Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - The Israeli government Thursday appeared to be gearing up for a legal battle in Belgium, where Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is being investigated on charges of war crimes stemming from allegations surrounding the killing by Lebanese militiamen of some 800 Palestinian refugees 19 years ago.
More than 20 Palestinians who survived the massacre recently filed a complaint against Sharon, taking advantage of a Belgian law allowing war crimes prosecutions in its courts irrespective of where they were committed.
It was reported Thursday that Sharon's office has hired a Belgian lawyer to act on his behalf in the case. The prime minister's office would neither confirm nor deny the report.
"Decisions relating to the process taking place in Belgium are being made by the legal system in Israel in consultation and cooperation with other professional bodies," Sharon's media advisor said in a statement in response to queries.
"In the event that steps are taken in the framework of the process and decisions are made, a formal announcement will be released," it added.
Israel's Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein Thursday issued a statement in support of the prime minister, saying the state saw it as its duty to legally help those in the security system who are accused in the courts for political reasons.
Israel knows that the current wave of threatened lawsuits is part of a planned campaign in which the political interests of people are involved, Rubinstein said.
Sharon was defense minister when Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 to drive out Yasser Arafat's PLO, which was using it as a launching pad for international and cross-border terror attacks.
After an agreement was reached to allow Arafat and his gunmen to evacuate Beirut safely, Sharon sent Israeli-allied Christian Phalangist militias into two refugee camps, Sabra and Shatilla, to search for terrorists believed to be hiding out there.
The militiamen, under the command of Elias Hobeika, rampaged through the camps and killed at least 800 people. Hobeika was later accused of being a traitor and a Syrian agent.
An Israeli commission of inquiry into the tragedy in 1983 held Sharon indirectly responsible. He was forced to resign his post for not having foreseen the possibility that the Lebanese militiamen might take revenge on the Palestinians for the systematic abuse the Christian community had suffered at the hands of the PLO for years.
The issue was catapulted into the public eye once again last month when the BBC aired an investigative report calling for Sharon to be tried for war crimes.
The program noted that Hobeika, a three-time minister in Beirut's Damascus-controlled government, was responsible for the murders but did not suggest he be prosecuted.
A 1993 Belgian law permits anyone regardless of nationality to bring a case before the court for crimes against humanity committed at any time in any place.
The Belgian government has been embarrassed by the incident and lawmakers there are currently trying to amend the law so as to avoid politicization of cases.
Hobeika says he's innocent
Hobeika recently said that he has amassed documents that can prove his innocence.
"We are innocent. We never played any role, neither in preparation, nor in the carrying out of the massacres," said Hobeika, in a recent interview with a Lebanese magazine.
He said he had "documents that are going to tarnish the image of the [Israeli] commission and will strip it of its credibility."
Hobeika claimed that the Lebanese were subjected to "huge pressure" from the Israelis to carry out the massacre but they refused to do it. "Israelis and Lebanese of all denominations" carried out the killings, he alleged.
However, a book written recently by Hobeika's bodyguard of the time, Robert Maroun Hatem, provides an eyewitness account that incriminates Hobeika and clears Sharon from wrongdoing.
Hatem, who lives in exile in France, said Sharon had repeatedly emphasized to the Christian militiamen that they needed to behave like a civilized army and not to lose control.
Belgian Court Opens War Crimes Probe Against Israeli PM (July 2, 2001)
War Crime Charges Against Sharon 'Part of Arab Strategy Against Israel' (June 28, 2001)