Siege of Tal el-Zaatar refugee camp

Siege of Tal el-Zaatar refugee camp

Start Date: Tuesday, 22 Jun 1976
End Date: Thursday, 12 Aug 1976
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The Beirut refugee camp of Tel al-Zaatar, inhabited by some 20,000 Palestinian refugees from the 1948 War, was laid under siege in the summer of 1976 by several thousand Maronite militiamen. These included the main Christian militia, the Phalangists, but also Etienne Saqr's anti-Palestinian Guardians of the Cedars. Their coalition was backed by Hafez al-Assad's Syria, who had intervened in 1976 against the LNM/PLO-coalition fighting the Christian-dominated government. The Lebanese Army was also aiding the militias, and some sources indicate the presence of Israeli advisors.

The camp was considered a Palestinian and LNM stronghold, and was defended by some 1,500 Palestinian fighters. It was well fortified and tunnels were dug underground for civilian protection and ammunition storage. As it was situated in East Beirut, on the Christian side of the Green Line, it was under constant attack from Christian and government forces.

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 with Syrian backing. Heavy artillery shelling damaged much of the camp and killed a number of inhabitants. As the militias took control of the camp, its inhabitants were expelled towards Muslim-held Western Beirut. During the evacuation, militia forces are said to have machine-gunned refugee columns, and others were killed with gunfire, grenades and knives inside the camp; a large number of rapes were also reported. The camp itself was completely obliterated to prevent the return of the inhabitants.

Many survivors of the massacre were resettled by the PLO in the emptied Christian village of Damour, itself the site of a massacre of Christians on January 20.

The massacre resulted in severe criticism of Syria throughout the Arab world, and also internationally. It is also said to have contributed to the mounting Sunni Muslim dissent within the Alawi-ruled country, which would later break out in open revolt (see here and here). 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.

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