Military Wiki
Tel al-Zaatar Massacre
Part of the Lebanese Civil War (1975–1977)
DateAugust 12, 1976
Result Destruction of the camp
Displacement of Palestinian Refugees

Forces Libanaises Flag.svg Lebanese Front

Syria Syrian Army

Flag of Palestine.svg PLO

Commanders and leaders

Dany Chamoun
Etienne Saqr

Syria Hafez al-Assad
Syria Mustafa Tlass
Flag of Palestine.svg Yasser Arafat
Ahmed Jibril
LF: ~ 3,000
Syrian Army: 12 Howitzers
PLO: ~ 1,200
Casualties and losses

LF: 200 Syrian Army: 78 soldiers killed

150 Syrian tanks reported damaged
1,500[1] to 3,000[2] Palestinians killed

The Tel al-Zaatar massacre (Arabic language: مذبحة تل الزعتر‎) took place during the Lebanese Civil War on August 12, 1976. Tel al-Zaatar (The Hill of Thyme) was a UNRWA administered Palestinian Refugee camp housing approximately 50,000-60,000 refugees in northeast Beirut.[3][4][5]


With the breakdown in authority of the Lebanese government the militancy of radical faction increased.[6]

After, Guardians of the Cedars and Tiger militia forces took control of the Karantina district on 18 January 1976 by committing a massacre known as The Karantina Massacre.[7] On 4 January 1976, a thin cordon was established around the camp by 300 fighters from the Al-Tanzim and 100 fighters from the Maroun Khoury Group in an effort to contain the Palestinians. The Maroun Khoury Group was a Dikwaneh based militia. One road was left open to allow Palestinian evacuation towards Aley but the Palestinians refused to enter into dialogue with the Lebanese Front.

Ahrar forces surrounded and attacked Jisr al Basha and Kataeb and Guardian of the Cedars troops engaged the adjacent, mainly Shiite, area of Nabaa, which contained large numbers of leftist forces. The battle for the camps had started and was the final showdown between the Palestinians and the Lebanese Front in Beirut. It was one of the hardest battles fought during the war.

Syria put itself forwards as a "mediator" on the basis of historic claims.[Clarification needed] [6] Syrian forces with As-Sa'iqa units were intervening on behalf of hard presses[Clarification needed] Christian militias by April. The influence of Syria led to the election of Elias Sarkis.[8]

By the first week of June, Syrian forces had applied a blockade of West Beirut, a predominantly Muslim section that contained the Palestinian headquarters, leaving only the southern route open.[9][10] From 22 June the Christian Phalangist forces, Many Christian residents of Ras el-Dekweneh and Mansouriye controlled by Maroun Khoury with Syrian backing intensified the blockade to a full scale military assault that lasted 35 days.[1][10] Christian militias had laid siege to the refugee camp for 7 months. When the camp fell, the Palestinian victims numbered in the thousands.[11] The Christian militia loss was around 200 armed men[citation needed].

The massacre and its aftermath

On August 12 the camp finally fell, following an on-and-off siege of several months. During the last two months, the siege had tightened. Heavy artillery shelling damaged much of the camp and killed a number of inhabitants. John Bulloch, The Daily Telegraph correspondent in Beirut at the time wrote, "In their bitterness the Palestinian commanders ordered their artillery to open up on the fringes of the camp with the ostensible objective of hampering the attackers and helping those inside; instead the shells were landing among the hundreds who had got through the perimeter and were trying to escape. When they were told of this, the Palestinians made no attempt to lift their fire: they wanted martyrs".

Robert Fisk wrote in his biographical profile of Yasser Arafat, The Broken Revolutionary, "When Arafat needed martyrs in 1976, he called for a truce around the besieged refugee camp of Tel el-Zaatar, then ordered his commanders in the camp to fire at their right-wing Lebanese Christian enemies. When, as a result, the Phalangists and "Tigers" militia slaughtered their way into Tel el-Zaatar, Arafat opened a "martyrs' village" for camp widows in the sacked Christian village of Damour. On his first visit, the widows pelted him with stones and rotten fruit. Journalists were ordered away at gunpoint."

In an L.A. Weekly interview published May 30, 2002, Fisk recalls "Arafat is a very immoral person, or maybe very amoral. A very cynical man. I remember when the Tal-al-Zaatar refugee camp in Beirut had to surrender to Christian forces in the very brutal Lebanese civil war. They were given permission to surrender with a cease-fire. But at the last moment, Arafat told his men to open fire on the Christian forces who were coming to accept the surrender. I think Arafat wanted more Palestinian "martyrs" in order to publicize the Palestinian position in the war. That was in 1976. Believe me that Arafat is not a changed man."[12]

The massacre is said to have contributed to the mounting Sunni Muslim dissent within Alawi-ruled Syria.[citation needed] As a result, Syria broke off its offensive on the PLO and the LNM, and agreed to an Arab League summit which temporarily ended the Civil War.

The PLO used the former Christian town of Damour to house survivors of the Tel al-Zaatar massacre.[13] Damour, a Christian town on the main highway south of Beirut, had been the site of a massacre by PLO military units on January 20, 1976. The populace not killed in the massacre had been forced to flee the town.

The split in the PLO leadership was ended when the Syrian backed As-Sa'iqa movement was expelled from the PLO, leaving Fatah as the dominant party.[14]

Hafez al-Assad received strong criticism and pressure from across the Arab world for his involvement in the massacre - this criticism, as well as the internal dissent it caused as an Alawite ruler in a majority Sunni country, led to a cease-fire in his war on the Palestinian militia forces.[15]

Estimations of the numbers of victims

  • Harris (p. 165) writes that "Perhaps 3,000 Palestinians, mostly civilians, died in the siege and its aftermath"
  • Cobban (p. 142) writes that 1 500 camp residents were killed in one day and a total of 2 200 were killed throughout the events.
  • James Ron (2003) p 84. gives 1,000 - 2,000
  • Canadian artist Jayce Salloum states that 2,000 people died during the entire siege, and 4,000 were wounded.
  • The Lebanese-American Association estimates that "many of the several thousand civilians who had remained there [during the siege] were killed."
  • World Socialist Web Site The bitter legacy of Syria's Hafez al-Assad By Jean Shaoul and Chris Marsden 16 June 2000, gives a figure of "2,000 refugees" for Tel al-Zaatar and the Karantina Massacre together.

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Cobban, Helena (1984), The Palestinian Liberation Organisation: People, Power, and Politics, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0521272165 p 73
  2. Price, Daniel E. (1999). Islamic Political Culture, Democracy, and Human Rights: A Comparative Study. Greenwood Publishing Company, ISBN 9780275961879, p. 68.
  3. Lisa Suhair Majaj, Paula W. Sunderman, and Therese Saliba Intersections Syracuse University Press ISBN 0815629516 p 156
  4. Samir Khalaf, Philip Shukry Khoury (1993) Recovering Beirut: Urban Design and Post-war Reconstruction BRILL, ISBN 9004099115 p 253
  5. Younis, Mona (2000) Liberation and Democratization: The South African and Palestinian National Movements University of Minnesota Press, ISBN 0816633002 p 221
  6. 6.0 6.1 Kissinger, Henry (1999) Years of Renewal Simon Schuster, ISBN 1-84212-042-5 p 1022
  8. Yair Evron (1987) War and Intervention in Lebanon: The Israeli-Syrian Deterrence Dialogue Routledge, ISBN 0709914512 p 13
  9. Amal Kawar (1996) Daughters of Palestine: Leading Women of the Palestinian National Movement SUNY Press, ISBN 0791428451 p 65
  10. 10.0 10.1 Walid Kazziha (1979) Palestine in the Arab dilemma Taylor & Francis, ISBN 0856648647 p 54
  12. LA Weekly
  13. Robert Fisk (2002) Pity the Nation: Lebanon at War Oxford University Press, ISBN 0192801309 p 98
  14. Barry M. Rubin (1994) Revolution Until Victory?: The Politics and History of the PLO, Harvard University Press, ISBN 0674768035 p 50
  15. Faces of Lebanon: sects, wars, and global extensions, William W. Harris, (NY 1997), pages 166-67

External links


  • William Harris, Faces of Lebanon. Sects, Wars, and Global Extensions (Markus Wiener Publishers, Princeton, USA 1996)
  • Helena Cobban, The Making of Modern Lebanon (Hutchinson, London, UK 1985, ISBN 0091607914)

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