American survivor of Sabra-Shatila massacre has spoken out for 39 years

“They walked us single file against a bullet-riddled brick wall. It seemed like about 40 soldiers facing us. Their rifles were pointed. They looked like a firing squad. Some of my fellow hospital staff started crying. I wondered, was anyone going to know that I died in this refugee camp?

“But I thought, it’s OK I’m here, it’s because I did the right thing. I was humming ‘Here Comes the Sun.’”

Ellen Siegel, now 79 and a retired nurse in Washington, D.C., is telling me what happened to her in 1982, when she was working as one of two volunteer American nurses at the hospital in the Shatila neighborhood of Beirut, Lebanon, which served the Palestinians in Sabra Refugee Camp.

It was the early morning of September 18, in the waning hours of a three-day onslaught against the unarmed camp residents. She had been working there since September 2, caring for burned and gunshot-wounded Palestinians. A staunch friend of the Palestinians despite growing up Jewish in Baltimore and spending time on an Israeli kibbutz, she had pulled strings to get into Lebanon to help care for Palestinians trapped in the Israeli siege of Beirut. The soldiers pointing their guns at her were Lebanese Kataeb militia, known in the West as Phalangists and affiliated with right-wing, Maronite-Christian allies of Israel.

But they lowered their guns. Siegel later learned from Ha’aretz war correspondent Ze’ev Schiff that it was because an officer of the Israeli Defense Force ordered them to desist.

The world knows the killing spree as the Sabra-Shatila Massacre – the defining horror of a landmark event in what Rashid Khalidi has termed “The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine.” In his recent book, Khalidi wrote that the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, with its murderous bombing and siege of Beirut, “produced the first significant and sustained negative American and European perceptions of Israel since 1948.” It was Sabra-Shatila in particular that triggered “perhaps the largest demonstration in the Middle East” against the War – which took place in Tel Aviv, to express a new-found anger and soul-searching among massive numbers of Jewish Israelis. Their protests died down eventually, but the embers of Sabra-Shatila still burn and have been fed by those of a never-ending, ever-expanding series of subsequent massacres and aggressions that have continued to rain down on Palestinians.

Siegel’s close connection to Lebanon began in 1972 when she was in Beirut and provided nursing services to Palestinian refugees struck by Israeli forces in the wake of the Munich Olympics killings. She would go back to Beirut many times in her life.

Over the past 39 years, she has kept a spotlight on Israel’s direction of the cold-blooded murder of more than 1,300 unarmed Sabra residents, according to Khalidi’s conservative estimate, with the abysmal complicity of the United States.

“The guilty governments have never given justice to their victims or lifted a finger to care for the survivors. They are the forgotten refugees and still live in terrible conditions,” says Siegel, who has attended many of the commemorations staged annually at the camp and raised funds for their support. “It seems so hopeless.” Yet Siegel does admit that the ongoing shift in American and global public opinion toward sympathy with Palestinians feels significant.

Ellen Siegel today

The Phalangist killers finally left Siegel and her fellow foreign nurses and doctors just outside the camp, where the IDF had a busy rooftop command center. For three nights, they had been helping guide Israeli flares that illuminated the camp’s narrow alleys for the killers’ convenience. Khalidi, a Palestinian-American who at the time was teaching at the American University of Beirut, writes that he saw the flares from the borrowed apartment where he and his wife and two young daughters were hiding. They were “baffled” as to what the Israelis were illuminating, since there were no sounds of battle. Over at Gaza Hospital, Siegel says everything was silent when the flares burst open. She thought maybe they were some kind of fireworks.

Two days later, she and other staff were marched from the hospital and saw dead bodies strewn about the streets, many of them women and children, and they heard shooting.  “I saw one old man lying dead of head wounds,” she says. “Freshly killed, his corpse still hadn’t turned blue. People tried to follow us but they were stopped. A Palestinian had put a lab coat on and was walking with us, but he was taken aside. They checked his ID, slapped him with it and took him around the corner and we heard a shot.”

A Lebanese woman militia on the scene was just as beautiful as she was brutal, Siegel says. “She had pulled up in a Jeep with a slightly wounded Palestinian boy. She poured liquid on his wounds and taped them up, saying to us, ‘See how nice we treat the enemy.’ He begged for mercy, but she drove away with him. I’m sure they shot him.”

Bulldozers were rumbling about to cover corpses with dirt. “We kept having to get out of their way.” She saw one with a large Hebrew letter on it.

“When we were left with the Israelis, they didn’t ask us questions about what had happened, what we were doing there. They ignored us, but it seemed clear they were running things. So, when a Phalange soldier tried to take a Norwegian nurse away in a Jeep, we pleaded with an Israeli officer to stop him, which worked.” A soldier who was wearing a yarmulka and a prayer shawl offered one of the foreign health care workers some honey cake wrapped in foil, which is a traditional way to wish someone a sweet year on Rosh Hashanah. “That really upset me. His mother must have sent him that honey cake to wish him a sweet year. We always had honey cake on Rosh Hashanah and here is this Israeli soldier in a place where women and children are being murdered and he’s offering the cake to a young woman for a sweet year.”

As soon as she got away from the scene, she set about trying to tell her story, which she believed showed that Israel directed the massacre. Among her clues was the spooky comment of the IDF driver who dropped her at the American Embassy. Seeing some Lebanese Army soldiers, he said they were useless. “They’ve been here and done nothing. We have to do all the work.” When he said he didn’t like to go into houses with women and children, she asked him how many people he had killed, to which he merely replied, “that’s not a question to ask someone.”

Siegel got her big chance to speak out when Israel decided to convene a commission to inquire into alleged Israeli involvement in the massacre. She and two doctors submitted statements and gave testimony to the Kahan Commission, chaired by Supreme Court Justice Yitzhak Kahan. “It was a coverup,” she says of the inquiry. “But I’m glad I testified. I was told that people back in Shatila actually heard me on Lebanon radio. People called me the nurse that testified against Sharon.” Ariel Sharon was the Israeli Defense Minister who planned and led the invasion.

Ellen Siegel with colleague Dr. Swee Ang, a volunteer doctor, in Jerusalem prior to testifying before the Kahan Commission, October 1982

Khalidi cites a “scathing critique” by Noam Chomsky of the Commission’s many flaws. Nonetheless, according to Khalidi, the final report did establish the “direct and indirect responsibility of [then-premier Menachem] Begin, Sharon, and senior Israeli commanders for the massacre” – and, he adds, that determination had heavy negative consequences for them, at least for a while. But the main purpose of the exercise was damage control, as can be seen in the way the 1983 report strained to diminish Siegel as a witness.

“Gaza hospital. . . was run by and for Palestinians,” a section about Siegel notes, with a gratuitous follow on to the effect that “There is no cause to suspect that any of these [hospital staff] witnesses have any special sympathy for Israel.” Indeed, the panel indicates that it was forced to conclude that “they sympathize with the Palestinians.” Reacting to Siegel’s speculation that two well-groomed young men were Sephardic Jews who came to the hospital on the last evening of the massacre speaking Arabic and German, the report sputters that “this assumption has no basis in fact and can be explained by her tendentiousness.” Thus, satisfied that the men could not have been Israelis, the panel left unmentioned the terrifying question the two men had asked Siegel: “Is Kataeb [the Phalange] coming tomorrow at 9:00 a.m. to slit the children’s throats?”

A central purpose of the report clearly was to prove that no IDF soldiers had stepped inside the camp during the massacre; all the killing was done by the Arab Phalangists. Khalidi’s thorough scholarship and personal experience in Beirut in 1982 shows how the panel’s narrow focus, its hiding of crucial evidence it had itself gathered by placing it in secret appendices, and its seeming courage in faulting Israel’s top leaders, were all about damage control. His account draws on those appendices, documents released by the Israel State Archives in 2012, key U.S. diplomatic documents and other scholarly and journalistic investigations to depict in a tight narrative Sharon’s passionate determination to stage the massacre (with a young officer Netanyahu’s valuable assistance) and U.S. diplomats’ continuous despicable yielding to Sharon, if not approval, such as shown by then-Secretary of State Alexander Haig in greenlighting every aspect of the planned invasion. Had the U.S. presidential envoy, Ambassador Philip Habib, not furnished an apparent solemn pledge to the PLO that the Lebanese and U.S. governments would protect Palestinian non-combatants, tough PLO forces would not have agreed to leave the city.

Israel’s ultimate purpose, Khalidi writes, was to “change the situation inside Palestine.” The leaders believed that “destroying the PLO militarily and eliminating its power in Lebanon would also put an end to the strength of Palestinian nationalism in the occupied West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem.” In chasing the PLO from Lebanon, with the support of the U.S., and the de facto acquiescence of the Arab states, Sharon had achieved his core objectives; Sabra-Shatila was icing on the cake. But Khalidi points out that Sharon’s faith in force and force alone failed to anticipate how in response “the center of gravity of the Palestinian national movement” would shift away from the neighboring Arab countries, “back inside Palestine,” and soon explode into the First Intifada.

Ellen Siegel (r) with Ghada Karmi in 1973, outside Israeli Embassy in London.

A similar shift on the gameboard has happened recently as Israel’s brazen and brutal leadership has moved recklessly to crush the last shreds of Palestinian resistance. As in 1982, a sort of Pyrrhic paradox seems to be operating whereby snuffing out any hope for a Palestinian state, inflicting utter humiliation on the Palestinian Authority, seizing East Jerusalem and soon perhaps Al Aqsa, gratuitously savaging Gaza, and openly allying with corrupt leaders of the Arab states, is unifying the entire global Palestinian community, including even the refugees, and cutting the legs out from under the essential support America and the West give Israel.

Ellen Siegel intently follows the big picture drama, but her mind really dwells among all the Palestinian friends she has made through the decades, and all the patients and families she worked with as a nurse, still searching, for example, for amazing Baby Layla (who now would be 40 years old), who came into Gaza Hospital in early September 1982 with severe burns, but who progressed wonderfully under Um Layla and Nurse Ellen’s care. And she has old friends around the world. She insists on describing in detail the individual greatness of many of her hospital colleagues back in 1982. In effect, this kind, feisty, but now somewhat frail, woman’s indomitable healing spirit has helped the Palestinian community to stay strong in their hearts through all the wounds and terrors that their persecutors never cease to inflict. If there’s a Hebrew word for sumoud, she is the embodiment.

Steve France
Steve France is a retired journalist and lawyer in the DC area. An activist for Palestinian rights, he is affiliated with the Episcopal Peace Fellowship Palestine-Israel Network and other Christian Palestinian-solidarity groups.

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