TEL AVIV, Israel, Feb. 13 (UPI) -- In a furious reaction to Belgium's supreme appeals court's decision that Ariel Sharon could be tried for war crimes, Israel's ambassador to Brussels returned home Thursday for indefinite "consultations" and its president said Belgium ought not act as though it were "God's deputy."
The anger largely reflected a feeling the Belgians were after Sharon because they oppose his policies.
"This file was presented for political reasons," Attorney General Eliakim Rubinstein said. "Israel need not worry about any legal proceedings. We are not war criminals and the Israel Defense Forces, Sharon and the officers are not war criminals. However, we do have to cope with political moves in a legal guise ... and this should worry us," he said.
Israel Radio commentator Yehiel Guttman put his reaction more concisely: "The Belgians are known for their anti-Semitism!" he snapped.
In a country that practices a universal draft, Israelis were also concerned that Wednesday's ruling potentially opened the door to criminal charges against any soldier involved in fighting the Palestinian uprising. But that danger is likely for senior military officers only, noted the head of the military's international law department, Col. Daniel Reisner.
The Brussels Court of Cassation ruled on Wednesday that a war crimes lawsuit against Ariel Sharon could go ahead -- but only after he no longer enjoys diplomatic immunity as prime minister of Israel. The suit was brought by Palestinian survivors of what has come to be known as the Sabra and Chatilla massacre of 1982. The plaintiffs used Belgium's so-called 1993 "genocide law," which claims universal jurisdiction allowing the country's courts to try crimes against humanity and genocide, no matter where they were committed.
Luc Walleyn, one of the lawyers representing the victims' families, described the decision as "a victory not only for the victims of Sabra and Chatilla, but for all victims of genocide or crimes against humanity. The ruling clearly shows the court's political independence."
The survivors had appealed against a lower court ruling last June that Sharon could not be prosecuted because he was not in Belgium. Indeed, the reversal surprised many observers Wednesday, as a similar case was dropped by the International Court of Justice against the former Congolese foreign minister. Abdoulaye Yerodia Ndombasi was indicted by Belgian prosecutors in 2000 for crimes against international law, including inciting racial hatred and the killing of members of Congo's ethnic-Tutsi minority.
The judges' decision means their courts may try foreigners for alleged war crimes committed in third countries, even if the defendants are absent. Israeli lawyers were studying whether that means that anyone who enters a member state of the European Union could be arrested and shipped to Brussels for trial.
In a clear call for support among its American allies, Israeli officials added that critics of the U.S. fighting in Afghanistan, or perhaps soon of its war in Iraq, could turn to the Belgian court and initiate criminal investigations of the American officers.
The case against Sharon dates back to 1982 when he was defense minister. Sharon masterminded the invasion of Lebanon -- triggered by attempted assassination of Israel's ambassador to Britain, derived to have originated with Palestinian militants based in Lebanon -- including a push northward to its capital. West Beirut at the time was under Muslim and Palestinian control.
Shortly after taking over West Beirut in September 1982, Israeli troops surrounded local Palestinian refuge camps they believed sheltered militants. Then they let in some 150 members of a Lebanese Christian militia, the Phalangists. Two days later the bodies of Palestinian civilians raped, slashed or shot littered the streets of Sabra and Chatilla -- about 800, according to Israeli estimates, and upwards of 2,000 or more according to survivors of the massacre.
An Israeli judicial commission of inquiry faulted Sharon and several generals for having failed to foresee such a massacre and for having reacted too slowly to stop it when they learned what was going on. They did not recommended criminal charges.
Sharon was forced out of the defense ministry and other officers were relieved of their command posts.
Twenty-three Palestinian survivors turned to the Belgian court and filed charges against Sharon and several generals in May 2001, two months after he became prime minister. Israel tried to block the move with legal arguments, and indeed appeared on the brink of winning after the lower court's dismissal last June.
Along with Wednesday's ruling about Sharon, the supreme appeals court also overturned the finding last year by its criminal appeals court that a lawsuit against Amos Yaron, who was brigadier general in the Israeli army in 1982, was inadmissible. In effect, the supreme appeals judges ruled Belgium's genocide law overrode its penal code, which says a case could not proceed against a person who was not in the country.
Yaron is now the Defense Ministry's director general. With him and Sharon are two others who may now face trial someday: Rafael Eitan, who was military chief of general staff, and Amir Drori, who headed the Northern Command.
Shaul Amore, who was recently replaced as ambassador to Brussels (by Yehudi Keinar who was hastily recalled), slammed the court's decision as "a campaign against Ariel Sharon, the Jewish people. There are charges there against (Palestinian leader) Yasser Arafat, (Iraqi ruler) Saddam Hussein, (Cuban President) Fidel Castro and they don't touch it. But for three years they have been pouncing on Israel and Sharon."
Foreign Minister Binyamin Netanyahu summoned Belgian Ambassador Wilfred Geens to Jerusalem for a dressing down.
"The state of Israel and the Jewish people are not ready to sustain more blood libels on European soil. What happened yesterday in Belgium is a blood libel," Netanyahu declared.
Geens did not comment. An Israeli Foreign Ministry official quoted him as having said his government has not yet studied the court's ruling.
Chief Rabbi Israel Lau issued a statement saying: "The thought that a nation which stood by and watched when Jewish blood was spilled like water and ignored victims' cries, is now elevating itself to the position of world policeman is extremely outrageous.
"It is regretful that a state which remained quiet at a time (during World War II) when it should have been screaming out in the name of humanity, is now expressing itself with such a pretentious and hypocritical voice, in order to cast fault on IDF (Israel Defense Force) soldiers and its commanders, who have endangered their own lives many times in order to refrain from injuring innocent civilians, and in order to denigrate the behavior of a democratic, sovereign state," Lau said.
President Moshe Katsav wrote the Belgian monarch Albert II that no one has the right to doubt Israel's ethical standards. The president's spokesman said that Katsav added, again in a clear reference to the Nazi persecution and killing of Jews in World War II, "Those who accuse us, would do well to reflect on their past actions."
"Belgium shouldn't be God's deputy. We, here, in Jerusalem can better safeguard our morality," Katsav asserted.
An Israeli law group, Shurat HaDin, Thursday asked the attorney general to indict former Belgian officials allegedly responsible for the murder of Congo's leader, Patrice Lumumba, in 1961. Basing itself on a recent study by a Belgian historian, the group alleged that African Affairs Minister Harold Aspermont Lynen ordered the assassination. Police officers allegedly tortured Lumumba and brought him before a firing squad that executed him, the group said.
Other proceedings under Belgium's controversial law have been brought against world leaders including Arafat, Saddam, Castro and Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo. So far, however, only four Rwandans were tried and sentenced by the Belgian court for their role in the 1994 genocide of the central African country's ethnic-Tutsi minority.
(With reporting by Elke Meeus in Antwerp, Belgium.)