When an atrocity is carried out in Syria, who is the blame attributed to? Is it the Syrian government or the Syrian rebels, or is it Russia, Britain, the US, or another party involved in the conflict militarily, operationally or politically?
While there are legitimate reasons for criticising parties outside of Syria for their involvement in the Syrian conflict (as well as valid reasons for criticising their lack of involvement), it would be patently absurd to blame Russia, for example, for the killing of hundreds of civilians in a chemical weapon attack by the Syrian government, while absolving that government any responsibility.
And yet, a similar situation has existed for decades and is sure to be part of a global spotlight as Ariel Sharon enters his final days. Ariel Sharon is colloquially referred to as the ‘Butcher of Sabra and Shatila’ by haters of Israel for his indirect responsibility in a massacre of Arabs that was committed by Arabs.
Elie Hobeika, the leader of the Lebanese militia that actually carried out the attack, which took place in Lebanon, was later elected to the Lebanese parliament. Twice, in fact (just to emphasize the lack of interest by the Lebanese in making accountable someone that had conducted an atrocity in their country). But it wasn’t Hobeika who was the target of a war crimes trial that was initiated in Belgium. It was Ariel Sharon. After all, why blame the actual perpetrator when you can blame it on an Israeli?
Back in September 1982, between 762 and 3,500 Palestinians and Lebanese Shiites were killed by the Lebanese militia in the Sabra neighbourhood of Beirut and the nearby Shatila refugee camp. This particular massacre, said to have been carried out as a retribution for a different atrocity, was merely one of many massacres perpetrated in Lebanon (and not even the one with the greatest level of victims). Not so different from Syria today.
So what makes this massacre stand out from the other massacres in Lebanon, and worthy of the infamy that it possesses? The difference is that (some) blame can be attributed to Israel. There is nothing like having the ability to criticise Israel to draw an interest from those who are far too often deafeningly silent when it comes to much worse situations. And just like so many of the outrages that Israel has been accused of, when the facts are examined rationally, is not Israel that should bear the brunt of responsibility or the level of criticism directed at it.
The Israel Defence Forces allowed the Lebanese militia to enter Sabra and Shatila in order to root out terrorist cells located there. In the aftermath of the massacre, hundreds of thousands of Israelis protested the killings, demanding answers, while the reaction from the Arab world was minimal.
Israel was an involved party, and an Israeli-led inquiry found that the IDF was indirectly responsible since it held the area, but also confirmed that no Israel was directly responsible for the massacre. Ariel Sharon, who resigned from his then post of Defence Minister, was found to have borne personal responsibility “for ignoring the danger of bloodshed and revenge” . (One can only imagine the cries of racism had he made the assumption that the natural course of action of an Arab militia on a mission to find terrorists would be to massacre civilians…)
Somehow, Israel’s indirect responsibility in 1982 has been transformed into being entirely responsible for the massacre. But is it really so different from the prospect of blaming Russia for the Syrian government carrying out a chemical attack, or for holding France entirely responsible when Syrian rebels behead Syrian soldiers?