Massacre and Memory – the 29th anniversary of Sabra and Shatila

Today is the 29th anniversary of the Maronite Phalange/IDF massacre at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. Other than the massacre at Deir Yassin, no other historical event seems to symbolize the Palestinian situation like what happened at Sabra and Shatila between september 16th and 18th, 1982. The event was brutal, this can’t be questioned. But are obliged to question what role the historical-political memory of this event continues to have today, and whether the way the event is represented is fully honest.

The facts of the massacre are, I believe, relatively uncontroversial. After Israel took control over the portions of Beirut where the camps were situated, they amassed the Phalange militias at an airport under IDF control. The Militias were taken to the camps by the IDF, and during the night proceeded to massacre hundreds, possibly thousands of civilians. While the camps had been a stronghold for Palestinian militias, I don’t believe anyone claims that militants remained in the camps, or that somehow fighting with a few leftover militants could have led to many hundreds of civilians dead. Instead, reports suggest full scale massacre – people being lined up and shot.

Responsibility for the massacre is also, I believe, fairly straightforward. Certainly those who committed the acts of murder are responsible, but the IDF is also responsible because it’s actions clearly led to the events, which were foreseable and avoidable. This is relatively uncontrovertial because it’s the finding of an Israeli report (the “Kahan Commission“) which found the Israeli defence minister, Ariel Sharon, personally responsible. They employed a principle of British Common Law (it’s also called the Hegelian duty of knowledge if you’re interested), which basically proposes that you can be held responsible for that which you didn’t intend if you could have and should have foreseen the effects of your actions.

The decision on the entry of the Phalangists into the refugee camps was taken without consideration of the danger – which the makers and executors of the decision were obligated to foresee as probable – the Phalangists would commit massacres and pogroms against the inhabitants of the camps, and without an examination of the means for preventing this danger.

Similarly, it is clear from the course of events that when the reports began to arrive about the actions of the Phalangists in the camps, no proper heed was taken of these reports, the correct conclusions were not drawn from them, and no energetic and immediate action were taken to restrain the Phalangists and put a stop to their actions.

The fact that Sharon was never held criminally responsible for this war crime, and that in fact he continued to hold public office despite the recommendation of the report that he never again be allowed to do so, is a reason to question the moral fiber of the Israeli state. Or, more specifically, to question the value of the transparant and honest self-criticism it is sometimes capable of – what is it worth if nothing comes of it?

But today is not the anniversary of the Kahan Comission – it is the anniversary of the massacre itself. How should we mark it? What can talking mean to those cut down by the Phalange’s weapons, or those who lost friends and family in the massacres? I think we should ask whether the way we talk about this event is fully honest, but this shouldn’t become some kind of theoretical game. I’m not in the business of applying philosophy to the history of catastrophe for philosophy’s sake. The first thing to recognize is the gravity of the situation – this isn’t a movie that we can analyze a Lacanian style, the clash of motives isn’t a representation – it’s real.

But this is hard, right, because any attempt to understand an event involves some generalization, some abstraction – after all, I wasn’t there. But, I can watch interviews, I can talk to people, like anybody.

The key historical question about this event, maybe about any event, is – how does the way this event is remembered and understood a part of the history which the event itself is a part of? In other words, how is the event’s intelligibility a source of historical motivation.

But it’s a bit strange to say that a massacre is “intelligible”. I don’t mean that it has some transcendental meaning, that there is one true interpretation of this event, like I might believe if I were some kind of theological historian. I mean intelligibility in the sense that it is unavoidable – even perception is interpretation, and interpretation implies either solipsism or intelligibility. And solipsism, while it might be fine in a seminar, is right out as soon as you’re talking about something important.

Now, the first problem with the interpretation of this event, as with any event, is “what is the proper way to frame the event”. And of course, there is no transcendental signifier to guarantees our answer, but we can’t be decide anyway because any way of speaking about the event draws certain boundaries around it. To get down to it – the massacre is an event in the ’82 war. It’s also an event in the history of the PLO’s time in Lebanon. And it’s an event in the history of the PLO, of the history of the Palestinian people, the history of that people’s self-identification as a people. And it’s an event in Israeli history, perhaps the most explicitly brutal crime which was reasonably well understood by the Israeli people, and which caused them (for the first time I think) to speak out en masse against their foreign policy – and to oppose the implied policy of “quiet, there’s shooting”, i.e. no dissent during times of war.

The tendency, I think, is to see the event in as much isolation as possible. We want to talk about the exact decisions that were made – who allowed the Phalangists into the camps, who was in a position to know what was happening, who found out what was happening and did nothing, who found out what had happened and did nothing? And, this is a good way to think about the event if our goal is the ascription of personal responsibility. On a subjective level, decisions were made which directly and foreseeable led to the massacres. The subjective, first-person guilt lies with the Israelies and the Phalangists. There is, I think, no serious debate about this.

But, if we see the event in the larger context of the Lebanese Civil War, and the presence of the PLO in Lebanon, we are forced to make a somewhat different understanding of the causal structure that underlay the massacre. We have to look at previous massacres, like the one at Damour, and at Karantina.  We have to think about the cycles of violence, about the way the presence of the PLO and Syria in Lebanon upset the National Pact. We also have to think about how we might expect Israeli generals to respond to the PLO’s explicit desire to liberate Palestine (although technically at the time the PLO’s first objective was to establish a state on liberated Palestinian territory, since the phased plan had been adopted in ’74). In so many words, we can’t only look at the event in isolation. This doesn’t mean blaming the massacre on the PLO – there is a difference between demanding a rich understanding of the causal structures in which events are nested, and distributing blame equivalently across all parties. However, one thing that we might start to think about when we look at the event in a longer time-horizon, is the question of whether subjective responsibility is sufficient when talking about atrocities.

We could turn it around – does anyone think that punishing the specific Irgun, Hagannah and Lehi soldiers who perpetrated the Nakba would suffice for justice to be accomplished? Of course not – most of them are dead, and even if they weren’t, we know somehow not simply only to blame individuals – but we blame primarily the idea of Zionism, and we blame the Zionist state’s determination to be a “Jewish state” rather than a state of it’s people, and therefore not allowing the refugees to return to live in peace and equality with their neighbors.

If we are going to see the Sabra and Shatila massacre as part of the many historical narratives in which it is situated, we have to think seriously about the role that it continues to play in the conflict. Because, while I don’t agree that the conflict is simply about ideas (that’s too much of a philosopher’s answer), I think the conflict is about motivations. And the memorialization of events is an activity that produces shared motivations. Now – here is where I think I can say something meaningful: there is a tension in liberation movements between the representation of the movement in terms of the values of equality, brotherhood, mutual respect, and universality, and on the other hand in terms of values of exceptionalism, victimhood, special situation, and the impossibility of making comparisons with other peoples. In terms of the old PLO values – equality, non-sectarian democracy, freedom of religion – it was easy to oppose the Palestinian national struggle for self-determination with the Jewish struggle for national self-determination by saying that the Palestinians want to be recognized as a people like any other, whereas the Jews want to be recognized as a people unlike any other. The self-representation of the Jewish people, I don’t need to explain, is characterized by an essential victimhood. And while, in the real history of Israel there are alternative options for identity exist, such as the Isreali “Sabra”, Israel has much invested in the self-representation of itself as a state of an essentially oppressed people.

The worry then, I think, is that the commemorations of the massacres of Palestinians might suggest to the world, and even to Palestinians themselves, that they are an essentially oppressed people. In other words, that their oppression isn’t an accident of history, but part of their destiny.

It is not for me to tell Palestinians to stop fighting for the liberation of their homeland. They are the ones living under occupation, or living in squalor in refugee camps in Arab countries which pretend to support their cause but really only use the cause of the Palestinians to avoid the problems in their own countries.  But I think there is a danger in going on fighting when it is no longer possible to win, or even to hold your ground. And the danger isn’t just a danger to individuals, or just a danger to those people who might be hit by retaliatory force. No, there is also a danger that Palestinian identity becomes characterized by fighting impossible battles, and by the victimization which comes almost inevitably from confronting an enemy that is too strong.

So, perhaps when we remember the Massacre of Sabra and Shatila, we should not only think of the victims, but also how those victims are not any different from the victims at Damour, or in so many other massacres. And we shouldn’t be so surprised at Israel’s participation in the massacre – we shouldn’t kid ourselves: the IDF is brutal, they have committed many massacres against Palestinians, and they will continue to do so, as long as US support for Israeli crimes is maintained. (You might expect me to say “or until there is peace” – but I don’t actually believe there will be peace so long as US support for Israeli war crimes persists – even if there is a final settlement, probably Israel will find some excuse to start another war and invade “Palestine”). We should say that the victims were people like any other people, and that they were Palestinians – and that Palestinians are a people like any other people. And as a people, they are entitled to a national memory. And that memory should be characterized by the enlightenment values of freedom, equality, and brotherhood – not the exclusionary nationalist values of being a people “unlike any other”, of being essentially better, or braver, or more oppressed.

But let none of this theory allow us to step away from the gravity of the situation.


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