A letter to the IDF soldiers at Sabra and Shatila

On the 30th anniversary of the Sabra and Shatila massacre, a Jewish American nurse who provided humanitarian aid in a Beirut hospital recalls her first encounter with IDF soldiers. Today, she asks them to take a few moments during the Jewish New Year to remember.

By Ellen Siegel

To the IDF soldiers who were at Sabra and Shatila,

September 2012 will mark the 30th anniversary of the massacre at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut. In 1982, the first day of Rosh Hashanah coincided with the final hours of that horrific event.  This year, the first day of the Jewish New Year, September 16, corresponds with the opening hours of the killings.

I met you in 1982. I was working as a nurse at a hospital in Sabra.  I arrived after Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, soon after Israel refused to allow food, water, and vital medications into the besieged city.  I was there as a humanitarian.  Morally, I could not stand by and be silent while the destruction of a city and the killing and maiming of its people occurred.

Following the assassination of the newly-elected president of Lebanon in mid-September all hell broke loose. I listened as Israeli planes broke the sound barrier over the camps, heard continuous heavy artillery fire, and stayed away from shattering windows.  For almost 48 hours, from September 16th to the 18th, I attempted to save the lives of those who were brought to the hospital. Many had severe wounds from being shot at close range. I cared for hundreds of terrified refugees seeking the safety of the hospital.  I tried to comprehend the throat-slitting gesture the women made. I watched from a top floor of the hospital as flares were shot in the air. The flares illuminated areas of the camp; the sound of automatic weapons fire followed each illumination.

The first day of year 5743 was marked by the arrival of the Phalangists – you who were there remember that extremist militia – at the front of the hospital. They ordered the international health workers to assemble.  They marched us down the main street of the camps: past dead bodies, past a bulldozer marked with a Hebrew letter which was shifting soil to cover over a large area where homes once stood.  Many of the militia were using walkie-talkies.  At one point, the soldiers lined us up against a bullet- ridden wall and pointed their rifles at us.  After several minutes, they put their rifles down and marched us out of the camp.

They led us up a street to an abandoned UN building.  In the courtyard we saw parts of IDF uniforms, discarded army rations and recent editions of the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth.  After interrogating us, they took us across the street to the Israeli Defense Forces forward command post.  It was located in a five story building that overlooked the surrounded camps; we saw soldiers looking down on the camps with binoculars. It was there that you and I first met.

A number of you had on kippot (skullcaps) and tallitot (prayer shawls) and were reading from prayer books.  It was mid-morning; perhaps you were reciting the Amidah (the Prayer) which consists of many prayers including one for peace, goodness, blessings, kindness and compassion.  One of you offered a nurse a piece of carefully wrapped honey cake – maybe your mother had given it to you to take along on your army duty.  Traditionally, we begin the New Year by eating something sweet – usually honey cake – to symbolize our hopes for a sweet year. I have never forgotten this gesture. But as I think back, I am pained by the act of celebrating the Jewish New Year as thousands of innocents were buried in mass graves below.  One of you said “Today is my Christmas.” I knew what you meant.  For us, this day begins ten days of introspection and repentance when the Book of Life is opened and our fate for the next year is sealed.

In September, I will return to Beirut, as I have every year – to remember, commemorate, visit the mass grave, reunite with survivors, stand next to those who lost loved ones and bear witness.

I wonder what has happened to you over the past three decades.  I know that Emil Grunzweig, a Peace Now activist, was murdered in February of 1983, during a demonstration – one of the largest in Israel’s history – demanding that Prime Minister Begin adopt the recommendations of the Kahan Commission that investigated the massacre. Lt. Avi Grabovsky testified before the Commission. Ari Folman made a movie: Waltz with Bashir.

What about the rest of you?  Many of you have children, maybe grandchildren. Do you live in comfortable housing; do you feel a sense of safety and security in your homes and neighborhoods? Are you well fed? Did you obtain a proper education, earn a decent living, and have access to health care, travel? Do you enjoy life? What are you passing on to your next generation?

Let me tell you about what life is like for the Palestinians I know still living in Sabra and Shatila. More than 9,000 refugees live within one square kilometer.  Most of the dwellings are overcrowded, damp, and poorly ventilated; some have tin roofs. Open sewage systems run through the camps. The population is vulnerable to hostilities between various political factions. Refugees are denied the right to work in most jobs. Impoverished, they depend on an already overworked and underfunded UNRWA for basic health services and education. Inadequate nutrition, chronic illnesses and poor health are common. Children are deprived of a good education. Many refugees have never been out of their camp! Third and fourth generations are being born, growing up, and dying in these camps. It is bleak and appalling. The future holds little hope for any improvement in their lives.

I know that you are not to blame for the way the Palestinian refugees live today. I just ask that you take a few moments during one of our holiest days to remember. I am thinking of both you and of the Palestinian refugees during this time and I wish for a better future for all of us.

To the soldier with the honey cake, to the one who told me it was his Christmas, and to the others, L’Shana Tovah  5773 – To a good year.

Ellen Siegel

Ellen Siegel is a Jewish American. She first visited Israel, the West Bank, Gaza and Lebanon in 1972. Since that time she has been an active member and supporter of the Jewish and Israeli peace movements, and has supported the Palestinian solidarity cause. She volunteered her nursing services in 1982 during Israeli’s war on Lebanon. She worked in Gaza Hospital, Sabra refugee camp in Beirut and was present during the massacre. She testified before the Kahan Commission of Inquiry. She continues to work part-time as a nurse in WDC, and serves on the Medical Committee of the American Near East Refugee Aid.