Novel gets to truth of Sabra and Shatila

Israel’s invasion of Lebanon and subsequent 22-year-long occupation has been the focus of three acclaimed Israeli films in recent years: Lebanon, Waltz with Bashir and Beaufort tell the story of this era from the perspective of the occupiers. All young men serving in the Israeli army, the films’ protagonists question their roles in Lebanon. However, this narrative perspective leads the viewer to empathize with the occupier and thus do little other than reinforce a simplistic falsification of Israel’s history as a country always conflicted when waging necessary wars of self-defense. This is the narrative that continues to dominate the Western media.

Not one of these films makes the slightest attempt to humanize Israel’s victims or tell the story from their perspective. In contrast, UK author Mischa Hiller’s first novel, Sabra Zoo is told through the eyes of a young man named Ivan. Sabra Zoo follows the adventures of this son of a Dutch mother and Palestinian father who serves as an officer in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Beirut during the most intense period of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon.

Ivan’s thrilling story starts in the weeks following the evacuation of the PLO after more than a decade of being based in Lebanon and ends soon after the Israeli invasion of Beirut. The evacuation of the PLO was followed by the infamous massacres at the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps in southern Beirut committed 28 years ago this week by right-wing militias allied with Israel. Because of his multicultural background and European passport, Ivan acts as an interpreter for foreign nongovernmental organization (NGO) workers in Sabra and Shatila and also runs packages and undertakes other menial yet dangerous tasks for a presumed PLO operative working covertly in West Beirut.

Sabra Zoo leads the reader through various aspects of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon in the midst of the country’s 15-year-long civil war. Yet Hiller attempts to ground the story through its protagonist. As an 18-year-old, Ivan acts like many other young men, constantly preoccupied with thoughts of sex and alcohol. At points throughout the story, however, Ivan’s character comes across as insensitive and unbelievable for the way he jumps from the horrors faced by people in the camps to his more immediate obsession with getting laid.

Yet, like most who witness war at a young age, Ivan shows a wisdom that others only get much later in life, if ever at all. He’s deeply disturbed through his exposure to Palestinian children and families affected by cluster bombs and other ordnance and is distraught when he has to translate the doctors’ unfortunate prognoses to patients and their families. But he never shies away. Ivan shows incredible courage, learning to deal with the siege and attack while continuing his various jobs.

Ivan’s character is also able to offer readers a glimpse of Western perception of the war through the eyes of foreign NGO workers and journalists with whom he collaborates throughout the story.

A foreign cameraperson covering the war tells Ivan while editing video of cluster bomb victims that doing so is a “ ‘waste of time.’” He explains: “ ‘People in the West don’t want to see too much reality over dinner. All the gory stuff gets edited out in London or New York … I think if they showed the real effects of war we wouldn’t have it anymore.’” Through this character, Hiller presents a universality that any Western journalist who has covered conflict in this region is aware of: the horrific effects of war as seen on the ground are much different than the sanitized imagery the media sells in the West.

However, throughout the book Hiller leaves the reader frustrated by not narrating who fired the cluster bombs, even making it difficult to understand who is laying siege to Beirut. The most problematic part comes when Hiller introduces the reader to the Nakba, or “the catastrophe” as Ivan translates it while working with refugees in the camp, with no mention of the ethnic cleansing that took place by Zionist militias who forced 750,000 Palestinians to leave their homes in what is today considered Israel. Sure to mention that “back home was Palestine,” the story goes no further to describe the circumstances in which Palestinians, soon to be massacred in refugee camps, had to leave their homes in the first place. While a reader familiar with the history of this region can easily deduce that Israel is responsible for the Nakba, firing cluster bombs and laying siege to Beirut, others might be left wondering. This is a novel and not a history text book, but as an historical novel, such context is important.

Despite this, Sabra Zoo makes viscerally clear the brutality of Israel’s invasion, unlike the skewed history presented in Waltz with Bashir, which also focuses on the massacres. Waltz’s portrayal of mostly benign Israeli soldiers who merely fired a few shots on their way to Beirut and then lit flares over the camp, mostly oblivious to the massacring happening below, is contradictory to both history and Hiller’s narrative. When Israel finally entered Beirut after a brutal assault that killed nearly 20,000 Lebanese and Palestinians and injured many more, the PLO had already left and thus the invading army faced practically no resistance at the Lebanese capital. “ ‘Who will resist them now?’” asks Ivan’s PLO friend, frightened after the fighters had left and turned their weapons over to the Lebanese authorities. Hiller’s narrative exposes the utter cowardice of Israel’s invasion of a city unable to defend itself as well as its responsibility for one of the most gruesome events of recent decades.

Retelling the story of an event that took place 28 years ago may seem trivial to some who want to remain focused on the present and future, rather than with events of the past. But before Beirut — now one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations — becomes a city that can be enjoyed by foreigners and its inhabitants alike, those who have devastated it before with impunity and are threatening to do so again must first be brought to justice. Sabra Zoo is recommended reading for anyone hoping to better understand Israel’s invasion of Beirut and Palestinian refugees’ long struggle for justice that continues to this day.

Matthew Cassel is based in Beirut, Lebanon and is Assistant Editor of The Electronic Intifada. His website is

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