I saw Israel’s ‘final solution to the Palestinian problem’ in Lebanon 41 years ago, and I see it again today

I witnessed the aftermath of the Sabra and Shatilla massacre, carried out with Zionist complicity as a preview for the “final solution to the Palestinian problem.” With the present Israeli government, this goal is within reach.


LEFT: TWO PALESTINIAN WOMEN WEEP IN THE SABRA REFUGEE CAMP IN LEBANON, SEPTEMBER 19, 1982, AFTER THEY FOUND BODIES OF RELATIVES. (PHOTO: AP/BILL FOLEY) RIGHT: SCENES FROM THE FUNERAL OF 12 MARTYRS KILLED IN AN ISRAELI AIRSTRIKE ON GAZA ON MAY 9, 2023. (PHOTO: MOHAMMED SALEM)

REV. DR. DON WAGNER, MONDOWEISS, JUNE 13, 2023

Forty-one years ago, I was in Lebanon leading a group of ten U.S. relief and development directors hoping to introduce them to the extensive needs of impoverished Lebanese and Palestinian refugees.  On June 4, 1982, around 3:00 p.m., we were on our way to the crowded Fakhani district of Beirut when a fleet of Israeli warplanes (U.S.-made F-16s) roared in from the Mediterranean Sea, dropping bombs on the area we were about to visit. We took cover in a hotel basement. After the bombing subsided, I phoned our hosts, who proposed we meet them another day as they were busy searching for survivors from the bombing.

We visited a Red Crescent hospital near the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps the next morning. We were taken to a hospital wing that had been struck by the Israeli bombing the previous day.  Suddenly air-raid sirens went off and we were rushed to the basement with the patients and hospital staff. Again, Israeli F-16s were bombing various targets in the area.  About twenty minutes later a series of ambulances arrived at the hospital’s emergency entrance and unloaded stretchers carrying teenage girls — some having lost limbs and others enduring severe burns.  Hospital workers had just unloaded 19 body bags with girls who had died.  As the families of the teenagers began to arrive, learning that their loved ones had been lost,  the cries and wailing of the mothers and sisters pierced our hearts. Everyone in our group wept with them.  Later, we learned that the UN staff had provided the Israeli military with the route of the Palestinian girls’ field trip, but the military commanders chose to ignore the information, and the three clearly marked UN school buses were targeted on the coastal road.

Sickened by this savagery, I felt we had to tell this story to a U.S. media outlet. We found the addresses and phone numbers of the CBS, ABC, and CNN Bureaus but only NBC answered.  Mike Mallory, the NBC Bureau Chief, agreed to interview us.  He warned us that all of their recent dispatches were cut by Israeli censors in the New York studios.   He conducted a twenty-minute interview with our group, based on what we had witnessed.  We learned later our interview was also rejected.

Our Lebanese and Palestinian hosts urged us to return quickly to the U.S. to tell what we had witnessed. We left Beirut on Tuesday, June 8th, and when I landed in Paris, I called my staff, asking them to arrange media interviews the next day.  One memorable interview was scheduled for Wednesday, June 9, with WMAQ, NBC-TV in Chicago. Tim Weigel, normally a sportscaster, was assigned to the interview and called to confirm the time of the interview.   I  was shocked when he said I would be interviewed in Grant Park while an Israeli General would be opposite me in the studio. When I questioned the arrangement which privileged the Israeli General, I was told that one of the NBC staff had confirmed this arrangement with the Israeli Consulate. It could not be changed. 

Israeli General Shromi had been touring the US to offer Israel’s perspective on the Invasion of Lebanon or what the Israelis called “Peace for the Galilee.” He began the interview by stating that Israel was conducting a defensive war with “surgically precise bombings to root out PLO terrorist nests.’”  I challenged his narrative, claiming Israel started the unprovoked war on June 4. I noted that, according to the Red Cross, most of the casualties were civilians. I gave several examples of the casualties,  including the hospital wing hit by Israel on June 4 and the tragic case of the school girls with 19 dead and several wounded on the morning of June 5. The General was clearly upset by my remarks and then he said something that astounded me. “This is our final solution to the Palestinian problem.”

Having pursued extensive studies of the Nazi Holocaust,  I communicated my shock, remarking,  “I can’t believe what you just said, General.  Isn’t this “final solution” language what the Nazis used concerning your people, the Jews? You, sir,  have just endorsed genocide, wiping out an entire people, innocent men, women, and children.   If this is Israel’s plan it is a war crime.” 

The General tried to soften his statement, but I suggested that a proper response would be for him to apologize to the viewing audience and to the Palestinian and Lebanese people. When I returned to the office, Tim Weigel called and said the NBC switchboard lit up with more angry calls and threats than they had ever experienced.  The news director said this was my last appearance on NBC-TV, which seemed a small price to pay for telling the truth.

In mid-September, I returned to Beirut with the Director and the Board President of Mercy Corps International.  Over the summer we drafted three proposals for humanitarian relief and needed to confirm the projects with partner organizations, including the Middle East Council of Churches.  Arriving in Cyprus on Saturday evening on September 18, we caught a taxi to the port of Larnaca for the overnight ferry to Lebanon.  Within ten minutes, our driver turned his radio to the BBC news and we heard the first international broadcast of the massacre underway in Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. Our driver delivered the obvious news to us — we weren’t going anywhere that evening.  He recommended a hotel and we spent the evening monitoring the tense situation in Beirut.  

By the next evening, the ferries were running again, and we were able to arrive in Beirut on Monday morning, September 20.  After arriving at the office of the Middle East Council of Churches, our host, Gaby Habib, Director of the Council,  urged us to drop our luggage and go directly to the refugee camps. We entered Shatila Camp, walking past a seven-story apartment building filled with Israeli military personnel who were monitoring the movements in the camps.  The sun was bright, and temperatures were in the mid-90s with high humidity.  It was a surreal experience as families were returning to their destroyed homes, and workers were pulling bodies and body parts from the rubble. A Red Crescent worker handed us handkerchiefs saturated in cheap cologne and told us to hold them over our noses as the stench of death would make us sick.

We decided to split up and meet again in an hour.  I walked toward a small group watching Red Crescent and Red Cross workers pull dead bodies from the rubble.  Within a few minutes, I saw them remove what looked like the leg of a child and place it in a body bag.  I assumed it was a mother who cried out to Allah when she learned it was her son. The elderly gentleman beside me translated her cries of grief and invited me to walk over to his destroyed building, which was his home and shop. Jamal began to share his story, noting he was out purchasing supplies for his shop on Thursday of the past week.  When he returned, all the entrances to Sabra and Shatila camps had been sealed off by the Israeli army. He was able to stay with a relative two blocks away. Phone services in the camps were cut and all he could do was watch what transpired from his cousin’s balcony.

On Friday, Lebanese militias began to pour into the camps and Jamal and his relatives could hear the gunshots echoing in the camps.  They could only assume the worst.  On Friday evening, the Israeli army put up flares enabling the militias to continue their savage operations into the evening.  Tears streamed down his cheeks when Jamal said he had lost his wife and two daughters in the massacre as well as his home and small shop.   Fortunately, his son had been visiting a cousin in another part of the city, and now the two of them would need to start over again, having lost everything.  I thanked him and pressed $50 in his hand, wishing I could have given more.

Overcome by my emotional overload,  I found a pile of dirt on which to sit and regain my composure. The woman beside me was sobbing and I asked her if she was okay.  She was a journalist from Paris who had been covering the invasion all summer. The massacre had been too much for her to bear. She pointed to the mass grave we were sitting beside as workers carried body bags, dropping them at the bottom — the final resting place for the victims.

Then the journalist asked me the dreaded question. “Where are you from?”

I hesitated but finally admitted, “I’m from the U.S. and my government is among those responsible for this tragedy since we guaranteed the security of these people.”

She quickly added, “Yes, and France also signed the security agreement.”

Just then a Muslim Sheikh walked by and I excused myself, running to catch up with him. I asked if I could have a few words, and he agreed. He responded with perfect English, saying he was the sheikh at the mosque near Shatila Camp and had seen many of the massacre victims at Friday prayers. I asked for his estimate of how many died in this massacre. Shaking his head, he said, “We will never know. On Friday evening, I saw militias line up men and boys against a wall and shoot them to death. Their bodies were loaded onto trucks. We will  never know where they were buried but I would estimate between 2-3000 were murdered here.”

Then he asked the dreaded question.  “Where are you from, my friend?”

I was about to say Canada but admitted, “I’m from the United States, and the blood of these poor people is on our hands.”

His response surprised me. “Yes, the blood is on your hands, my friend. But I thank Allah that you are here. All we ask is that you go home and tell of what you have seen. Just tell the truth of what you have seen — that’s all we ask.”

I was touched by his gracious spirit and readily responded. “Yes, I will return to the United States and tell this story.”  I’ve spent the better part of my last forty years telling the story of the Palestinian people but it will never be enough.

The Zionist ‘final solution’ today

There is one dimension of what I experienced in Beirut in 1982 that I failed to tell truthfully until I sat down last year to write my memoirGlory to God in the Lowest: Journeys to an Unholy Land. I failed to realize and articulate what now seems to be the obvious lesson from General Shromi and the brutal Sabra and Shatila massacre. That lesson is the central narrative of the Zionist movement from its inception and has been one of the replacement of the Palestinians with Jewish settlers. For this goal to be realized it would necessitate genocide. Today this goal is within reach with the present Israeli government.

Today we see members of Netanyahu’s Cabinet calling for “wiping out” entire Palestinian communities (Huwwara) and militant setters chanting, “We will replace you.” Meanwhile, western governments, led by the United States, refuse to hold Israel accountable for the murder of U.S. citizens (the journalist Shireen Abu Akleh) let alone the daily murder of Palestinians by the army and militant settlers. Gaza is bombed routinely with no accountability for those perpetrating the crimes. The Nakba of 1948 continues daily in multiple forms, and the conditions are ripe for another massive Nakba, echoing General Shromi’s chilling words:  “This is our final solution to the Palestinian problem.”

Today much has changed in relation to the Palestine question, while some challenges remain the same. More of us are ready to criticize Zionism and utilize the analysis of settler colonialism. More of us are convinced that Israel  represents  a vicious apartheid system “from the river to the sea.” Some of us recognize the genocidal dimensions of the Zionist project now in power in Israel and no longer feel obliged to normalize or soften our critique. We still have barely a hearing in the U.S. Congress, the majority of the Democratic Party, the President, or the mainstream media, but there are modest signs that change is underway.

A younger generation of Jews, Christians, and Muslims is rising up in Palestine and globally, applying the above analysis and organizing a global grassroots movement grounded in justice and only justice.  They do not have the patience and timidity of my generation. They have learned from our failures and will not make the same mistakes in abandoning the liberation for the Palestinian people.  They do not support an exclusivist Jewish state in any part of historic Palestine.  Nor will they be intimidated by false accusations of antisemitism, bullying, and even death threats. Some are religious, and many are secular, but this matters little.  They are committed to uniting across all lines of division and will not allow the divisive tactics of racism to thwart their quest for unity.

I know this generation understands both the urgency and utter crisis the Sheikh in Sabra and Shatila expressed in the wake of the Sabra/Shatila massacre: “Just  tell the truth.”  The mask is off.  The impotence of the United Nations regarding Palestine has been exposed clearly by legal scholars and historians. The future will not be easy, nor will Palestine be liberated soon.  The future is not with top-down political and military solutions. The future is with a massive grassroots global movement for justice in Palestine.  A new day has already dawned, and the Zionist leadership knows they are losing credibility worldwide. Everyone is needed to join the global grassroots alternative to the Zionist settler colonial project that will continue the daily genocide of Palestinians.

Today the momentum for injustice seems to be with Israel’s extremists, and it will continue as long as the U.S. finances the extreme Zionist project.  The question for all of us is the following: will the global movement for justice in Palestine have sufficient time to transform Palestine and Israel into a land of justice, respect for the rule of law, full equality, and security for every citizen?

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