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Beirut Massacre? Rumors Rife but Facts Are Elusive

Times Staff Writer

It all sounds depressingly familiar: Persistent reports for most of the past two weeks have spoken of large-scale killings, sometimes termed “massacres,” being carried out in the Palestinian refugee camps just south of Beirut.

Hasty parallels were being drawn between the current tide of violence at the camps, Sabra, Chatilla, and Borj el Brajne, and the killing of hundreds of Palestinian civilians by Christian Falangist militiamen at Sabra and Chatilla over three days in September, 1982.

Only this time the accusations are being directed mainly at Amal, the Shia Muslim militia, whose fighters have been trying since May 19 to wrest control of the camps from Palestinian guerrillas.

“The massacre which is now being carried out in the Beirut camps on the hands of Amal and the (Lebanese Army’s) 6th Brigade . . . is an ugly crime similar to what Sharon and the Falangists did in 1982,” Nayef Hawatmeh, of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, was recently quoted as saying. Hawatmeh’s remarks referred to Ariel Sharon, who was Israel’s defense minister at the time of the camp massacres. An Israeli inquiry into the 1982 camp massacres blamed Christian Falangist militiamen for carrying out the killings but also affixed “indirect responsibility” to seven top Israeli officials, including Sharon, for not taking steps to control the militiamen.

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In response to the recent fighting, Yasser Arafat, the Palestine Liberation Organization chairman, last week was accusing Syria of encouraging what he termed “the barbaric massacres” in the camps.

For its part, Amal vehemently denies that it has carried out any unnecessary killings or atrocities during the recent campaign of fighting.

“In reality, there has been nothing like a massacre,” Ghassan Sablani, a member of Amal’s political bureau, said in an interview.

“We should be honest,” Sablani said. “We’ve had 130 fighters killed and over 1,000 injured and a lot of the guys are upset. The fighters are not angels; there have been some angry reflexes, but nothing like what we have been accused of.”

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An independent assessment of what has taken place in the camps is nearly impossible to obtain, since Amal has prevented journalists and representatives from the International Committee of the Red Cross from entering the area.

The principal difference between what happened in 1982 and in the last two weeks is that the Christian militiamen, long and bitter enemies of the Palestinians, were accused of entering the camps largely in an act of vengeance for the killing two days earlier of their leader, President-elect Bashir Gemayel, in a bomb explosion. The militiamen met virtually no resistance in the Sabra and Chatilla camps.

In the “war of the camps,” as the recent fighting has become known, Amal fighters backed by Lebanese army troops have been trying to force Palestinian guerrillas to surrender their weapons and hand over control of the camps to the army. Amal has been pressing this campaign in an effort to keep the Palestinians from re-establishing a power base in Beirut.

The Palestinians have resisted savagely, often popping out of a concealed tunnel or an apartment window to fire a shot or throw a hand grenade. One Amal official remarked that the Palestinians, sensing the hopelessness of their cause, were fighting “like doomed men.”

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According to Lebanese reporters who interviewed Palestinian refugees from the fighting, however, there is considerable evidence that there was at least one incident in which a large number of unarmed people were killed.

The refugees told the reporters that approximately 45 patients and medical staff members were killed when Amal took control of the Gaza Hospital, a three-building complex on the northern outskirts of the Sabra camp.

According to these accounts, 15 people were dragged from the hospital--some by their hair--a distance of 100 yards to a checkpoint and then shot.

A nurse was reportedly bayoneted to death when she protested the killing of a patient.

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The witnesses quoted by Lebanese reporters said that 25 other people were lined up at a ditch near the hospital and shot. A bulldozer allegedly was used to cover the ditch with dirt.

Three other people were said to have been forced to kneel in the hospital and then each was shot in the head at point-blank range.

The witnesses are in general agreement that the dead were mainly wounded Palestinian fighters, nearly all of them men.

Sablani said that Amal lost 20 fighters killed and 80 wounded in the battle near the hospital. At one point, the fighters wanted to blow up the building, he said, but were dissuaded by Amal’s leadership because civilians were known to be sheltered inside.

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“The Palestinians put up a hell of a resistance,” he said. “We had losses, and they had losses over there.”

“Whether you call it a massacre or an atrocity, it seems fairly certain that something very awful happened to the people at Gaza Hospital,” said one Western diplomat, who requested anonymity. “Under the circumstances, we may never know the full extent of what happened.”

There have been scattered reports of other atrocities, such as Palestinian fighters being killed in the American University Hospital, and hand grenades thrown into basements sheltering civilians. But the evidence is mainly based on the accounts of single refugees and is not considered conclusive.

Amal’s Sablani also said that five Amal fighters were killed in their beds at Makassad Hospital, presumably by Palestinians. Amal has also accused the Palestinians of massacring 12 Lebanese army soldiers and nine Amal fighters by serving them drugged tea and then killing them.

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Unlike 1982, when Beirut was full of journalists who sensed a major story unfolding in the refugee camps, most American reporters have been ordered by their employers to stay out of Lebanon, or at a minimum, to remain out of West Beirut, the predominantly Muslim part of the capital.

That action follows the kidnapings of six Americans in West Beirut, including a journalist, Terry A. Anderson, the chief Middle East correspondent of the Associated Press. In addition, a number of British and French citizens have been kidnaped and one Briton, Denis Hill, a professor at the American University of Beirut, was recently killed during an apparent kidnap attempt.

Most of the information in this article was obtained in telephone conversations from East Beirut.

Complicating matters, Beirut’s normally unfettered local press has been unusually silent on the question of alleged massacres in the camps, publishing either foreign news agency accounts of the fighting or, more frequently, limiting their coverage to Amal’s denials of wrongdoing.

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“Everyone is scared of Amal,” said one Lebanese journalist.


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