The Battle of Tel el Zaatar 1976



Tel-el-Zaatar (the Hill of Thyme) was the largest and strongest Palestinian refugee camp established in 1948 in the northern part of what became Christian East Beirut during the Lebanese civil war of 1975-1990. June 29 1976 saw the camp at Jisr el Basha fall and then efforts were directed against Tal al-Zaatar.

On 4th January 1976, a thin cordon was established around the camp by 300 fighters from the 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.

The PLO, as they had done in Karatina, prevented many of the people of the camp from leaving so by taking them hostage. 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 and 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.

The next day the PLO special forces expanded their positions to gain control of the heights overlooking Tal al Zaatar, pinning down the rightist militiamen. All counterattacks mounted by the Lebanese were beaten back. Within the camp, heavy artillery fired on the Maronite northlands, as new fighting erupted in downtown Beirut. Chamoun, supporting Gemayel's position, said publicly that the battles were predominantly between the Lebanese-right and the PLO-left.

The hotel district came under intense fire once more, as the PLO warned the Lebanese to lift the siege of Tal al Zaatar and the Jisr al-Basha camps. More than a thousand Palestinian troops were quickly transported from South Lebanon and redeployed in and around the Shiyah district, awaiting instructions to open a new front.

On January 7 a force of 1200 Palestinians that had been diverted from the south attacked the region of Horsh Tabet from West Beirut in an effort to get to Tal al Zaatar and break the seige. Pitched battles took place between Phalangist forces and Palestinian Fedayin in the streets. After three days of heavy close quarter combat the Palestinian assault was repelled

Over the next four months the seige was tightened and the Lebanese Front tried to negotiate a surrender as they felt a large scale assualt on the camps would be too costly in terms of human lives.


Tal al-Zaatar contained about 2,500 Palestinian guerrillas intermixed with a civilian population of roughly 15,000. The camp was divided into five main sections controlled by different factions of the PLO, Fatah, the PFLP-GC (Ahmad Jibril), the PFLP (George Habash), The PDFLP (Hawatmeh), and Saiqa. This Saiqa unit which under normal conditions would be under Syrian control was taking orders from PLO command. These PLO camps near the Beirut River were heavily armed fortresses built around a former industrial park. Within the two sprawling camps, the PLO's furthest outpost in Christian-held territory, was an impressive array of military armaments, which included surface-to-air and surface-to-surface missiles, artillery, antiaircraft guns, and PLO special forces. Because Tal al-Zaatar was honeycombed with bunkers and tunnels and a layered defense system the camp, which was a seventy-four-acre complex, would be able to hold out for months against repeated attacks.

On the 22 June 1976 after all surrender negotiations failed the Lebanese Front launched an offensive against the camp. Facing the PLO was a small combined force of Lebanese Front militiamen consisting of some 500 Guardian of the Cedars fighters, 500 Ahrar Tigers, 300 Tanzim, and some 100 fighters from the Maroun Khoury group (MKG). These fighters were joined a week later by some 100 Kataeb troops. The Lebanese Front were supported and advised by Lebanese army officers. The PLO claimed that Syrian and Israeli advisers were also present but this does not appear to be the case. Overall command was in the hands of a committee that included Danny Chamoun (Ahrar), Etienne Sakr (Guardians), Charles Akl (Guardians), George Adwan (Tanzim), Maroun Khoury (MKG), and Michel Aoun and Fuad Malek of the Lebanese Army. ===>>

The attack was a three pronged affair on the outer perimeter of the camp with the Guardians on the Dautzigian front, the Ahrar Tigers on the Gervais front and the Tanzim attacking Tallet el mir. The attackers encountered heavy resistance and although the Guardian of the Cedars objectives on the Dautzigian front were reached, the progress of the Ahrar and the Tanzim was slow and so resulted in the Guardians being pinned down by Palestinian positions that the Ahrar and the Tanzim should have taken on the Gervais and Tallet el mir fronts. Enforcements where rushed to the Ahrar and Tanzim and by nightfall all the objectives on the outer perimeter of the camp had been reached and secured. Further advances proved difficult due to the impressive ability of the defenders of the camp and cover fire from nearby Nabaa and Jisr al Basha both of which were still under assault.

Despite numerous calls for the Palestinians to surrender, Arafat felt that a large military defeat would result in a political victory and so he called upon those inside the camp to go on fighting regardless being hopelessly surrounded, in short Arafat wanted as many Palestinian casualties as possible. Arafat appealed to his fighters to turn Tal al-Zaatar into 'a Stalingrad'. At one point during a ceasefire Arafat told his men to agree to surrender and then he ordered his senior officers to open fire on the Lebanese forces so as to enrage the Lebanese.

As heavy fighting raged in the Nabaa district, June 29 1976 saw the camp at Jisr el Basha fall freeing up troops to be directed against Tal al-Zaatar. The victory at Jisr al-Basha established Lebanese Front policy for future campaigns. Arrangements were be made to evacuate all troops and civilians, using the International Red Cross as a neutral observer group to prevent outrages from occurring. The PLO and leftist forces at Tal al Zaatar, however, said that they would never surrender and, should the camp be overrun, they would kill hostages and resort to a policy of continued resistance behind the enemy lines. Nevertheless, the PLO threat went unheeded. After some many days of constant combat, the right wing leadership paid little attention to PLO or leftist remarks or threats. The Lebanese Front proved true to their words. Under Syrian protection, the Red Cross quickly moved into the Jisr al-Basha camp and removed the remaining civilian refugees and prisoners.

The following day, the drive for Tal al Zaatar resumed. Three tanks took up positions on the outskirts of the cluster of concrete blockhouses that controlled the main entrances into the camp. A fourth tank had been knocked out by either a land mine or an antitank gun. A member of the Guardians of the Cedars, called on all hostages in the camp to seek shelter pending their rescue after the battle had been won. A Lebanese assault then overran the camps's outer perimeter.

The Palestinians, however, on 2 July managed to knock a hole in the rightists' lines in an attempt to infiltrate the camp, bringing in more sophisticated weapons including multibarreled rocket launchers and ammunition. The rightists quickly plugged the hole in their lines and tightened their grip on the camp. Tal al Zaatar was completely encircled by the eleventh day of fighting, and therefore, the Lebanese forces made one last effort to end the conflict by negotiations. They asked the camp leaders to surrender peacefully, and in return, the combatants would be allowed to leave unharmed under the escort of the Arab League's forces. This effort was an attempt to show the Arab World that the rightists were not against the PLO, only against their involvement with the Lebanese-left and their uncontrolled, sprawling presence in Lebanon.

 Arafat's second-incommand, Salah Khalaf (better known as Abu Iyad), rejected the rightists' offer and ordered the camp to fight to the end. The PLO had decided not to show weakness or capitulate to the Lebanese-right. At about the same time, Farouk Kaddoumi, a member of the PLO's political office, threatened an all-out war against the right and called for Arab troops and Moslem volunteers to enter Lebanon in order to save the Palestinian revolution there from foreign conspiracies. As he made his appeal, Christian areas in the suburbs of Beirut and the eastern mountains witnessed day-and-night shelling that surpassed anything thrown at them during the previous months. Nevertheless, the siege of Tal al Zaatar continued uninterrupted.

As many of the Christian forces were tied down fighting Palestinians in East Beirut the PLO and their allies launched a massive offensive against the Kura and the Christian town of Chekka north of Beirut on the 5th July 1976 and started to slaughter civilians. Chekka was able to repell the attackers but was surrounded and heavily bombarded. With Chekka on the verge of collapse, church bells in the heavily Maronite Christian region began to ring, warning people of imminent defeat and to be ready to defend themselves. Hundreds of men descended from the mountains to the coastal plains to try and push the attackers back into Tripoli. With great urgency, a substantial number Lebanese Front troops were rushed by night from the Tal al Zaatar front to reinforce towns and villages in northern Lebanon in hopes of preventing a large-scale massacre of Christians by the leftists and PLO.

First on the scene were the Guardians of the Cedars who encountered heavy resistance and were rapidly enforced by Kataeb and Ahrar forces. In several hard-fought battles, the leftists were either stopped or pushed back to their old lines, and several towns were retaken by the Lebanese Front. However, at the industrial town of Chekka, Christian resistance was waning. It therefore required a large-scale support effort with jeeps, trucks, and buses carrying troops into the combat zone. It was, however, Lebanese Front artillery that broke the siege and saved the town on the 10th July. PLO forces however still held on to part of Chekka and to Amyun, south of Tripoli. The Lebanese Front, under the protection of their field artillery, moved on these two towns to engage the entrenched PLO forces there. Before nightfall, the towns were liberated.

Before the final onslaught on Tal al Zaatar could take place, North Lebanon had to be secured and relieved of any future PLO threat. A devasting surprise counter attack was launched on the PLO as the forces that had come to Chekka's rescue adavnced north against the PLO. With Marada attacking southwards from Zgharta, the surprise counteroffensive by the Christians pushed the leftists far from their former positions and reached the very gates of Tripoli. By the end of July, the rightwing forces had pushed the leftists back and bottled them up in the city. President Franjieh's Marada troops, who hailed from Zgharta and were commanded by his son Tony, kept the PLO pinned down in Tripoli to allow the other Lebanese Front fighters to return to the Tal al Zaatar battle. Syria restrained the Marada advance on Tripoli to avoid a major victory by the right. The Marada forces were largely restricted to the outskirts of Tripoli and to their own territory.

Meanwhile the battle raged at Tal al Zaatar and PLO forces from Tal al Zaatar managed to tunnel their way into the predominantly Moslem neighborhood of Nabaa to join the leftists entrenched there who were providing cover fire for the camp. Clashes were reported between these Palestinians and the ultra right-wing Armenian Tashnak Party, whose headquarters was in nearby Burj Hammoud.

On July 8th the leftists opened new fronts in the port and business districts, hoping to draw the rightists away from Tal al Zaatar, but the assaults were quickly repulsed by local defenders. With new supplies and battle-hardened troops from the northern campaign, the rightists amassed their forces to end the siege of the camp. repeated attacks were beaten back by machine-gun and rocket fire directed from a towering edifice. This was an old factory building from which outgoing fire was guided, located in the heart of the camp, near the PLO's last stronghold.

On July 13th William Hawi, commnander of the Kataeb military forces was shot and killed by a sniper whilest he was inspecting his forces on the edge of the camp. Bashir Gemayel assumed command of the Kataeb and the Lebanese Front fighters were joined by a further 100 Kataeb troops and 350 Ahrar troops who had been diverted from other fronts.

By the third week of July 1976, the oppressively muggy heat of that summer began to take its toll on the combatants. On 20 July 1976 a group of civilian hostages and wounded defenders appeared, hands held high as they surrendered. Quickly they were taken to Amine Gemayel's headquarters for questioning, and later that day, they were released into the custody of the Red Cross. The remaining troops and civilians were holding out in one corner of the underground complex and had vowed to fight to the end. The rightists, who were overconfident that the end of the campaign was near, stepped up their operations on two sides of the last building but were repeatedly driven back by sniper fire. The camp had survived the twenty-eighth day of battle.

While the battle for the camp raged on, heavy fighting continued in the capital and the outlying areas, particularly at the town of Ayn Tura, located between Zahle and Junieh. Rocket duels, mortar fire, and machine-gun bursts across the Beirut dividing line kept up the pressure on the militias as new plans were drawn up for the continuing siege of the devastated PLO camp in East Beirut. Excessive fighting continued around the camp, but no new positions were taken.

The rightist forces halted the shelling of long enough to allow a Red Cross delegate and a physician to take in medical supplies to treat the sick and wounded in the camp. The cease-fire continued for seven hours until all could be treated. It was arranged by the Phalangists, the PLO, and General Muhammad Hassan Ghoneim of the Arab League forces. However, the NLP, under Camille Chamoun, was not consulted, since he had opposed even a limited cease-fire until after Tal al Zaatar surrendered. His troops did observe the cease-fire, however, out of respect for the Arab League's authority.

The Red Cross requested permission to evacuate about a thousand troops and civilians from the underground hospital in the camp. Three Swiss delegates began negotiations with the rightist command to begin evacuation procedures. The leader of the group, Jean Hoefliger, the chief delegate of the International Red Cross in Lebanon, considered his initial mission a success and thanked the Phalangist leadership for its humanitarian concern for the civilian hostages there amid strong passions and taut emotions. His deputy delegate, Edmond Cortesi, echoed Hoefliger's sentiments.

The Lebanese met PLO representatives to discuss a cease-fire, since storming the camp would be too costly. The rightists had already lost close to four hundred men in the battle, which was an extraordinarily high number. It was believed that about four hundred defenders remained in the camp and that they were very well equipped to withstand assault.


Toward the last week of July, in what was more or less a face-saving gesture for both the PLO and the Lebanese Forces, a new cease-fire was negotiated between the two groups, under Arab League auspices. As the negotiations approached their final stage, news reached the Arab League envoy, Sabry al-Khouly, that the roof of the underground shelter at Tal al Zaatar had collapsed. Kamal Junblat requested immediate aid for the victims of the disaster, while the rightist forces there observed a temporary cessation of hostilities in order to save the entombed civilians and to assist those who had exited the ruins. The new cease-fire was extended to include the business district, airport, and the roads linking the Christian suburbs of al-Hazmiyah with the airport, but it clearly excluded Tal al Zaatar. The harbor area, which was still in rightist hands, would be opened to the Moslem sector of the city to allow it to receive badly needed supplies. At the camp, under intermittent fire, rightist rescue workers, digging tunnels and trenches, brought out scores of civilians who were trapped within their reach. They had been close to death by asphyxiation in their shelter and were immediately treated and given over to the Red Cross, which transferred them to the Red Crescent, its Moslem equivalent.

The Red Cross, meanwhile, had called for a three-day truce around the camp in order to evacuate the wounded. In what now seemed an unbelievable act of evil, the PLO headquarters, which was still in radio communication with the defenders at Tal al Zaatar, urged its combatants to fight on against the Lebanese Forces.

August 1, 1976, saw a Red Cross convoy pick its way through winding, makeshift roads to the approaches of the main buildings of the Tal al Zaatar camp. The road had been cleared of the ruin of battle but stopped short before the last stronghold of the Palestinian defenders. After several postponements due to continual sniper fire, the Red Cross convoy had stopped just in front of the no-man's-land that separated the combatants. The rightist command warned that it was too risky to proceed; apparently, the defenders of Tal al Zaatar believed that the rightists would use Red Cross vehicles and workers as shields to penetrate the heart of the camp. Consequently, the rescue effort came to a grinding halt. A similar lack of trust was expressed by Abu Arz, a commander of the Guardians of the Cedars, who informed Red Cross workers that the evacuation had to be comprised of four stages, with the wounded leaving last, should the PLO or leftist forces come out shooting while shielding themselves behind their hostages or the Red Cross personnel.

With a pledge of noninterference coming from the camp, the Lebanese Front leadership "gave the green light" to the Red Cross to begin the evacuation of the wounded from Tal al Zaatar. A cease-fire went into effect. Nine trucks and two ambulances would make the first run and take out about a hundred people. The agreement, which initially was to be only a test, was negotiated between the PLO and the Red Cross by the Arab League envoy in the Christian district of Ashrafiyah, in East Beirut.

On August 3, ninety-nine wounded civilian hostages were brought out of Tal al Zaatar by the Red Cross, under military escort of the rightists. The convoy crossed the demarcation line in Beirut and was greeted by a small crowd of onlookers in Moslem West Beirut. Gunmen fired salvos into the air to mark the group's safe arrival. The next day, fifteen trucks began the second run to Tal al Zaatar. Another 245 civilians were evacuated, but safety could not be guaranteed for any more runs, since shots had struck a Red Cross vehicle.

The Red Cross attempted another rescue at the beleaguered camp. However, in panic, hundreds of people, including PLO commandos, stormed aboard the Red Cross trucks, and in the confusion, other PLO troops shot into the air to quell the disturbance and regain some semblance of order. Apparently, some of the right-wing forces were confused by what they believed was incoming fire, and they shot back at the PLO commandos. Thus, the Red Cross trucks were caught in the middle of the firefight. About thirty people, including a Swiss driver, were injured in the attempt when they were hit by crossfire from opposing sides.

The Red Cross abruptly canceled all further evacuations, and shelling resumed about the camp and at Nabaa. Only seventy-four persons had been taken out that day in three of the eighteen trucks in the convoy. A rightist military leader apologized to the Red Cross for the incident indicating that the troops had responded to shots from the other side.

It was at this stage that the fighters at the camp realized that they were facing imminent defeat and began to rquest permission to surrender from their head quaters. Each time they were sent the same message: "Fight on". The Saiqa men in the camp wanting to save as many civilian lives as they could started to smuggle dozens of people each night for the next 4 nights across the adjacent orange grove to the Dekwaneh sector and hand them over to the Phalangists who held a small front there.

Chamoun's NLP Ahrar and Guardians of the Cedars troops pushed into the perimeters of the Nabaa district on a search-and-destroy mission whilest the pressure on the camp was kept up. Finally victory came at Nabaa on August 6th, where the rightist forces wiped out leftist defenders and foreign forces in a mop-up campaign, thus closing-in on Tal al Zaatar.

As soon as Nabaa fell the parasites that are always found in the shadow of armies and soldiers moved in, as had happened before in the Kantari district, to loot and pilage. This time however it was not the Muslims or leftists doing the looting but Christians. Scenes that were witnessed some months before when bodies of Lebanese fighters where dragged behind cars throughout west Beirut were now repeated as bodies of dead Palestinian fighters were dragged behind cars throughout east Beirut. When the Cedarland webmaster recently asked the Guardians field commander at the battle, Charles Akl, about such disgraceful treatment of dead fighters he said: "We were soldiers. Soldiers do not behave in such a way. We respected the dead of our enemy and hoped that they respected our fallen brothers. In war there are always those who enter the field after the battle is over to see how they may profit. It is this scum that descrated the dead inorder to impress their friends and prentend to be heroes or to show off to the ladies. Scum like these are cowards that had never fired a single shot in combat".

Elsewhere in the capital, fighting raged about the commercial district and in the suburbs. Shiyah and Ayn al-Rumanah were gutted in flames. By now some 2000 Lebanese fighters were in some way involved around Tal al Zaatar. A three-pronged attack ensued at the camp, where the rightists gained new ground in heavy fighting, taking the PFLP headquarters located deep within the confines of the camp. However, they were forced to pull back when Palestinian artillery fire was called in on the camp. The battle was turning suicidal. With the pullback, several hundred Palestinian civilians joined the besiegers and took refuge among the Christians near the camp and at Nabaa. The bulk of the Palestinian fighters, in an apparent attempt to save the civilians in the camp, finally allowed the noncombatants to leave after forty-nine days of captivity.

The end of Tal al Zaatar was in sight. Lebanese commanders called for volunteers for the last assault on the surrounded fortress. The defenders of the camp had poured barrels of oil, gasoline, and other flammable liquids about their position and were pledging to fight to the end. The incendiaries were to be ignited as the Christian forces approached underground matrix that was the last stronghold of the PLO and leftist forces. It was estimated that a third to a half of the assault force would perish in the inferno before reaching the underground complex. As the men stepped forward to volunteer commanders weeded out any person who was a sole survivor of his family. The remaining civilians poured forth from the camp over rubble-strewn streets, carrying what was left of their possessions. They were quickly transported to Moslem West Beirut after receiving immediate medical aid, food, and water. The Red Cross hastily cleared the area of refugees, although some were interrogated about the defense of the compound. According to the Red Cross, over 90 percent of the civilians were successfully evacuated before the fall of the camp.

For the last time, Lebanese command called for the unconditional surrender of the camp. They were rebuffed, as usual. The Palestinian commander at the camp implied that they would all go into a flaming hell together. After one of the most intensive softening up barrages yet use Lebanese troops rushed the compound at which point civilians started running out brushing past Palestinians still firing from perimeter strong points. It was chaos, the stench of burning flesh permeated the air; the entrance to the complex was breached. Fighting raged on for about twenty minutes within the complex.

 All eyes were focused, concentrated, on the assault area. Local commanders strained to hold back additional volunteers from entering the compound. As suddenly as the shooting started it stopped. Then the first Lebanese fighter emerged and pandemonium broke out; shots were fired into the air, and cheers filled the sky. A train of captives followed and was taken away. They were quickly searched and loaded onto three army trucks and speedily dispatched out of the war zone by the Red Cross.

And so on August 12 right wing forces finally overran the camp after a 52 day siege. Rumours of massacres at the camp started to spread in West Beirut but these proved to be greatly exagerated as most of the dead fell during the storming of the camp and not afterwards. Pierre Maltchef a Tanzim officer when asked about mistreatment of prisoners said:

"This was not our policy, but if a PLO fighter fell into the hands of a man whose family had been killed, or whose sister had been raped, or whose home had been destroyed by them, he would take his revenge. We tried to stop those who wanted to do it, but we didn't always succeed. We admit some prisoners were tortured. None of us has forgotten Damour". (Becker, The PLO)


Over the next two days the camp was bulldozed so as to prevent possible return. About 2000 people died in fighting during the entire siege, and 4,000 were wounded. The surviving cilvilians were settled by The PLO in other camps and in Damour.


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."

Despite the loss of Tal al-Zaatar, the PLO still had however a massive military machine in Lebanon.


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