After 19 Years:By Ellen Siegel
Sabra and Shatila Remembered
Nineteen years ago I volunteered to go to Beirut to work as a nurse. I wanted to use my profession to help the Lebanese and Palestinians who had been wounded in Israel's invasion of Lebanon. As a Jew I wanted to show that not all Jews supported this action. So it was that during the September 1982 massacre in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, I was there, working in a hospital in Sabra. Afterwards, I went to Israel to testify before the official commission of inquiry whose task was to "investigate all the facts connected with the atrocity." [see summary of the Kahan Commission Report, American-Arab Affairs, Spring1983.]
This year's anniversary of the massacre in the camps is different from any of the earlier anniversaries: what happened in those camps almost two decades ago is once again in the news. This time the story is not about a thousand Palestinian and Lebanese men, women and children, some horribly mutilated, lying in piles on top of one another as troops of the Israeli Defense Force stand watch outside the camps. The story this time is about the attempt to bring to justice the current prime minister of Israel, Ariel Sharon. Sharon was Israel's minister of defense at the time of the atrocities at Sabra and Shatila. In 1983, Israel's official Commission of Inquiry into the events at the Refugee Camps in Beirut (or "Kahan Commission," named after the then-president of the Supreme Court, Yitzhak Kahan), concluded that Sharon bore personal and indirect responsibility for the massacre.
Why is this story of the massacre being brought up again after so many years? There are several reasons. For one thing, Sharon's election as prime minister and the subsequent increase in violence towards the Palestinians has attracted media attention to his military history. In June 2001, the BBC's Panorama program presented an investigative piece on Sharon's activities at the time of the massacre entitled, "The Accused." This documentary thoroughly explores the role of Sharon -- what he knew and when he knew it; the results challenge the Kahan Commission's findings. Interviews with eyewitnesses, an American diplomat at the time, Israeli journalists, experts in international law, Israeli commanders, a former judge on the U.N. War Crimes Tribunal and others tell a story that points to more than indirect responsibility for Sharon.
Another reason for new interest in this "old news" is the initiation of new court proceedings. A day after the BBC film aired, a formal complaint charging Sharon with war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide was lodged with the Belgian Prosecutor's Office in Brussels on behalf of 28 Lebanese and Palestinian survivors of the massacre. There was a time when terms such as "war crimes, war crime tribunals and crimes against humanity" were associated only with responsibility for the Holocaust. Now they come to mind when we hear names like Pinochet and Milosovic and think of places like Rwanda and Argentina. The connections of these concepts to the actions of the Jewish state, however, remain particularly disturbing. Finally, the current collapse of relations between the Israelis and Palestinians gives us pause to look back. Knowing Sharon's past behavior toward the Palestinians, one can only fear his future actions. The outlook is frightening for both Jews and Palestinians.
When we draw attention to what happened between September 16 and 18, 1982, it is important to be clear what these efforts are and are not about. They are not about antisemitism or being anti-Israel. They are not about Zionism or anti-Zionism. They are not about disliking Sharon or being sympathetic to the Palestinians. These efforts are about justice. They are about remembering something that was almost forgotten, about reminding a whole new generation of what happened. And they are about honoring and paying tribute to those who perished. So it is important to relate what I saw and heard during the days of the massacre. I want those who know little about this story to learn about it; I want those who are familiar with it to be reminded.
First, I must tell you something about how I came to be in those camps. I am a second-generation Jewish American. My grandparents came from Eastern Europe to escape the Pogroms there. I was raised in a middle-class, mostly Jewish environment. My family observed the Sabbath and other Jewish holidays. I attended Hebrew School, regularly went to Sabbath service and celebrated a Bat Mitzvah; I attended a Jewish School of Nursing. I grew up in the years that followed the Holocaust; what adults told me about this event had a strong affect on my lifelong beliefs. My parents and my Jewish teachers emphasized that the reason six million Jews perished was that no one spoke out. There were individuals, including high-ranking officials, who were aware of the ongoing extermination of Jewish people throughout Europe, yet they did nothing to stop it. Their voices were silent. I was taught that whenever I saw or heard of an injustice I was to speak out. Sometimes one must speak on behalf of another because the other cannot. By doing this, one might stop something terrible from happening. I also learned that morality and a sense of justice were attributes of which the Jewish people were proud.
Editor's note: See the 6th edition of True Democracy (La verdad sobre la democracia) for articles which indicate that the Holocaust was a massive deceit in order that the Jews be allowed to move en masse in the Holy Land.
In the late 1960s, I began to act on what I had learned. The Vietnam War was consuming America. We could watch, night after night, as body bags were put on transport planes in Southeast Asia to be flown back to the States. The number of American dead, updated daily, was announced at the beginning of each evening's newscast. It disgusted me to see American weapons being used to bomb hospitals in Vietnam, to hear of the killing of innocent Vietnamese civilians. I became an activist in the anti-war movement.
Also, in 1967, there was news of a war between Israel and the Arabs. Pictures coming from Israel showed hordes of Palestinians who had overnight become refugees. They were now living in tents in the desert. Why was this, I wondered? Who were these refugees? I had been taught that Israel was created in a land without a people. No one at the Jewish hospital where I was working, nor any one of my fellow Jewish peace activists, could explain this situation, except to say that Arab countries had attacked Israel. As for the American Left, apart from a few rumblings among activists, it did not wish to engage in discussion about the "Palestinian problem."
In 1972, I traveled with a Jewish friend to Europe. Equipped with our backpacks, we were ready to see and experience; we wanted to broaden our horizons. We started in London, moving slowly eastward. After months of traveling, we needed medical attention. In September, we decided to go to Beirut, to the American University Hospital. Neither of us had ever met an Arab, much less been to an Arab country. This seemed like a good opportunity to learn about the Palestinians. After obtaining treatment, we settled into an apartment in the heart of West Beirut. We decided to educate ourselves about the Palestinians there, in one of the world's most magnificent and fascinating cities.
Our first lesson was a visit to a Palestinian refugee camp. A taxi dropped us at a camp called Bourj El-Bourajneh, close to the airport. Uniformed Palestinian soldiers greeted us. We explained who we were and why we had come. They understood and graciously invited us in. We were taken to classrooms and to one-room dwellings without running water or any sort of plumbing, covered by corrugated tin roofs. We walked through winding, narrow paths and alleyways filled with mud and debris from an open, raw-sewage system. I had never seen anything like this. In days and years to come I would see much more of the same.
What affected me most was my experience at the hospital, Haifa Hospital (Palestinian refugees name their camps' medical facilities after cities in Palestine that they had to leave in 1948). I visited several elderly patients. Faded photographs showing their families in happier times, their homes, their land, their orange groves and their olive trees adorned the walls around their hospital beds. They told me they were born in Haifa, in Acre, in Jaffa. I had always thought that these were names of places in Israel. They talked about their lives before 1948, before Israel became a state, and about their lives since. And so it began, this education about the Palestinians. Ten years later, almost to the day, I would find myself in another hospital in another refugee camp in Beirut. In many ways I had never really left the first.
As we were leaving the camp, our escorts told us that Israeli athletes had been killed in Munich at the Olympics. Israel's response would teach another lesson. Although a botched rescue attempt by German authorities caused most of the deaths, a Palestinian group had taken the athletes hostage and was responsible for killing some of them. The bloody incident put the Palestinian cause on the front page of every newspaper and magazine in the world. The history and plight of the Palestinian people became known worldwide. No one now could feign ignorance.
Israel's military quickly and forcefully responded to the killings. They mercilessly bombarded South Lebanon; hit refugee camps; killed or wounded innocent people. I volunteered my nursing services to the Lebanese Red Crescent Society (Red Cross). A trip with them to the bombarded areas shocked me. Death and destruction, some of it random, were everywhere. It was my people who had done this, other Jews.
I spent several months in Beirut learning all I could about the Palestinians and the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. I visited PLO institutions, spoke with many Palestinians. I decided I needed to go to Israel to find out more about and from my own people.
From Lebanon my friend and I left for Israel via Cyprus. First we lived on a moshav with my friend's family, then we moved to a kibbutz in the Galilee. The kibbutz's ideological concept -- living according to your needs and working according to your ability -- appealed to me. I lived and worked on the kibbutz; on my days off, I traveled around the country. What was most striking was the contrast between the way Palestinians lived in refugee camps in Beirut and the way Israelis lived in kibbutzim. People in the camps lived in teeming, squalid, almost uninhabitable conditions with no water; people on the kibbutz lived in comfortable modern housing surrounded by lush gardens and swimming pools.
I had always thought that there would be a synagogue on every corner in Israel. Not so. Outside of a small area in Jerusalem, one would have to look hard to find a Jewish place of worship. I came to understand that what I thought of as my religion meant something else in Israel. In Israel, "Jew" meant a nationality foremost. I considered my nationality to be American; to me, Judaism was my religion.
I traveled through most of Israel and the West Bank and Gaza. I spent many contemplative hours at Yad Vashem, the memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. I toured the Knesset, the Israeli Museum and historical and other sites in order to gain an understanding of Israel and its people. I visited the West Bank and Gaza. These areas were impoverished, their atmosphere oppressive. The Palestinians there were under occupation, living under the watchful eyes of heavily armed Israeli soldiers. This occupation had been going on since 1967; it was no wonder the Palestinians felt hostility towards Israel.
There were Israelis who opposed the occupation and refused to travel to the Occupied Territories. I discovered that most Israelis, though, had a rather racist attitude toward Arabs. I repeatedly heard Israelis refer to them as "dirty Arabs." It reminded me of a racist term that many in my country had used to describe African-Americans.
Before long, I realized I needed to work with Jews outside of Israel to help resolve this conflict and to help improve the lives of Palestinians. I left Israel and returned to London, knowing that it would be easier to be politically active there than in the States. I found a job and settled in; I joined the Palestinian solidarity committees and the Jewish peace movement. In 1973, I participated in a demonstration at the embassy of Israel to bring attention to Israel's Right of Return Law. A Palestinian woman, Dr. Ghada Karmi, and I stood side by side with our homemade signs. Mine said that as a Jew born in the United States I had the right of "return" to Israel. Hers said that she was born in Jerusalem but was not allowed to return there.
In 1974, I left London and moved back to the States, settling in Washington, DC. I continued my political solidarity work with the Palestinians. I was not aware of any Jewish peace groups there at the time. In 1980, I returned to Beirut to assist in a Palestinian women's project. I stayed for several months. Those wretched camps were the same as before. Palestinians lived in fear. The Israelis frequently bombarded and shelled the camps, especially after the PLO had conducted an attack on Israel. Palestinians were still waiting to return to their homes in Palestine. New generations were becoming familiar with every detail of their ancestors' place of birth and history.
In June 1982, using the pretext of an assassination attempt on the Israeli ambassador to England, Israel invaded Lebanon and unleashed a war on the Palestinians. Night after night I watched on television as Israel's air force bombed a nation's capital. The level of bombardment reminded me of the news coming from Vietnam years before. There was a period when the bombing of Beirut continued non-stop for days. At one point the Israelis refused to allow food, water or medicines into the besieged city.
It was extremely painful to watch this. Finally, I could no longer bear that it was being done in my name. I wanted to show that not all Jews agreed with what Israel was doing. I volunteered my nursing services to the Palestinians; I waited to go. At this time, someone called to tell me that a group of Jews would be holding a vigil at the Israeli embassy to protest the continual bombing and the closing off of Beirut. At last, other Jewish voices were speaking out. A new Jewish peace organization was formed that evening. Over the next decade, through its activities, it was to make a significant contribution towards a better understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In mid-August, the United States brokered an agreement between the PLO and the Israeli government. The PLO would evacuate its forces, including its chairman, Yasser Arafat, from Beirut. The Israelis would then cease their assaults on the city. The United States promised safety and security for the Palestinians left behind, as the PLO would no longer be there to protect them. A multinational force was sent in. At last I received a call saying that I would be allowed to go to Beirut to help out as a nurse. I would be under the auspices of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society. I would first go to Syria, then cross into Lebanon with other health workers. I reached Damascus as convoys carrying the exiled PLO fighters arrived from Beirut. I watched as they drove past my hotel. The day after the last convoy arrived, our group of doctors and nurses left for Beirut, our bags stuffed with medical supplies.
The scene in and around the West Beirut camps was surreal. Many-storied buildings were reduced to crumpled fragments of brick and wire. I was appalled at the destruction. All around were displays of the ammunition that had been used to do these deeds. Many of the shells and casings were labeled "Made in USA." The worst part was the human toll. I visited a medical ward that had been established underground, in the basement of a building. In bed after bed lay a once-whole person. What remained were blinded, limbless humans clinging to life. I remember going outside and weeping.
I was assigned to the Gaza Hospital, a Red Crescent facility, in the Sabra refugee camp in West Beirut. I lived at the hospital, sleeping on a hospital bed in a room shared by several health workers, foreign and Palestinian. My first patients were a large Lebanese family that had operated a grocery in the lobby of an apartment building. One day Arafat had visited this building. Israeli intelligence forces had been following his movements; shortly after he left, the building was bombed. Most of this family suffered burns. They were all put in one big hospital room. Daily, I would change all of their dressings: cleanse the burned areas, apply medication, and put on clean dressings. This was a long and painful process. It occurred with a limited water supply, sheets that could not be laundered very often, a scant amount of sterile equipment, open windows, and a less than clean field in which to heal. Yet this was the most rewarding nursing experience that I ever had. Not only did everyone in this family survive; none of them ever developed an infection while in the hospital.
Slowly, day by day, the inhabitants of the camps began putting their lives back together. The PLO fighters were gone, the leaders far away in Tunis. On September 10, the multinational forces, too, left Beirut. Then, within days, on Tuesday, September 14, 1982, Bashir Gemayel, the newly elected president of Lebanon, was assassinated. Gemayel had been the leader of the Phalangists (also referred to as the Lebanese Christian Militia, Lebanese Forces and Kataib), a military and political party vehemently opposed to the Palestinians. The absolute hatred of the Phalange towards the Palestinians and their desire for revenge were common knowledge in this part of the world.
After the assassination of President Gemayel, the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) decided to enter West Beirut. They also ordered the Phalange militia to enter the camps "to search and mop up." This referred to any PLO fighters who might remain there -- but of these there were few. IDF spokesmen also gave another reason for allowing the Phalange to enter the camps: "to prevent possible grave occurrences and to ensure quiet." Throughout the night of September 14, the radio played somber music. Early the next morning, Wednesday, September 15, Israeli planes flew over the camps; we heard the explosive noise as they broke the sound barrier. We also began to hear light artillery fire from the area around the hospital. This continued all day, increasing as the hours passed. Next morning, Thursday, September 16, the hospital suddenly became very busy and very crowded. About 2,000 inhabitants of the camp rushed into the building seeking refuge. Another 2,000 could not get in; they huddled outside. The refugees were terrified and hysterical. Screaming, they kept repeating "Kataib, Israel, Haddad (another Lebanese militia)" and made a motion with their fingers and hand as if to show that someone was slitting their throat.
Inside the hospital, the scene was chaotic. The morgue was overflowing. Wounded were streaming in; some had been shot in the elbows and legs as they tried to run away. I remember a dehydrated premature baby that was brought in; in all the excitement it had not received enough fluid. I do not know what happened to this baby once it was rehydrated. Refugees crouched in every corner. We tended to the wounded. We tried to feed those who had sought refuge. Both heavy and light artillery fire continued all day. I kept listening to BBC news on my tiny transistor radio. The main story was the death in a car crash of Princess Grace of Monaco. The reports said nothing at all about what was happening in the camps. At some point, late in the evening, the second news item did relay the fact that the Israeli army was occupying West Beirut.
That evening, a few other health-care workers and I climbed to one of the top floors of the hospital; it had been unused since the recent invasion. Because most of the walls had been bombed out, the view was unobstructed. We watched for a time as flares were shot into the air, brightly illuminating different parts of the camp. After each flare, rounds of light artillery fire were heard. I thought people were trying to shoot down the flares. Not a sound was heard from the camps except the noise of the flares being projected and the shots that followed. No screaming, no cries for help, no human sound, nothing. Israeli planes continued to fly overhead as the night went on.
The next morning, Friday, September 17, suddenly and with great urgency, all of the Palestinian and Lebanese staff left the hospital. The hospital administrator had told them it was no longer a safe area. The only staff members who remained were some twenty doctors, nurses, and physical therapists from Great Britain, Norway, Holland, Sweden, Finland, Germany, Ireland and two of us from the United States, all volunteers. That afternoon, in great haste, the patients who could walk left. The refugees inside and outside the building also fled. They feared it was no longer a safe place. The refugees told us that the militias were making their way towards the hospital. The only patients who remained were those who could not move easily and those in critical condition -- altogether about 50 people.
The sounds of high explosives, mortars and artillery fire, both light and heavy, continued almost non-stop, and they were getting closer. Smoke began pouring in through the windows. Doors and windows were shaking. We evacuated all our remaining patients to the lower floors. We taped up windows so that the glass would not shatter. The electricity kept going off; we were pumping oxygen by hand. The doctors operated by flashlight.
Sometime Friday morning, in the midst of this bombardment, a film crew from Visnews came. They did some filming, then left. Late in the afternoon, representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross appeared; they evacuated a half-dozen critically injured children, whom they placed in other hospitals around the city. They also left us oxygen, blood and other vital and much-needed supplies. Finally, the ambassador of Norway came by. Each of these visitors was given a list of names of all the foreign volunteers.
That evening, as I was working in the Intensive Care Unit, two unfamiliar young men approached me. They looked different from the local population; well groomed and freshly shaven, with neatly ironed shirts and well-tailored trousers. One of them asked me, "Are the Kataib coming tomorrow morning to slit the throats of Palestinian children?" He asked me this twice. His eyelids appeared to be drooping. He wanted to know who was in the hospital. I answered, "All foreigners." I later learned that there were about 20 of these young men wandering around the hospital smoking hashish. To this day, I have no idea who these men were.
By that evening, the heavy artillery had ceased. Only the sound of light artillery and gunshots could be heard. Sundown marked the beginning of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year of 5743. That night I managed to get a few hours' sleep. Very early on Saturday morning, September 18, I was awakened by one of the other nurses. On an ordinary morning, we awoke to the tinkling of the bell of the vendor selling Arab coffee from his colorful cart. This morning there was an eerie silence; even the familiar crowing of the roosters had ceased. My colleague said, "Get downstairs right away. The Lebanese Army wants all the health workers to assemble at the entrance." One of the soldiers had instructed her to tell others "not to be afraid," as they were the Lebanese Army.
I looked out of a space that had once held a glass pane, blown out long ago by the force of a high explosive. In front of the hospital stood about a dozen men in uniform, wearing helmets and holding rifles. Others were herding away people who lived close by the hospital. I quickly put on my lab coat over the green hospital uniform that I had slept in, grabbed my passport, and made my way down eight flights of steps. In the bright morning sun the international health workers who had come to help stood together at the front door of our medical facility. The men and women waiting for us were clean, their uniforms starched and well-fitting -- but they bore the insignia not of the Lebanese Army, but of the Phalange. In contrast to them, we were a haggard and exhausted group; many of us had blood, pus, and other human waste on our uniforms and lab coats. The militiamen spoke with each other in Arabic and French and to us in English. They told us they were taking us away for awhile, but that we would be coming back. A few of the doctors successfully negotiated with them to allow one doctor and one nurse to remain in the ICU.
Our captors led us down the road in front of the hospital and on to Rue Sabra, the camp's main street. As we were marched along, I heard gunshots being fired on the right, then the left, then the right. After each one, I instinctively ducked. Someone told me, "Keep walking." The militiamen themselves did not react at all; they completely ignored the sound. It was as if they had not heard it.
Some of the camp residents, including some of the cooks and cleaners who worked at Gaza, followed us. The militia stopped them. Along the way, a Palestinian had joined us; fearful, he begged for one of us to give him a lab coat. Someone did. He looked Arab, though, and was quickly confronted by a militiaman asking for his ID card. The Phalangist slapped his face with the card and made him take off the lab coat. I turned around and saw him on his knees begging. As before, someone told me, "Keep walking." The next thing I heard was a shot. I did not look back.
As we continued marching down Rue Sabra, we saw dead bodies lying along the sides of the street; some were old men, shot point-blank in the temple. As we moved on, we approached a large group of camp residents, mainly women and children, huddled together, with men in uniform guarding them. They were very scared. We were worried about them, and they were frightened for us, seeing us led past them at rifle point. A few of them gave us the "V" sign. It seemed that with their eyes and their lips they wanted to reassure us and thank us for coming to help them. One young woman, fearing she would not survive, stepped out of the crowd and handed her infant to one of the female doctors. Dr. Swee Ang was able to walk a few feet with the baby before a Phalangist stopped her. He took the baby away from her and handed it back to the mother. For a few seconds, I thought about the Holocaust, about mothers being sent off to concentration camps. I had read much about Jewish women in Germany and Poland handing over their babies to others in order to save them from extermination.
By now we were halfway down Rue Sabra into Shatila; the camps sit beside one another, with no visible line dividing them. The number of militiamen increased greatly; they were everywhere. These looked different from the ones who had escorted us out of the hospital. They were sloppy and unkempt; their uniforms were dirty and rumpled, without any identifying insignia. They seemed exhausted, edgy and ill-tempered. Throughout this ordeal, most of the uniformed men were in constant communication with someone. There were many walkie-talkies in use.
Our group began to tighten up. It was dawning on us that we might not make it out of these camps alive. A few of us were crying softly. As we reached the end of the camps, our captors began harassing us. They yelled, "You are dirty people, you are not Christians -- Christians don't treat terrorists who kill Christians." The ranting continued, "You are communists, socialists, Baader-Meinhof." They were closing in and encircling us. They collected our passports, ordered us to keep walking. The crackling sound of their walkie-talkies became a familiar noise.
As we reached the end of the camp, the landscape had changed dramatically. Where homes had stood were piles of rubble. A yellow bulldozer was moving earth back and forth in an area that had been dug up and greatly enlarged. The bulldozer was scooping up dirt, moving it, then dumping it back out. Back and forth. This spot was very busy, with lots of men in uniform. We had to stop many times in order to let the bulldozer go past and do its job. I noticed it had a large Aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, stenciled on its side.
When we turned the corner of Rue Sabra, our captors steered us out of the camps towards the Kuwaiti embassy. They asked those wearing white lab coats to remove them. They lined us up in a row in front of a bullet-ridden wall. Facing us were about 40 men in uniform: a firing squad. Their rifles were ready and aimed in our direction. Behind them was a pick-up truck carrying more militiamen and what looked like a piece of anti-aircraft equipment. After a short time, the men in the firing squad lowered their rifles and marched back into the camps.
It is my understanding that someone from the IDF had been able to stop this imminent execution of foreigners. Members of the IDF stationed at the Israeli forward command post became aware of what was happening. An Israeli official had run to the spot and ordered the militia not to carry this out; he then left. Militiamen marched us past the embassy of Kuwait. Here another Israeli official appeared, spoke with one of the physicians, then left. The militia remained in control of us. They took us to the courtyard of an unused U.N. building for "interrogation."
The courtyard was littered with Israeli army rations, empty food cans, the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot from September 17 and a few discarded parts of IDF uniforms. The Phalangists called us up one by one for questioning. They asked me what nationality I was, why I had come to Lebanon, and who sent me. One of them told the other American not to be afraid, "as you are an American," and bade him "welcome."
A woman in a Phalange uniform pulled up in a jeep marked with a Red Cross. Beside her sat a young boy who had several of what looked like fresh stab wounds on his body. The woman said, "Look, see how we treat the enemy." She appeared to treat the wounds, pouring some sort of liquid on them and covering them with tape. Then she ordered the boy out of the jeep. He began pleading with the militia. They put him into another jeep and drove away with him.
Around 9:30 or 10 AM, our "interrogation" suddenly stopped. Someone handed our passports back to us. The Phalangists led us across the street to a five-story building overlooking the camps. The IDF had occupied the building and was using it as its forward command post. I noticed Israeli soldiers on the roof looking through binoculars. A jeep filled with Phalange militiamen was parked at the entrance to the command post. The occupants made it known that they wanted to take a pretty Norwegian nurse away with them. They seemed quite insistent. One of our doctors asked someone from the IDF to intercede. He did, and the jeep drove off without the nurse.
Within minutes of our arrival, a crew from Israeli Television appeared. Bottled water, fresh fruit and bread were brought to us; the crew filmed us as we ate and drank. Our presence was of little interest to the Israelis. I was not aware that any of them asked what had happened to us.
A number of Israeli soldiers wearing yarmulkes (skullcaps) and tallesim (Jewish prayer shawls) stood together, reading from their prayer books the morning service for Rosh Hashanah. A young, rather shy-looking soldier approached a few of us. He offered us a piece of honey cake, which had been neatly wrapped. Ever since I can remember, my mother would serve honey cake on this day. It is a Jewish tradition which ensures a "sweet year" ahead. I imagined this young man's mother carefully preparing this cake for her son so that he could commemorate this day according to custom.
This day had great meaning both for me and for the members of the Israeli Defense Force. All of us were spending this High Holiday around the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. It did not matter if you were the minister of defense, Ariel Sharon, or the division commander, Brigadier General Amos Yaron, or the unidentified soldier who offered me honey cake. This day marks the start of a ten-day period of introspection and repentance in the Jewish year. The Book of Life is opened; we are to right any wrongs we may have committed and set our lives in order. At the end of this period our fate for the next year will be sealed.
The Israelis said they would allow three of the doctors to return to the hospital. An Israeli officer gave one of the physicians a note in Hebrew and Arabic, telling him that the note would get him past the checkpoints on the way back to the hospital. The doctor still has this note and has offered it as testimony. The IDF loaded the rest of us into jeeps. I sat in the front seat of the jeep that led the convoy, as I was familiar with Beirut. The IDF offered to drop us off anywhere along the coast but said it was too dangerous for them to drive into the city proper, as they were too few. The driver, a young soldier, told me that today was his Christmas (not knowing I was Jewish, he was trying to explain this holiday of Rosh Hashanah to me) and that he did not like going into homes "seeing women and children." I asked him, "How many people had he killed?" He answered, "That is not a question you ask somebody." As we drove past soldiers from the Lebanese Army he added, "The Lebanese Army was impotent; they were here and did nothing. Israelis had to do all the work."
As we drove along the periphery of the city, we could see many buildings occupied by the IDF. We had to stop a few times to avoid land mines. In the front seat, next to me, was an enlarged map of Beirut covered by a piece of clear plastic with Hebrew writing on it.
A few other health workers and I asked to be dropped off at the American embassy, which was located on the coast. We went in. I told an Embassy employee that something was terribly wrong in those camps; I wanted to report what I had seen and heard over the past few days. I was told that the person in charge was out, to come back the next day.
I did go back the next day. By then the world knew what terrible things had happened in those camps during the past few days. I met with Political Affairs Officer Ryan Crocker; he had been to the camps, had counted bodies. I spent that night at the embassy; the next day I went to Syria, where I met up with other health workers. After a short time in Damascus, I returned to Beirut and to Gaza Hospital. By then international relief and religious organizations had sent teams of doctors and nurses to Beirut. Again the people in the camps were trying to rebuild and create a sense of normalcy in their lives.
Early in October, I heard that the government of Israel was establishing a Commission of Inquiry into the massacre and inviting witnesses to testify. I knew that the Palestinians and Lebanese who had survived would not go to Jerusalem to testify. They were frightened; the idea that they might go to Israel to appear in court was unrealistic. I remembered what I had learned as a child: someone needed to speak for them, to be their voice. I asked all of the health workers who had been present during the massacre and who were still in Beirut if they would like to testify. Only Dr. Swee Ang and Dr. Paul Morris accepted.
I contacted a Washington Post correspondent, asking for his help. He advised me to write a statement and have it notarized by the American embassy. For several days I sat quietly, writing a 12-page document describing what I had seen and heard between September 14 and 18. On October 14, a vice-consul at the U.S. embassy notarized it. A New York Times correspondent made sure it was delivered to the Commission of Inquiry in Jerusalem.
Two weeks later the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Baabda, East Beirut, contacted me through the International Red Cross. Drs. Ang and Morris and I were instructed to take a taxi to the IDF headquarters in Baabda. From there, the IDF would drive us through the south of Lebanon and northern Israel and on to Jerusalem. We left for Israel on October 31. From Baabda we drove straight through to the border with Israel. Along the way we passed through Israeli checkpoints and piles of rubble which had once been the homes of Palestinians.
In West Jerusalem we were put up at a five-star hotel; we remained under IDF guard throughout our stay. On the morning of November 1, we appeared before the Commission. I was first. I introduced myself, read through my 12-page document, and answered questions. Toward the end of my testimony I reminded the justices that as Jews we continue searching for Nazi war criminals in order to punish them and to bring about justice. I said, "I hope that justice will also be done in regard to this massacre." Justice Aharon Barak responded, "Justice will be done."
Next day our IDF escorts took us to the Western Wall, the Dome of the Rock and the Church of the Nativity. The morning after that, it was a tour of the Holocaust Museum, Yad Vashem and Hadassah Hospital. Some Israelis visiting patients at the hospital recognized us from the news and thanked us for coming to testify. That afternoon we were put on planes to our respective countries.
About a week after I returned home to Washington, DC, I received two notes. One was from a Swedish nurse who had listened to the news of our testimony with some of the people in the camp. He wrote, "We heard your voice; you spoke for the people of Sabra and Shatila." The other note was from an American nurse who was working at a different hospital in Beirut. Her note was dated November 1, 8:00 PM. She wrote, "I was with my friends in Sabra when the news came on the radio about your testimonies. Everyone present was so proud and so happy." These messages mean a great deal to me.
In February 1983, the Commission published the Final Report, together with an Appendix A in Hebrew and an authorized translation in English. Appendix B remains secret. The report is divided into a number of sections. The beginning includes a description of the period before the massacre in Beirut, the assassination of Bashir Gemayel, the IDF's entry into West Beirut, the events from the entry of the Phalangists into the camps until their departure, their departure, and reports of the massacre. There is a section that discusses both the direct and indirect responsibility for the massacre, followed by a section on personal responsibility. The end of the report addresses recommendations.
The personal responsibility section noted, "In accordance with a resolution adopted by the Commission notices were sent to . . . nine persons regarding the harm liable to be done to them by the inquiry and its results." Included were the prime minister, Menachem Begin; the minister of defense, Ariel Sharon; the chief of staff, Lieutenant General Rafael Eitan; the northern commander, Major General Amir Drori; and Division Commander Brigadier General Amos Yaron.
Regarding our evidence before the Commission, the report stated, "We heard testimony from two doctors and a nurse who worked in the Gaza Hospital, which was run by and for Palestinians. There is no cause to suspect that any of these witnesses have any special sympathy to Israel, and it is clear to us -- both from their choosing that place of employment and from our impression of their appearance before us -- that they sympathize with the Palestinians and desired to render service to Palestinians in need."
My response is that sympathy for and desire to help the Palestinians has little to do with wanting to bear witness to the truth. Had I volunteered my nursing services in Israel and witnessed an atrocity perpetrated against Israelis, I would have followed the same path of speaking out, of not remaining silent.
The section on Direct Responsibility also refers to us. It reads, "When the group of doctors and nurses met IDF officers, they made no complaint that a massacre had been perpetrated in the camps. When asked why they had not informed the IDF officers about the massacre, they replied they had not known about it. The fact that the doctors and nurses who were in the Gaza Hospital -- which is proximate to the site of the event and where persons wounded arrived -- did not know about the massacre but only about isolated instances of injury, also shows that those who were nearby but not actually inside the camps (a reference to the IDF) did not form the impression that a massacre of hundreds of people was taking place."
My response is that the nurses and doctors were on the ground and lower levels inside of the hospital. The refugees indicated by gesturing that a massacre was occurring, but we were in no position to go out and look around. Our job was to treat the wounded under very difficult conditions -- not to leave the hospital, amidst all the bombardment, to investigate. The position of the IDF, on the other hand, was very different. IDF observers were stationed outside, equipped with binoculars and a communication system, on a rooftop that overlooked the camps.
The report defined direct responsibility as responsibility for actually carrying out the killing. The conclusion in this regard was "that the direct responsibility for the perpetration of the acts of slaughter rests on the Phalange forces . . . It is evident that the forces who entered the area were steeped in hatred for the Palestinians . . . ."
The section on indirect responsibility quoted extensively from the Book of Deuteronomy. It concluded that the "decision on the entry of Phalangists into the camps was taken without consideration of the danger -- which the makers and executors of the decision were obligated to foresee as probable -- that the Phalangists would commit massacres against the inhabitants of the camps.
When reports arrived about the actions of the Phalangists in the camps, no proper heed was taken . . . . No immediate actions were taken to restrain the Phalangists and put a stop to their actions. This both reflects and exhausts Israel's indirect responsibility for what occurred in the refugee camps."
As for personal responsibility, the report stated that responsibility is to be imputed to the minister of defense for having disregarded the danger of acts of vengeance and bloodshed by the Phalangists against the population of the refugee camps, and having failed to take this danger into account when he decided to have the Phalangists enter the camps . . . . Responsibility is to be imputed to the minister of defense for not ordering appropriate measures for preventing or reducing the danger of a massacre as a condition for the Phalangists' entry into the camps. These blunders constitute the non-fulfillment of a duty with which the defense minister was charged.
In regard to Ariel Sharon, the recommendation reads, "the minister of defense bears personal responsibility," noting that "if necessary the prime minister may . . . . remove a minister from office."
As the occupying force in Beirut, the IDF under the command of Ariel Sharon was responsible for the safety of the population. The IDF opened the refugee camps to a militia with a history of hatred and indiscriminate violence against Palestinians. It sealed off the refugee camps. It refused to allow terrified, pleading camp residents to escape through the exits of the camps. The IDF supplied the flares that lit the way for the murderers; it provided a bulldozer to help bury bodies in a mass grave and hide it with earth. And no official intervened when it became clear that innocent lives were being taken.
An extensive communication system was in use, on September 18 at least, as evidenced by the continual use of walkie-talkies. The Israeli forward command post overlooked the camps. The IDF could intervene to stop the execution of light-skinned, blond-haired health workers holding Western passports and could stop the Phalange from abducting a Norwegian nurse. Given these facts, I believe someone in that IDF command post knew what was happening -- could even see at least some of what was going on in the area. A note written in Hebrew and Arabic allowed doctors to get past checkpoints and return to the hospital. The fact that the Visnews television crew, the International Red Cross representatives, and the ambassador of Norway were able to enter and leave Gaza Hospital in the midst of the massacre means that someone had the authority to allow safe entries and departures in the area. Someone had the authority to rein in the killers.
It seems that these and other similar facts indicate responsibility that is more than indirect. Yet Ariel Sharon has never served time in prison for his actions; on the contrary, he is now head of the Jewish state. He is officially welcomed in most countries, including the United States, where he has met with the president at the White House.
And so, Justice Barak, justice has not been done.
Nineteen years have passed. I think of those in the camps often, especially on the anniversary of the massacre. I wonder how they are, what their lives are like, what their memories are. Do they know that a Jewish American living in the capital of the world's most powerful nation shares something with them?
For me, the passage of time has not diminished the significance or emotions of the event. The images of bloated bodies, the grotesque scenes of mutilated children and of people slaughtered in the most barbaric ways are now a permanent part of history. Most who remember believe that justice has not been served. The survivors live with both physical pain and psychological scars. Their losses, their memories of what happened in those hours have remained with them, have become part of their daily consciousness. Most remain in the camps in Beirut, where they know they are never safe. All of them still live in fear.
The spot where the mass graves lie became a garbage dump. Of late, it is a clean and protected site, with someone in attendance to watch over it. It is sacred ground. I know that someday there will be a memorial one can visit to pay respects, be silent, say a prayer, place a flower and remember. This year solidarity groups have been visiting the camps. Next year, on the twentieth anniversary, this will happen again; hopefully it will be repeated every year thereafter.
In the meantime, efforts continue in the search for justice. At the time of this writing, authorities in Lithuania have begun extradition proceedings against Anton Gecas, 85 years old and a resident of Scotland. According to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which tracks down Nazi war criminals, "He was an officer in the police battalion responsible for the deaths of thousands of Jews" in Lithuania and Bylerorussia between 1941 and 1943.
In Brussels, a prosecutor determined that "the Complaint Against Ariel Sharon for His Involvement in the Massacres at Sabra and Shatila" was admissible. The complaint concludes, "The actions committed at Sabra and Shatila together constitute a crime of genocide, a crime against humanity, war crimes and grave violations of the 1949 IV Geneva Conventions." In September 2001, the investigation of the complaint was suspended. Sharon's lawyers questioned the legitimacy and competency of the Belgian justice system to deal with the complaint. In October, the Court of Appeals began to consider arguments about whether Sharon "may be investigated for alleged war crimes committed in Lebanon in 1982." The Court of Appeals will rule on the legality of the proceedings against Sharon, not on the content of the case against him. A hearing has been set for November 28 .
In the long run, one hopes that nations and leaders will become accountable for human-rights abuses. Violations must be documented, and violators must be punished. Justice must be done for all.
Ms. Siegel is a registered nurse. She is a member of ANERA's Medical Committee and is active in the Jewish Peace Movement.
"Justice, justice you shall pursue." -- Deuteronomy 16: 19-20