What she saw was not much. What she knew was even less. From Sept. 16 to 18, as the Christian Phalangists massacred hundreds of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut, Washington nurse Ellen Siegel was virtually closeted in the Gaza Hospital at the Sabra camp.
But when it was over, and she and other foreign medical workers were marched out of the hospital by soldiers -- wearing Phalangist uniforms -- down Rue Sabra through the camp, she collected mental notes: inside the camp, bulldozers with Hebrew letters on the side; outside, Israeli beer cans littered in the courtyard behind the U.N. building, Hebrew newspapers dated Sept. 15 and 17; a tall building outside the camp, occupied by Israeli troops; Phalangist soldiers with walkie-talkies.
When she first heard that an Israeli judicial board of inquiry was seeking witnesses to the massacre, she says she felt compelled to testify. She sent off a written account to Israel. She even went back and picked up some of the pieces of garbage in the courtyard. In the end, when she was called to testify, she recounted seeing Phalangists with walkie-talkies, challenging Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon's assertion that the Phalangists had no sophisticated communication system.
She did not hesitate to draw conclusions:
Siegel: I feel that it is impossible that [the Israelis] could not have seen from the top of that building nearby, outside the camp what was going on and had to hear what was going on and that there was this system of communication and that Israel was in control of what was going on there . . .
Israel Supreme Court Justice Aharon Barak, a member of the commission: This is for us to decide.
Siegel: Yes it is. But you know Simon Wiesenthal has been running around the world since 1945 looking for Nazi war crimes. It was a horrible thing that happened in the Holocaust and . . . I will never forget the people, but I will also never forget the people of Sabra and Shatila and they have no voice and . . . it is my duty, I must come here and speak for them today and justice must be done for all.
Barak: Justice will be done.
"Remember," she says, "I am Jewish. I don't deny it. I was brought up in a very moralistic way." She sits at a table in Avignone Freres in Adams-Morgan, the neighborhood where she lives. It is quiet in mid-morning.
"We were driving through south Lebanon," she says of the time shortly after the massacre, "passing people with injuries, people with amputated arms. Then we crossed the border into the northernmost tip of Israel and there were flowers and happy little children. I sat on the steps of a kibbutz and cried. Such an imbalance. These are people who came from the Soviet Union. My grandparents came from the Soviet Union. I wasn't just a little rebel. The Israelis have worked hard to build a country. But the Israelis have forgotten the people who lived on that land." She pauses quietly, looking up from her coffee. "They have," she insists.
She told everyone what she saw or heard. "Boy, I was hot," she says. "I had to do it. I had to testify." Of Israel, she says, "They're really trying to cover up -- it's like Watergate. But the people of Israel want to know. If I hadn't said there was a good communications system, who else would do it? Who else would speak for the people in Sabra and Shatila?"
Her memories of human suffering are as crisp as her sense of politics is vague. "Let's start off with the West Bank and Gaza," she says. "Give [the Palestinians] at least a piece."
Ellen Siegel came of age in the '60s -- "it was a good time to come of age," she says with a smile. She grew up in Baltimore, deciding at the end of high school to become a nurse. "I wanted to help people," she says with a laugh. "It's tacky." But then she adds, "I'm not a capitalist. I'm not into this escalating scene of wanting to make enormous amounts of money. I like being a nurse." She dispensed methadone at a Baltimore drug program, coordinated a program at Johns Hopkins for alcoholics, and worked in medical tents at antiwar demonstrations here. "We'd take care of people who overloaded on LSD or tear gas problems," she says, then smiles slightly. "Always a war, isn't it?"
Now, at 40, her wavy hair turned salt and pepper, she sits on the board of that Baltimore methadone center and she still slips on a Red Cross arm band to work medical tents at demonstrations against U.S. involvement in El Salvador. "And if I ever stop loving John Lennon, it will all be over," she laughs. Through an agency, she gets temporary nursing work here, mainly at the Washington Hospital Center.
Her recent trip to Lebanon has taken 10 pounds off her slender frame and left her gaunt. Blue-tinted aviator glasses toughen her appearance a bit. Without them, piercing green eyes and delicate cheekbones give her face a softness.
She first went to Lebanon in 1972. "I didn't know any Arabs; I didn't know any Palestinians," she says. Her childhood and adolescence were marked by the traditions of Judaism: a bas mitzvah, Saturday services with her father, Hebrew school. "I came out of the antiwar movement with a commitment to peace," she says. "I went to Lebanon and asked to see a refugee camp. I'd never seen anything like it. There was an open sewage system. Thousands of people were poor. They told us they were Palestinians--born in Ramallah and Hebron." When she returned to her hotel, she heard that Israel was bombing southern Lebanon in retaliation for the PLO attack on Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. She called the Red Cross and volunteered her services. "I saw such devastation. I saw a car that had been flattened by an Israeli tank. There was a family in it. Arms and legs were hanging out." She presses her hand slowly across the tablecloth to indicate the flatness. Her short fingernails are painted pink.
"We're brought up with a sort of package deal of Judaism and Zionism," she says. "I thought, 'Okay, what gives? These are my people.' "
She went to Israel and lived on a kibbutz for two months. "There was blatant racism," she says. "I wanted to spend the night in El-Arish. A taxi driver said to me, 'You don't want to spend time with dirty Arabs.' "
Later, she went to London and supported Palestinian causes. "I've never had a hard time with any of this," she says. "Because I'm a Jew, I'm doing this. People don't understand that." She leans forward across the table. "Palestinians don't hate the Jews."
But what about the Munich massacre? "The PLO actually killed only one or two Israelis," she answers, asserting that most of the athletes died in the shootout between the West Germans and the terrorists.
What about the Palestinian Liberation Organization covenant calling for the eradication of Israel? "They're going to rewrite it," she says calmly and sighs. "Diplomatically, they need some work."
She made a trip to Lebanon two years ago, then returned this September. "I came as a nurse," she says. "To preserve life. I didn't go with my fist raised. I didn't care who the people were."
After the massacre, an Israeli reporter asked her why she had chosen to work at the Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut. "How come I didn't go to Vietnam? How come I didn't go to Somalia?" she says the reporter wanted to know. "I decided to go to Beirut because what happened there that summer was done by Jewish people with machinery made by Americans. I felt it was important to have an American presence -- to show that not all Americans sent gifts of shrapnel."
She says she has lost no friends because of her testimony. Those friends who could be lost over such an issue she alienated long ago by doing support work for Palestinians here and marching in pro-Palestinian demonstrations in London. People called her a "self-hater." "They were very angry," she says of her friends. "They'd say, 'What if another Hitler comes?' " She doesn't believe it could happen. "I'm protected. I'm white. I'm middle class. The people in Palestine have no country. They had nothing to do with the Holocaust."
"I feel more Jewish than I've ever felt in my life," she says. "Judaism to me means a sense of righteousness, a sense of justice. I was taught not to steal. I was taught to be polite. I was taught to help others less fortunate. Israel has destroyed Lebanon. Ein El Helweh south of Sidon is flat."
She tells her chronology of the period of the massacre:
On the 16th, Siegel remembers, Palestinian refugees streamed into the hospital, frightened, making slicing motions across their throats with their hands, crying, 'Kataeb, Israel, Haddad.' Kataeb is the Arabic name for the Phalangists. Maj.Saad Haddad is the leader of an Israeli-backed Christian militia. Outside, she heard artillery fire. Doors banged from the impact, windows rattled. Inside, Siegel's Panasonic radio carried the BBC broadcast that Israel had occupied Beirut. Mainly, the radio carried the news of Grace Kelly's recent death. "I will never forget the day that Grace Kelly died," she says, laughing.
On the 17th, all of the Palestinian staff and the ambulatory patients fled the hospital. The director told them it was unsafe. Siegel and other foreign medical workers remained. The artillery fire continued, but in the midst of this there were visits: from a British film crew, the International Red Cross, and later the Norwegian ambassador. But the strangest visit was paid by two well-dressed, well-groomed men whose nationality Siegel could not identify. One asked her a question as ominous and unexpected as dialogue from a dream:
Siegel: They asked me if I knew if the Kataeb was coming tomorrow morning at 9 a.m. to slit the throats of Palestinian children.
Barak: And you answered?
Siegel: I answered that I didn't know.
Barak: It didn't seem strange to you to put a question like that to you?
Siegel: It seemed very, very strange to me, but the preceding two days also seemed very strange to me . . .
On the morning of the 18th, soldiers wearing uniforms of the Christian Phalangists escorted the medical workers out of the hospital and through the camp. At one point, they rounded a corner and confronted a line of soldiers with rifles. Siegel thought it was a firing squad. "They asked us to take off our lab coats," she says. "I will never forget it. I thought, 'What should I think about? Should I think about the great loves of my life? Should I scream? Should I cry? Would I die in this camp and no one would ever know? Or if I said something would I get a sentence in the history of the Palestinian people's struggle?' "
The group paused briefly and was escorted out of the camp.
When she and other medical workers returned to Israel to testify, they were accompanied by two soldiers, put up in a luxury hotel, wined and dined. She was taken on a trip to Hadassah Hospital where patients "thanked us for coming to testify." She went to the Holocaust Memorial, Yad Vashem, where a concentration camp survivor with numbers tattooed on her arm showed Siegel around. "I explained how the Israelis were doing this to Palestinians, referring to them as terrorists." The survivor told her this was not the same.
"I'm going to continue my Palestinian support work and concentrate more on the Jewish community," Siegel says. She would like to address Jewish groups. She is a member of Washington Area Jews Opposed to the Israeli Invasion of Lebanon and, she says, probably the only active Jewish member locally of the Palestine Aid Society, a humanitarian group that raises money for projects like embroidery workshops for Lebanese women and mini-buses for schoolchildren. "We have Jewish members who just don't want to come to the meetings," she says, "but they support us."
"I wish for the sake of people in the world that the Israelis would talk with the PLO," she says. "The PLO is who the Palestinians have chosen as their representative . . . I'm told." Unless the two groups talk, she says, "no Jew will have peace anywhere -- ever."