Ariel Sharon: a War Criminal, or the Victim of a Witch Hunt?

The accusation that Ariel Sharon is a war criminal — back on the public agenda with two court cases in Belgium and a damning BBC documentary — is the latest step in a campaign to discredit and delegitimize Israel, supporters of the Jewish state say.

A quick Internet search reveals a plethora of Arab and Muslim Web sites demanding that Sharon be "brought to justice" for the 1982 massacre of Palestinians by Lebanese Christians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.

However, the Israeli premier also seems to be caught in the cross hairs of advocates of an international criminal court and a "universal justice" that knows no borders.

Sharon’s Arab antagonists may indeed be motivated by enmity toward Israel, but the international court proponents seem intent primarily on winning symbolic victories that they hope might deter future atrocities.

It’s highly unlikely that Sharon ever will wind up in the dock. But the Belgian cases and the BBC film have focused hostile attention on Israel and its leader precisely when the Jewish state is fighting what many see as an uphill battle for world opinion in the ninth month of the intifada.

The second half of the 1990s saw major strides toward prosecuting war crimes and gross violations of human rights.

It also emboldened those who have long wanted to go after polarizing figures such as Sharon, Henry Kissinger, Idi Amin, Muammar Gadhafi, Saddam Hussein, or the now-deceased Pol Pot and Hafez Assad.

First came war crime tribunals to prosecute perpetrators of the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia in the mid-1990s.

Then came the October 1998 arrest and detention of Chile’s former dictator, Gen. Augusto Pinochet. A Spanish judge issued the warrant over human rights crimes Pinochet allegedly ordered during his 17 years of rule, some of which were directed against Spanish nationals.

Earlier this month, Belgian courts convicted four Rwandans — including two nuns — of murder and incitement to genocide.

That marked the first conviction under Belgium’s ground-breaking 1993 law on "universal jurisdiction," which enables Belgian courts to judge atrocities committed elsewhere, regardless of whether or not they involved Belgians.

No one was ever prosecuted for the Sabra and Shatila massacres, when Lebanese Christian militiamen killed some 800 Palestinian men, women and children. Several of the planners and leaders of the attack are prominent figures in Lebanon today.

Sharon’s election as prime minister in February may have spurred the embittered to take action.

In 1983, Israel established the quasi-judicial Kahan Commission to investigate the massacres. The commission found then-Defense Minister Sharon "indirectly responsible" because he had not foreseen the possibility that the Christians — who had entered the camps to root out Palestinian terrorists hiding there — would seek to avenge the recent assassination of their leader, Bashir Gemayel.

Sharon received what some saw as a slap on the wrist: He was pressured to resign as defense minister, but remained in the Cabinet as a minister without portfolio.

When Time later sought to assign Sharon a greater share of blame, he sued the magazine for libel. An American court ruled that the article was erroneous but lacked malicious intent.

Now, in light of the verdict against the Rwandans, Belgium has emerged as a pressure point against leaders like Sharon.

"There is a general feeling here that a fight has to be fought against impunity, and that by having such a law at the national level, we contribute to the international fight," said Michel Malherbe, deputy spokesman of Belgium’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

On June 18, a group of 28 Palestinians filed suit under the 1993 Belgian law, charging Sharon with ultimate responsibility for the massacre.

The suit came on the heels of a similar suit filed in Brussels earlier in the month by a private group, reportedly on behalf of Palestinian victims of the current intifada.

The Belgian magistrate is still weighing whether the law applies to these cases, Malherbe told JTA.

In response, an Israeli Knesset member from Sharon’s Likud Party, Avraham Herschson, has threatened to file suit in Brussels against Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat for alleged war crimes committed in the current intifada.

The anti-Sharon cases are causing "diplomatic embarrassment" for Belgium, which assumes the European Union’s rotating presidency on July 1, Malherbe said.

Belgium specifically, and Europe in general, seeks a greater diplomatic role in the Mideast conflict, but Israel has kept them at arm’s length because of their perceived pro-Arab stance.

A court case against Sharon, Malherbe conceded, "can affect the image of Belgium as a neutral player."

There is now talk within the Belgian Parliament of amending the law.

"Creating ‘universal jurisdiction’ means anyone can claim anything against anybody; this can blow up in any number of ways," said Alan Baker, legal adviser to Israel’s Foreign Ministry.

He said the law may prompt a number a world leaders to avoid Belgian soil for fear of arrest.

Baker dismissed the Sharon suits as groundless, saying that Israel assumes they "won’t go far." Nevertheless, he said, the Foreign Ministry is mulling the "what if" scenario.

But Belgium may not be the end of the legal action against Sharon.

A lawyer for the Palestinian victims said similar suits against Sharon will soon be filed in Britain, France and Denmark, according to the Jewish Chronicle of London.

Some also predict that just as American victims of Palestinian terror, and Bosnian Muslim victims of Bosnian Serbs, have successfully sued the perpetrators in U.S. civil courts, Palestinians may seek a court hearing in America.

Perhaps even more influential in blackening Israel’s image was the recent broadcast of "The Accused" by the state- run British Broadcasting Corporation.

In the documentary, journalist Fergal Keane painted a picture that placed ultimate blame for the massacres on Sharon.

The documentary relied on interviews with Palestinian victims, international law experts and a former U.S. envoy to the Middle East under President Reagan.

The film was punctuated by the assertion of Princeton international law Professor Richard Falk that Sharon is "indictable" for war crimes.

Israeli officials immediately protested to the BBC, denouncing the program as "unfair, distorted and intentionally hostile" — with a whiff of the BBC’s "well-known anti-Semitism and anti-Israel bias."

The BBC and Keane stood by the broadcast.

In an interview with JTA, Falk clarified his comments.

"All the evidence I saw would make him indictable to those crimes, but not necessarily convictable," Falk said of Sharon. "That’s an important distinction. Everyone’s entitled to a fair trial."

Falk drew on historical precedent.

"One of the things that Nuremberg and the Tokyo trials after World War II made very clear," he said, "was that a general or political official is responsible for the conduct of military operations under his command. So that means if he fails to exercise sufficient control over those operations, that person is criminally responsible for the harm that is done."

But Baker, from Jerusalem, countered that "the Nuremberg tribunal was intended to deal with Nazi war criminals. The mere fact that a fellow like that could draw such a comparison indicates the depth to which someone will go to incite against Israel."

Falk, who is himself Jewish, already was familiar to Israeli officials: he was one of three members of a fact-finding team dispatched in February by the Geneva-based U.N. Commission on Human Rights to document Israel’s "excessive" use of force against Palestinian attackers — a conclusion it reached even before the investigation began.

The resulting U.N. report, said Michael Colson, executive director of the Geneva-based U.N. Watch, was "one of the most frightening things I’ve ever seen come out of the U.N., with Israel guilty of every sin imaginable."

All of which leads Baker to conclude that "when things were going well last year, everyone was happy with Israel. But as soon as problems arose, and the Palestinians decided they didn’t want to negotiate anymore, we revert back to 15 years ago, where the name of the game is delegitimization of Israel and its basis for existence."

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