Siege of Tel al-Zaatar

Siege of Tel al-Zaatar
Part of the Lebanese Civil War (1975–1977)
Date January–August 1976
Result Destruction of the camp
Displacement of Palestinian Refugees
Lebanese Front decisive and strategic victory

Lebanese Front

Syria Syria

Palestine Liberation Organization PLO

Commanders and leaders

Logo PNL.jpg Dany Chamoun
Etienne Saqr
William Hawi  

Syria Hafez al-Assad
Syria Mustafa Tlass
Palestine Liberation Organization Yasser Arafat
LF: ~ 3,000 PLO: ~ 1,200
Casualties and losses
LF: 200 1,500[2] to 3,000[3] Palestinians killed

The siege of Tel al-Zaatar (Arabic: حصار تل الزعتر‎) was an armed siege of Tel al-Zaatar (Hill of Thyme), a fortified, UNRWA-administered refugee camp housing Palestinian refugees in northeastern Beirut.[4][5][6] The siege was carried out by Christian Lebanese militias led by the Lebanese Front as part of a wider campaign to expel Palestinians, especially those affiliated with the radical wing of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), from northern Beirut.[7]


At the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War, the country was home to a disproportionately large Palestinian population, which was divided along political lines.[7] Tel al-Zaatar was a refugee camp of about 3,000 structures, which housed 20,000 refugees in early 1976, and was populated primarily by supporters of the As-Sa'iqa faction within the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).[7] Many of the original inhabitants left to fight with As-Sa'iqa between January and June 1976, and this led to the Arab Liberation Front, another PLO faction, gradually assuming de facto control of the camp.[7] The PLO fortified Tel al-Zaatar and began using the camp to cache munitions and supplies for its armed wing.[7]

Christian militias such as the Kataeb Regulatory Forces and the Guardians of the Cedars began attacking Palestinian refugee camps shortly after the war began due to the PLO's support for Muslim and leftist factions.[7] On January 18, they forcibly took control of the Karantina district, resulting in the Karantina Massacre.[8] The Christian forces were initially leery of escalating PLO involvement in the war, but Karantina was inhabited partly by Lebanese Muslims and was located along the main road they needed to resupply their positions in Beirut, so it was considered a legitimate target.[7] However, the PLO joined Muslim militias in retaliating for the Karantina Massacre by massacring the Christian population of Damour.[7]

Damour was a stronghold for the National Liberal Party (NLP), a Christian faction affiliated with Lebanese Front, which led to the Christian militias declaring war on the PLO by the end of January.[7] Tel al-Zaatar was immediately surrounded by 500 troops from the Kataeb Regulatory Forces, 500 from the NLP's armed wing (the Tigers Militia), and 400 others from various other militias, namely the Guardians of the Cedars.[7] The militias were joined by about 300 members of the Lebanese security forces.[7] They were equipped with Super Sherman tanks and a squadron of Panhard AML-90 armoured cars.[7]

There were 1,500 armed PLO fighters inside the camp at the time.[7] They were mostly affiliated with As-Sa'iqa and the Arab Liberation Front.[7] There were also smaller groups of fighters from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command.[7] To complicate matters further, there were unaffiliated fighters present who fought under the PLO umbrella but did not support any one faction, mostly foreign fedayeen.[7] Factionalism within the camp contributed greatly to the success of the siege, as most of the As-Sa'iqa militants and As-Sa'iqa supporters left.[7]

The siege and its aftermath

From 22 June the 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.[2][9] The Lebanese Christian militias had laid siege to the refugee camp for 3 months. When the camp fell, the Palestinian deaths numbered in the thousands.[10] The besieging militia's loss was around 200 armed men.[citation needed]

The siege 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 suspended hostilities in Lebanon.

After killing or evicting the inhabitants of the Christian town of Damour on January 20, 1976 the PLO used it to house survivors of the Tel al-Zaatar siege.[11]

The slow death through dehydration of thousands of Palestinians was one of the greatest atrocities of post-1945 Middle Eastern history.[12]

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.[13]

Hafez al-Assad received strong criticism and pressure from across the Arab world for his involvement in the battle - 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.[14]

Estimations of the numbers of victims

  • Cobban (p. 142) writes that 1 500 camp occupants were killed in one day and a total of 2 200 were killed throughout the events.
  • Canadian artist Jayce Salloum states that 2,000 people died during the entire siege, and 4,000 were wounded.[15]
  • World Socialist Web Site gives a figure "2,000 refugees" for Tel al-Zaatar.[16]

See also


  1. ^ [1]
  2. ^ a b Cobban, Helena (1984), The Palestinian Liberation Organisation: People, Power, and Politics, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0521272165 p 73
  3. ^ Price, Daniel E. (1999). Islamic Political Culture, Democracy, and Human Rights: A Comparative Study. Greenwood Publishing Company, ISBN 9780275961879, p. 68.
  4. ^ Lisa Suhair Majaj, Paula W. Sunderman, and Therese Saliba Intersections Syracuse University Press ISBN 0815629516 p 156
  5. ^ Samir Khalaf, Philip Shukry Khoury (1993) Recovering Beirut: Urban Design and Post-war Reconstruction BRILL, ISBN 9004099115 p 253
  6. ^ Younis, Mona (2000) Liberation and Democratization: The South African and Palestinian National Movements University of Minnesota Press, ISBN 0816633002 p 221
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q United States Army Human Engineering Laboratory (June 1979). Military Operations in selected Lebanese built-up areas, 1975–1978 (PDF). Technical Memorandum 11–79 (Report). Archived from the original (PDF) on February 1, 2014.
  8. ^ Karantina massacre#cite note-H1500-6
  9. ^ Walid Kazziha (1979) Palestine in the Arab dilemma Taylor & Francis, ISBN 0856648647 p 54
  10. ^,9171,926327-2,00.html
  11. ^ Robert Fisk (2002) Pity the Nation: Lebanon at War Oxford University Press, ISBN 0192801309 p 98
  12. ^ Halliday, F 2005, The Middle East in International Relations : Power, Politics and Ideology, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. Available from: ProQuest Ebook Central. [8 October 2018].
  13. ^ Barry M. Rubin (1994) Revolution Until Victory?: The Politics and History of the PLO, Harvard University Press, ISBN 0674768035 p 50
  14. ^ Faces of Lebanon: sects, wars, and global extensions, William W. Harris, (NY 1997), pages 166-67
  15. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2008-03-20. Retrieved 2008-03-27.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  16. ^ Shaoul, Jean; Marsden, Chris (16 June 2000). "The bitter legacy of Syria's Hafez al-Assad". World Socialist Web Site. Retrieved 13 August 2017.


  • 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)
  • George W. Ball, Error and betrayal in Lebanon (Foundation for Middle East Peace, Washington, D.C., USA, 1984, ISBN 0-9613707-1-8)

External links