Is justice finally catching up with the Butcher of Beirut?

Is the past finally catching up with Ariel Sharon, better known as the “Butcher of Beirut”? A case was lodged in a Brussels court on June 18 by survivors of the massacre at Sabra and Shatila refugee-camps (1982), accusing the Israeli prime minister of genocide and crimes against humanity. Since 1993, under Belgian law a case can be lodged regardless of where the crime was committed and the nationality of the defendant. The law, extended in 1999 to cover human-rights violations and genocide, strips government ministers of all immunity from prosecution. After the 52-page complaint was handed over to investigating judge Sophie Huguet, who will decide whether the case is admissible, Chibli Mallat, the Lebanese lawyer for the 23 Palestinian and Lebanese plaintiffs, said: “We hope that Mr Sharon will be brought to justice, will be tried and will defend himself.”

“We are confident that a criminal investigation will show the responsibility of Mr Sharon,” one of the Belgian lawyers representing the victims added. Souad Srour al-Mere’eh, a survivor of the massacre, travelled to Brussels to file the complaint. Reading a statement in Arabic, she recounted how gunmen shot dead most of her family and gangraped her. “I’ve waited impatiently for this day,” she told the Reuters newsagency. Walking with the aid of crutches, with a bullet still lodged in her spine, Mere’eh called for justice to be done: “First justice and then peace. Money always disappears but justice will last.”

The case against Sharon springs from the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, when he was defence minister. The Israeli army had invaded Lebanon in June and occupied the whole of Beirut by mid-September. Under its command, 150 members of the SLA, a Christian Phalangist militia, were allowed to enter the Palestinian refugee-camps of Sabra and Shatila, perpetrating a three-day massacre in which thousands of people were tortured and butchered in cold blood. Palestinian fighters and Syrian troops had been withdrawn from Lebanon a few days earlier under a US-brokered deal, with the specific proviso that Palestinian civilians left behind would be given complete protection so long as they obeyed Lebanese law.

The unleashing of the Phalangists on the unarmed Palestinian refugees was a deliberate act of murder for which Sharon bears direct responsibility. This was also the subject of a BBC programme, Panorama, on June 17, which was broadcast again on June 23. Two leading international law experts, Richard Falk, professor of International Law at Princeton, and Justice Richard Goldstone of South Africa, gave their considered opinion and concluded that Sharon could be indicted for war crimes. Falk, himself Jewish, told Panorama: “I think there is no doubt in my mind that he [Sharon] is indictable [as a war criminal] for the kind of knowledge that he either had, or should have had” of what would happen in Sabra and Shatila refugee camps if Phalangist militias, operating under Israeli command, were let loose, because of their intense hatred towards the Palestinians.

Under the long-established humanitarian laws known as the Geneva Conventions, which govern the behaviour of an occupying army in an internat sl armed conflict, political and military commanders are responsible for protecting civilians from harm. Justice Goldstone, who led the prosecution of suspected war-criminals in the UN tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda from 1994 to 1996, is one of the leading figures helping to develop war-crimes law.

When asked by Panorama about Sharon in the context of what is called “command responsibility” vis-a-vis his role in the Palestinian refugee-camps massacre, he said: “A military commander and a political leader who was involved in giving instructions would clearly have an obligation under the law of war, and under the Geneva Convention, to ensure that innocent civilians were not murdered or raped or injured in any way. Command responsibility goes fairly far, it requires obviously knowledge of the danger to innocent civilians; if there’s that knowledge then there’s an obligation to take reasonable steps to protect them.”

Richard Falk, who is Jewish, has been forced to ask for police protection since his Panorama interview was broadcast. The Jewish lobby in the US, through its control of the media and manipulation of the US Congress and the White House, in general prevents any criticism of Israeli policies or crimes. American leaders have a cosy relationship with zionist leaders, including suspected war-criminals, because they have much in common. US president George Bush, who has never been accused of being an intellectual or even of being familiar with international affairs, is greatly impressed with Sharon and calls him a personal friend and mentor. So it is unlikely that Sharon will be arrested in the US and handed over to Belgium for trial.

In order to deflect international pressure, the then Israeli government, led by Menachem Begin, another war criminal, was forced to establish a commission of inquiry headed by an Israeli judge, to investigate the Sabra and Shatila massacre. The Kahan Commission held Sharon “indirectly responsible” for the massacres and he was forced to resign from the cabinet. This is as close as the Israeli commission would come to admitting Sharon’s guilt; anything less would have completely discredited it. Nothing else, however, happened after the commission’s report. As far as Israel and its apologists were concerned, that was the end of the matter.

Not so for the surviving victims and their relatives. One should not place too much hope in the Belgian court even if it accepts the case for trial, yet the fact that a case has been lodged against Sharon in Europe and that the BBC is able to withstand zionist pressure about its programme, is itself a little progress. Sharon’s trial, and the trials of all other zionist criminals, will have to await the victory of the Islamic movement in Palestine.

That day may come sooner than expected if the strength of the intifada is anything to go by. The zionists have too much innocent blood on their hands to walk away from it unscathed. Justice will only be done when Muslims have the power to implement it. Without power, they will continue to suffer more massacres and tragedies like those of Sabra and Shatila.