Middle East

The politics of remembering the massacres of Sabra and Shatila

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Palestinian collective memory carries with it the burden of international complicity. It is unfortunate that this complicity with Israel has been relegated to anniversary commemorations, as opposed to an increasing awareness that the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, as well as the massacres of Palestinian refugees being an intrinsic component of Israel’s colonial project which is approved by the international community.

This month marked the 37th anniversary of the Sabra and Shatila massacres, when the Phalange militias, guided by Israel, stormed the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and slaughtered over 3,000 Palestinian civilians. Survivors’ testimonies speak of rape, mutilation of bodies, and militias using a range of weapons upon defenceless civilians in the camps. 

The UN General Assembly Resolution 37/123 “resolves that the massacre was an act of genocide”. Yet Israel, for whom the massacre was perpetrated to facilitate its invasion in Lebanon, faced no repercussion for the slaughter. Canada and the US staunchly defended Israel at the UN, refuting the term “genocide” to describe the massacre. Israel’s Kahan Commission, meanwhile, declared itself “indirectly responsible” for the Sabra and Shatila massacres. In addition, Ariel Sharon, who was held responsible for the massacres, became Israel’s prime minister from 2001 to 2006. 

In terms of magnitude, the Sabra and Shatila massacres take their place at the forefront of Palestinian memory when it comes to Zionist atrocities, alongside Deir Yassin, Kafr Qasem, Tantoura and Jenin, to name a few.  

The disservice towards Palestinian memory lies in how remembrance is employed and the international community plays a major role in disrupting memory frameworks.

Primarily, Palestinian memory has been subjected to interpretations at the highest international echelons. Disputing the definition of genocide when it comes to the slaughter of Palestinian civilians is an omission that marginalises Palestinian remembrance to the point of oblivion. 

It also tethers Palestinian remembrance to specific anniversaries when memory transcends the concepts of chronology and specific dates. The colonisation of Palestinian territory and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians must be combated by perpetual remembrance, regardless of how the international community has decided to interpret Palestine’s history and memory.

With each dissociation between Palestinian memory and the ongoing Zionist colonisation, Palestinians are being forced to relive their memories in seclusion; an aberration when considering the crimes were committed with full impunity awarded to Israel by the international community. 

The Sabra and Shatila massacres are just one example of how Palestinian memory is manipulated according to the publicity given to the atrocity. Like all the other atrocities, it is a remembrance that has escaped justice. Palestinian memory has also suffered in terms of how Israel has leveraged its influence to manipulate the stipulations of international law; a tactic that has only been refined through the decades as it persists with displacing Palestinians and encroaching further upon Palestinian territory.  

Israel has been able to escape accountability for its violence also due to its narrative being given prominence over Palestinian memory, which needs the creation of spaces to survive. For Palestinians, this is crucial. Remembering Sabra and Shatila, or any other Israeli atrocity, must depart from the Palestinian memory framework. It must also be part of a continuous effort to remember. Isolated anniversaries, without the entire context of Israel’s colonial violence, will always fall short of imparting the prominence which Palestinian memory deserves, particularly as justice has been thwarted by international collusion. 

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