On August 12, 1976, a Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut was stormed by Christian militias and Syrian troops after a 52-day siege. The attack resulted in the death of at least 1,500 Palestinians, many of whom were civilians, and the displacement of thousands more. The camp, known as Tal al-Zaatar (The Hill of Thyme), was one of the last strongholds of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in the Christian-dominated area of East Beirut. The massacre of Tal al-Zaatar was one of the most horrific episodes of the Lebanese Civil War, which erupted in 1975 between Muslim and Christian factions.
The siege of Tal al-Zaatar began in January 1976, when the Christian militias, led by the Lebanese Front (LF), launched a campaign to expel the Palestinians from northern Beirut. The LF viewed the Palestinians as a threat to their political and economic interests, as well as to their sectarian identity. The Palestinians, on the other hand, saw Lebanon as a base for their struggle against Israel and supported the Muslim and leftist forces of the Lebanese National Movement (LNM). The camp was fortified by the PLO and housed about 20,000 refugees, mostly supporters of the As-Sa’iqa faction. The camp also received aid and supplies from other Palestinian factions and from sympathetic Lebanese groups.
The siege turned into a brutal assault in June 1976, when the Syrian army intervened in the war on the side of the LF. The Syrians bombarded the camp with artillery and tanks, while the Christian militias encircled it and cut off its water and electricity. The defenders of the camp resisted fiercely, using homemade weapons and tunnels. They also appealed for international help, but received little response. The camp was subjected to constant shelling, sniping, and starvation. Many refugees died from wounds, diseases, or malnutrition. Some committed suicide or were executed by their captors. Others managed to escape or surrender, but faced further violence or humiliation.
The fall of Tal al-Zaatar on August 12 marked a turning point in the Lebanese Civil War. It completed the partition of Lebanon between Muslims in the south and Christians in the north. It also weakened the PLO’s presence and influence in Lebanon, and paved the way for Israel’s invasion in 1982. The massacre of Tal al-Zaatar also had a profound impact on the Palestinian national consciousness and identity. It became a symbol of their suffering and resistance, as well as a source of inspiration and solidarity.
Today, 47 years after the massacre, there are those who ask and inquire about some of the details of the story of Tal al-Zaatar, which has been immortalized in various artistic and cultural works. The camp was dubbed as “the capital of the poor” by Iraqi poet Muzaffar al-Nawab, who wrote a famous poem about it. The camp was also depicted in films, novels, paintings, and songs by Palestinian and Arab artists. The memory of Tal al-Zaatar is still alive among the survivors and their descendants, who commemorate its anniversary every year. The massacre of Tal al-Zaatar is not only a historical event, but also a reminder of the ongoing plight and struggle of the Palestinian people.