Several separate developments have converged in recent weeks to raise the issue of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s possible culpability as a war criminal for his responsibility for the death of at least 800 Palestinians at the hands of Lebanese Phalangist militiamen in the Beirut refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in September 1982.
The issue initially received international attention when BBC television aired a documentary in June in which respected international experts and officials suggested that Sharon indeed should be investigated for his role as commander of the Israeli forces that occupied Beirut at the time of the massacres.
The Fourth Geneva Convention states clearly that an army of occupation — as Israel’s was in Lebanon in 1982 — is responsible for ensuring the safety of civilians under its control. The respected U.S.-based group Human Rights Watch added its voice to those asking for an impartial investigation of Sharon’s role.
The issue gained further steam when lawyers filed a case in Belgium on behalf of 28 survivors of the 1982 massacres, using a Belgian law that allows cases to be brought against possible war criminals from any country. That law was successfully used to indict four Rwandans for their complicity in the deaths of innocent civilians in that country’s internal fighting in 1994. And the case to investigate Sharon took on added relevance after the former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic was sent to the Hague last week for trial before a U.N. tribunal established to investigate charges of war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity. The point is being repeatedly made in today’s world that war crimes cannot be committed with impunity, that justice will ultimately be done.
There is substantial and strong evidence against Sharon and the Israeli army for their indirect but active responsibility for the Sabra and Shatila massacres. Israelis had armed and trained the Phalangists, met with them on the issue of security in Beirut, allowed the Phalangists to enter the camps, provided night-time illumination via flares, and sealed the camps so that few Palestinians could escape during the massacres. The evidence, however, is useless unless three things happen: the evidence must be used in a credible court according to internationally acceptable standards of judicial procedures; all Israeli and Lebanese officials who might be responsible should also be investigated and tried in court; and these standards of investigating culpability in cases of crimes against humanity and war crimes must be universally administered and applied.
The case filed in the Belgian court provides an important opportunity to activate the universal nature of such war crimes legislation and provisions for determining guilt and applying appropriate punishments. One of the major complaints we have against Israel is that it tries to live according to blatant double standards. It states flatly that in working to protect its people (a reasonable and legitimate goal) it can do anything necessary, including ignoring international law and conventions for the protection of civilians in times of conflict (an unreasonable and non-legitimate practice). One of the crucial requirements for achieving a permanent, fair, comprehensive, and stable peace accord between Israel and the Arabs is the equal application to both sides of international legal and political standards of conduct. Terror, collective punishment, forcible occupation, active colonization, and other acts that are clearly banned by international law must be stopped by both sides.
Investigating Ariel Sharon and others for their roles in the Sabra and Shatila massacres would be an important start to the process of ending the lawlessness that defines many aspects of the Arab-Israeli conflict, especially Israel’s broad refusal to comply with many U.N. resolutions and its persistent ignoring of international law. If carrying through with the case against Sharon in the Belgian court means that Arabs, Turks, Iranians, or others in the Middle East besides Israelis are likely to be investigated for some of their actions, then so be it. We in the Arab world have always asked for a fair and impartial application of a single standard of political morality and state conduct. Israel has long defied such a standard of conduct, claiming a higher moral right to protect its citizens at any cost to the life, wellbeing, or rights of others in this area. So, for example, Israel these days routinely assassinates Palestinians whom it accuses of responsibility for the deaths of Israelis. But Israel also insists that its own leaders cannot be held responsible for the deaths of Palestinians.
The result of such blatant double standards has been a terrible and vicious cycle of mutual distrust, accusations, and violence by Arabs and Israelis. This cycle must be broken and replaced by a mutual commitment to the rule of law, universally and equally applied to both sides.
If Ariel Sharon and other Israeli commanders are not responsible for the deaths of hundreds or perhaps even thousands of Palestinians in Lebanon, then let them be found innocent and continue with their lives, vindicated and self-confident. But if they are found guilty by a reputable international tribunal, then they should be subjected to the same sort of punishment that they demand for those whom they accuse of killing Israelis. There cannot be two different standards of justice, responsibility, and punishment, one for Israelis and another for the rest of the world.
All leaders, states, and individuals in the Middle East must be subjected to a common standard of conduct. This is the ultimate meaning of the case that is being raised against Ariel Sharon. It deserves assessment on this level of the universal or the discriminating application of international law, and not on any other level.