Israeli soldiers with dead bodyThere is an easy nobility about dying for a cause which I frequently find contemptible. But to commit slaughter on a massive scale, in the single-minded pursuit of obscure goals or long-forgotten grievances: so many modern leaders the courage for that. Perhaps we are all atrophied examples of Nietzsche’s ‘flabby humanity’.

Ariel Sharon is not. Ecce homo, Nietzsche might say. Sharon looks into the abyss of hatred and does not blink: he revels in that tigerish lust to annihilate which is so foreign to most of us. Sharon is the last of the Hellenes. He does not shirk from conflict, war, and senseless butchery, and his unswerving dedication to his cause has brought one of the most profound conflicts in modern history into sharp relief.

Will nations and peoples exist in a world where the rule of law and the good of humanity gradually gain preponderance over the savage law of the jungle, where military might is the only relevant part of the equation at the end of the day?

What respect I have for Sharon does not cloud my judgment. He is responsible for fifty years of vicious crimes against humanity which demand redress. Modern civilization will have passed a fundamental test when he stands next to Milosevic to answer for his deeds.

Battle of the Flatlands

This battle is not being fought in the streets of Ramallah, but courtrooms in the Hague and Brussels. On March 6, a Belgian court hesitated at the edge of an historic precipe. Should the investigation into Ariel Sharon for war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity go forward? Generals, presidents, and dictators everywhere sat up and took notice as one small nation wrestled with the duties of conscience.

The question was a difficult one. Are there some crimes so heinous, so terrible, so insulting to the spirit of mankind itself that any state has the right to pass judgment on those who commit them? And if so, does this also apply to those who have served at the highest levels of government and possess ministerial immunity?

The stakes were high – and Belgium folded without revealing its cards. But the ante will be higher in the next round as the blood continues to flow from a generation of Palestinians that have no memories – and no expectations – of anything but war. What happened?

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The International Court of Justice ruled on February 14 that a Belgian arrest warrant for Congo’s former foreign minister was illegal. The ruling essentially declared that Belgium’s 1993 war crimes law – which establishes universal jurisdiction of Belgian courts for violations of the Geneva Convention – is invalid.

A hearing is set for May 15 where lawyers in the Sharon case will present their views as to the ramifications of the ruling. One can easily infer that the only courts with the power to try high government officers are the states themselves and the international tribunals of the Hague – otherwise the logic of the ruling would have led to the dismissal of the Milosevic case and the suspension of related indictments.

Goering’s maxim of history being written by the victors still holds true. The Hague tribunal exists in political serfdom to the will of the United States, and Milosevic’s claims of selective bias are well-founded. The political impossibility of the Hague initiating a war crimes tribunal for the Middle East conflict is the very reason that it can never be an impartial arbiter of justice.

But it is precisely the concept of universal jurisdiction over the most terrible of crimes, independent of the narrow claims of political expediency, which is the only scrap of proof that we have drawn any lessons from the ashes of Dresden and Auschwitz. And it offers the only ray of hope that a judge, sometime, somewhere, will prevent the ghost of Goering from having the last laugh.

Throwing stones in a glass house

The indictment filed in Brussels accuses Ariel Sharon of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. Is he guilty? The massacre at Sabra and Shatila – facts:

The complaint stems from the massacre which took place from 16 to 18 September, 1982, in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in Beirut. The massacre was documented exhaustively, and the facts of the case are not in dispute.

Israel launched an invasion of Lebanon on June 6, 1982 under the personal command of Sharon. The army advanced to positions surrounding West Beirut – where Arafat and the PLO were located – in less than two weeks. 18.000 Lebanese civilians died during the advance. Under a U.S.-brokered ceasefire, the PLO evacuated Beirut: noncombatants remained in the refugee camps under an American security guarantee. International peacekeeping forces left on September 10.

Over the next six days, the Israeli army blockaded Sabra and Shatila and bombarded the camps, violating the ceasefire. Lebanese forces affiliated with Israel entered the camps on September 16.

A three day orgy of violence followed. Estimates of the number of civilians killed ranges from 2,000 – 3,500. The Israelis were fully aware of what was happening. They gave extensive support to the militia, to the extent of firing flares to aid the death squads on the ground, and guarding “detainees” who subsequently “disappeared”.

In response to the media outcry, the Israeli cabinet denied all responsibility, declaring “a blood libel has been perpetrated against the Jewish people”. Four hundred thousand Israelis demonstrated against the brutality committed in their name. The government was forced to launch an inquiry, concluding that Sharon held “indirect responsibility” for the massacre and recommending his removal as Defense Minister.

Did Sharon know?

Sharon claims that he could not have been aware that letting the Lebanese militia into the camps would lead to a massacre. This claim is not remotely credible.

Everyone knew that letting the Lebanese into the camps would result in terrible violence because of the assassination of president-elect Gemayel. When Israeli Chief of Staff Eitan met with U.S. Special Envoy Draper before the massacre began, he said “They’re [the Lebanese] obsessed with the idea of revenge…. some of their commanders visited me, and I could see in their eyes that it’s going to be a relentless slaughter.”

Sharon installed himself in a position of direct command responsibility in the Kuwaiti Embassy in Beirut, overlooking the camps. He had engaged personally in intensive negotiations about the operation with Lebanese intelligence chief Hobeika (recently assassinated in mysterious circumstances after agreeing to testify in the Sharon case).

IDF commanders received real-time reports from the camps as the slaughter began. A briefing for divisional commanders three hours after the operation began said: “On the one hand, there are evidently no terrorists in the camp; Sabra is empty. On the other, they’ve gathered up women, children and probably old people and don’t know quite what to do with them.”

Their decision, of course, is a matter of historical record. After the killing began, Draper cabled Sharon immediately: “The situation is absolutely appalling. They are killing children. You have the field completely under your control and are therefore responsible for that area.” The Israeli government’s report stated that “it is impossible to justify the Minister of Defense’s disregard of the danger of a massacre.”

World opinion

World opinion of both the Lebanon invasion and the subsequent massa
cre has been uncompromisingly harsh. The United Nations Security Council condemned the massacre immediately. The General Assembly passed a resolution calling it an “act of genocide.” An international commission was formed to investigate the circumstances of the Lebanon invasion and the massacre. Its conclusions are damning.

“The invasion has no validity in international law,” the report declares, “as Israel did not have any grounds to rely on the provision of the Charter of the United Nations concerning self-defense, while the means used to effect the invasion totally lacked proportionality. The cease-fire of July, 1981 had been observed scrupulously (by the PLO). The objective of the war … was to achieve certain political and strategic aims at high cost.”

The report concludes that the Israeli armed forces engaged in gross violations of the Geneva Convention and that the responsible persons should be prosecuted for war crimes. It should be remembered that Sharon personally ordered the expansion of the war aims of the invasion and did not even inform Begin. Sharon does not bear sole responsibility for this ugly stain on the history of his country, but it would never have been possible without his single-minded drive to exterminate those he sees as his enemies.

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Celebrating fifty years of genocide

Wartime always calls upon leaders to make difficult decisions which can result in the deaths of untold innocents. Hiroshima is only the most spectacular example of the impossible moral calculus of war leaders are continually called upon to perform. While violence against civilians is never excusable, it is inevitable. Sharon’s defenders admit that the massacre was an unfortunate mistake, but one of many on both sides in an ugly conflict which Israel did not initiate.

Sabra and Shatila are not an isolated occurrence, however. Sharon has a fifty-year track record of using all the powers of the state to create a pure ‘Greater Israel’ on the lands captured through 1967. He has no qualms about using tactics which in Yugoslavia were described as “ethnic cleansing” or in South Africa were termed “apartheid”.

The squalid camps where refugees have been living for decades, under carefully scripted collective punishment regimes, are grimly reminiscent of early Nazi ‘relocation’ policies. Desmond Tutu remarked, “if I were to change the names, a description of what is happening in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank could describe events in South Africa.” Sharon bears personal responsibility for much of this, but it is the people of Israel who are ultimately culpable for the crimes committed in their name.

The savagery committed daily against the Palestinians by the IDF is so familiar that it hardly bears mentioning. Perhaps more seriously, it is complemented by a sophisticated policy of economic repression, land seizure, bulldozing villages, deportation and settlement which can only be called ethnic cleansing. Occupations are strategically planned to maximize economic dislocation of Palestinian areas, intensify the effect of near-constant closures between these areas, and strangle development.

This is part of a two-pronged plan intended to displace the current residents over a number of generations. Firstly, it is designed to make UN Resolution 242 (withdrawal from the Territories) impossible to implement. Secondly, it seeks to make conditions so miserable in the Occupied Territories that occupants will emigrate abroad to Jordan or Egypt. Eitan boasted in 1983, “When we have settled the land, all the Arabs will be able to do will be to scurry around like drugged roaches in a bottle.” Sharon is the primary architect and most eloquent spokesman of this policy, holding various ministerial posts related to housing and settlement between 1977 and 1992.

Sharon’s attention is not confined to the Occupied Territories, as he consistently shows a militant antagonism toward Israel’s non-Jewish citizens. Throughout the 1980s he advocated a “transfer solution”, chillingly reminiscent of eastbound boxcars 40 years earlier. In 1964 he asked officers on his staff to draft plans for the forcible deportation of 300.000 Arab citizens of Israel. The concept of an “Arab citizen of Israel” is meaningless for Sharon. In fact this means that he has no comprehension of the basic rules which govern the relations of democratic states and their citizens.

In pursuit of justice

Milosevic has shown that diplomatic immunity is no barrier to justice for heads of state when it suits the will of the United States. But subjective application of justice is damning to the validity of the international tribunals of the Hague and the concept of universal jurisdiction which it claims to represent. So long as this void of legitimacy exists, individual states must do all they can to bring those to justice who are guilty of the most egregious crimes against humanity.

“We are unusual and ordinary at the same time,” says Gerard Dive, of the Belgian Justice Ministry. “We simply do in practice what everybody should be doing, but there is a habit of shutting ones’ eyes.” But shutting one’s eyes does not ensure that the Sharons of the future will think twice before directing military might against defenseless civilians.

The charges leveled in the Brussels indictment are not the most heinous which could be brought against Sharon.

The decades-long, meticulously planned economic, military, and demographic assault on the Palestinians of the Occupied Territories is a far more terrible crime. Milosevic stands in the dock in the Hague to answer to humanity for his crimes in Kosovo, Bosnia and Croatia, but they are similar in scale, premeditation, and imputation of command responsibility to those which have been leveled at Sharon. If we presume to try Milosevic, we can do no less to Sharon.

The revulsion – and ultimately, decisiveness – with which the West met Serbia’s aggression during the Balkan wars must be tempered by our recognition of the effects of wrenching social and political change, and the ability of an autocratic dictator to effectively squash expressions of dissent. Israel has no such excuse. She is no dictatorship, no nation of duped citizens led into a terrible situation by a maniacal despot.

Protesters line the streets of Tel Aviv today not to call for peace, but to call for more violence and further mutilation of an already stillborn Palestinian state. Israel bears a vast responsibility for her actions and must be held accountable to the same standards of conduct outlined in the Geneva Convention and the Treaty of Rome.

Israel’s response to such charges is a knee-jerk accusation of anti-Semitism. This defense is both inadmissible and contemptible. Accusing Israel of loathsome crimes stems not from a hatred of the criminal, but of the crime. The history Israel and the Jewish people is no excuse. The horrors of the Holocaust do not remotely justify merciless and systematic oppression, militaristic irredentism, and a rabid ethnic and nationalistic chauvinism which equates its enemies with vermin. One might reasonably expect the opposite result.

The charges are not the worst which could be brought, but they will serve as a proxy for fifty years of crimes against humanity committed by Ariel Sharon and the State of Israel. The massacre was a clear violation of the Geneva Convention, and can be shown to be perfectly in line with a long-standing Israeli effort to eliminate the Palestinians as a perceived threat by any means available.

The means employed are so coldly systematic, so grossly disproportionate to the threat, and so abusive to the fundamental rights of millions of innocent civilians, that they must be judged as irremediab
ly beyond the pale of civilized conduct. Modern Israel is well on the way to becoming the monster which created it.

I am hesitant to claim too much significance for whatever decision is taken in Brussels on May 15: partially out of pessimism, because I know the United States will never allow the indictment to continue, but partially out of optimism, because I fervently believe that a day of reckoning will come for the Sharons of this world. History has already rendered a swift and damning judgement, but she can be a fickle mistress.

The wheels of justice move more slowly, but their movements are inexorable. One day our children will look back with shame and disbelief at our passiveness in the face of state-sanctioned terror, and our naive complicity with the assumptions of crass power politics. In the meantime, Alexander stands triumphant on his chariot, the soldiers laugh, and the cries of Batis fall on deaf ears.