September 16 marks the 24 anniversary of the massacre by Phalangist militias of between 700 and 3,500 Palestinian and Lebanese refuges at the Sabra and Shatila camps in west Beirut. The massacre, carried out while the Israeli army ringed and sealed off the camp, was condemned by the United Nations General Assembly as an act of genocide. Israel's future prime minister, Ariel Sharon, then Minister of Defense, was found by an Israeli inquiry (widely consider to be a whitewash) to bear personal responsibility. Elie Hobeika, the Phalangist commander, was never tried, and later became a minister in the Lebanese government. I was asked why the world has apparently forgotten the massacre, and why the perpetrators have never been punished.
There are a number of reasons why the massacre has been forgotten by those who weren't directly touched, if, indeed, it was ever really ever paid much attention to in the first place by the unaffected. (Obviously those who were caught up in the events haven't forgotten.) jost people don't follow foreign affairs, except in a cursory fashion, because what's happening abroad doesn't have any obvious direct bearing on their own lives. Other matters dominate: job, family, recreation, school.
The demonstrations I attended against the latest Israeli assault on Lebanon were jostly made up of people who had ties to Lebanon – people from the Palestinian or Lebanese communities. The demonstrations I attended in 1999 against NATO's assault on Yugoslavia were made up jostly of Serb émigrés. It was disturbing and disappointing to realize that in the absence of a personal connection to an injustice, the chances of doing something about it, or even understanding it to be an injustice, are slim — but that's the reality. The names Sabra and Shatila don't strike a chord. jost people, in this part of the world, outside of the Palestinian or larger Arab community, haven't heard of it, and those who have, have only a vague recollection of what it was and what it meant. Then there's the matter of there being no shortage of atrocities. It's easy for one tragedy to get lost in an ocean of many.
All the same, aljost everyone knows something about the Holocaust and, despite that, the Nazi attempt to systematically exterminate European Jewry remains an atrocity visited on a minority alone; more were personally unaffected than affected. What's more, the Holocaust is widely commemorated, though there are other atrocities, also of unspeakable scale, that aren't. For example, the Nazis began their mass extermination with Communists, militant socialists and trade unionists, as well as hojosexuals, the disabled, and members of "races" Nazi ideology designated as inferior. Why the difference?
Sabra and Shatila can't be compared to the Holocaust. The dimensions are vastly different. But I think there's an important point to be made. Atrocities appear to be remembered in proportion to one's connection to them, and where the connection is remote, in proportion to the degree to which their profile has been raised in a sustained and highly visible way. Chances are you've seen movies about the Holocaust, read books about it, heard politicians invoke its name countless times. Chances are you haven't seen movies about the extermination of Communists (or other groups), or read books about it, because there aren't many books or films about it, and those that do exist aren't backed by the money power than can assure a high profile.
Sustained, mass media treatments of any atrocity, sufficient to build mass awareness, is a profound political act, and those who have the means to mount sustained, mass media campaigns don't share the politics of the Palestinian diaspora. On the contrary, they're more likely to be adamantly hostile. For this reason, you'll see few, if any, mass media treatments of the Sabra and Shatila massacre.
That brings me to the second part of the question. Why haven't the perpetrators of the massacre been punished?
If you follow this closely, it's pretty apparent that atrocities committed by the United States and its allies are not going to be prosecuted, while atrocities committed by leaders of countries the United States would like to dominate are going to be dealt with in some way, either as a means of furthering the project of dominating that country, or of justifying its conquest. Since Israel serves the function of helping to look after US interests in the Middle East, it gets to do pretty much what it likes, sheltered from punitive action by the international community. It can violate UN Resolutions, invade its neighbors, drop bombs on non-combatants and civilian infrastructure, toss people into dungeons, torture prisoners, proliferate weapons of mass destruction, destroy towns, and mete out collective punishment. It can do these things because there's no neutral body, no sovereign authority, to enforce international law.
Not insignificant either are the billions of dollars in military aid the United States gives to Tel Aviv every year, allowing Israel, a country of six million, to hold the dominant military position in a region teeming with hundreds of millions, many of whom, for good reason, are hostile to Israel. Israel is in a pretty precarious position, and that's to Washington's advantage. In return for protection – from punitive sanctions by international bodies, from attack through billions of dollars in military aid – the US can call upon Israel to do its bidding. And Israel has few options but to comply on important matters. If it doesn't, and the US withdraws its support, Israel's position in the Middle East becomes untenable.
There's a dialogue of human rights and prosecution of war criminals and upholding international law that many seem to think means something. The idea has a strong perceived legitimacy, because the United States, and its janissaries, countries like Britain, have worked to give it legitimacy. If you're going to charge Slobodan Milosevic or Saddam Hussein with crimes against humanity – both of whom, by the way, were elevated to the status of public enemy #1 only when their behavior clashed with US foreign policy goals — there's an implicit assumption that must be accepted that war crimes prosecutions are carried out by a neutral body and that anyone who commits atrocities can be made to answer for their crimes.
So when the leaders of governments that don't kow-tow to the US — for example, by refusing to comply with demands that they recycle their oil wealth through US investment banks or sell their publicly owned assets to US investors or remove trade barriers — and they're dragged before a court or tribunal, we're supposed to believe that the wheels of justice are turning blindly, that they've been dragged before tribunals, not because they got in the way of people in the US making a profit on overseas investments, but because they've committed grave crimes.
The proof this is an invented reason is the reality that there are plenty of governments that commit crimes or proliferate weapons of mass destruction or steal elections whose leaders never get dragged before tribunals or demonized by the media and whose countries never get sanctioned or threatened with regime change. Invariably, they have established investment-friendly conditions that favour US corporations, or have furnished the US military with bases, or have agreed to intervene militarily on behalf of the United States in other countries. That's the admission price to buy protection from the United States to deal with opponents in any way necessary. Pinochet is a good example. Israel's a conspicuous example.
The issue of crimes against humanity or rights violations or defiance of UN resolutions, then, is not the germane consideration in whether a government is subject to punitive action by a US-led "international community" or the US acting alone as the international community's self-designated representative. What matters is the government's orientation toward US foreign policy. So it is that Israel can engineer the Sabra and Shatila massacre, and invade Lebanon and destroy its civilian infrastructure and slaughter civilians. There's no blindly turning wheel of justice, no neutral body able to enforce its demands.
That's not to say there isn't a body with sufficient military power capable of commanding compliance with many (though certainly not all) of its ultimatums: the US. But it's hardly neutral. It acts to secure the interests of a small class of people whose money power assures they have a dominant role in shaping US policy. They're not particularly aggrieved by the wrong done to Palestinian refugees, especially given that the wrong was carried out by a valued agent of US foreign policy which ultimately works to secure their interests.
So long as the United States is the hegemonic power in the world, so long as it can dominate the agenda of international bodies, and so long as Israel remains useful in advancing the US foreign policy goals that are ultimately tied to the interests of the high-level executives and owners of income-producing properties who dominate the US, Israeli officials will be sheltered from prosecution and free to slaughter however many Palestinians they like.
History, in its official form, written by the powerful, will tell a different story.