Commentary: The other Sept. remembrance

WASHINGTON, Sept. 12 (UPI) — Next week — from Monday through Wednesday — will mark the anniversary of yet other dark days in September. This horrific event occurred 20 years ago in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, on the outskirts of the Lebanese capital, Beirut.

Those who died in Sabra and Shatila amount to approximately the same as the number of Americans killed on Sept. 11 in the ghastly attacks on New York, the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania.

Roughly 2,000 Palestinians were savagely slaughtered in the decrepit, narrow alleyways and makeshift slums of the camps. More recently, it has come to light that another 1,300 had been abducted in the mayhem that ensued. Twenty years after the mass killings, the precise number of dead is still disputed, as many simply disappeared and their bodies were never found. But does anyone bother to remember any of them?

Laurie-King Irani, the North American coordinator for the International Campaign for Justice for the Victims of Sabra and Shatila told United Press International “that estimates range from the Israeli Defense Forces’ finding of 850, to the various Islamic fundamentalists’ figure of 5,000.”

The truth lies somewhere in between, probably closer to the 3,000 mark.

“Recent reportages by two British journalists on the disappeared who were rounded up after the killings and herded into the nearby sports stadium complex, then trucked off by Christian forces with IDF oversight, add about 1,300 more to the number of dead. Those were not in the immediate massacre, but shortly thereafter,” said King-Irani.

The massacre came on the heels of Israel’s bloody invasion of its northern neighbor, during which time another estimated 17,000 people — mostly civilian — lost their lives in just the few short months of war. Those are astonishingly high figures for a country smaller than the state of Connecticut, and with a population of 3.5 million.

Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, dubbed “Operation Peace for Galilee,” was launched the previous June 5. It was initially meant to distance Palestinian artillery from Israel’s northern frontier towns and settlements situated along the Lebanese border, an area that, for a long time, escaped the control of Lebanon’s government and its armed forces. But the invasion, planned and implemented by current Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who was then minister of defense, soon took on a life of its own.

Before long, troops of the Israeli Defense Force pushed beyond the initial objectives Sharon had delineated to the government of then Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Sharon’s troops encircled Beirut, laying siege to it, before eventually entering it en force. They made history, seeing that it was the first time the Israeli army had occupied an Arab capital city.

Prior to the massacres, the relocation from Lebanon to other Arab states of Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasser Arafat, along with large numbers of his armed fighters, was negotiated by President Reagan’s special Mideast envoy, Philip Habib.

A special multinational force comprising U.S. Marines and French troops had been rapidly dispatched to safeguard the Palestinians as they embarked on ships that would exile them to Tunisia, Yemen and Algeria, and onto trucks that would see them over the border into Syria.

But in the hazy aftermath that followed Israel’s occupation of Beirut, Bachir Gemayel, the commander of the rightwing Christian militias — and the country’s new president-elect — was assassinated by a terrorist’s bomb as he addressed party supporters in the Christian enclave of east Beirut.

Extremist rightwing Christian militiamen, supporters of the deceased president and allies of Israel’s incursion into Lebanon, entered the two Palestinian camps under cover of darkness and began slaughtering innocent Palestinians. Many among the killed included women and children, who were left in the unprotected camps following the withdrawal of armed groups. The Franco-American multinational task force initially meant to safeguard the Palestinians had earlier been withdrawn, after what Reagan prematurely declared, “a job well done.”

While the Israeli army was not implicated in the killings, they controlled access to the camps, as well as the areas surrounding them, including a number of strategic hills from where they commanded a dominant view of the camps. Throughout the night, Israeli troops fired illumination rounds over the two besieged camps.

Whereas Sharon was cleared from any responsibility for the massacres by a special investigating commission, he was nevertheless forced to resign as minister of defense.

A full year after the Sept. 11, 2001, tragedy, America is still in mourning, still trying to comprehend why this insane hatred has prematurely taken away so many loved ones in such a catastrophic manner. Memorials were conducted, candles were lit and flowers were placed at the three crash sites — the Pentagon outside Washington, Ground Zero in New York and a distant field in rural Pennsylvania.

As we commemorate the first anniversary of Sept. 11, buglers sounded taps and bells tolled for those who lost their lives, while President George W. Bush, his secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and Gen. Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, promised America’s dead would not be forgotten, and that justice would be done.

But who remembers the Palestinians of Sabra and Shatila? And what justice can they expect?

Left unresolved, the Palestinian issue will gather momentum and help feed the frenzy of extremism. Already, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the extremist Islamic fundamentalist groups who introduced suicide bombings in the Palestinian territories have managed to muster greater support from the street. Many observers believe that if elections were held today, they would easily win a majority of votes in Gaza and the West Bank.

Osama bin Laden, the terrorist madman who dispatched 19 young men filled with hatred to commandeer civilian aircrafts and turn them into deadly missiles, at the same time hijacked some of that Palestinian anger to suit his own form of demented fanaticism. Likewise, Iraq’s strongman, Saddam Hussein, supports the Palestinian cause because it buys him a loyal and popular following in the Arab world. It is precisely because no one else speaks for them that Saddam and Osama are seen in a favorable light in the Palestinian territories and parts of the Arab world.

It should not pass without notice that a recent poll in Kuwait — a country liberated by U.S. troops under the leadership of the current president’s father only 10 years ago — gave bin Laden a whopping 74 percent popularity win over George W.

As America continues to mourn its losses, it would serve its interest not to ignore other nations’ grievances and tragedies. Such a move would win America many friends.

Copyright © 2002 United Press International