Belgian War Crimes Investigation Causes Diplomatic Discomfort

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:09 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office refused to relate to reports on Tuesday that he had canceled a trip to Brussels due to Belgium's decision to launch an investigation into complaints against Sharon for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The Belgian court decided on Monday to pursue an investigation into two complaints against Sharon to determine if he should stand trial for the 1982 massacres of some 800 Palestinians in the Beirut refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla. Twenty-three Palestinian survivors filed complaints against him.

Sharon, Israel's defense minister at the time was overseeing Lebanese Christian militias in Lebanon in a combined effort to rout PLO forces from the country. Israel had earlier invaded Lebanon to drive out the PLO, which was using the country as a launching pad for international terror.

The Phalangists, who carried out the massacre, had been given the duty of entering the camps to search for Palestinian terrorists believed to be hiding there.

The Belgian investigation has caused some embarrassment to officials in Brussels and Jerusalem, particularly since Belgium just took over the rotating presidency of the European Union.

The EU, often accused by Israel of being pro-Palestinian, has for some time pushed to become more involved in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Officials on both sides are downplaying the affair. Nevertheless, Sharon, due to embark on a European tour this week, won't be visiting Brussels.

Some media reports suggested that his trip was altered to avoid embarrassment over the affair. But Sharon's foreign press coordinator, David Baker, said that time was the only determining factor in the prime minister's schedule.

"Paris and Berlin are the only stops scheduled because of time constraints," Baker said. He declined to comment on whether or not Sharon's travel plans had been altered because of the Belgian investigation.

In Belgium, the government has decided to try to avert any diplomatic damage by adapting the 1993 law, said European Parliament member Willy De Clercq.

The law, which permits anyone from anywhere in the world to file a suit against an individual for war crimes or crimes against humanity, has received a lot of publicity lately particularly since the first convictions were brought against four Rwandans several weeks ago.

Among others currently being accused is Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

"Because we had a couple of claims on the basis of the law, the government has asked academics [to study the matter and determine] how to adapt the law - not to abandon the basic principle but to make sure that there is no diplomatic damage," De Clercq said in a telephone interview from Strasbourg on Tuesday.

Belgium wants to allow for anyone who has committed a war crime to be judged before the law, he said, but without it being misused or abused for political purposes.

De Clercq said he thought the academics would make their recommendations by the end of this month.

As for Sharon, De Clercq said he believes the investigation will take a very long time. There would be no "high speed," he said to finish the study. It is not even certain that at the end of the investigation the claims will be brought to court, he added.

See also:

Belgian Court Opens War Crimes Probe Against Israeli PM
War Crime Charges Against Sharon 'Part of Arab Strategy Against Israel'
Israel Livid Over BBC War Crimes Accusation