre did not end 26 years ago today. It’s still going on, and all of us are accountable.
Laurie King, a co-founder of The Electronic Intifada, was the North American Coordinator of International Campaign for Justice for the Victims of Sabra and Shatila (http://indictsharon.net) from 2001 until 2003. She is now the managing editor of The Journal of Palestine Studies in Washington, DC.
 The case lodged in Belgium on 18 June 2001 by 23 survivors of the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacres charged Ariel Sharon, former Israeli defense minister and prime minister, retired Israeli Defense Forces Gens. Amos Yaron and Rafael Eitan, as well as other Israelis and Lebanese, with war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide related to the massacres committed between 16-18 September 1982 in two refugee camps in Beirut. The central argument of the case hinges upon Ariel Sharon’s and other Israelis’ Command Responsibility as General and high officers of the Israeli Defense Forces, which were in full control of Beirut when the massacres took place in the contiguous refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. Although the killings of between 1,000-2,000 unarmed Lebanese and Palestinian civilians were carried out by Lebanese militia units directly or indirectly affiliated with the Israeli-allied Christian Lebanese Forces (the Phalange), the legal, military, and decision-making responsibility for the massacre ultimately rests with Ariel Sharon under established and recognized principles of international law, most notably the Fourth Geneva Convention.