Sabra & Shatila – 24 years on

Sabra & Shatila, 17 September 1982This post is a day late (sorry, I have been busy, I was also unable to reply to some of the comments), but as I was thinking about that, I realized that it didn’t really matter. Moderate discourse often encourages and actively advocates turning such “tragedies” into yearly Hallmark events, whereby those brutally massacred are given a passing mention every year. That is very noble indeed, at least compared to the decades-long denial by the record-cleaners of some actors in the region (need I point fingers?), who in their ignorance, place the blame on other elements, as if that diminishes in any way the moral implications of the act. But it is not noble in absolute terms. It is merely the better of two evils: passive remembrance and active denial. But much remains to be said and done about murderous acts committed in the name of self-defense (as if the route to self-defense and peace passed through the camps of Sabra & Shatila!!!!). The failure to do so has sent and continues to send the wrong message (though those who stand by and watch the deliberate manipulation of the lack of inaction certainly intended it to be understood as being the right message), that such acts are justifiable so long as there is their necessity is declared (and repeated often enough by the most powerful lobby in the world). Even worse is that in the context of the Lebanese war, and in fact much to the liking of foreign actors, all of those with blood of their hands have been “pardoned”, some self-pardoned, others pardoned by the very people who have blood on their hands. These people continue to take part in domestic politics; they continue to insist that what’s done is done and that it’s time to look forward, but at the same time have not abandoned their wartime, war-mongering rhetoric. That these people have been “pardoned” (or actually, pardoned themselves) is, first and foremost, an insult to the people (Lebanese, Palestinians, or others) who died at the hands of the militias they commanded. From a strictly theoretical perspective, there are those who advocate criminal prosecution and those who reject it. Luc Huyse presents a good analysis of both views in “Justice After Transition: On the Choices Successor Elites Make in Dealing with the Past” (Law and Social Enquiry 20, no. 1). He points out that “[i]n some cases the unrestricted pardon is the result of the self-amnesty that the outgoing elites unilaterally award themselves before the transition gets under way.” Yet only half of this is true for Lebanon. There has been, after all, no transition. The case of Lebanon can best be described as follows: a number of tribal chieftains, after having massacred about 150,000 people between themselves (with the help of foreign actors and almost always doing their bidding), decided (for one reason or another, based on personal or strategic calculations) that the time had come to sit at the negotiations table and make a win-win deal, whereby all chieftains would be absolved of any guilt for crimes committed, remain the self-declared leaders of their sects, and monopolize political representation within them. Note that the case of the Lebanese Forces leader, warlord Samir Geagea and now self-declared za’im of the Christians of Lebanon, is a bit more complicated. I wrote about him a while back:

Regional tensions due to the Gulf crisis not only shifted attention away from the Lebanese situation, they also gave Damascus a free hand in Lebanon. For the LF, Ta’if had already signalled the end of its era, in no small part due to Geagea’s stubbornness and arrogance. Yet even at that fateful juncture and despite the realization that he had lost popular following, Geagea kept close watch on the situation for any signs of Syrian willingness to implement the redeployment articles of the accord, as such an action might save him from total irrelevance within his community and by extension domestic politics. Although it is unlikely that even in such a situation public opinion would have forgotten the material destruction and the high risk of Christian political irrelevance that Geagea’s rebellion had given rise to, the community might have had no choice but to compromise, given the reality of Aoun’s exile. Thus if the Syrians would fully implement the Ta’if, Geagea would be more than willing to continue from where he had left off. But such goodwill from Syria was not forthcoming, and Geagea refused to face definite electoral disgrace. As Farid el Khazen argues, “[f]ollowing their loss on two fronts [the Lebanese Forces] were faced with only one option – to boycott the proposed [1992] elections.” Such behaviour possibly had another and more sinister dimension to it: garnering sympathy lost to past mistakes, although it is also probable that Geagea realized his mistake and was convinced that the only right thing to do was to express solidarity with the ruling Christian mood and refuse to collaborate even at the risk of persecution. The latter could have also included the former. This was confirmed by a number of statements he made after his release from jail in 2005. For example, in a short documentary aired recently on Future Television, Geagea’s words are paraphrased as follows: “he said that throughout all those years he never felt that he was imprisoned because his spirit remained free and that the real prisoners are those who built a prison for themselves by impersonating the beliefs of others with the desire for a position or office, or to avoid arrest or persecution.” As for his 1994 decision not to leave Lebanon, Geagea had the following to say after his release from jail: “the important thing is winning in the long run, not merely coping with the circumstances.”

Oops, I got carried away! Well, I think I will leave the discussion on the issue of amnesty vs. prosecution to the comments/debate section, and I would like to hear what my readers think on this issue. I am speaking more from the perspective of legal authority, the right to life and the mass-violation thereof, and whether those responsible for the crimes should be treated on a lose-win or win-win basis (retributive vs. restorative justice). In the case of Lebanon (regardless of the identity of the perpetrators – Israelis, Syrians, Palestinians, or Lebanese), neither method of bringing about justice has been put into practice. The only winners have been the perpetrators. Impunity has been the name of the game all along. The failure and deafening silence of the international community and public opinion on Sabra & Shatila in 1982 can be considered to have been one of the biggest green lights (not to say causes) for Israel to continue and escalate to new hights its violations in the West Bank & Gaza Strip, as well as Lebanon in the very recent past. Just as there was no widespread outburst in 1982, what followed it, and indeed what preceded it, there was no widespread outburst in 2006 (save for a voice or two here and there, mostly from Lebanese diasporas that organized swiftly), and predictably so. And if the trend continues (and there is every indication that it will), there will be no outburst in any future massacres, except when the targets and victims are the wrong people (these include soldiers, whose names will be dutifully memorized and continuously repeated in every corner of the world that is within the lobby’s reach – I am sure I will now be accused of espousing the “anti-Semitic myth of the all-controlling Zionist hand’). That is, those people who are guarded by the discourse that is decided on and defined by the lobby, “the friends of Israel”, and co. (for more on that, I recommend David Hirst’s The Gun and the Olive Branch). I might be playing a broken record, but I cannot stress this enough. The route to peace and justice – real justice, that is – passes through the heart of the lobby. It must be destroyed. Completely and ruthlessly. The institutionalized thought-controlling and behaviour-restraining has to be purged. I repeat, completely and ruthlessly. Those who advocate countering it with a similar body are missing the point: that justice is absent not because there is a lack of a similar and as comprehensive and organized/powerful an entity (i.e. lobby) on their side, but because there is one on the other side. Until then, we will, at best, be restricted to holding yearly commemoration ceremonies (commemoration != [not equal to] justice !!!! ) and marking 25th and 30th and 35th and 40th and nth special anniversaries. We will be powerless to prevent another massacre, just as we were powerless in Qana in 1996, Iraq in 2003, Qana, Srifa, and many other places in 2006, and many more soon to come. 24 years on, it seems that very few people have realized the importance of throwing away the veil of activism to expose the defeatism and passivity that hide behind it. The veil is often named pacifism. Let me tell you something. Pacifism is a great ideology, but if you cannot preserve the life you claim to be defending by taking up pacific means of fighting oppression, then this great ideology is not worth a cent. Pacifism is a means, and in our increasingly militant world that is sliding rapidly into readiness for nuclear warfare, a failing one at that. Now we can be the armchair advocates of a number of ideologies, but when generals choose war, ideologues can only watch.


5 responses to “Sabra & Shatila – 24 years on

  1. I find it interesting, despite all the gnashing of teeth, that if you google in google news “hezbollah” or “hezbullah crimes” you get one citation – and that is an article about disproportionate Israeli response. If you google Isreali crimes” you get 62 in .65. “Hezbollah war crimes” give you 7 sitations, 6 of those from the Amnesty report accusing them of targetting civilian areas of Israel. (Which a Hezbullah politician admitted) Google news “Isrealie war crimes” and you get even more – 121 in .43 seconds. Even if a large number are dupes – and there are since all reprints of wire articles etc. get their own cite – it simply belies this alleged bias. The idea that Isreal got a free pass in 2006 and poor Hezbullah got all the bad press is simply a lie.

    It is interesting that in the middle of your article you discuss the massive killings during the Lebanese civil war, yet end (again) on Isreali crimes – which were horrific and criminal.

    Who are the war lords of the civil war?

  2. Not encouraging…

    I am already pessimistic about the region, and now you convince me that our destiny will be one of ongoing massacres.

    On reprends les memes et on recommence…

  3. The silly thought that HezbAllah got little bad press, while the bulk of the badmouthing fell on Israel is preposterous to anyone who bothered to actually read newspapers and watch TV during this latest IDF riot.

    If you have to use Google page returns to prove a point, you’re point is, almost by definition, a loser.

  4. Chris Swift, the sophistry of your comments never fail to impress. You stumble from hyperbole to nonsequitor with the ease of a tango master.

    Poor Chris Swift and poor Hezbullah, so consitently maligned and
    so misunderstood. Google, in case you don’t know, is the premiere free search engine for western media. It gives an instant snapshot of the words used in western media. Google returns are widly used by businesses and individuals who are, perhaps, just a tad sharper than either you or I. So your final comment is, of course, absurd. The argument you could use is the choice of phrase googled. It was pretty arbitrary and I did not expect it to be so stacked against Israel in the responses. In fact, I thought it would be fairly equal, given that many Human Rights organizations had determenined both sides guiltiy of “war crimes.” One of the reasons it was likely so one-sided against Israel is “war crimes” are more often used in discussing a state, and most journalists and other organizations don’t discuss Hezbullah in those terms.

    There is not doubt that most American media, due to Hezbullah’s listing as a terrorist organization (and due to lingering suspicion of Hezbullah involvement in targeted killings, and even the belief that lingers that a nascent Hezbullah, or elements who became Hezbullah were involved in teh Marine Barracks bombing.

    But there is also no doubt that Israel’s excessive response in this conflict was widly reported. The massacre at Qana, the oil spill, the missile attack on the UN outpost – among other instances were widly covered. All you have to do is google them.

  5. very interesting, but I don’t agree with you

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