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Forgotten History: Sabra and Chatila 25 years later

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Message Michael Corcoran

By Michael Corcoran and Stephen Maher

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the Sabra and Chatilla massacre, one of the most gruesome atrocities of our time. An estimated 3,500 Palestinian refugees were slaughtered in cold blood over a period of at least three days by Israeli-allied Maronite Christian militias, acting with the consent and guidance of the Israeli military, under the command of then-Defense minister Ariel Sharon.

A BBC news article described the massacre as an “orgy of rape and slaughter that left hundreds, possibly thousands, of innocent civilians dead in what is considered the bloodiest single incident of the Arab-Israeli conflict.” In addition, the United Nations “resolved that the massacre was an act of genocide" by a vote of 98-19, followed by massive protests in Israel and around the world.

In the face of this outrage, Israel set up the “Kahan Commission” to investigate the matter. While the Commission was viewed by many as a “whitewash,” it nonetheless found Ariel Sharon “indirectly responsible” for the slaughter, and recommended he never again hold public office. His resignation was tendered in short order, and Sharon departed the prestigious post in shame. Soon thereafter, however, Sharon made his now-infamous visit to the Al Aqsa mosque, sparking the second intifada and leading to his election as Israel's Prime Minister.

“The striking thing is that the west almost ignores [Sabra and Chatilla],”’ wrote Christ Tolworthy. “Yet everyone agrees that it took place.”

Indeed, to this day most Americans are unaware of the Sabra and Chatila massacre, and for that matter Sharon’s involvement in it. The event has essentially been erased from history, in a particularly nasty realization of the classic Orwellian nightmare.

“There will be no internationally-observed minute's silence for the innocent victims of Sabra and Shatila,” said a recent article from the BBC, that deplored the lack of “global news coverage about the survivors and their miserable existence at the scene of this evil crime.”

Such omissions are the rule, not the exception. The western press is more than happy to turn a blind eye to atrocities committed by the US and its allies around the world. But such ignorance, however convenient, has real consequences. It was this historical amnesia that helped lead the US into the brutal occupation of Iraq, with every major outlet loudly beating the war drum without so much as mentioning the large hand the US and UK had in supporting Saddam's worst atrocities. Likewise, little or no attention was paid to the US genocide in Indochina, the slaughter of Indonesians by the US-backed Suharto regime, the massive Reaganite terror war of the 1980s that left three countries in ruins and hundreds of thousands dead, the present US-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia, and a long list of other such activities.

Despite men such as Alan Dershowitz hailing Sharon as a “man of peace” in nationally-syndicated editorial columns, the uncontroversial fact that he has been linked to brutal war crimes by his own government is notably absent from public debate in the US. When Israel—perhaps the most important US ally—shelled a three-story building full of innocent civilians (including many women and children) in Qana last summer, virtually all US newspapers failed to note that a very similar act was committed in 1996. Both were condemned by human rights organizations as violations of international law, but the evils committed by the US and its allies are brushed under the carpet, and the events slip, predictably, into the cracks of history.

Rather than continuing to ignore Sabra and Chatilla, now is the time to revisit it. Similarly horrendous crimes are being committed presently at the hands of the US and its allies, mostly ignored by the media. According to Human Rights Watch, last summer more than a thousand civilians in Lebanon were killed as a result of “Israel’s frequent failure to abide by a fundamental obligation of the laws of war.” 25 years after Sabra and Chatilla, history seems to be repeating itself for the Lebanese people. Will this story vanish from history as well?

Stephen Maher is a graduate student of International Relations at American University.

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Michael Corcoran is a freelance writer based in Boston who has been published by The Boston Globe, The Nation, Common Dreams, Alternet,, Campus Progress, Blast Magazine, and Extra!. His work, focusing largely on foreign policy, the (more...)
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