Israelis, Belgians Butting Heads
20 February 2003 By Stentor Danielson
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become a focal point for many of the world’s tensions. Peaceniks insist that the US address that conflict (which has been marked by numerous violations of UN resolutions) before trying anything with Iraq. Osama bin Laden wraps himself in the mantle of Palestinian nationalism because it can whip up support even in far-off Malaysia, where most Muslims have never even seen a Jew. Bill Clinton banked on Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak to get him a Nobel Peace Prize while leaving similar-sized turf wars in Africa untouched.
The latest organization to get drawn into the Israeli-Palestinian quagmire is the Belgian Supreme Court. The court ruled last week that, while current Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon cannot be tried for war crimes while he holds office, once he leaves he can be made to answer for his sins in Brussels.
A case filed in a Belgian court two years ago seeks to hold Sharon (along with senior Israeli defense official Amos Yaron) responsible for the 1982 massacre of between 800 and 2,000 Palestinians in two Lebanese refugee camps. The Sabra and Shatilla camp killings were carried out by Lebanese Christian guerillas backed by Israeli forces. An Israeli commission held Sharon, who was defense minister at the time, indirectly responsible for allowing the massacres, leading to Sharon's resignation. The incident has become a key talking point for those arguing that Sharon is not interested in peace or Palestinian rights.
Belgium finds itself in this mess because of a noble -- but astonishingly idealistic -- desire to be the world’s arbiter of human rights. In 1993, Belgium passed a law granting its courts "universal jurisdiction" over crimes against humanity and war crimes, regardless of whether the plaintiff or defendant has anything to do with Belgium. The possibility of suing foreign leaders has brought a host of suits -- around twenty-five of which have been deemed potentially valid - before the bench. Cuban President Fidel Castro, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime are among the defendants.
Legally and practically, this case is absurd. Belgium derives its jurisdiction over Israel by nothing more than unilateral fiat. A court like the United Nations War Crimes Tribunal or the International Criminal Court gets its authority from international treaties that include the defendant's nation as a signatory. Most national courts' jurisdictions were established by force of arms in the near or distant past.
Because Belgium lacks both the consent of Israel and the force of arms to ensure cooperation, any ruling is in practice unenforceable. At best, Belgium could threaten to arrest Sharon if he ever set foot in the country -- hardly something that puts a major crimp in the Israeli leader's post-retirement plans.
The case against Sharon is a political, not a legal, move. While the plaintiffs can't expect much of a material result from their suit, a victory would strike a symbolic blow. Going through a legal system with high-minded goals like human rights puts a stamp of respectability on their charges against Sharon. It implies that the Israeli leader is beyond the pale of civilized society, a deviant like a murderer or rapist.
Rather than dismiss the Belgian suit as meaningless political posturing, Sharon's government has resorted to knee-jerk anti-anti-Semitism. Israeli Foreign Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said "We in Israel and the Jewish people as a whole have had enough of blood libels on the soil of Europe," apparently comparing Belgium's exaggerated claim of authority to the anti-Semitic myth that Jews eat the blood of Christian children. Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit called Belgium a "small and insignificant nation."
The forceful and public dismissals of the Belgian case show that the Israeli government is not above using the Belgian court case for political ends. Netanyahu claimed the case would "harm not only Israel but also the entire free world" and was "giving a prize to terror." This kind of rhetoric shifts the case from a decision about Sharon's complicity in a twenty year-old crime to a microcosm of the world political situation, in which hawks such as the current Israeli leadership see a struggle of free nations (notably Israel and the US) against lawless regimes that are being appeased by Europe.
Israel's intemperate reaction goes beyond hostile words. Officials report that Israel is considering working to block American investment in Belgium. A hotel manager in the resort town of Eilat has barred Belgians from his rooms and urged fellow hotel owners to do likewise.
To keep all of this in perspective, recall that Belgium is not prosecuting Sharon -- it is simply providing a forum that has been taken advantage of by a group with an axe to grind. Belgian Ambassador Wilfried Geens, who got an earful from Sharon after the announcement, was not happy to be held responsible for something that is not a policy of his government. Further, the case has not been decided. While European opinion does tend to tilt pro-Palestinian, there is a reasonable chance that the court could vindicate Sharon by ruling that his involvement with Sabra and Shatilla was not sufficient for a conviction.
Belgium's attempt to claim jurisdiction over the world, and Israel's insistence on seeing the case against Sharon as part of a campaign of global anti-Semitism, have blown this case out of proportion, to the detriment of Israeli-Belgian relations.
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