Remembering Sabra and Shatila, Towards Return and Liberation

Thirty-nine years ago this September 16-18, Palestinians in Lebanon — and everywhere inside Palestine and in exile and diaspora — faced the horrors of the Sabra and Shatila massacres of 1982. Thousands of Palestinian refugees in the Shatila refugee camp and the Sabra neighborhood of Beirut were slaughtered by the Lebanese fascist Phalangist militia, the killing overseen by the invading Israeli forces that surrounded the camps on all sides, firing flares into the air to light up the night sky for the massacring forces. 

Only one day after the very last contingent of the Palestinian defense forces of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the fighters of the Palestinian revolution, were compelled to leave Lebanon in a so-called “ceasefire” agreement brokered by the United States, Israeli occupation forces invaded Beirut and surrounded the Shatila refugee camp, now home largely to women, children and elders alone, on 15 September 1982. Israeli forces set up checkpoints at every entrance to the camp, blocking Palestinian civilians fron leaving and controlling all points of entry. 

Poster: Marc Rudin, 1983

These invading Israeli occupation forces welcomed, directed and cleared the path for the fascist militias to enter the camps and “clear out PLO members,” providing the military support and encirclement for the massacre of thousands of Palestinian refugees left without their resistance fighters and defensive arms. 

Nearly 4,000 Palestinians and Lebanese were slaughtered, from elders to babies. The violence of the attack was immense, as women were raped, tortured and brutalized. The Israeli occupation forces surrounding the camp provided free passage to even more fascist militiamen to enter the camp, even as they blocked Palestinian and Lebanese residents from fleeing. Ariel Sharon, then the Zionist minister of war, was directly informed of the massacre and oversaw the ongoing encirclement of the camps. 

Palestinian women and children resisted with only small arms and their bodies and breath. Despite their lack of protection and the overwhelming force exerted by the encircling Israeli army and the fascist militia, the resistance of the Palestinian people inside Sabra and Shatila saved hundreds of civilian lives. 

Poster: Marc Rudin, 1983

Despite the passage of time, the calls of the victims and of the Palestinian people remains clear: a demand for justice and accountability, and, above all, for the implementation of the right to return to Palestine and the liberation of Palestine from the river to the sea. 

The Sabra and Shatila massacres were not a random act of violence; they were central to the U.S.-supported Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which took upwards of 30,000 lives. Thousands more are still missing today. These massacres were intended as an act of genocide, designed to clear Lebanon of its Palestinian population, facilitated by the same forces responsible for the ongoing Nakba and genocidal ethnic cleansing inside occupied Palestine. 

Poster: Marc Rudin, 1982

The Sabra and Shatila massacres echoed not only with the cries of Deir Yassin, Kafr Qasem, Dawaymeh and al-Lid, but also with those of the September massacres in Jordan 10 years prior. As in Sabra and Shatila, they aligned the most reactionary Arab forces with imperialist backing and Zionist military support. The massacre was an attempt to wipe out Palestinian resistance and, despite its brutal violence, an attempt that failed alongside all other such colonial violence for over 100 years. 

The Palestinian resistance and the Palestinian people were not defeated at Sabra and Shatila, nor was the Lebanese resistance. The flame of the Palestinian revolution continued to burn, and it was five years later, with the rise of the Intifada in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip of Palestine, that the siege on the Palestinian refugee camps was broken. 

Poster: Marc Rudin, 1989

16 September 1982 was the beginning of the Sabra and Shatila massacres; it was also the birth of Jammoul, the Lebanese National Resistance Front, comprised of multiple Lebanese and Palestinian leftist organizations fighting back against Israeli occupation and invasion. 

Through years of resistance and struggle, taking multiple forms and political directions, the Lebanese resistance, and particularly the Islamic resistance led by Hezbollah, was able to uproot the Israeli occupation from its land, forcing the Zionist occupation forces from Lebanon in May 2000. 

Lebanese and Arab strugglers who recognized the role of the imperialist powers, such as the United States, Britain, and France, in the ongoing occupation and destruction of Lebanon, Palestine and the Arab region more broadly, took up the battle against Zionism and imperialism on an international level in response to Sabra and Shatila. The Lebanese Armed Revolutionary Fraction (FARL), of Georges Abdallah – today imprisoned in French jails for over 37 years – was one such response. 

Poster: Marc Rudin, 1984

The international popular response to the invasion of Lebanon and the Sabra and Shatila massacres, including the mobilization of Palestinian communities in exile around the world and the significant growth of Palestine solidarity organizing, was also part of this continuing resistance. Rallies and marches took to the streets around the world, with 29 November, the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, as a focal point, shattering the walls that had excluded Palestinian struggle from the official left in the United States and other Western countries. 

This mobilization of Palestinian communities and international solidarity is just as vital today, to confront the Oslo project and the continuing Nakba inside and outside Palestine.

The Palestinian, Arab and international resistance art of Sabra and Shatila repeated the image of the flower of Palestine blossoming from the blood of the martyrs, the irrepressible spirit of resistance and the deep mourning and memory of those whose lives were taken by the fascist-Zionist-imperialist alliance in the streets of Beirut. 

Poster: Abdel Aziz Ibrahim, 1982

Today, Palestinian refugees have been denied their right to return home to their lands, homes and properties in occupied Palestine for over 73 years. In Lebanon, Palestinian refugees are also denied basic civil and human rights, including the right to work in over 70 professions. However, the refugee camps have been and remain popular incubators for Palestinian resistance and a core of the Palestinian movement, a compass pointing towards liberation and return. The Palestinian resistance – and the Lebanese resistance – continue to present hope for the world, a defense of humanity and justice against the brutality of colonialism and exploitation. 

Samidoun Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network mourns the martyrs of Sabra and Shatila and salutes all of the Palestinian refugees who continue to struggle for return and liberation. We demand the freedom of Georges Abdallah and all Palestinian prisoners in Israeli, reactionary and imperialist prisons, and we emphasize that this anniversary must also be an occasion to stand with the continuing Palestinian resistance. 

Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, alongside the Lebanese people, face a devastating economic crisis created by capitalist exploitation, financial confiscation of popular resources, and imperialist domination and sanctions. In many ways, Palestinian refugees’ suffering in the economic crisis has been made invisible — they also go without oil, gas, electricity and water, often in worse conditions than the Lebanese population as a whole. The Samidoun delegation to Lebanon, which visited the memorial for Sabra and Shatila, witnessed the effects of this economic crisis on the Palestinian and Lebanese people and their ongoing resistance. 

On the anniversary of the Sabra and Shatila massacres, we must take action and organize to defend Palestinian refugees’ right to return to their original homes, lands and properties throughout historic Palestine and ensure restitution and reparations. 

We also must resist imperialist sanctions levied by the U.S. and other Western powers that aim to isolate and weaken resistance to Israel, Zionism, imperialism, and reaction, and ultimately to liquidate the Palestinian national liberation movement. We must remember Sabra and Shatila by supporting the steadfastness of Palestinian refugees in the camps and everywhere in exile and diaspora, and upholding the right to live, the right to remain and the right to return — and the right to liberate Palestine, from the river to the sea.  

Further reading and reports of the Samidoun Ghassan Kanafani Brigade to Lebanon:

Poster: Marc Rudin, 1984