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The Belgian Courts, War Crimes and Ariel Sharon

“Don’t eat Belgian chocolate,” the Israel consul in Florida ordered the large Jewish community there.

In Israel, anti-Belgian curses reached an ear-splitting new crescendo. Miserable Belgium! Mad Belgium! Megalomaniac Belgium! And again and again, Anti-Semitic Belgium! Neo-Nazi Belgium!

The Israeli ambassador was, of course, recalled from Brussels. No wonder, how can Israel keep an ambassador in the world capital of anti-Semitism?

The storm broke when a Belgian court decided that Ariel Sharon can be sued for alleged war crimes, but only after finishing his term as Prime Minister of Israel. Israel army officers connected with the 1982 massacre in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps can be sued even now.

On an Israeli TV program, the anchorman, a lawyer, put it this way: “Anti-Semitic Belgium wants to judge the officers of a second country for crimes committed in a third country, while the accused have no connection at all with Belgium, are not on Belgium territory and the whole affair does not concern Belgium. That is megalomania, really a matter for psychiatrists!”

“Strange,” I replied on the program, “I seem to remember a case where country A kidnapped in country B the citizen of country C for committing in country D crimes against the citizens of countries E, F and G, all this in spite of the fact the crimes were committed before country A even existed.”

I meant, of course, the trial of Adolf Eichmann, to which we all agreed.

“How can you compare the two!” the other participants on the program cried out in outraged unison. And indeed, how can one compare the actions of Jews with actions of goyim committed against Jews?

Well, it were the Jews who demanded, after World War II, that all countries put Nazi war criminals and their allies on trial. Eichmann was judged in Israel according to the Israeli “Law for bringing the Nazis and their Helpers to Justice”, which does not recognize any borders. More recently the Knesset enacted another law, enabling Israeli courts to judge perpetrators of any crime committed against Jews anywhere in the world. If so, what’s wrong with the Belgian law of “universal jurisdiction”, that allows Belgian courts to judge was criminals from all over the world?

Immanuel Kant promulgated the Categorical Imperative: “Act as if the principle by which you act were about to be turned into a universal law of nature”. But then, Kant was probably an anti-Semite.

Hundreds of years ago, the world adopted a legal doctrine that allowed every country to judge and hang pirates, irrespective of their ethnic identity, origin and area of activity. The assumption was that the pirate is an enemy of humanity at large, and that therefore every country has the right ? indeed, the duty ? to judge him.

The Belgian law against war crimes is a step in this direction, and I hope that many other countries will follow suit. Of course, it would be better if the International Criminal Court in The Hague would fulfil this duty, but much time will pass before it will be able to. Immense political pressures are being exerted, many limitations have been imposed, its hands and feet have been shackled. Worse, the only super-power, the United States, is openly trying to destroy it (as it destroyed the League of Nations after World War I.)

My dream is that before the end of the 21st century a new, binding world order, headed by a world parliament, will come into being. This order must include a world court and a world police force, that will judge conflicts between nations the way today’s national courts judge conflicts between people. The road there is long and full of obstacles, decades will pass before humanity will reach this stage. But we must strive towards this end. In the meantime, other countries must follow the Belgian example, in order to progress along this way. Especially concerning war crimes.

Some will say that we should not extradite our fellow-citizens, that it is the duty of every state to judge its war-criminals itself. But this is utopian: no country in the world has really done so. That is quite natural: not only are states disinclined to admit to such shameful crimes and try to hide them, but generally such crimes are committed by agents of the state itself.

The affair of Sabra and Shatila is a good example. Here, briefly, are the facts:

In the summer of 1982, the Israeli army invaded West Beirut, violating an explicit commitment given to the American mediator, Phillip Habib, not to do so. By that time, the PLO forces had already left the city.

From that moment on, West Beirut, including the Palestinian refugee camps Sabra and Shatila, became an Israeli occupied territory, making the Israeli army responsible for everything happening there.

After the occupation, the IDF let the “Phalangists”, members of an extreme Maronite Christian group, enter the two camps. These people has already committed heinous massacres in other Palestinian refugee camps. They were headed by a notorious mass-murderer, Eli Hweika.

All senior Israeli officials involved with Lebanon knew that the Phalangists were committing atrocities in order to panic the Palestinians into fleeing from Lebanon.

When the Israeli cabinet was informed of the army’s intention of letting the Phalangists in, Minister David Levy, who was born in Morocco, warned that this would cause a disaster. His colleagues ignored his warning.

Immediately upon entering the camps, the Phalangists started to butcher men, women and children indiscriminately.

The commander of the action, Eli Hweika, oversaw the action from the roof of the Israeli divisional command post, which was located right next to the camps. The officers of the Israeli division commander, General Amos Yaron, overheard Hweika instructing his men by walkie-talkie to kill women and children, too. They hastened to inform Yaron, but he ignored the message. (Later he admitted: “Our senses had become blunted.”)

During the night, while the massacre was going on (it lasted altogether three days), the Israeli Chief-of-Staff, General Raphael Eytan, ordered the army to accede to the Phalangists’ request and light the area with flares. He also provided the Phalangists with a tractor (which served, it is assumed, to bury the bodies).

A young Israeli officer who heard the horrible stories of the shocked women who had succeeded in fleeing from the camps, ran from one officer to another, begging them to interfere. All of them refused.

After the massacre, the Begin government refused to order an independent investigation. In a huge demonstration in Tel-Aviv (the mythological 400-thousand-demo), we compelled the government to appoint a high-level state investigation committee, headed by Supreme Court judge Yitzhaq Kahan. It did a good job and its report included all the facts mentioned above. In its conclusions, it found that the Minister of Defense (Sharon), the Chief-of-Staff and a number of other senior officers bear “indirect responsibility” for the outrage. Some of us argued even then that the committee had bent backwards in order to protect the reputation of the state, and that from the same facts much more far-reaching conclusions could have been drawn.

The committee recommended, inter alia, to dismiss the Minister of Defense from his office and to remove Yaron from the active command of troops in the field. But the committee did not recommend to dismiss Sharon altogether from the government and from public life, neither did it dismiss Yaron from the army. It did not take any step against the Chief-of-Staff, because he was about to finish his term anyhow. Other officers suffered minor penalties.

Today, Sharon is Prime Minister, practically commanding the army and Amos Yaron is Director General of the Ministry of Defense. As a matter of fact, all those accused by the Kahan report have been promoted.

Most importantly, not one of those suspected of responsibility for the massacre was ever put on trial (as distinguished from a commission of inquiry).

After the enactment of the Belgian law of universal jurisdiction, the survivors of the massacre sued Sharon and the officers in Brussels. It’s this case that has caused the present uproar.

Nobody questions the integrity of the Belgian judicial system. If Sharon and his men are confident of their innocence, why shouldn’t they stand trial and prove it? After all, the Israeli government has put at their disposal its senior attorneys, paid by the state. (One could ask, of course, why I should pay for the legal defense of people put on trial for alleged war crimes. But never mind.)

All this has nothing to do with anti-Semitism. The use of this defamation against everybody who dares to criticize Sharon and his colleagues reminds one of Dr. Samuel Johnson’s sayings: “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”

So you may eat Belgian chocolate. Even if it is of the bitter kind.

URI AVNERY has closely followed the career of Sharon for four decades. Over the years, he has written three extensive biographical essays about him, two (1973, 1981) with his cooperation. Avnery is featured in the new book, The Other Israel: Voices of Refusal and Dissent.

 

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URI AVNERY is an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom. He is a contributor to CounterPunch’s book The Politics of Anti-Semitism.

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