The vulnerability of Palestinian refugees, revisited

I’m looking forward to seeing my old friend– and now Just World Books’s latest author– Jonathan Randal, who’ll be flying in to DC from Paris on Saturday. We’ve arranged for a bunch of public and less-public events for him next week, in both DC and New York. You can find the schedule for the public events here.
Please do share that with all your friends.
When I was a cub reporter in Beirut back in the 1970s, Randal was one of my mentors. By then, he was already the Washington Post’s senior foreign correspondent. He and a bunch of other senior journos came in to Beirut to cover the civil war that started there in 1975, many of them coming in almost directly from Vietnam.
He and a bunch of other journos and I worked hard to understand what was going on during the often complex and fast-moving events of the civil war. We all had our share of ducking snipers’ bullets, dealing with the facts of our own fears and mortality, and losing friends and colleagues during the war. We also had to cover plenty of the war’s atrocities. The worst one I had to cover was the Phalangist militia’s siege and final storming of the Palestinian refugee camp at Tel al-Zaatar. Phalangist militia boss Bashir Gemayyel, who led the assault on the camp, even organized a press tour of the fall camp the day after it had fallen. It was a truly sickening and very difficult trip. The Phalangist-led caravan of western journos’ cars wound its way up the hill into the remains of the camp amidst a stream of pickups and other small vehicles driven by Phalangist supporters, each of whom had a small paper that they waved to get in, which was a “license to loot”– loot, that is, the pathetic amount of personal belongings the refugees had been able to amss in their shelters there but had now been forced to leave behind.
And as those cars and pickups ground their way up the hill, they were driving right over some of bodies of refugees– mostly, women and children– who had been killed as they tried to flee the days before. And those bodies were pancaked so thin by the traffic it took me a seeing a few before I figured what they were.
Oh, and before he took the journos into the camp, Gemayyel held a little press conference in Phalangist headquarters, at which he assured us– I have my news report of this still to hand– that “I am proud of what you’re going to see inside the camp.”
… I could give ore details of what I saw (and smelled, and heard, and felt under my feet) inside the camp, but I guess you get my drift.
That was in 1976. We all reported what the Phalangists did after the fall of Tel al-Zaatar. Six years later, in 1982, I was in U.S. (but Jon Randal was still in Beirut.) In June that year the Israelis launched a large-scale assault on Lebanon, with some help from their Phalangist allies… Then, in mid-September that year, after the PLO fighters had all left the country as per an agreement brokered by Pres. Reagan’s personal envoy Phil Habib, the IDF advanced into West Beirut (quite in violation of the Habib agreement)… and then they brought Phalangist fighters in, in trucks, to “take control” of the completely undefended Palestinian refugee camps at Sabra and Shatila. The Phalangists committed their worst atrocities ever during 48 hours of killing in the camps…
There was still a fairly active peace movement in Israel in those days. As news of the Sabra and Shatila massacres emerged, the peaceniks took to the streets. They– and the mounting international diplomatic pressure on Israel– were enough to force the IDF to pull the Phalangists out of the camps and slink away. Some months later, Israel held a public inquiry into the massacres, called the Kahan Commission. Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, who was the main architect of both the war and the Sabra and Shatila actions, told the commission that he “never expected the Phalangists would behave so badly in the camps.”
What a liar.
(The commission censured him and said he should never be allowed to hold high office in Israel again. We know how that went, right?)
… Jon Randal wrote about Tel al-Zaatar, and Sabra and Shatila in a book he published on the Phalangists in 1983. I am really proud that this year, on the 30th anniversary of Sabra and Shatila, my company is publishing a new edition of the book, along with a new Preface.
This is the book that Jon will be discussing during his events in Washington DC and New York next week. Come if you can!

One thought on “The vulnerability of Palestinian refugees, revisited

  1. annie

    please let us know if jon will be on the west coast helena.
    some of those memories of yours, i do not envy you. driving over bodies.

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