Sabra and Shatila: Jewish nurse recounts horrors of Palestinian massacres


Forty years after the massacre, Ellen Seigel discusses treating the wounded, Israeli complicity and US indifference

“There were beds on the streets because there were so many wounded. There were arms and legs, missing from people. There were young men that were blinded from the shrapnel from the bombings.”

These are the words of Ellen Siegel, a Jewish American nurse who was treating victims at the site of the Sabra and Shatila massacres in September 1982.

Siegel began her nursing career in the 1960s, an era in US history almost synonymous with social change. The Black liberation movement, the outrage at the Vietnam War, and organising for women’s rights had all helped shape Siegel’s worldview, before her career took her to the Gaza Hospital, an 11-story medical centre that overlooked the Sabra and Shatila camps for Palestinian refugees in the west of Lebanon’s capital, Beirut.

Siegel found herself in the middle of one of the worst massacres of Palestinians in history, when a right-wing Lebanese militia killed hundreds in the two adjoining refugee camps, as Israeli troops watched on.

‘They started to massacre people, but in the most horrendous way with axes and knives’

– Ellen Siegel

On the 40th anniversary of the Sabra and Shatila massacre, Siegel recounted how she and other nurses struggled to take care of the hundreds of wounded Palestinians, how she herself was nearly executed, and how justice continues to remain elusive despite the magnitude of the atrocity.

“When I got to Beirut, I was shocked. It was one of the saddest scenes I had ever seen,” Siegel told Middle East Eye, recalling the time from her home in Washington DC.

Israel launched an attack on Beirut on 15 September – breaking a weeks-long ceasefire that saw members of the Palestine Liberation Organisation leave the city – and sealed it off so no one else could leave.

Then on 16 September, the Phalange, a right-wing Christian Lebanese militia group, entered the Sabra and Shatila camps in response to the assassination of Lebanon’s Christian president, Bachir Gemayel. They killed as many as 3,500 Palestinian and Lebanese civilians.

“The Phalange came in and started to kill people. They started to massacre people, but in the most horrendous way with axes and knives. Some of these pictures, some of these stories, are just horrendous,” she said.

But Siegel says the Phalange wasn’t operating in isolation.

“The Israelis shot flares into the air. One of the other physicians and myself, we went to the top floor of the hospital during this time, and we saw flares going up in the air and lighting up neighbourhoods of the camp followed by gunfire,” Seigel said.

“What was happening is that [the flares] lit the way for the Phalange to go door to door and kill people.”

Siegel and an international group of nurses worked tirelessly over the next several days to treat the wounded Palestinians.

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