Sabra and Shatila: Silencing, Denying, and Selective Remembering

By Asher Kaufman
Submitted to Session P4902 (Reconsidering Israeli-Lebanese Relations, 2017 Annual Meeting
Israel; Lebanon;
Few events in the violent history of the Arab-Israeli conflict have gained an iconic stature by all parties involved such as the Sabra and Shatila massacre. Perpetrated on September 17-19, 1982, in the midst of Israel's invasion of Lebanon, a country which itself was embroiled in a vicious civil war, and involving Palestinians as victims, Lebanese as executioners, and Israelis as enablers and bystanders, the Sabra and Shatila massacre has gained a central place in the collective memories of these three societies. The massacre has also gained an iconic stature globally, becoming one of the few events that foreigners still identify today with both the Lebanese civil war and the Israeli invasion of that country. Why has this massacre become so central in the collective memories of Lebanese and Palestinians, despite the fact that other massacres and atrocities were perpetrated during the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990), some of which resulted in the loss of more human lives? How do Lebanese reconcile the dissonance of seeing Palestinians as victims of the massacre, on the one hand, and blaming them for outbreak of the civil war, on the other hand? What are the reasons that Israelis still remember Sabra and Shatila despite the fact that the First Lebanon War (as the 1982 invasion and the consequent three years of occupation in Lebanon are referred to in Israel) has largely been silenced by government agencies and neglected by the general population? These are the main questions that this paper will explore. Using insights from the field of Memory Studies, the paper will focus on how dynamics of silence, denial and selective remembrance of the Sabra and Shatila massacre have played out among Israelis, Lebanese and Palestinians, and what this can tell us about processes of conflict commemoration among these three societies.