Sharon's Contest

by Colin Shea

"Thus the Greeks, the most humane men of ancient times, have a trait of cruelty, a tigerish lust to annihilate ... that really must strike fear into our hearts throughout their whole history and mythology, if we approach them with the flabby concept of modern "humanity." When Alexander has the feet of Batis, the brave defender of Gaza, pierced, and ties him, alive, to his carriage, to drag him about while his soldiers mock, that is a revolting caricature of Achilles, who maltreats Hector's corpse in a similar fashion at night; and even this trait is offensive to us and makes us shudder. Here we look into the abyss of hatred."

- Nietzsche, Homer's Contest


I loathe war but have a grudging respect for warriors. There 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. Their souls are no swords forged in the fires of war and hate, and they lack even the strength to commit the atrocities that are often necessary in the pursuit of temporal greatness. They are atrophied example of Nietzsche's 'flabby humanity'.

Ariel Sharon is not. Ecce homo, Nietzsche might say. Here is a man who looks into the abyss of hatred and does not blink, who revels in that tigerish lust to annihilate which is so foreign to most of the western world. Sharon is the last of the Hellenes. Perhaps it is fitting that this dinosaur, this relic of a former age holds sway in the land which might claim to be the birthplace of western civilization. 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. Not the 'clash of civilizations' between a barbarous Islam and a gentle West, but of clash of determining orders of the international system. 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 GDP and cluster bombs are the only relevant parts of the equation at the end of the day?

What respect I have for Sharon does not cloud my judgment. He belongs to a bygone age. Flabby humanity or not, I long for the day when he stands in the same dock where Eichmann once stood.

Battle of the Flatlands

The fundamental 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 be allowed to go forward? It would have been the first time that a sitting head of state would have been actively prosecuted under the auspices of international law. 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 even if that is the case, does this also apply to those who have served at the highest levels of government and may have been only indirectly responsible for atrocities committed in faraway lands?

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?

The International Court of Justice ruled on February 14 that an arrest warrant for Abdoulaye Yerodia Ndombasi issued by the Belgian government in April 2000 was illegal. Ndombasi was Congo's foreign minister at the time when thousands of minority Tutsis were being slaughtered. The ruling essentially declared that Belgium's 1993 war crimes law - which establishes universal jurisdiction of Belgian courts for gross violations of the Geneva Convention - is invalid. This caveat apparently applies only when the defendant is a former or sitting high government official: four Rwandans were convicted of genocide in a Belgian court last summer.

The Belgian court decided to take two months to review the ramifications for the case. A hearing is set for May 15 where lawyers for the plaintiff and the defense will present their views as to the ramifications of the ruling. While precedent in these situations is minimal, legal experts agree that this has been a dramatic setback both for the specific case against Sharon and the moral accountability of leaders who guide their countries into either external or internecine wars. Forty other cases have been thrown into jeopardy as a result of this decision.

One can only infer from the ruling that the only courts with the power to try sitting heads of state and cabinet-level officers are 1) the states in question, and 2) the international UN tribunals of the Hague - otherwise the logic of the ruling would have led to the dismissal of the Milosevic case and the suspension of indictments of Bosnian Serb leaders still at large. Presumably Manuel Noriega is packing his bags in anticipation of release from whichever U.S. penitentiary he now calls home.

Goering's maxim of history being written by the victors still holding true, we must acknowledge that however much good work is done by the Hague tribunals, it exists in political serfdom to the will of the United States. As long as the tribunal is simply one piece moved around on the chessboard of great power politics, its activities to be expanded or reined in as needed in the WTO negotiations du jour, Milosevic's claims of selective bias will be 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 magnificent claims of universal human rights, and the unequivocal refusal to accept genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity that will be the lasting legacy of a civilized age. The concept of universal jurisdiction over the most terrible of crimes, independent of the narrow claims of political expediency, 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 last year accuses Ariel Sharon of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. Independently of what occurs in the courts, is he guilty?

The massacre at Sabra and Shatila - facts

The complaint is based on the massacre which took place from 16 to 18 September, 1982, in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in Beirut. The charges have been brought by 23 survivors of the massacre. Their stories are at once horrifying and unremarkable. Horrifying in their accounts of unspeakable crimes which were committed by the Israeli's Lebanese Phalangist allies; unremarkable in the sense that the massacre was extremely well-documented by the media and both Israeli and international investigative commissions. The facts of the case are not in dispute.

Israel launched an invasion of Lebanon on June 6, 1982 in response to the attempted assassination of an Israeli ambassador two days previous. The Mossad had attributed the attack to a Palestinian group (not the PLO) based in Lebanon. Ariel Sharon was defense minister at the time and took personal command of the invasion. At his direction the army advanced far beyond the war aims agreed to by the Israeli government and had surrounded West Beirut - where Yasser Arafat and the entire fighting force of the PLO was located - in less than two weeks. Heavy fighting ensued between the PLO and the Israeli army for several weeks, until a U.S.-brokered ceasefire was implemented. The PLO evacuated the city at the end of August under the protection of an international peacekeeping force. Noncombatants affiliated with the PLO remained in the two refugee camps under an American security guarantee. The peacekeeping forces left almost immediately afterwards on September 10. 18.000 Lebanese, nearly all of them civilians, had died during the invasion.

Sharon announced (wrongly) September 11 that armed Palestinian insurgents remained in the camps and that a "mopping up" operation would be conducted by local Lebanese forces. Over the next four days, the Israeli army set up blockades and checkpoints around Sabra and Shatila while the details of the 'mopping up' were negotiated with the Lebanese militia. From midday September 15 through the morning of September 16, the IDF conducted an artillery bombardment of the camps. Lebanese forces entered the camps around during the afternoon of September 16 and commenced the 'mopping up'.

A three day orgy of violence followed, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 3.000 Palestinian civilians and numerous instances of rape, theft, wanton destruction of property, and 'disappearances'. The Israelis, under the personal supervision of Sharon, 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 during the first night of killing, providing covering sniper fire, and guarding "detainees" who were subsequently bussed away to be "disappeared".

In response to the media outcry, the Israeli cabinet denied all responsibility, declaring that "a blood libel has been perpetrated against the Jewish people". Four hundred thousand Israelis, led by Shimon Peres, demonstrated against the brutality which had been committed in their name. The government was forced to launch an inquiry under Yitzak Kahan, which concluded that Sharon held indirect responsibility for the massacre and recommended that he be relieved from his post as Defense Minister. He was in fact removed, but remained in the cabinet as "minister without portfolio". He was reinstated as Minister of Trade in 1984.

The massacre at Sabra and Shatila - did Sharon know?

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

Everyone involved in the operation knew that letting the Lebanese into the camps would result in a massacre because of the assassination days before of president-elect Gemayel, leader of the Phalangists. When Israeli Chief of Staff Eitan met with U.S. Special Envoy Morris Draper before the massacre began, he said "Let me explain to you. Lebanon is at a point of exploding into a frenzy of revenge. No one can stop them. They're [the Phalangists] obsessed with the idea of revenge....I'm telling you that some of their commanders visited me, and I could see in their eyes that it's going to be a relentless slaughter."

Sharon had himself installed in a position of direct command responsibility in the Kuwaiti Embassy in Beirut. From there he could easily see what was happening in the camps. He had engaged personally in intensive negotiations about the operation with Eli Hobeika, who was chief of Lebanese intelligence services and had a reputation for brutality (Hobeika and two of his deputies have been assassinated in mysterious circumstances since the charge against Sharon was brought). Once the slaughter began, IDF personnel immediately began to receive reports of what was occurring. An intelligence briefing for divisional commanders three hours after the operation began included the statement: "...It seems they're trying to decide what to do with the people they find inside. 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: "You must stop the slaughter.... The situation is absolutely appalling. They are killing children. You have the field completely under your control and are therefore responsible for that area." Sharon did not reply. The Israeli government's own report stated that "It is impossible to justify the Minister of Defense's disregard of the danger of a massacre. Responsibility is to be imputed to the Minister of Defense for having disregarded the danger of acts of vengeance and bloodshed by the Phalangist against the population of the refugee camps, and having failed take this danger into account when he decided to have the Phalangist enter the camp".

The invasion of Lebanon and the massacre at Sabra and Shatila - world opinion

World opinion of both the Lebanon invasion and the subsequent massacre has been uncompromisingly harsh.

The United Nations Security Council condemned the massacre with Resolution 521 on the 19th of September. On 16 December 1982 the General Assembly passed a resolution qualifying the massacre as an "act of genocide." An international commission led by Nobel laureat Sean Macbride was formed to investigate the circumstances of 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 is replete with accusations of contraventions of the Geneva convention, including "acts of aggression contrary to international law"; "use of weapons or methods of warfare forbidden in international law"; "deliberate or indiscriminate or reckless bombardment of hospitals, schools, and other nonmilitary targets"; "systematic bombardment and other destruction to towns, cities, villages, and refugee camps"; and "dispersal, deportation and ill-treatment of populations, in violation of international law."

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 about this until the IDF had nearly reached Beirut. Sharon does not bear sole responsibility for this ugly stain on the history of his country and his people, but it would never have been possible without his single-minded drive to exterminate those he sees as his enemies.

Celebrating fifty years of genocide

Wartime frequently 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 so frequently called upon to perform. Few things are more revolting than smug observers second-guessing those split-second decisions from the sidelines. While occasional gratuitous violence against civilians in the fog of war are never excusable, they are inevitable. Sharon's defenders claim that this is simply "one of those things" - an admittedly unfortunate episode, but one of many on both sides in an ugly conflict which Israel did not initiate.

This might be an argument if Sabra and Shatila was an isolated occurrence. This is not the case. Sharon has a fifty-year track record of consitently using all the powers of the state - military, economic and diplomatic - to create an ethnically pure 'Greater Israel' on the lands captured through 1967. He has no qualms about using tactics which in Yugoslavia were described as "ethnic cleansing"; which in South Africa were termed "apartheid"; and which Nazi Germany used so effectively against its own internal 'undesirables' and in the territories it conquered. Desmond Tutu remarked in 1989 "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 state and people of Israel which are ultimately culpable for the crimes committed in their name.

Sharon was born in Mandated Palestine and has been involved in militant vigilante groups since he was an adolescent. In his early military career as leader of the infamous "Unit 101", he made a name for himself launching cross-border terror raids in Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon. Some of the earliest atrocities of the Middle East conflict were authored by young Sharon: the infamous Quibya raid in 1953, when 69 sleeping villagers were killed in a pre-dawn raid where Sharon's men placed 600 kg of explosives around residential structures; and the 1955 machine-gun massacre of a Negev Bedouin tribe, where an indeterminate number of the nomads were killed.

Suppression of the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories during the various intifadeh has been brutal and characterized by repeated violations of the Geneva Convention. Human Rights Watch explains the Orwellian efforts of Israel to avoid its treaty obligations: "Israeli authorities have sought to argue that the conflict in the West Bank and Gaza is 'somewhere in the middle" between civil unrest and armed conflict, and have obfuscated Israel's legal obligations by attempting to exploit gaps or limitations in the protection standards of both regimes. No such "somewhere in the middle" regime exists under international law, however, and Israel has concrete legal obligations under both regimes."

Over 1100 Palestinians were killed in the first intifadeh and more than a thousand have died since Sharon's infamous proclaimation of eternal sovereignty over Jerusalem in 2000. HRW's dry evaluation that "Israeli security forces have also been responsible for a disturbing number of suspicious killings and shootings of civilians under circumstances that warrant investigation and possibly criminal prosecution" is followed by a detailed analysis of extra-judicial assassinations, often carried out by high-explosive bombs or missles which kill or wound numerous civilians; heavy-caliber machine gun fire into densely populated civilian areas; and toleration of lethal vigilante actions by Israeli settlers.

This is complemented by a chillingly consistent and sophisticated policy of economic repression, land seizure, deportation and settlement which can only be called ethnic cleansing. The Israeli historian Shahak details a list of 385 villages bulldozed by the IDF: the goal, he claims "To convince us that before Israel, Palestine was a desert." After the 1967 war, Israel summarily expropriated 50% of the West Bank for Jewish settlement and 30% of an already chronically overpopulated Gaza. Moreover, these occupations are strategically planned to maximize economic dislocation of Palestinian areas, intensify the effect of near-constant closures between these areas, and leave Israeli companies as the only legitimate middlemen between Palestinians and the outside world. HRW states, "Israel's policy of sharply restricting Palestinian movement has been in place, with varying degrees of severity, since March 1993 ... The extent and duration of the closures imposed on the Occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip at the present time exceed the requirements of military necessity, and clearly amount to collective punishment, a practice prohibited by international humanitarian law."

This is part of a two-pronged plan on the part of the Israeli government. Firstly, it is designed to make UN Resolution 242 (which mandates Israeli withdrawal from the Occupied Territories) de facto impossible to implement. Secondly, it is intended to make economic conditions so miserable in the Occupied Territories that the occupants will simply emigrate abroad to Jordan or Egypt. In short, the policy is intended to actively displace the current residents over a number of generations. As Chief of Staff 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, as Minister of Agriculture and Chairman of the Ministerial Committee for Settlement between 1977 and 1981, was the architect of this policy. He set out to implement a "master plan" to settle one million Jews in the West Bank and Gaza Strip within 20 years. "I believe that if we establish these settlements, we will feel sufficiently secure to accept risks for the sake of peace," Sharon declared. As Housing Minister between 1990 and 1992, he displayed a similar single-minded attention to settling new emigrees from the former Soviet Union in the West Bank.

Sharon's desire for a 'pure' state is not confined to the Occupied Territories. He has consistently shown militant antagonism toward Israel's non-Jewish citizens and clearly regards them as a potential fifth column, to be expunged by force if necessary. Throughout the 1980s he tried to generate public support for a "transfer solution", chillingly reminiscent of eastbound boxcars 40 years earlier. Before the invasion of Lebanon, he said bluntly "We have no inclination of dispossessing Arab citizens in the Galilee. But I would advise the Arab citizens in the region not to radicalize their attitudes in order not to bring about another tragedy like the one that befell the Palestinian people in 1948. Even if we do not want it, it may recur." In 1964 he asked officers on his Northern Command staff to draw up a 'contingency plan' for the forcible deportation of 300.000 Arab citizens of Israel. The concept of an "Arab citizen of Israel" is in the best case meaningless for Sharon: in the worst case he sees it as a gross perversion to be eliminated. 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 if the United States does not exercise its universal veto over sensitive elements of the geopolitical equation. But Milosevic is correct when he claims that the existence of this veto and consequently 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 not only can, but must do all they can to root out bring those to justice who are guilty of the most egregious crimes against humanity. "We are unusual and ordinary at the same time," says Gérard Dive, the Belgian Justice Ministry's head of international criminal law. "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 bring justice or closure for past victims; and it certainly does not ensure that the Pinochets and Sharons of the future will think twice before directing military might against defenseless civilians.

The charges brought against Ariel Sharon by 23 brave survivors of Sabra and Shatila are not the most heinous which could be brought, in spite of the ghoulishly cold-blooded nature of the slaughter which took place. The decades-long, meticulously planned economic, military, and demographic assault on the Palestinians of the Occupied Territories is conclusive proof that Israel deserves no place at the table of civilized nations. The revulsion with which the West met Serbia's aggression during the Balkan wars must be tempered by our recognition of the inexperience of the people with democracy, the effects of wrenching political change, and the ability of an autocratic dictator to effectively squash all expressions of protest and dissent. Israel has no such excuse. She is no dictatorship, no nation of duped citizens who have been led into a terrible situation by a maniacal despot. Nor is her history an excuse. The horrors of the Holocaust do not remotely justify merciless and systematic oppression, militaristic expansionism, and a rabid ethnic and nationalistic chauvinism where the end justifies any means. To claim that it is is an inexcusable slur against the memory of those who died in Auschwitz, for it means that ultimately they died for nothing. Modern Israel is well on its way to becoming the monster which created it.

The charges are not the worst which could be brought, but they are enough to serve as a proxy for fifty years of crimes against humanity committed by Ariel Sharon and the State of Israel. Neither the events themselves nor the legal framework surrounding them are in dispute. The massacre was a clear violation of the Geneva Convention, and can be shown beyond a doubt to be perfectly in line with a long-standing Israeli effort to eliminate the Palestinians as a people. There is only one word to describe such a policy, and that word is genocide.

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 will render a swift and damning judgement, but she can be a fickle mistress. The wheels of justice move 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.

Colin Shea is an expatriated American living in Prague.