By Donald H. Harrison
David A. Harris, national executive director of the American Jewish Committee, joined a chorus of protests Thursday, Feb. 13, against a ruling by a Belgian court the day before that it has the right to try Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for war crimes once he leaves public office and
no longer is shielded by diplomatic immunity.
Harris, in San Diego to meet with members of the regional San Diego chapter headed by president Joan Dean and director Sam Sokolove, said that the decision showed once again that the world has multiple standards — some for other countries and one against Israel.
In a meeting with San Diego Jewish communal leaders at Congregation Beth Israel, Harris responded during a question-and-answer session that he was uncertain by what right Belgium had arrogated to itself the ability to try cases involving alleged war crimes by citizens of other states outside of Belgium.
Twenty-three Palestinian plaintiffs had sought to bring suit against Sharon in connection with the killing by Lebanese Phalangists of hundreds of people in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps in Beirut in September of 1982. The plaintiffs described themselves as survivors of the massacre.
Sharon had been Israel's minister of defense at that time, personally participating in Israel's invasion of Lebanon's capital city a short time after that nation's President Bashir Gemayel was assassinated. Sharon returned to Israel before the massacre of an estimated 800 people in the
camps occurred. However, an Israeli commission of inquiry headed by Yitzhak Kahan concluded in 1983 that Sharon bore indirect responsibility for the massacre. Sharon resigned as defense minister following the commission's report.
With Sharon's knowledge, the Israel Defense Forces assigned to the Phalangists— Christian forces loyal to Gemayel— the task of occupying the camps, home to Palestinian refugees, whom the Phalangists blamed for the president's assassination.
The Kahan report quoted Israeli Lt. Elul (first name not given) that Phalangist commanding officer Elie Hobeika, at a liaison post with the Israelis atop a building, received a radio communication in Arabic from an officer in the field. The commission's report went on to say that the field
officer reported that "there were 50 women and children, and what should he do. Elie Hobeika's reply over the radio was: 'This is the last time you're going to ask me a question like that, you know exactly what to do," and then raucous laughter broke out among the Phalangist personnel on the roof."
"Ariel Sharon was not directly responsible for Sabra and Shatilla," Harris told the luncheon meeting of San Diego Jewish communal leaders. "Who was directly responsible? The Phalangists. Who was the head of the Phalangists who entered the camps? He (Elie Hobeika) died last year in
Beirut (by assassination). For 20 years after Sabra and Shatilla, he lived openly in Lebanon— the person who was ultimately directly responsible for Sabra and Shatilla ... lived openly there.
"I am not saying this to ignore the Israeli role; I am simply saying this because I don't get it. If this were not a politically motivated decision, and they were going after everyone involved in the killing, and they named the Phalangists, one by one, perhaps. But then I want to see the next group, against Yassir Arafat, and after that George Habash, and after that against Abu Nidal, although he is no longer alive. We could go down the list.
"It is ... a single standard for Israel and other standards for other countries which is so problematic," Harris said.
Elsewhere, commentary on the Belgian court decision was far less restrained. Israel's Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recalled Israel's Ambassador Yehudi Kenar from Brussels for consultations, stating that the court made "a scandalous decision, which legitimizes terror and harms those who fight it. This turns the tables--when those who fight terror turn into the accused
and the terrorists are victorious. Belgium is helping to harm not only Israel, but also the entire free world, and Israel will respond with severity to this."
Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel rejected Netanyahu¹s objections. "These are groundless charges," Michel said. "I regret that Israel does not accept the philosophy of the law and still thinks it is especially targeted against Israel."
In a letter to King Albert of Belgium, Israel's President Moshe Katsav said he "totally rejects Belgium¹s moral right to bring Israeli leaders and IDF to trial."
According to a spokesman, Katsav "emphasized that Israeli leaders and IDF officers operate according to international norms, the Israeli law, their conscience and basic human morality, and that no one has the right to doubt the ethical standards Israel holds itself to, and that those who accuse us would do well to reflect on their past actions."
Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau said it was "infuriating¹" that Belgium, which "stood idly by as Jewish blood flowed like a river¹" during the nazi Holocaust of World War II, now "positions itself as the world's policeman."
In another development, Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, director of Shurat HaDin-Israel Law Center, demanded in a letter to Israeli Atty. Gen. Elyakim Rubinstein that Israel institute retaliatory proceedings against Belgian officials implicated in the 1961 murder of Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba of the former Belgian Congo, today Zaire.
"The government of Belgium murdered millions of Africans during its decades of occupation and economic rape of the Congo," Darshan-Leitner said. "The Belgian officials who assassinated Lumumba have never been indicted nor punished in any manner for this loathsome murder.
"Given Belgium's newfound interest in international law enforcement, Israel should indict all the former Belgian officials involved and commence a criminal prosecution of Lumumba's murder in Jerusalem."
Reports from the Associated Press and other Heritage news sources were incorporated into this article.