Beirut, Lebanon – Zaineb Saab locked the door to her house and did not dare make a sound when the killing started in Sabra and Shatila, two neighbourhoods home to a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon’s capital Beirut.
On September 16, 1982, members of a far-right-wing Christian militia, Phalange Party, coordinated with Israeli forces to kill between 2,000 and 3,500 Muslim Lebanese and Palestinian civilians.
Saab said during the carnage, which lasted for three days, she heard her neighbours screaming but no gunshots. Most victims were butchered with knives.
“They were going straight into people’s homes and killing them,” Saab told Al Jazeera from Sabra.
More than four decades later, Saab and other survivors say that Israel’s ongoing bombardment of Gaza is triggering them to relive those terrible days in Sabra and Shatila. More than four decades later, Saab and other survivors say Israel’s ongoing bombardment of Gaza is triggering their worst memories, making them relive those terrible days for Sabra and Shatila.
The massacre is considered one of the most harrowing episodes of violence against Palestinian refugees since they were expelled from their homeland during the creation of Israel in 1948.
But residents of Sabra and Shatila say that what they lived through then does not compare with the shocking violence unfolding in Gaza now.
More than 5,700 Palestinians have been killed in 18 days of bombing, including more than 2,000 children. More than half of Gaza’s population is displaced, and much of its homes and infrastructure — schools, universities and hospitals — is damaged or destroyed in Israeli bombing since October 7, when Hamas fighters attacked southern Israel, killing 1,400 people.
“As we watch what is happening in Gaza, we remember the massacre here. But it’s not the same. Gaza is worse,” Saab said.
At Majdi Majzoub’s home in the camp, dramatic scenes of Palestinian children being rescued from the rubble after Israeli air attacks destroyed their homes in Gaza played out on television.
It transported him back to the time when, 41 years ago, he was among the survivors of an Israeli massacre.
Majzoub was 10 years old at the time. In June 1982, Israel launched a full-scale invasion to expel the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) from Lebanon, where it was based. Israel also planned to install a puppet government headed by the Phalange Party.
By September 1, the PLO relocated to Tunisia while a multinational force was deployed to protect civilians in Sabra and Shatila. The task force curiously left after just 10 days, enabling Israel to besiege the camp.
Two weeks later, Majzoub said, the Israelis deployed more tanks and vehicles around the camp. The increased military presence came two days after the mysterious assassination of the Phalange Party leader, Bashir Gemayel.
At the time, nobody knew who killed Gemayel. Yet members of his party blamed Palestinians, and they were hungry for revenge.
When the killing started in Sabra and Shatila, Majzoub said he saw an Israeli helicopter fly over the camp to guide the Phalange fighters as they murdered civilians.
He also remembers hiding in a mosque with his siblings where they kept quiet and still, so they would not be heard.
“There were about 200 people hiding with us,” Majzoub told Al Jazeera. “I remember a group of young men who left the mosque to try and explain that there were no [PLO] fighters in the camp. All those young men died.”
Later that night, Majzoub and his siblings escaped the camp and reunited with their parents, who were visiting relatives elsewhere in Beirut when the massacre unfolded.
Looking back, Majzoub considers himself lucky compared with civilians in Gaza, which rights groups describe as an “open-air prison” where 2.2 million people are restricted from leaving the territory without hard-to-get Israeli or Egyptian permission.
Israel has tightened its chokehold-like siege on Gaza further by cutting off fuel, water and food supplies since Hamas’s surprise attack on October 7. Israel’s tactic may amount to a war crime, according to experts of international humanitarian law.
“Palestinians in Sabra and Shatila were uprooted from their homes in 1948 like the Palestinians in Gaza,” Majzoub, 51, said. “The Israelis tried to finish us off in 1982. They are now trying to do the same to Palestinians in Gaza.”
In December 1982, the United Nations General Assembly declared the Sabra and Shatila massacre an “‘act of genocide”.
The Phalange murdered pregnant women and ripped out their foetuses, according to witnesses and journalists.
One Palestinian survivor, who goes by the name of Abou Ahmed, said he vividly remembers people’s bodies piling up on the winding and narrow streets of the camp.
He added that he risked his life to carry the injured on stretchers to Dahiya, a nearby neighbourhood in south Beirut.
“They were killing everybody and doing it randomly,” he told Al Jazeera from his home in Shatila. “I blame the Israelis. They were the ones that were supposed to protect the camp.”
Abou Ahmed added that if it was not for a few journalists, then nobody would have known what happened in Sabra and Shatila.
He always believed that if more people knew that a massacre was happening in real time, then the world would intervene to stop it. But the ongoing violence in Gaza has changed his mind, he said.
“The whole world is protesting, but nobody is responding or doing anything,” he told Al Jazeera.
United States President Joe Biden and European Union President Ursula von der Leyen have provided full diplomatic support for Israel’s indiscriminate offensive, even as the UN has warned that Palestinians face the real risk of genocide.
Saab, Majzoub and Abou Ahmed agree with the UN’s assessment.
“This isn’t a massacre in Gaza. It’s a genocide,” said Abou Ahmed, from his home in Shatila. “It’s the worst violence we have ever seen in Palestinian history.”