World 1982: Lebanon Crisis: A Refugee Massacre at Sabra and Shatila

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Lebanon Crisis

A refugee massacre

"The Israeli Defense Forces have taken positions in West Beirut to prevent the danger of violence, bloodshed and anarchy."

—Statement by the Israeli Cabinet

That was the Israeli government's explanation for its decision to send its armed forces into Muslim-dominated West Beirut last week following the assassination of Lebanon's President-elect Bashir Gemayel. The Israeli action alarmed the U.S., which saw it as a violation of a promise the Israelis made this summer to U.S. Special Envoy Philip Habib while he was negotiating the withdrawal of Palestine Liberation Organization guerrillas from West Beirut. It frightened the Lebanese capital's Muslim population, infuriated the governments of other Arab states, and led to a United Nations Security Council resolution calling on the Israelis to withdraw from Beirut. But no one could have anticipated that before the week was over, the Israeli peace-keeping exercise in West Beirut would lead, whether by complicity or carelessness or outright incompetence, to the massacre of hundreds of men, women and children in two Palestinian refugee camps that the Israelis were supposedly guarding.

First reports were fragmentary but horrifying. A group of armed men had entered the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps south of Beirut and opened fire on everyone they could find. They murdered young men in groups of ten or 20, they killed mothers, babies and old people. They even shot horses. And when it was over, they attempted, in a manner reminiscent of World War II, to destroy the evidence by bulldozing the bodies into makeshift common graves. TIME Correspondent Roberto Suro visited the Sabra camp late Friday afternoon and counted 50 corpses in one place. A Red Cross worker at a nearby hospital estimated that 450 bodies had been removed from the two camps.

What had happened? Practically everybody agreed that the gunmen were right-wing Lebanese Christian militiamen. Said one officer of the Lebanese Forces: "We have been waiting to get in there for years." More baffling was the role the Israelis had played. Certainly Israeli soldiers had not done the shooting, but the Israelis controlled the area, had checkpoints near the camps, and were within earshot of the firing. How and why had they allowed the militiamen to enter the camps?


Changing Guard

The U.S.S.R. gets a new leader

The first hint came at 7:15 p.m. Moscow time on Wednesday. Nikolai Shchelokov, the Minister for Public Order, had just delivered a brief television address to celebrate Militia Day, and millions of Soviet viewers were awaiting the live pop concert that was supposed to follow. Instead, without explanation, a film about Lenin was broadcast. Then, at 9, came Vremya (Time), the nightly news. The announcers, who usually dress informally, wore dark jackets or dresses. "I ran to my neighbors to find out if they knew what was going on," a Moscow secretary said. "Everyone was excited. We all thought somebody had died, but nobody guessed it was Brezhnev."

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