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40 Years After the Sabra and Shatila Massacre, the Pain Is Still Fresh

When Marvel Studios announced this week that an Israeli comic book hero would appear in its next Captain America movie, the Arab world’s social media exploded, calling the name of the character – Sabra – a painful reminder of a tragic chapter in the history of the Middle East.

The word “sabra” is the colloquial term for native-born Israeli Jews, which draws from the name for a spiky desert cactus, Opuntia ficus-indica, whose fruit is tough and prickly on the outside but soft and sweet on the inside. The same plant, called “sabr” in Arabic, means patience and tenacity and has become a Palestinian national symbol, particularly because it often grows where Palestinian villages once stood. Ironically, this dual symbol of Israel and Palestine is itself not indigenous to the land; it originates in the Americas.

But “sabra” is not only a term for the prickly pear cactus or the name of an Israeli superhero; it was also the name of a Palestinian refugee camp in West Beirut, which 40 years ago this week alongside the Shatila refugee camp was the site of the massacre of hundreds and up to thousands of civilians, mostly Palestinians and Lebanese Shiites, in the middle of Lebanon’s civil war.

The massacre came two days after the assassination of Lebanon’s new President Bashir Gemayel, the commander of the right-wing Lebanese Forces, of which the Lebanese Christian Phalangist militia was a part. It was carried out by the Phalangist militia in retaliation for the assassination of Gemayel by Habib Shartouni, a member of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party and, like Gemayel, a Maronite Christian.

The Phalangists were allies of Israel after Israeli troops entered southern Lebanon on June 6, 1982, in what it called Operation Peace for Galilee to stop attacks by the Palestine Liberation Organization launched on northern Israel from Lebanon’s south. Fighting in Beirut between Israel and the PLO ended with a US-brokered agreement in August 1982 that allowed for the evacuation of Palestinian fighters and was meant to protect the Palestinians living in refugee camps.

Just days before Gemayel’s assassination on September 14, the international forces that were guaranteeing the safety of Palestinian refugees left Beirut. Following the assassination, Israeli troops were sent back into Beirut to maintain order but they did not enter the refugee camps, delegating that to the Phalangists.

The Lebanese Civil War took place between 1975 and 1990 and was essentially a battle for power between the country’s Maronite Christian and Muslim communities. The influx of tens of thousands of Palestinians in 1948 and 1967 contributed to a demographic shift in Lebanon favoring the Muslim population. Fighting began in 1975 between Maronite Christian and Palestinian-allied forces – the latter made up of members of the Palestine Liberation Organization joined by leftist, Muslim, and pan-Arabist Lebanese groups.

Syria also got involved in the conflict and in 1976 began moving its troops into Lebanon, trying to influence the PLO and keep Lebanon together. Meanwhile, the PLO began launching attacks from Lebanese territory on Israel in 1977, causing tension between Lebanon and Israel and leading to the formation in 1978 of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon.

On the day of the assassination, the Israeli military allowed the Phalangists to enter Sabra and Shatila. The Kahan Commission of Inquiry, formed by the Israeli government in response to the massacre, determined that this was part of a plan to transfer authority to the Lebanese, and found that Israel was indirectly responsible for the massacre for not considering the possibility of such violence on the part of the Phalangists. Around the world, the Israeli troops were condemned for not intervening to stop the killing of civilian men, women, and children in the camps.

As part of its findings, the commission recommended that then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon be removed from his position over his culpability in failing to prevent or stop the massacre. Then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin refused to fire Sharon, and initially, Sharon refused to resign. But in February 1983 he did finally hand in his resignation, a day after Peace Now activist Emil Grunzweig was killed when a right-wing activist threw a hand grenade into the crowd during a demonstration in front of the Prime Minister’s Office.