Tall al-Zaatar Camp: Chronicles of a Forgotten Massacre

As part of the Memory Palestine series, the ACRPS has published Tall al-Zaatar Camp: Chronicles of a Forgotten Massacre by Muhammad Daoud Al-Ali (463 pp.). The book documents the events that led to the Tall al-Zaatar massacre in August 1976, during the “two-year war” at the height of the Lebanese Civil War, tracing its political, military, and humanitarian dimensions and shedding light on the legal, social, and economic contexts of Palestinian refugees in camps across Lebanon. Al-Ali provides historical background for Syrian-Lebanese-Palestinian relations and their transformations during the period under study.

Tall al-Zaatar Camp explores the humanitarian situation of the 30,000 people living in the camp and the nearby neighbourhoods of Jisr el Bacha, Nabaa, and Karantina during the supply embargo, tracing issues including water shortages, power outages, poor medical services, the killing of refugee civilians, and even difficulty in finding graves for the fallen.

Tall al-Zaatar Camp and the Lebanese war

Polarization in Lebanon has strengthened Tall al-Zaatar’s image as a military encampment, not a refugee camp, obscuring depictions of its civilian residents, schoolchildren, women, and labourers who shared the space with militia fighters of varying allegiances. Residents of nearby Christian villages came to see it as a source of constant anxiety on the eve of the war’s outbreak in 1975. By reading the historical context of how Syrian-Lebanese-Palestinian relations evolved during this period, the book reveals the decisive role of Syria militarily and politically since the announcement of its military initiative on 22 January 1976 and its bias in favour of the Lebanese National Movement (LNM) and the Palestinian leadership. Yet at a later stage, the political scene changed as the Palestinian factions and LNM, wary of an improvement in relations between the Syrian leadership and the Christians that could curtail their influence, accused the Syrian regime of providing the Phalangists with political cover in the battles they waged against Tall al-Zaatar and Palestinian-Lebanese positions.

The battle of Tall al-Zaatar

The most prominent political results of the two-year war were the collapse of state agencies, the division of the Lebanese Army, and the flight of the President of the Republic, Suleiman Frangieh, to a temporary location after artillery shells struck his official residence. These events drove Syria to intervene in Lebanon: first through mediation, then by deploying its army in stages, and eventually taking part in the hostilities.

Amid these developments, which Lebanese avoid discussing in detail, there were cases of arbitrary shelling, forced displacement and disappearance, kidnapping, and identity-based killing. Tall al-Zaatar, the largest Palestinian refugee camp in the country at the time, was besieged and its remaining residents were expelled following the bloody massacre, the details of which have not been documented in full. Al-Ali argues that this siege came in four stages: first, a seven-month supply embargo in early 1976 carried out by right-wing Christian militias; second, a decisive military strike lasting 52 days; third, the concurrent departure of fighters toward the mountains and civilians toward the militia lines; and fourth, the massacre these militias committed on 12 August 1976 in their zones of control and at checkpoints against civilians and medical personnel, followed by the expulsion of those who remained in the neighbourhoods, mainly women and children, into West Beirut.

The effect of Syrian military intervention

Following the attack on Tall al-Zaatar when the camp fell on 12 August, the proposition of Syrian units taking part in military operations directly against the camp remained implausible for lack of evidence – bearing in mind that the intensity of conflict between Syrian forces and the joint forces at the time allowed Palestinian refugee camps no protection from Syrian airstrikes. In West Beirut, Shatila Camp was struck by artillery and rocket fire on 14 June 1976, followed by Ain al-Hilweh and Miyeh w Miyeh Camps east of Sidon on 29 June.

Reports unconfirmed by Lebanese or Syrian sources indicate that Syrian units took part in shelling Tall al-Zaatar at the beginning of the Christ rightist militias’ attack, and the historian Hanna Batatu suggests that the Syrian leadership was content to foil the Palestinian attacks aimed at breaking the siege on the camp. “By trapping Palestinian forces in the mountains,” he writes, “Assad freed up the rightist militias, allowing them to launch an all-out assault on the camp which led to its collapse on 12 August.” Further, though the leaders of various Palestinian factions have declined to confirm the direct Syrian participation in the fighting, there is consensus that senior Syrian offers were in the operations rooms with the Christian militias that oversaw the attack.

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