[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News]
BEIRUT – Anybody old enough to recall the 1980s would probably also recall the horrific fate of Sabra and Shatilla. These two adjacent Palestinian camps just outside of Beirut had become the setting of the massacre of more than two thousand people in September 1982. Not just men but women and children were mercilessly slaughtered by the Christian Maronite militias, while their Israeli allies watched uncaringly at arm’s length. It was a truly dark episode for mankind.
Almost three decades later, which is just the other day, I had the chance to see Sabra and Shatilla for myself for the first time. And I felt hardly any better than when I first saw the photos of that shocking massacre.
I actually came to Beirut for a brief research on the impact of Turkey’s new foreign policy in the region – a story that I hope to share later. Yet none of my meeting and observations were as eye-opening as the couple of hours I spent in these refugee camps. In fact, nothing that I have seen in a long time was as touching as the old woman in Sabra who was still longing for her parents’ home in Haifa, from which they were expelled in 1948 to live in these destitute camps.
First, a little background: When Israel unleashed its first wave of ethnic cleansing on Palestinian Arabs in 1948, some 700 thousand of them became refugees. In 1967, Israel occupied the remaining part of Palestine, too, creating at least 300,000 more refugees, some of which came to Lebanon. While most Muslims and the Druze of Lebanon felt solidarity with these asylum seekers, Christian Maronites saw them as uninvited guests. When the Palestinians started to arm themselves, becoming a foreign army in Lebanon, the tension further peaked. Finally a civil war broke out in 1975, which would last for 15 years, and lead to brutality by all sides.
So, one could say, Israeli expansionism not only traumatized the Palestinian people, but also tore the Lebanese apart.
Today, the narrow, dark and dirty alleys of Sabra looks like a testimony of that doomed history. This is a giant shantytown where people live literally on top of each other. The three-story “buildings” are made up of bricks and pieces of metal and plastic, and are surrounded by an ugly web of cables. The distance between the blocks is sometimes less than a meter, which means that you can barely see the sky through them.
Not only the sun but also air is scarce in the camps. Most homes don’t have any window. I saw a “kitchen” whose only utensils were a few rusty bawls, and whose floor was flooded by dirty water. “You actually see the camp in its cleanest mood,” said one of the refugees. “In winter, when it rains a lot, water floats all around.”
Yet poverty is not the real source of resentment in here. It is the feeling of oppression (by the Israelis) and discrimination (by the Lebanese). Most Palestinians have simply no legal status in Lebanon. So, they can’t buy or even rent places and even need permits to leave their refugee camps. They are denied access to Lebanese schools and hospitals, a tragedy compensated only partly by the efforts of the United Nations. They are not even second-class citizens, to use that famous term: they are rather sub-humans.
All this plight looks all the more disturbing when compared to Beirut’s extravagant nightlife, which presents a baffling synthesis of the most expensive cars, clothes and accessories you can imagine. This is an all-night-party city, full of fancy restaurants, bars and clubs. I have been to some of those places as well, and met wonderful people there, for whom I wish only the best. But I also wonder what they think, if they ever do, of the plight of Palestinians, which is caused and perpetuated partly by the decisions of their political leaders.
Of course, the same question is even more relevant for Israelis, who enjoy the privileges of their prosperous country, which is built on a country that used to belong to another people. I wish all the best, including peace and security, for the Israelis as well, but I also wonder what they think about the millions of people that they forced out of their homes. Does it really mean anything to them that their heaven is the hell of others? Does it give them any sense of guilt, any feeling of responsibility?
Or is humanity, as some claim, really overrated?
I admit: my visit to Sabra and Shatilla gave me all that cynicism. But it also gave me pride as a Turk, when I saw the poster of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, on the walls of Sabra. It was a reminder that my government has stood by the Palestinians, and stood at the right side of history.
That right side is certainly not to call for Israel’s destruction, and support terrorist acts against Israeli civilians, as Iran unacceptably does. But it is also not to worship “Israel’s right to security,” while seeing the Palestinians’ rights as a side issue, as successive American administrations have unbelievably done.
It is rather to stand for justice for all. And if you believe for a moment that justice has been served in the Middle East, I would suggest you to go to Sabra and see it for your self. Facts on the ground are the best antidote to delusions in the mind.