The element of familiarity that rears its ugly head in Sabra and Shatila

Footage from the 1980s gets me every time. It’s the graininess, I think, and the punchy contrast that sometimes convinces me I’m seeing the world through all the wrong lenses.

It can be an eerie feeling watching a man’s grainy and somewhat abstracted face rush across the screen. But what if the element of familiarity jumps at you and you recognize the beard, or maybe the color of his hair, or the trademark cigarette in between his index and middle fingers in his left hand?

This might sound unreasonable to you but that element of familiarity is what has kept me from Sabra and Shatila. The massacre, its memory now thirty years old, caught on film, tape, and paper, has tested me each time its anniversary solemnly marched by.

Sure, I know a bit of the history and background of one of the world’s most gruesome, most forgotten massacres. But ask me if I’ve seen any footage or if I’ve ever looked into primary sources beyond face value and you’d get an embarrassed ‘no’.

That changed yesterday. I managed to find a few scattered clips of the 1982 massacre. I spent much of the afternoon and evening catching up on my history.

The camera pans over mutilated bodies. In one scene, the unbalanced color levels make it difficult to distinguish limb from limb. In another, the fuzziness can’t mask the look of shock on a physician’s face as she assess the damage to a child’s leg caused by one of the many fragment grenades tossed into dense alleyways by Lebanese Phalangist militiamen. Another clip: a body is wrapped in a red and white cloth. Feet dangle as a group of men rush the body inside somewhere. It’s an aerial view, probably the worst view.

The element of familiarity reared its ugly head. I saw in the distorted faces of the victims and the somber faces of their mothers a very common tale of existence. Most of the thousands killed were descendants of families that had fled the mass evictions and pogroms of the 1940s and the brutal expansionism of the 1950s and 1960s. These Palestinians were forced from their homes at least once already. And as Phalangist militias took down door after door under Israeli cover, they were forced from their homes once again.

Sabra and Shatila are two neighboring refugee camps in West Beirut. Their populations have grown closer through tragedy than through anything else. From the 16th to the 18th of September 1982, armed squads put the camps under siege. Israeli forces secured the perimeter of the camps, controlling access into and out of the camps. Phalangist militias were given the green light to assist Ariel Sharon, then Israeli Defense Minister, in “mopping up” the camp populations. In they went, and whenever it was too dark to see, Israeli soldiers fired flares.

Rat tat tat tat, you’d hear. Then it’d turn dark again. Brief silence, followed by a flare. Rat tat tat tat, recalls Eileen Seigel, a Jewish nurse who volunteered her medical services to the massacred Palestinian and Lebanese civilians.

An Israel-tagged bulldozer navigated through the camps’ streets, knocking walls over piled bodies.

Trucks with tarpaulin-covered beds carried empty bodies. Some were unloaded over sites that later became mass graves. Others, nobody really knows.

This all happened in between Israeli shelling. In one instance, the bombing of West Beirut was so intense that an American chancery was almost hit. Wanton destruction regardless of the target, Israel and its allied Phalangist militia agreed.

There was also a stadium involved. In one account, it was said to be the Camille Chamoun Sports Stadium in the Bir Hassan neighborhood of West Beirut, adjacent to Sabra and Shatila. Whatever its identity, the stadium saw many men disappear. By day three of the massacre, Phalangist forces rallied up the survivors and marched them over the dead bodies in the street — the smell of the corpses was just too much to handle, eyewitnesses remember — toward the stadium where they separated the men from the women.

Israeli soldiers, who were discretely operating alongside the Phalangists within the very perimeter they set, took a more authoritative role here. The women huddled for hours as the men were taken away, in groups and sometimes one by one, and never seen again. “Further interrogation,” reporters were told.

As in every massacre, the lucky ones made it out alive. It’s disturbing to think how the element of familiarity treats them every time they walk down their Sabra streets or their Shatila avenues. Or whenever they cast a glance at the stadium they parted ways in three decades ago. Or however grainy the footage is as a camera settles on a dark doorway framed by walls with bullet holes the size tennis balls.

So I finally faced a fear of mine. It was the one page of Palestinian history that I just couldn’t bear to discover for myself. A friend asked me why I even bothered, especially since I knew what was to come. But maybe that’s the real element of familiarity — the disposition to expect the worst. Maybe that’s what we should all be afraid of.

Sami Kishawi

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There are 8 comments

    1. CHM

      The person commenting above me here is an anti-Semite, and I don’t care that he’s “Jewish,” though I doubt he is. The fact that his comment got thumbs up on your blog is even scarier

      1. ontogram

        Naw. I’m not anti-semitic and I am Jewish. This is the kind of struggle to which thinking/feeling can drive one. Anti-Zionism is conceptual, it opposes a certain set of ideas and some perfectly good moral up right people just don’t follow ideas. Anti-semitism, hardcore racism, attaches to the feelings more than the intellect and feelings can be tapped easily. I wanted to share this personal inner struggle and catch the feedback. My struggle is worthy of attention for this reason: The Jewish people in fact have either actively supported, encouraged and aided or participated in the crimes of Israel or they have allowed these crimes to happen. Either way, we are responsible. Given the accumulation of crimes, I pose a compelling moral absolute: We should agree to end this nightmare we have imposed on others and, to compel us to act collectively, I suggest that the failure to do so SHOULD be met by virulent and destructive anti-semitism. One more loss for a Palestinian should be THOUGHT to impose the sentence upon us of virulent anti-semitism and its consequences worldwide.

        The alternative for me is to comment again how awful these Zionist crooks are and, golly, why can’t we do anything about it? And let’s be frank — “anti-semitism” is not, as they say, irrational. There may be substantial reasons for disliking this or that group of people as peoples are identifiable by shared behaviors and attitudes and these behaviors and attitudes may be repellent to others. The Zionists want everyone to believe that anti-semitism is just irrational so that the identification of their deeds with their ethnicity is set aside, which provides more license for more bad behaviors. Those who object “Anti-Semitism!” never have to look at what behaviors may support and encourage the broad generalization of opposition to an entire group.

        Interestingly, your response to my comments, how “scary” they are, etc. do not address the moral issues at the heart of my proposal. Was the massacre horrible? Was Sharon responsible? Israel? And who’s responsible for Israel? You? Did you allow this? Do you support the Zionist state? Are you ok with killing “terrorist” women and children, innocent men, or allowing it to happen? Where is your moral center? You are scared of anti-semitism, but not what you and world Jewry have wrought on others?

        Your shallow response is trivial by comparison to the issues.

        In the meantime, I haven’t joined any Nazi groups at this point.

      2. CHM

        You’re an idiot, and if there’s one thing I know, it’s never to get into an argument with idiots. But here I go anyway

        “World Jewry” is not a coherent organism. There are a lot of Jews out there and they think a lot of different things. You’re an anti-Zionist Jew and so am I. Plenty of Jews are anti-Zionists; MOST of them don’t care about the Israel/Palestine conflict, especially the younger generation of Jews whom demography favors (the same can be said about younger Palestinians in the diaspora to whom the Palestine issue is less and less relevant). AMONG Jews with serious opinions about the conflict, MOST of them have not been involved, even indirectly. A relatively large and vocal minority does support Zionism financially, rhetorically, and in some cases materially, but again that is the minority of the diaspora. If you disagree then you simply have not been paying attention to current trends in the Jewish-American community, and you probably don’t have too much personal experience with Jewish-Americans. The ones who care about Israel will let you know; but most of us simply don’t think about it. Polls consistently show, for instance, that only about 9% of Jewish-Americans consider Israel to be their #1 priority in the current election season.

        You can argue that Jews have “stood by” and “allowed” Israeli crimes to happen, but that is not a crime. The same can be said for non-Jews, and indeed most Americans. Hell, the same can be said of anyone; even if you are active in the Palestinian cause, there is no way you can simultaneously be active in promoting peace in Syria, Congo, Burma, Tibet, Afghanistan, Iraq, Colombia, Somalia, Nigeria… you get my point. Everybody is sitting on the sidelines with respect to SOME conflict out there. You cannot blame Jews for not materially taking on the Palestinian cause any more than you can blame them for not taking on the Tibetan cause, or any more than you can blame ANY American for not taking on ANY cause. Your logic leads to absurdities.

        You have made no argument out of any facts or evidence that “the Jews” as such are complicit in Zionism, you rely on generalizations and innuendo that you hope likeminded anti-Semites will accept. Come back when you have a real case.

        Anti-Semitism is not an acceptable recourse, either instrumentally or morally. Instrumentally it will fortify – and, I would argue, affirm – the Zionists’ argument that, since the world will never accept Jews as equals, they require their own state for their self-defense. It would perpetuate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and ensure that Israel becomes more entrenched in its militarism. It would, as a matter of fact, cause more Palestinian deaths, not less. Morally, of course, it is abhorrent to discriminate against any group – Jewish, Muslim, etc. – for the crimes of faraway people overseas who happen to share their faith. “Virulent antisemitism” and its “consequences worldwide” are justifiable if they save the life of one Palestinian? I don’t think you’re dense enough to think that the “worldwide consequences” of “virulent antisemitism” would include attacks, including fatal ones, against Jews. Do you think that’s justified? To attack Jews simply because of what other Jews have done? If so, you’re worse than a Zionist.

        But keep talking. Hopefully the FBI will pick this up and keep tabs on you before you do something outrageous.

      3. ontogram

        Excellent. Thanks.

        You start off with name-calling, i.e. I’m an “idiot” so right off the bat you have lose moral ground and authority. I’d call it a bad start and forget about it.

        Clearly I have irritated you and, for this, I am thankful. The crux of the matter is this: Israel purports to represent world Jewry and, when it acts, it acts under this rubric, this pretense. Israel is making a “safe” place for Jews, never mind that it is the most dangerous place for a Jew on the planet. The Zionists DO NOT hesitate to call upon one’s Judaism to gain allegiance and bucks whether here in the US or elsewhere. Zionists like to tell me, for example, that I am a “bad” Jew because of my opposition to the murder and theft for which, if you ask, they have “no choice.”. Further, they say “Next year in Jerusalem” represents an historic promise and religious prayer and that I betray that promise and prayer by my activism. Zionists are effective in using Judaism on behalf of the Zionist enterprise. Many Jews are taken into the fold. But some Jews step away and say that they “don’t care” about IP. They don’t say “Hell no!”, they just what to be left in peace and not have to take a stand. Are you one?

        But this latter group does not really have the luxury of not caring and that is my point. If they don’t care, they allow crimes in their name. If they don’t care, because Americans have freedom of thought and expression, they then encourage by their silence anti-semitism the world over: Indeed, what Zionist now like to identify as the “New” anti-semitism is little more than individual and organizational opposition to Israel’s unsavory policies and practices. They show that it is marginal and this alone aids the enterprise. Ok, don’t care, but then don’t complain when Jews the world over are held responsible for Israel regardless of their actions and preferences. “I didn’t care” will not save you, any more than conversions saved Jews in the Holocaust.

        I think that one can use Judaism, indeed in true Talmudic style, to overcome the Zionist betrayal of Judaism. The death, for example, of a single Palestinian at the hands of Zionists, that is, at the behest of Zionism, is also a death at the hands of Jews. Certain Jews, you may say, but Jews nonetheless. The Zionists say they act for you. For a Jew, this death is not the same as the death of a black social worker in Africa or a union leader in Columbia. It has a connection to Jews and Judaism, for better or worse, tell it to the judge! If saving one life is AS THOUGH one is saving the world, then I suggest that saving one Palestinian is AS THOUGH one is saving both the entire Palestinian and Jewish people. I invoke lethal visceral anti-semitism as a biblical judgment on the Jewish people for allowing these Zionists to steal and kill in their name when they could easily STOP THEM. EASILY. For a Jew, allowing the slaughter of Palestinian culture and life in the West Bank is decidedly different from allowing similar ethnocide in the Sudan because the Jew bears responsibility, some sort of responsibility. I regard anti-semitism as an appropriate plague on our house for the indifference, silence and fearfulness of so many landsmen.

        I think you are right that the majority of American Jews do not like or do much to support the Zionist program. I think this has always been true. I am saying that it is not sufficient to say American Jews don’t care about IP. IMHO, American Jews have to do more that shrug their shoulders (or they will collectively face the Judgment.) They have to oppose the program actively. If they did so, Israel would change its policies very quickly. That state is counting on the good guys staying quiet because (1) that’s what a good Jew does (this is biblical land after all!) and (2) it’s too complicated and (3) it might upset granddad who was a victim of anti-semitism at one time.

        My arguments have to do with conscience: If you say that’s all subjective, then you haven’t experienced the pangs of guilt that I have and that could either be a character flaw or strength. I have no idea. Doing the right thing and supporting the right thing is not that complicated. So stop being outraged with me and my Judgment of anti-semitism on my own and help a Palestinian, a single Palestinian, keep his olive trees and save his home from the vicious murderous bulldozers. And do the footwork, the research, the reading. Put the pieces together. In the end, I think you will be more pissed off with Zionists than with me. And maybe save your soul.

        So that’s it: I will support anti-semitism until Israel makes peace, vacates the WB and begins paying reparations.

  1. william london

    I live in the center of the US. I was able to visit the Chatila camp last year. I wanted to show respect for the murdered. It was a moving experience. I have included a poem of my visit.

    ON THE STREET
    WALKING DOWN THE DUSTY STREET
    I SEE TWO AGED MEN
    AT A SMALL GAME TABLE
    ONE LOOKS UP AND SAYS TO ME
    OLD PEOPLE HERE, NOT HUMAN
    HE REPEATS IT AGAIN
    OLD PEOPLE HERE, NOT HUMAN

    SCRAWNEY CATS DART HERE AND THERE
    LOOKING FOR FOOD
    QUICK TO MOVE
    HOPING NOT TO BE STEPPED UPON
    PEOPLE SPEAKING LOUDLY IN ARABIC

    SHIRTS, SHOES AND SCARVES ARE
    PILED UPON ONE ANOTHER
    CLOTHS ON RACKS PACKED SO TIGHTLY
    THEY ARE HARD TO VIEW
    FRUIT HANDLERS HAWK THEIR PRODUCTS

    THE AIR OF BEIRUT USUALLY SO CLEAN IS THICK HERE
    DIFFERING LITTLE HERE FROM THE DIRT, SAND
    AND BROKEN CONCRETE WE WALK UPON

    THE PEOPLE HERE SO POOR
    THEY SEEM LIKE THE EARTH ITSELF
    TRANSIENTS, PLUCKED UP AND REMOVED WITH NO ROOTS

    LOUDLY AS THEY GESTURE TO ONE ANOTHER
    THEY LOOK WITH HOPEFUL EYES
    SEARCHING FOR A SALE

    ANOTHER COIN OR PERHAPS MORE
    EXTENDING LIFE A LITTLE LONGER
    WHILE THEIR ROOTS LONG DRIED AND WITHERED
    IN A PLACE CALLED PALESTINE

    SOMEDAY PERHAPS
    NEVER OTHERS SAY
    IT’S NOT YOURS
    IT ‘S OURS

    THE LAND YOU LIVED ON FOR A HUNDRED GENERATIONS WAS NEVER YOURS

    THEY SAY GOD WILL PROTECT US
    BUT THEY BACK HIM UP WITH WEAPONS

    ONLY A FEW KILOMETERS AWAY FROM HERE IS HOME
    A PLACE MOST HAVE NEVER SEEN
    YET THEIR HEAVEN REMAINS UNOBTAINABLE WJL

  2. AndyHay

    firstly my heart goes out to those who still live with the pain and anguish of these events and anger that no one has been held accountable either alive or in the writing of their memory.
    I thank SAMI KISHAWI for writing this and in facing his own hurt in this way reminds all of those who read it of the evil that was done that day and for which accountability has not been accepted.
    I also thank ontogram, for what they have written so honestly from their heart, I am not a Jew, Palestinian, Arab or an American but reading what you have put while bringing sorry to my heart for the pain and suffering you must go through to reach you understanding.
    I wish all those Jews in Israel who don’t vote against the politicians who keep perpetrating or turn a blind eye to the evils of occupation and oppression would understand that they are all culpable, by voting in the govts they do or not bothering to vote they are the architects of all that is happening. Also those who serve in the IDF and by doing so help and aid the oppression and occupation are also culpable. When you belong to the majority ethnic group in a country everything is done in your name unless you actively oppose it.
    I wish all those who oppose Zionism get inspiration from Albert Einstein who wrote to oppose it when asked to support it, I hope all the Jews around the world who don’t support the Zionists support, bless and encouraged those who actively call for justice and oppose the abused and vilified they get.
    I find it hard to accept that those who call themselves Jewish in the USA never come in contact with anything to do with support for Israel/Zionism including financial support unless they have nothing to do with the Jewish Society or Synagogues even if it is around the dining table or at a bar mitzvah.
    Also with their own presidential election under way and for Mr Romney to have made his pro Israel and anti Palestinian and Palestine comments surely if they care about peace in the middle east and the lives of Jews there and Israel they must take a view on that. Living in a democracy means you cannot say ‘it has nothing to do with me’ and expect that to be a legitimate defence. If more people had voted for those standing against Hitler he would never have been elected and in a position to do what he did. Ok my one vote isn’t likely to swing an election but by not voting then I am abdicating my responsibilities and rights which many died to give me. For this reason I vote in every election I am eligible to.

    1. AndyHay

      what I put when I pasted the link to facebook… not much I know…

      sad, so sad that we just turn and look away
      there is nothing we say
      no one ever had to pay

      we pass by on the other side
      we see nothing as our eyes we hide
      on our donkey off we ride

      it just get consigned to the history book
      without any of us taking another look
      as our own bit of the world wasn’t shook

      it is to hard to take a stand
      to know what to do in our far off land
      to even write an email or letter is beyond our hand

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