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Remembering the Massacres at Sabra and Shatila


This weekend, doctors for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said tests indicate he has some activity in both lobes of his brain, but that he remains in a coma following a massive stroke suffered two weeks ago. Since he fell ill, Sharon has been lauded by many in Israel and the West. But the former Israeli army general continues to be reviled in much of the Arab world, no where more so than in Lebanon's capital, Beirut. NPR's Philip Reeves reports.

PHILIP REEVES reporting:

In the Middle East, little is forgiven and nothing forgotten.

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REEVES: Fahti Moussa(ph), a small, wizened man in his 70s, is enjoying a quiet morning playing backgammon in an alley in Beirut. Deep bags beneath his eyes betray the painful memories with which he's lived for more than two decades.

Mr. FAHTI MOUSSA: (Through Translator) You know, it's miserable. You can never forget what happened.

REEVES: Fahti Moussa was a member of a Palestinian militia in the early '80s when Lebanon was in the debts of civil war. He says he witnessed the immediate aftermath of one of the worst atrocities of that era: the massacre by Christian Falangist militiamen of Palestinians at Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.

Mr. MOUSSA: (Through Translator) The worst thing for me, the thing I remember most that was really bad, was that one of my brothers' wives was pregnant. And, in fact, she only had two weeks to go before the baby was born. I found her. They had killed her. They had opened her stomach and they had killed the baby in her stomach.

REEVES: The Lebanese Christians who had carried out these atrocities were allies of Israel. Earlier in the same year, 1982, Israeli forces invaded Lebanon in the hope of smashing Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization and ending attacks across Israel's northern border. As the massacre unfolded in Sabra and Shatila, Israeli soldiers looked on. An Israeli commission of inquiry later concluded Ariel Sharon, at the time Israel's defense minister and architect of the invasion, bore indirect responsibility.

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REEVES: In the grubby, narrow alley ways of Sabra, this fact will never be forgotten, nor will Sharon be forgiven. Muhammad Jalel(ph), a Palestinian of 22, wasn't alive when the massacre occurred, but he says the story will be passed from generation to generation of Palestinians.

Mr. MUHAMMAD JALEL: (Through Translator) We will never forget. This is part of our history, and it's gone down in history.

REEVES: Nearly five years ago, Lebanese human rights lawyer Shibli Mallat led a failed attempt to prosecute Sharon in Belgium on behalf of some families of victims of Sabra and Shatila. Malat, now campaigning to replace Lebanon's incumbent president, says the families greeted news of Sharon's stroke with mixed feelings.

Mr. SHIBLI MALLAT: They're relieved that he has passed from the political scene, and they are bitter because they did not get justice.

Mr. TIMA GOXEL(ph) (Former Spokesman, UN Peacekeeping Forces): In this country, Lebanon, we are not going to find anybody who's going to shed tears about the demise of Ariel Sharon.

REEVES: Tima Goxel is a former spokesman of the United Nations peacekeeping forces in Lebanon and an expert on the country's politics. Even here in Beirut, the epicenter of hostility to Sharon, there are shades of gray. Goxel says Sharon isn't viewed as a peacemaker. Most Arabs believe his withdrawal from Gaza was to pave the way to further consolidate Israel's grip on the West Bank. But, says Goxel, as prime minister, Sharon was held in some regard.

Mr. GOXEL: I mean, he was a determined guy and he held the safety of the Jewish people and the state of Israel above everything else. The Arabs, they like determined people like this. So he gets some grudging respect for that. But he gets no sympathy.

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REEVES: Even in the warring at Sabra that view can be found. It's clear from the pictures plastered all over the walls of Dr. Mustafa al-Bayeslai's(ph) tiny pharmacy that he's an avid supporter of Yasser Arafat, Sharon's arch enemy. But he acknowledges Sharon's political skills.

Dr. MUSTAFA AL-BAYESLAI: (Through Translator) We know that Yasser Arafat was the only person who could pass concessions for his people. In the same way, Ariel Sharon was that person. He could get concessions that maybe the Israelis would not like, but he'd still be able to pass them.

REEVES: Shibli Mallat, the human rights lawyer, hopes the passing of Sharon from the Israeli political scene will help usher the whole region into a new era.

Mr. SHIBLI MALLAT (Human Rights Lawyer): My sense is that the error of four years in the Middle East should pass. And what we need are humanistic, humane leaders, not only in Israel, but also in Palestine, in Lebanon, in Syria, elsewhere, because violence does not heed results.

REEVES: Such sentiments have been uttered many times before in the Middle East, so far to no avail. Philip Reeves, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves
Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.