Palestinians Are Massacred in West Beirut Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Lebanese Phalangist militias, in coordination with Israeli forces, went into the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon and massacred hundreds of Palestinian civilians.

Summary of Event

From September 16 to September 18, 1982, Palestinian civilians were massacred in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, near Beirut, Lebanon. Men, women, and children were killed by members of the Phalangist militia, among others, under the protection of Israeli troops. The massacre occurred in the midst of the catastrophic Lebanese Civil War Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) that had erupted in 1975. Massacres;Beirut Refugees;Palestinians [kw]Palestinians Are Massacred in West Beirut (Sept. 16-18, 1982) [kw]Massacred in West Beirut, Palestinians Are (Sept. 16-18, 1982) [kw]West Beirut, Palestinians Are Massacred in (Sept. 16-18, 1982) [kw]Beirut, Palestinians Are Massacred in West (Sept. 16-18, 1982) Massacres;Beirut Refugees;Palestinians [g]Middle East;Sept. 16-18, 1982: Palestinians Are Massacred in West Beirut[04950] [g]Lebanon;Sept. 16-18, 1982: Palestinians Are Massacred in West Beirut[04950] [c]Terrorism, atrocities, and war crimes;Sept. 16-18, 1982: Palestinians Are Massacred in West Beirut[04950] Arafat, Yasir Begin, Menachem Gemayel, Bashir Habib, Philip

Palestinians in Lebanon were largely the descendants of those who were evicted from northern Palestine after the creation of Israel in 1947-1948. The majority lived in refugee camps in southern Lebanon and near Beirut. Unlike Palestinians in Jordan, they did not receive Lebanese citizenship; an antiquated agreement in Lebanon divided power and wealth along religious lines, and the ratio of Christians to Muslims would have been severely upset if the mostly Muslim Palestinians were allowed to become citizens. Thus after 1948, the Palestinians, as stateless refugees, did not enjoy the rights of other citizens, whether in Arab host countries or in their homes under Israeli rule. The lack of a just settlement for the Palestine question shaped the domestic and international relations of the region and constituted a major factor in the tension surrounding the massacre.

The Lebanese Palestinians were governed by a political structure that was dominated by the Christian Maronite sect. The relationship between the Palestinians and the Lebanese state was a troubled one. The trouble intensified after June, 1967, when many Palestinians moved to southern Lebanon. The Palestine Liberation Organization Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), representing the Palestinians, and Lebanon signed the 1969 Cairo Agreement to regulate PLO presence in Lebanon. More Palestinians arrived in Lebanon after Jordan expelled them in 1971, making the relationship more problematic.

The PLO became deeply involved in the Lebanese Civil War, which erupted in April, 1975. It found itself party to a war that often degenerated into communal bloodletting. Thousands of Palestinians and Lebanese lost their lives or became refugees during the conflict. The Maronite-dominated Christian coalition did not fare well in the civil war, especially after the Syrian government sent a “deterrent” force to restore calm. Bashir Gemayel, leader of the Maronite Phalange militia, approached Israel for help. Israel responded favorably, especially after the conservative Likud Party won the 1977 elections, making Menachem Begin Israel’s prime minister. In March, 1978, nearly four months after Egyptian president Anwar el-Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem, Israel conducted a combined invasion of southern Lebanon.

The invasion failed, but the relationship between the Phalangists and Israel became closer. Ariel Sharon, Sharon, Ariel Israel’s defense minister, articulated Israeli aims in Lebanon within a broad plan that some called the “Grand Design.” This plan envisioned the Israeli army’s intervention on the side of the Phalangists. The Syrians and the Palestinians would be driven out of Lebanon. Under Israel’s influence, Gemayel would be elected president, and Lebanon would sign a peace treaty with Israel. The Palestinians were to be pushed into Jordan, where they would destabilize the monarchy and justify Israeli intervention. Israel would then dictate its solution to the Palestine question; West Bank Arabs would be expelled eastward and forced to form a state in Jordan.

Despite the Camp David Accords of 1978 Camp David Peace Accords (1978) and the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty of 1979, Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty (1979)[Israel Egypt Peace Treaty] and despite other international efforts to find a just solution, tension along the Israeli-Lebanese border heightened, especially during the “missile crisis” between Israel and Syria in June, 1980. Philip Habib, an American diplomat, was dispatched to arrange for an agreement. A year later, a war of attrition between the PLO and Israel erupted and required Habib’s efforts, and again he negotiated a cease-fire between the PLO and Israel in July, 1981.

The cease-fire held as the PLO grew in stature and the rights of the Palestinians became widely recognized. The removal of the PLO as a national movement became key to the success of Sharon’s plan. It is claimed that approval for an attack on the PLO was secured as early as February, 1982. It was given approval again in late May, when U.S. secretary of state Alexander M. Haig Haig, Alexander M. and Sharon reviewed maps and plans for the operation. The Israeli cabinet had already approved an operation within twenty-five miles of the border. All seemed ready, and only a pretext was needed.

Israel did not have to wait long. On June 4, anti-PLO terrorists severely injured the Israeli ambassador to England. The PLO denied responsibility, but Israel responded with a massive strike against PLO positions in Lebanon. When bombing continued, and when the PLO finally responded with a rocket barrage of its own, the cease-fire was broken. Israel commenced its Operation Peace for Galilee. Operation Peace for Galilee

The Israeli army crashed through southern Lebanon and proceeded to lay siege to West Beirut, where nearly 500,000 civilians and six thousand PLO fighters were trapped after June 14. Habib was dispatched once more to arrange for a solution. He succeeded, but not until a terrible toll of civilian casualties occurred. On August 11, Israel agreed in principle to the Habib plan, only to follow with the most ferocious air raid on Beirut thus far. Many in the United States and around the world expressed indignation, and a storm was raised at the wanton destruction witnessed on the following day. On August 15, the Israeli government finally agreed to the deployment of a multinational force to supervise the evacuation of PLO fighters from West Beirut. The PLO agreed to evacuate after it received guarantees for the safety of the Palestinians who remained behind. Furthermore, Israeli troops were not to enter West Beirut.

Eight days later, on August 23, Bashir Gemayel was elected as Lebanon’s president. On August 25, eight hundred U.S. Marines arrived as part of the multinational force. PLO fighters were evacuated by September 1. Everything seemed to go ahead as planned. Between September 10 and 13, however, the multinational force left, ahead of schedule. Gemayel was killed on September 14 in a massive bomb explosion. Israel, contrary to the Habib agreement, moved swiftly into West Beirut and took control of Sabra and Shatila, an area of three square kilometers in southwest Beirut with ninety thousand inhabitants, 25 percent of whom were poor Lebanese.

The Israeli army allowed elements from the Lebanese Phalangist militias under its control to enter the camps in the early evening of Thursday, September 16. By eleven o’clock that evening, communications between militia officers in the camps and commanders of Israeli army units surrounding the camps indicated that three hundred Palestinian casualties had occurred. Israeli troops lit the night sky with flares at the rate of two a minute. More militias entered the camps on Friday afternoon.

According to survivors’ accounts, the militias hacked and shot at anything that moved in the alleys of the camps. They liquidated entire families. Some residents were killed in their beds. Wounded victims were finished off along with health workers. In many cases, limbs were severed; heads of infants and babies were smashed against walls. Some were forced to witness as their families were killed. Others were killed execution-style. Houses were dynamited to cover corpses. Hundreds were carted off to unknown destinations. Shots and cries could be heard from the outskirts of the camps, and by Friday morning reporters knew that a massacre was taking place, but the slaughter did not stop until Saturday morning.


Once reporters gained access to the camps, grisly scenes of mutilated and bloated bodies were transmitted all over the world. The piles of bodies, the mass graves, and the general mayhem indicated the enormity of the event. The precise number of the dead may never be known, but the International Committee of the Red Cross had counted 2,750 bodies by September 23. An estimate of 3,500 victims given later included bodies uncovered later and those who vanished.

An international outcry was raised as people were shocked at the brutality and barbarity of the militias’ actions. A hastily arranged multinational force returned to West Beirut to protect the refugee camps. Tension lingered as the Israeli troops were ordered to pull back to their position of August 15.

Nothing, however, could undo the damage. From June 4 to August 31, the duration of Operation Peace for Galilee, nearly twenty thousand Palestinian and Lebanese civilians were killed and more than thirty thousand were wounded. In Beirut alone, 6,775 persons died during the siege. Hundreds of thousands became refugees again as towns were devastated and their inhabitants fled to safety. The massacre only deepened the wounds and widened the chasm in the Lebanese Civil War.

The Palestinians were traumatized by the loss of life and the inhuman massacre. The Palestinian leadership was stunned. The PLO agreed to evacuate only after the United States gave firm guarantees of the safety of the Palestinian civilians. The PLO found its fighters dispersed and in no position to offer protection to its people. Questions were raised regarding leadership, and the PLO split into two warring factions. A peace plan sponsored by the United States fell short of Palestinian expectations and was rejected by Israel. The cause of a just peace did not advance.

In Israel, huge demonstrations protested the invasion and the massacre. Begin and Sharon, along with other military officials, denied knowledge that a massacre was being committed and insisted that they bore no responsibility for the killing. The public outcry and international indignation forced the government to appoint a mission of inquiry. When the investigating commission published its report, it alleged that Sharon “was indirectly responsible.” An international commission that inquired into Israeli violations in Lebanon found evidence to suggest direct Israeli involvement.

As the Lebanese Civil War did not subside and as the Palestine question was further from being solved, the general anti-Western, anti-Israeli sentiment that spread in the wake of the 1982 war encouraged militias to take Westerners as hostages. As tragedy compounded tragedy, on October 23, 1983, a U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut was truck-bombed, killing nearly 250 Marines. Massacres;Beirut Refugees;Palestinians

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ball, George W. Error and Betrayal in Lebanon. Washington, D.C.: Foundation for Middle East Peace, 1984. Presents analysis of the Israeli invasion, its objectives, its accomplishments, and its consequences for Lebanon and the Middle East. Covers the period from June, 1982, to February, 1984, and assesses U.S. involvement in the affair.
  • citation-type="booksimple"


    The Beirut Massacre: The Complete Kahan Commission Report. Princeton, N.J.: Karz-Cohl, 1983. Presents the findings and recommendations of the commission of inquiry established by the Israeli government. Testimony was heard from Israeli officials including Prime Minister Begin, Defense Minister Sharon, and Amir Drori, the Israeli commander in charge of West Beirut.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chomsky, Noam. The Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel, and the Palestinians. Rev. ed. Boston: South End Press, 1999. Chapters 5, 6, and 7 of this detailed book cover the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the massacre in West Beirut. The rest of the book offers an excellent examination of the relationship of the United States to Israel with respect to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cobban, Helena. The Palestine Liberation Organisation: People, Power, and Politics. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984. Study of the PLO, its structure, and its role in the politics of the region as they relate to Lebanon and the Palestine question. Written from the author’s firsthand experience and also draws on thousands of interview hours. Offers an objective analysis of the controversial organization.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Guyatt, Nicholas. The Absence of Peace: Understanding the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Highlands, N.J.: Zed Books, 1998. Well-researched exposition of the Palestinian perspective on the many years of conflict with Israel. Concludes with suggestions for a resolution to the years of fighting. Includes maps and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Khalidi, Walid. Conflict and Violence in Lebanon: Confrontation in the Middle East. Cambridge, Mass.: Center for International Affairs, 1979. Discusses the background and conditions of the Lebanese Civil War, the various factions, and their interests all the way up to the Israeli invasion of March, 1978.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morris, Benny. Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-1999. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001. Provides a considered, well-balanced account of the development of and the many factors responsible for the years of discord between Jews and Arabs. Highly readable. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Charles D. Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict: A History with Documents. 6th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s Press, 2006. Comprehensive survey of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Bibliography and index.

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Categories: History