The State of Palestine Never Forgets its Own
In just over a week’s time, the Palestinians will have made their request to the United Nations to recognize them as a state. Part of this bid is to guarantee that international law is applied to the Palestinians, including laws that guarantee the right of refugees to return to their homes or be compensated for the years of exile and loss of property.
Also, before week’s end, the Palestinians will commemorate an event not entirely disconnected with their UN move. Actually, it is very relevant and is the perfect example of why refugees must not be forgotten. Sabra and Shatilla, the two Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon that were the scene of one of the most horrific massacres in Palestinian history, will be remembered and honored by us all, followed by that harrowing vow of “never again.”
Between September 16 and 18, some 800 to 2,000 people were estimated to have been murdered in the camps by Lebanese Phalangist forces in a 62-hour rampage of rape, murder and terror under the watchful eye and directives of the occupying Israeli army. Dozens of Palestinian men were never accounted for after being taken away and never seen again.
That was in 1982, almost 30 years ago, but the events that eventually created what is commonly known as the Palestinian refugee problem are still in place today, just as unresolved as they were in the days following Israel’s creation in 1948. Back then the 800,000 or so Palestinians who fled their homes eventually settled in camps inside the West Bank, Jordan Syria and Lebanon. Sabra and Shatilla are just two of hundreds.
However, it is difficult not to single these two out because of the horrific events that transpired all those years ago. The details of cold-blooded murder, rape, executions of babies and the elderly are too stark of images to let pass into oblivion. For Palestinians, it is impossible.
The fact that the massacres even happened stems from the vulnerability of the refugees’ status, both in Lebanon and within the perimeters of world citizenry. They were expelled from their homes, thus losing residency in their rightful country, they were not welcomed in their host countries, which did not grant them citizenship and they were perceived overall as a burden to the international community, which did not know how – or perhaps did not want – to solve their predicament at all.
And so, in Israel’s eyes, they were expendable and the world, it was sure, would do little more than slap its hand in reprimand. Unfortunately, Israel was right. Although then Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon was found to be “indirectly responsible” for the slaughter and consequently resigned, the camps were left to heal their own wounds – not only those terrible gaping injuries left by death and mutilation but by the drawn out wound of abandonment. The victims were never honored, the Phalangists and Israelis never made to pay a cost for their atrocities and the Palestinian refugee issue was no closer to resolution than it was before.
That is why today, as the Palestinians prepare to make their case before the world’s nations – many of whom have been complicit in keeping the refugee problem unresolved – it is unthinkable that the right of return be disregarded.
The refugees have every right to return, to be compensated for the injustices rained down upon them since 1948 and to be allowed a life of freedom and dignity. Sabra and Shatilla will always remain a stark reminder that the world failed the Palestinians. It is too late for those whose lives were lost 30 years ago. For the living, however, there is never a wrong time to make things right.
Joharah Baker is Director of the Media and Information Department at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at email@example.com.