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Is Ariel Sharon Israel's Milosevic?

By JAMES RON, LA Times, Monday, February 5, 2001

If the polls are correct, Israel will elect Ariel Sharon as prime minister on Tuesday. For left-leaning Israelis, a Sharon victory will end the peace process. For his supporters, only a tough ex-general can deliver a lasting deal.

Regardless of Sharon's true agenda, however, his credibility will be sorely tested by allegations of past involvement in crimes of war. With today's intolerance for serious human rights abusers, Sharon's record is likely to cause Israel acute international embarrassment.

At issue are three incidents in Sharon's past. The first took place in 1953, when a force under his command raided Qibya, a West Bank village, killing more than 60 inhabitants. Israeli historian Benny Morris writes that Sharon's unit received instructions to carry out "destruction and maximum killing" to retaliate for a Palestinian terrorist attack originating elsewhere. A contemporaneous Time magazine report said Sharon's soldiers shot "every man, woman and child they could find" and then dynamited 42 houses, a school and a mosque. "The cries of the dying," the magazine reported, "could be heard amidst the explosions."

Sharon's autobiography acknowledges civilians were killed at Qibya, but he calls the deaths a mistake. Given the historical record, however, his explanation seems unpersuasive. Under international law, Sharon could be indicted for crimes against humanity, which include the systematic and willful killing of civilians during war.

The second incident took place during Israel's 1982 thrust into Lebanon, when Sharon was defense minister and chief architect of the campaign. For three months Israeli forces laid siege to West Beirut, where Palestinian guerrillas had dug in amid the civilian population. At the time, a Washington Post correspondent wrote that Sharon's army subjected the city to "punishment so intense and indiscriminate that terror was the result."

By Aug. 16, 1982, according to the International Herald Tribune, Beirut had become a city of "broken concrete, flattened apartment buildings and death." Thousands of Lebanese civilians died in the process. Senior Israeli journalists offer compelling evidence of Sharon's responsibility for Beirut's ordeal. Zeev Schiff and Ehud Yaari write that in June 1982, Sharon told his officers that Palestinian neighborhoods in southern Beirut should be "utterly destroyed," even though they contained 85,000 civilians. "Not a single terrorist neighborhood should be left standing," Sharon reportedly said. Sharon later argued that the bombings were necessary to end Palestinian terror and that Palestinian fighters themselves caused Beirut's civilian deaths by hiding amid noncombatants.

Although the guerrillas did violate international law by seeking shelter in a city, the Geneva Conventions also ban the indiscriminate and disproportionate shelling of populated areas.

Fifteen years later, the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal indicted Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic for a similar assault on Sarajevo, even though Bosnian Muslim soldiers were stationed throughout the city.

The third case--the famed massacres at Sabra and Shatila--occurred Sept. 16-18, 1982, toward the end of the battle for Beirut. The Falangists, an Israeli-allied Lebanese militia, were ordered by Sharon to mop up armed resistance in Palestinian refugee camps as Israeli forces stood guard. According to Israeli military intelligence, Falangist gunmen killed 700 to 800 civilians, but Palestinians sources estimate 2,000 dead. New York Times journalist Thomas Friedman saw "groups of young men in their twenties and thirties who had been lined up against walls, tied by their hands and feet, and then mowed down gangland style." Women, children and the elderly were also among those slain in the 62-hour assault.

Although Sharon denied responsibility, an Israeli commission of inquiry ruled in February 1983 that he bore "indirect responsibility" for the massacres, harshly castigating him for his role.

In 1985, a U.S. Military Law Review analysis argued that Sharon had "command responsibility" for the killings. In 1999, former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic was indicted by the Yugoslav war tribunal under a similar clause for Serbia's Kosovo crimes.

During the Cold War, men such as Sharon had little to fear from international legal prosecution. Although signatories to the Geneva Conventions were obliged to pursue war criminals, few countries could be bothered. In recent years, however, activists have changed international legal practice beyond recognition. Chile's ex-president was indicted by a Spanish judge, Chad's ex-ruler was arrested by the Senegalese, and Congo's foreign minister was charged by Belgian authorities. At the same time, the United Nations' special tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda have proved increasingly able to catch, try and imprison war criminals.

After years in the political wilderness, Sharon is now poised to resume center stage. Yet his spectacular political comeback coincides with an equally dramatic change in global legal standards. Whether Sharon really wants peace, his credibility, as well as that of the nation that elects him, will be undermined by his troubling past. While waging Israel's wars, Sharon may have amassed a record too awful to ignore.

 



James Ron, an Israeli Citizen, Is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Political Science at Johns Hopkins University

Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times


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