Israel protests decision to permit war crimes proceedings

Friday, February 14, 2003

JERUSALEM -- Israel fired off a sharp letter to Belgium and temporarily recalled its ambassador Thursday to protest a Belgian court ruling that allows survivors of a 1982 massacre of Palestinians in Lebanon to file war charges against Israelis.

The office of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon described the ruling as "a scandalous provocation," and the Maariv newspaper called it "twisted and outrageous."

The Belgian Supreme Court had been asked to look into charges filed by survivors of a 1982 refugee camp massacre outside Beirut. The group of Palestinians was trying to bring Sharon to trial under a 10-year-old Belgian law allowing Belgian courts to hold trials for war crimes committed anywhere.

On Wednesday the high court backed a lower court ruling that Sharon has diplomatic immunity as the head of the Israeli government. But it left the door open for a future investigation against Sharon once he leaves office.

"We will not accept this blood libel," said Israeli Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "We will take action against it diplomatically, politically and in other ways."

Israeli Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau said it was "infuriating" that Belgium, which "stood idly by as Jewish blood flowed like a river and covered its ears to block the screams of the murdered" during the Nazi Holocaust of World War II "positions itself as the world's policeman."

The court also said an investigation could proceed against former Israeli army officer Amos Yaron, who was named in the complaint by the Palestinians.

Yaron, now director-general of the Israeli Defense Ministry, said Belgium was assuming for itself a moral authority to which it was not entitled.

"Who told the Belgians to go and judge people from other countries over things that happened in foreign countries," he told Israel Army Radio.

"It's an attempt to cause international uproar."

Israeli President Moshe Katsav sent a letter to Belgium's King Albert, saying that Israel's leaders and soldiers act in accordance with international norms, Israeli law and human morality.

"The president totally denies Belgium's moral right to bring Israeli leaders and officers of the Israeli army to trial," the letter said.

Netanyahu summoned Belgian Ambassador Wilfred Geens to his Jerusalem office on Thursday morning. Netanyahu told journalists afterward that he had made a strong protest to Geens. The Belgian Embassy refused to comment.

Israel also called home its ambassador to Belgium, Yehuda Kenar, for at least several days. He was due to arrive in Israel on Thursday afternoon to participate in discussions on what measures Israel will take in response to the court's ruling.

He is likely to return to Belgium next week, though an extended recall could be considered, Foreign Ministry spokesman Jonathan Peled said.

Sharon was defense minister in 1982 when hundreds of Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps south of Beirut were slaughtered by a Lebanese Christian militia allied with the Israelis. The Israeli forces had entered Lebanon several months earlier.

An Israeli inquiry found Sharon indirectly responsible and forced him to resign as defense minister in 1983.

Yaron commanded the Israeli army division which surrounded the camps at the time. He said in Thursday's radio interview that he had not been aware that the Christian Phalange militiamen had entered Sabra and Chatilla, and he could therefore not have prevented the killing.

"Many lessons have been learned from that war," he said. "There was a commission of inquiry which determined unequivocally that the crime was committed by the Lebanese Phalange, and that Israeli army soldiers played no part in the massacre."

The Supreme Court ordered that Yaron's case be sent back to a lower court, which would decide whether there is enough evidence to proceed with war crimes charges against the former general.

If a judge decides to press charges, Yaron could technically be arrested to stand trial if he enters Belgium. Yaron says he has no intention of traveling there.

Irit Kohn, head of the international department at the Israeli state prosecutor's office, said the Belgian law would lead to politicization of its legal system.

"Belgium has made a very dangerous ruling with this unfettered universal jurisdiction," she told the radio.

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