+972 Magazine's Stories of the Week

Directly In Your Inbox

Analysis News
Visit our Hebrew site, "Local Call" , in partnership with Just Vision.

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.

Before you go...

A lot of work goes into creating articles like the one you just read. And while we don’t do this for the money, even our model of non-profit, independent journalism has bills to pay.

+972 Magazine is owned by our bloggers and journalists, who are driven by passion and dedication to the causes we cover. But we still need to pay for editing, photography, translation, web design and servers, legal services, and more.

As an independent journalism outlet we aren’t beholden to any outside interests. In order to safeguard that independence voice, we are proud to count you, our readers, as our most important supporters. If each of our readers becomes a supporter of our work, +972 Magazine will remain a strong, independent, and sustainable force helping drive the discourse on Israel/Palestine in the right direction.

Support independent journalism in Israel/Palestine Donate to +972 Magazine today
View article: AAA
Share article
Print article

    * Required


    1. “If the way … seems to be very arduous, yet it can be discovered. And indeed it must be arduous, since it is found so rarely. For how could it happen that, if salvation were ready at hand and could be found without great labour, it is neglected by almost all? But all excellent things are as difficult as they are rare.”

      –Spinoza, final sentences of the Ethics.

      Perhaps rarity is more common than he thought, if we will but look.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Jeff

      why are the Palestinians in Lebanon still in refugee camps, and who in the Palestinian solidarity movement has done anything to work toward that end?

      Reply to Comment
      • Miza

        Because palestinians are REFUGEES from Palestine. They are not Lebanese, they are not Syrians, they are not Jordanians, they are not Egyptians, they are Palestinians. They are the oldest and largest refugee crisis since 1948.

        Reply to Comment
        • Ant

          Do you know how many tens of millions of refugees just in the last century have been integrated into their new nations and places of residence and have moved on with their lives? What makes arabs so special that a. a subset of them can inherit refugee status like a hereditary trait and b. another subset of them refuse to integrate the first subset, their fellow arabs into their societies?

          Reply to Comment
    3. Avi Deull

      This letter should be addressed to the leaders of the middle east states and not to a soldier. 30
      years have passed and still they refuse to recognize the other side or to sign a peace treaty that can change our life for a much better future. Winds of wars are still blowing and money is invested in ammunition and all other means of destruction, instead of being spent on education, health and development. It is time to remember the deads of 100 years of conflict and to make peace for us and future generation. May our new Jewish new year will be year of peace. Shana Tova shana shel shalom

      Reply to Comment
    4. Naftali

      Ellen, let us know when you visit Damour and tell us their story? How about visiting Maalot, and ask the kids now grown up, how they felt then, and now. Ask the survivors of the Coastal bus and their families. BTW, it’s Shana Tova and not L’Shana Tova, so ur attempt at impressing us with your Jew creds failed

      Reply to Comment
    5. Al

      Poor Palestinians, it’s like they never massacred thousands of Christians and initiated the civil war in Lebanon.

      Reply to Comment