A recent anniversary passed by without receiving much notice in the mainstream media. It was twenty years ago—September 16-18, 1982, to be precise—that Lebanese Phalangist militiamen, under the watchful tutelage of their Israeli army overlords, raped, hacked and shot to death some 1,000-3,000 Palestinian civilians in the Beirut refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila.
No one has ever been tried for the massacre, but an official Israeli commission of inquiry found that Israel’s defense minister at the time, Ariel Sharon, “bears personal responsibility” as well as “indirect responsibility.” It was Sharon, after all, who had ordered the Israel Defense Forces to invade Beirut and surround the camps. This was in direct violation of a US-brokered agreement, in which American diplomats had guaranteed the safety of Palestinian civilians in return for the PLO’s agreement to withdraw its armed forces from the country. And it was Sharon who arranged for the Phalangists—who had already carried out massacres against Palestinians in Lebanon’s bloody civil war, and were now maddened with rage after the recent assassination of their leader, Bashir Gemayel—to enter the camps. Over the next 40-odd hours the Phalangists, aided by IDF flares and observed by IDF officers from nearby rooftops, carried out the killings.
After the commission of inquiry published its results, it was thought that Sharon’s political career was over, that he would never live down the disgrace. In fact, he engineered his own resurrection when, on September 28, 2000, he convinced Prime Minister Ehud Barak to allow him to visit Jerusalem’s Haram al-Sharif, the third-holiest site in Islam, accompanied by more than a thousand soldiers and police. That provocation, at a time of extreme tension after the failed peace talks at Camp David, ignited the new intifada. Amid the violence, public opinion in Israel shifted sharply to the right, and Sharon was elected prime minister in February 2001. Now this man of blood is hailed by President Bush as a “man of peace,” and his iron-fist campaign of repression in the West Bank and Gaza has received steadfast American backing, despite worldwide condemnation for Israel’s human rights violations.
New hope for some measure of justice in the Sabra/Shatila case was raised when, in June of last year, Palestinian plaintiffs brought a complaint in Belgium against Sharon and other Israeli and Phalangist leaders alleging war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, availing themselves of a recent Belgian statute that allows universal jurisdiction, even against heads of state, for such crimes. Sharon was a primary object of the indictment because of the well-known doctrine, under international customary law and specified in the Fourth Geneva Convention, that the highest-ranking military leaders involved bear “command responsibility” for war crimes.
Early this year Elie Hobeika, the notorious Phalangist militia leader whose troops are widely believed to have directly carried out the massacre, told visiting Belgian senators that he was willing to travel to Belgium to tell the court what he knew about the case. Days later, he was assassinated in a powerful car-bomb explosion. Two other Lebanese assumed to have close knowledge of the massacre have also been recently assassinated. Those murders remain unsolved. This past June the case received a blow when a Belgian appeals court threw it out, ruling that Sharon couldn’t be tried if he was not present in Belgium. Amnesty International condemned the ruling, and the plaintiffs have vowed to appeal it to the country’s Supreme Court. The survivors of the massacre recently received unexpected support in the form of a letter from an Israeli women’s peace group, the Coalition of Women for a Just Peace. The letter said, “Our hearts ache to recall the terrible massacre that took place in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps 20 years ago, which Israeli leaders allowed to take place. We condemn the brutal murderers of your loved ones and we condemn the leaders who must be held accountable for these war crimes, Ariel Sharon above all.”
International humanitarian law has developed the principle of universal jurisdiction for good reason: that some crimes are so heinous they involve the responsibility of all mankind, without regard to where or when they take place. Like Pinochet and other war criminals, Sharon and his Phalangist underlings should be brought to book; if they can successfully evade justice, then it will give heart to killers everywhere.