Israel in Lebanon
The Report of the International
Commission to enquire into reported
violations of International Law by
Israel during its invasion of the Lebanon
The Massacres at Sabra and Chatila
The massacres at Sabra and Chatila shocked the international conscience as few events in recent international history have done. We recognise their importance by treating the events, in the setting of our enquiry into Israeli responsibility, in a separate chapter. At the same time, in our judgement these massacres were only the culmination of a pattern of warfare carried on against the Palestinian and Lebanese people in Lebanon, especially those resident in the camps. The massacres in the Beirut camps in mid-September 1982 need to be fully understood, accordingly, in the context of this wider Israeli design, one which was evident from the outset in the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.
The Sabra and Chatila camps are situated close together in the south-west section of Beirut. They are two of the twelve camps established in Lebanon by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, created in 1948, to give shelter to Palestinians expelled from their homes as a result of the creation of the State of Israel.
These two camps occupy an area of three square kilometers. Prior to the invasion of June 1982 they were inhabited by an estimated 90,000 people. The poor of Beirut freely intermingled with the Palestinians; they also worked together and intermarried. 25% of the camp population was Lebanese. The original tents and makeshift shelters which characterised the camps when they were first formed have long since been replaced by permanent structures, some multi-storey housing, but mainly by single floor concrete block houses with corrugated iron roofs. The camp buildings and houses are tightly packed together and are separated by numerous narrow alleyways running off the main streets; these form the maze in which the massacres were perpetrated. The camps embody many contradictions. On the one hand, they constitute an area of poverty and unemployment, such as commonly develops on the edges of prosperous cities; on the other hand, in the camps, there existed a highly developed Palestinian welfare and educational infrastructure. The two hospitals in the camps are Gaza (in Sabra) and Akka (in Chatila). The ten-storey Gaza Hospital is the larger of the two; it has an Orthopaedic Centre and generally handles the more serious patients. Before the war, Gaza had 120 boos and 50 nurses and possessed two operating theatres. Akka was equipped to meet specialist needs, such as cardiac by-pass, micro-surgery and neurosurgery. Certain aspects of life in Sabra and Chatila were highly organised. Popular committees acted like municipal councils in the day-to-day servicing of the camps. Trade unionism was well established among the employed.
During the war, thousands of the camp dwellers fled to other parts of the city. These camps were devastated by repeated bombing and shelling during the period between early June and the middle of August 1982. After the cease-fire, which held from 12 August, thousands had returned to Sabra and Chatila and had begun to reconstruct their lives. The Commission visited these camps during the early days of September and was shocked by the widespread destruction encountered. Commission members discerned no signs of military activity in the camps. Time correspondent, Robert Sutvo, among others, visited the camps shortly after the Israeli siege was lifted ‘and found no signs of military activity’, concluding that ‘(t)here thus appeared to be no need for the Israelis to have sent a strong armed force into the camps to search them thoroughly, much less a Christian force that might want to wreak vengeance on Palestinian civilians.' Many independent reports indicate that the Palestinians living in the camps accepted the Israeli occupation of the country as a reality and regarded the PLO resistance as having ended with the departure from Beirut of some 9,000 Palestinian fighters. For example, a correspondent for the New York Times wrote that ‘On September 11, both the Chatila and Sabra camps were quiet and, according to residents, there was no apprehension over the prospect of the Lebanese Army moving in.' Indeed, a few days earlier than the 11th, the Lebanese Army had taken up positions without incident in and around the large nearby camp at Bourj al Brajneh.
In every sense, then, the residents of the camps were ‘protected persons’ within the meaning of Geneva Convention IV and Israel as an Occupying Power was under a special obligation to prevent the commission of ‘outrages’ against them. Article 73 of Protocol I expressly extends protected persons status to refugees and stateless persons, a status clearly applicable to Palestinians, including males. Articles 75-77 of the Protocol elaborate on the quality of the protection that is legally imposed on an Occupying Power, singling out in Articles 76 and 77 women and children for particular concern. Article 51(1) (of the Protocol) asserts the basic rule that ‘The civilian population and individual civilians shall enjoy general protection against dangers arising from military operations.’ Given the peace and quiet that pertained in the camps in early September, there appears every reason to regard their inhabitants as ‘civilians’, even if among their number were some individuals with ties to the PLO.
It is against this general background, then, that we must consider allegations charging Israel with the violation of its duties as Occupying Power in relation to the shocking events of 16-18 September in the camps. It goes without saying that Israeli responsibility for these events is shared with the Lebanese militia commanders and combat personnel who actually carried out the slaughter. There are many details about the massacres that camps, the arguments which immediately arose within the Popular Committees in the camps can be summarised as involving the choice either to abandon the camps and seek refuge in safer areas of West Beirut (as many had done during the bombardments and the siege) or to remain in the camps and offer no resistance (as none was possible) in the hope that the defencelessness of the inhabitants would be respected. The latter argument prevailed for the vast majority of the inhabitants of the camps. It was understood that no place in the city would be safer since the PLO had been evacuated.  Clearly, an effort at an armed defence of the sort attempted at Ain el Hilweh was not made in Sabra and Chatila.
(2) The Lebanese Army, under Prime Minister AI-Wazzan’s plan for its deployment in West Beirut, had been taking up positions since 1 September and had already taken control of Bourj al Brajneh camp. The Commission is convinced that the camps were not resistance centres and that the Lebanese Army would have had the capacity to exercise normal policing responsibilities inside them.
(3) From 14 September General Sharon made allegations that 2,000 ‘terrorists’ had remained in West Beirut. It was widely thought that Sharon’s carefully introduced references to 2,000 PLO guerrillas remaining was a ‘disingenuous excuse to justify the invasion which he had already planned’. Supplies were certainly left behind by the PLO, but there is no evidence to suggest that any substantial number of PLO fighters themselves remained in any part of West Beirut. It seems evident and is confirmed by Dr Ang’s testimony, that such resistance as there was to the Israeli advance on 15 September in the Sabra-Chatila area came from the Mourabitoun militia and that even that resistance took place outside the camps. But the most conclusive evidence of the falsity of the allegation about ‘2000 fighters’ must be that there was absolutely no resistance to the massacres which later took place. The militiamen suffered virtually no casualties in their execution of the massacres. When, in the aftermath, the massacres were investigated by countless journalists, relief workers and officials of international organisations, there were no signs of even the slightest resistance having been put forth. David MacDowell (an Oxfam field worker) cites a sporting pellet gun lying beside the corpse of a young boy as epitomising the total defencelessness of the camp population.
The Commission rejects unconditionally the Israeli allegation that 2,000 ‘terrorists’ in the camps made it reasonable to mount a military action against the inhabitants and regards the camps as civilian, non-military places of refuge at the time of the massacres. The Commission does not believe that Israeli intelligence ” which had manifestly accepted the numbers of departing PLO fighters as accurate ? could have subsequently estimated in good faith that such a large number of fighters remained. While the Commission therefore totally rejects Sharon’s figures, it must be emphasized that even if this Israeli allegation had been true, or even if Israel had in good faith believed it to be substantially true, the actions taken after the camps had been encircled would nevertheless have constituted the gravest breach of Israel’s responsibilities as an Occupying Power. What occurred would still have constituted a gross failure to distinguish between civilians and combatants.
The Commission finds that without doubt the civilian population of Sabra and Chatila were protected persons within the meaning of Geneva Convention IV and Protocol I.
Having clarified the international legal framework within which Israel was required to operate, it is necessary to review the details of the events that took place in Sabra and Chatila from 16-18 September. Our sources are: the testimonies of the survivors, journalists’ reports which appeared in the newspapers (particularly the Israeli press), evidence which has so far been made public by the Israeli Commission of Enquiry, headed by Chief Justice Kahan, and most significantly, the evidence and testimonies taken by the International Commission during its second visit to the Lebanon and during the private sessions at the Oslo hearings.
On Wednesday 15 September, at 3.30 am (according to General Sharon, 3.30 pm), the Israeli Chief of Staff, General Rafael Eitan and the IDF Northern Commander, General Amir Drori, met with Phalangist officers in East Beirut and agreed that Phalangist militiamen would enter Sabra and Chatila to ‘mop up (the) remaining “terrorists”’.
At 5-5.30 am Israeli planes made low level flights over the camps. At 8 am artillery or tank shelling of the camps commenced and grew gradually heavier.
Large concentrations of Israeli troops and tanks were seen at the remains of the Kuwaiti Embassy, which is a few hundred yards from the edge of Chatila. At 3.30-4 pm the shelling was very heavy and shells were falling within half a kilometer of Gaza Hospital.  On entering into West Beirut, the Israeli Defence Forces took up controlling positions west of the camps. 
By 16 September, Israeli troops and armour had completely surrounded Sabra and Chatila and were 50 yards at the nearest point and 300 yards at the furthest point from the camps. A ridge of high ground at the south west corner of Chatila was also occupied by the Israelis.
From 5-5.30 am low level flights of Israeli planes over Sabra and Chatila
took place, after which shelling promptly commenced.
Residents close to the airport reported that they saw militiamen mustering
under Israeli control.
Local inhabitants reported that freshly placed road signs appeared, showing a red circle, with the letter MP for ‘meeting place’ inside, over an arrow pointing to Sabra and Chatila. Arrows led from the golf course, which lies between the airport and the camps, to the camps.
Lebanese Army soldiers said that the militia force was composed largely of men from Damour, Saadyat and Naameh – Christian villages that had been sacked by the Palestinian forces during the Civil War. Other Lebanese soldiers reported that they recognised the uniforms of Haddad’s militia near the Kuwaiti Embassy. The Israelis established observation posts on top of multi-storey buildings in the north-west quadrant of the Kuwaiti Embassy. From these posts, the naked eye has a clear view of several sections of the camps, including those parts of Chatila where piles of bodies were found; in addition, Israeli observers were reported to have had high