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The Sabra and Shatila Massacre: The Real Victims

The new generation is infatuated with innovative visual imagery and aesthetically pleasing portrayal of violence. It sounds disturbing but is arguably quite logical. People may not be ready for films like Passion of the Christ, or I Spit on Your Grave, but they have evolved to the point of enjoying Quentin Tarantino’s films and sympathizing with Patrick Bateman. The film Waltz with Bashir, directed by Ari Folman, is an example of atrocious acts being manipulated to fit a narrative. It offers a unique perspective of an Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) soldier trying to recall the night of the Sabra and Shatila massacre. Some reviews agree that Waltz with Bashir is an important work that has the potential to start mental health conversations, while others try to open the eyes of the public, so they can see the horrors portrayed in the film from the perspective of Palestinian refugees. The film’s score and masterful animation deserve all the awards, especially in their ability to offer a new, psychological perspective on war brutality and the soldiers’ traumatic experiences, according to Ethan Bronner, a staff writer for New York Times. However, Gideon Levy, an Israeli journalist writing for Haaretz, is willing to admit that his compatriot’s film succeeds in blurring viewers’ objectivity and delivering a rather controversial message without any repercussions.

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Waltz with Bashir tells a story of all the Israeli soldiers during the 1982 Lebanon War between IDF and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), specifically regarding their participation in the Sabra and Shatila massacre. Israel launched a military operation on southern Lebanon as a result of numerous attacks and counterattacks on the borders that had caused multiple civilian casualties. The polarization of the Israeli public reached its peak in July through a series of demonstrations supporting and opposing Prime Minister Begin (Lockman 25). The massive Peace Now demonstration, as well as the existence of opposition within the army, demonstrated that Begin’s intention to drive out the PLO from Lebanon did not have nationwide support.

By mid-1982, the PLO withdrew its forces from Lebanon, and the Israeli troops started occupying parts of Beirut. The main allies of the IDF were the Phalangists, members of a Christian Lebanese right-wing party. The leader of the Phalange Party, Bashir Gemayel, became the president-elect of Lebanon but was assassinated on 14 September, weeks after his appointment. That led to the forces of the Kataeb Party (another name for the Phalangists) deciding to seek revenge for the murder with even more murders. The Israeli troops surrounded the Sabra neighborhood and the Shatila refugee camp and stationed soldiers at the exits to prevent residents from leaving. The Phalangists also requested Israelis to fire illuminating fares regularly.

Those fares lit the way for the Phalangists to execute one of the most brutal ethnocides in recent memory. They slaughtered hundreds, if not thousands, of civilians, including women and children. It happened in plain sight of the IDF that instructed the Kataeb forces to wipe out the PLO from the capital. Ari Folman was, in fact, one of the soldiers who lit up those fares, and Waltz with Bashir is his way to examine the trauma and guilt that seemed to haunt him and his comrades decades after the massacre.

Bronner rightfully focuses on a very important conversation regarding the impact of the war experiences on the human mind that the film starts. At the beginning of the story, Folman struggles to recollect the exact memories from his time serving in the Israeli forces and soon realizes he has to deal with his post-traumatic stress disorder. He is stuck dreaming about swimming in the Mediterranean Sea with his fellow soldiers, but the beach is filled with corpses. Folman’s friend Boaz is terrified of the nightmares about the dogs he shot “to help preserve the surprise of invading Israeli troops by shooting barking dogs in advance” (Bronner). All of the ex-IDF servicemen fall victim to the flashbacks and disturbances of what they partook in.

Folman and his friends can seek help and get professional advice from psychiatrists and counselors. He feels relieved when his therapist assures him that IDF soldiers “did not perpetuate the massacre” (qtd. in Levy). However, as Levy hints the readers throughout his review, it soon becomes clear that Folman is determined to free himself of the tormenting memories not only by accepting his past but by shifting the blame from Israelis to the Phalangists completely. In his quest to alleviate the guilt and pain that torment him, he goes as far as trying to diminish the horror of the massacre by comparing it to the Holocaust.

While exquisite and stylish, Waltz with Bashir is still an example of pure deception and denial. The film portrays the Israeli soldiers as self-righteous and deeply empathetic but forgets to mention several significant facts about the part the IDF took during the Sabra and Shatila massacre. The Phalangists were the IDF’s allies that slaughtered and killed for more than 72 hours without Israelis stopping them. Levy is not afraid to accentuate his earlier point and describe the graphic realities of what the massacre really looked like. Right-wingers “stuffed amputated limbs into the formaldehyde bottles, perpetrated executions, and slashed symbols into the bodies of their victims” in an Israeli-occupied territory (Levy). Israeli soldiers stationed at the exits to the Sabra camp forbade people to leave. They might not have committed the killings, but they were the ones who did not react and encouraged them instead.

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Some argue that Israelis did suspect what was happening, but decided to stay away and not intervene. Based on all the facts, they might not have executed the killings but did everything to encourage and prolong the massacre. The transcripts of certain secret conversations reveal that after the PLO withdrew its forces from Beirut (civilians left in there were guaranteed protection), the Israeli military strategists still believed that there were terrorists left in the camps (Anziska 220). The IDF compared Palestinians to the Nazis and gave the U.S. diplomats false information about the refugees. As a result, hundreds of civilians were massacred under cover of the Americans influenced by the untrue facts from the IDF.

If there were terrorists in the camp, what tactics did the Phalangists use to identify them? They did not use any, and according to the Kahan Commission report (the commission was established by the Israeli government to investigate what happened), the label “terrorists” was not only designated to men, but women and children as well (Falk 26). The Commission view of what makes someone a terrorist demonstrates a deep hatred towards an entire ethnicity rooted in ideological and religious differences between Israelis and Palestinians.

For the IDF, the massacre was simply an act of “mopping up” (Falk 27). When news of civilian deaths in the camps started to surface, the Israeli foreign minister Yitzhak Shamir held an urgent meeting where he discussed the eradication of terrorism from Beirut (Anziska 219). The meeting concluded that those Palestinians left at the camp were prone to international terrorism, and the Israeli government was not interested in saving any of them.

The Kahan Commission only held the Kataeb Party directly responsible for the massacre, which was simply not true. In the film, Folman establishes that the Israeli Army “inadvertently facilitated” the Lebanese Christian Forces (Bronner). After long conversations with his therapist, he draws a comparison between the Holocaust and the Sabra and Shatila massacre. Folman contrasts Israelis to Europeans during WWII, who stood by looking at the horrors of concentration camps. The soldiers were, in fact, victims that “have been cast in the role of the Nazis” against their will (Levy).

Bronner is right that the film does a great job of exploring the pressure a single soldier faces in the midst of brutality and violence in the war. Folman fails, however, to distinguish between self-acceptance (realizing his role in the massacre) and victimization (shifting the blame entirely to the Phalangists). Soldiers are, in fact, victims of the war, no matter which side they are fighting for. They can be traumatized as they are forced to carry out the orders that torture and kill innocent people. Folman rejects the fact that the IDF is responsible for what happened to Palestinian refugees and Lebanese Muslims. Using the artistry of the film, he tries to portray the Israeli Army as the victim, completely disregarding its role in the slaughter of hundreds of people.

The real victims of the Sabra and Shatila massacre do not have an opportunity to go to counseling or make an award-nominated animated film because they are dead. Their bodies, slaughtered and mutilated, are photographed and used to evoke emotions from the viewers of the said film. Folman admits that it is not his “job to deal with the other side” of the story (qtd. in Bronner). People would learn and discover a lot more about themselves and the world around if someone was not afraid to tell the story of the men, women, and children who were doomed from the start.

Works Cited

Anziska, Seth. “The Limits of Lebanon.” Preventing Palestine: A Political History from Camp David to Oslo, Princeton UP, 2018, pp. 194-237.

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Bronner, Ethan. “In Search of the Soldier in His Past.” The New York Times, 2008. Web.

Falk, Richard. “Banishing the Palestinian Ordeal.” MERIP Reports, No. 115, 1983, pp. 24-28. Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP). Web.

Folman, Ari, director. Waltz with Bashir. Sony Pictures Classics, 2008.

Levy, Gideon. “’Antiwar’ Film Waltz with Bashir Is Nothing but Charade.” Haaretz, 2009. Web.

Lockman, Zachary. “The Israeli Opposition.” MERIP Reports, no. 108/109, 1982, pp. 25-27. Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP). Web.

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