Depending on the spin, Sharons a criminal or a victim

NEW YORK — The accusation that Ariel Sharon is a war criminal — back on the public agenda with two court cases in Belgium and an unfavorable BBC documentary — is the latest step in a campaign to discredit and delegitimize Israel, supporters of the Jewish state say.

A quick Internet search reveals a plethora of Arab and Muslim Web sites demanding that Sharon be "brought to justice" for his role in the 1982 massacre of some 800 Palestinians by Lebanese Christians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.

However, the Israeli premier also seems to be caught in the cross hairs of advocates of an international criminal court and a "universal justice" that knows no borders.

Sharon's Arab antagonists may indeed be motivated by enmity toward Israel, but the international court proponents seem intent primarily on winning symbolic victories that they hope might deter future atrocities.

It's highly unlikely that Sharon ever will wind up in the dock. But the Belgian cases and the BBC film have focused hostile attention on Israel and its leader precisely when the Jewish state is fighting what many see as an uphill battle for world opinion in the ninth month of the al-Aksa intifada.

The second half of the 1990s saw major strides toward prosecuting war crimes and gross violations of human rights.

It also emboldened those who have long wanted to go after polarizing figures such as Sharon, Henry Kissinger, Idi Amin, Moammar Khadafi, Saddam Hussein, or the now-deceased Pol Pot and Hafez Assad.

Earlier this month, Belgian courts convicted four Rwandans — including two nuns — of murder and incitement to genocide.

That marked the first conviction under Belgium's ground-breaking 1993 law on "universal jurisdiction," which enables Belgian courts to judge atrocities committed elsewhere, regardless of whether or not they involved Belgians.

No one was ever prosecuted for the Sabra and Shatila massacres, when Lebanese Christian militiamen killed some 800 Palestinian men, women and children. Several of the planners and leaders of the attack are prominent figures in Lebanon today.

Sharon's election as prime minister in February may have spurred the embittered to take action.

In 1983, Israel established the quasi-judicial Kahan Commission to investigate the massacres. The commission found then-Defense Minister Sharon "indirectly responsible" because he had not foreseen the possibility that the Christians — who had entered the camps to root out Palestinian terrorists hiding there — would seek to avenge the recent assassination of their leader, Bashir Gemayel.

Sharon received what some saw as a slap on the wrist: He was pressured to resign as defense minister, but remained in the Cabinet as a minister without portfolio.

When Time magazine later sought to assign Sharon a greater share of blame, he sued the publication for libel. An American court ruled that the article was erroneous but lacked malicious intent.

Now, in light of the verdict against the Rwandans, Belgium has emerged as a pressure point against leaders like Sharon.

"There is a general feeling here that a fight has to be fought against impunity, and that by having such a law at the national level, we contribute to the international fight," said Michel Malherbe, deputy spokesman of Belgium's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

On June 18, a group of 28 Palestinians filed suit under the 1993 Belgian law, charging Sharon with ultimate responsibility for the massacre.

The suit came on the heels of a similar suit filed in Brussels earlier in the month by a private group, reportedly on behalf of Palestinian victims of the current intifada.

The Belgian magistrate is still weighing whether the law applies to these cases, Malherbe said.

In response, an Israeli Knesset member from Sharon's Likud Party, Avraham Herschson, has threatened to file suit in Brussels against Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat for alleged war crimes committed in the current intifada.

The anti-Sharon cases are causing "diplomatic embarrassment" for Belgium, which assumes the European Union's rotating presidency on July 1, Malherbe said.

A court case against Sharon, Malherbe conceded, "can affect the image of Belgium as a neutral player."

But Belgium may not be the end of the legal action against Sharon.

A lawyer for the Palestinian victims said similar suits against Sharon will soon be filed in Britain, France and Denmark, according to the Jewish Chronicle of London.

Perhaps even more influential in blackening Israel's image was the recent broadcast of "The Accused" by the state-run British Broadcasting Corporation.

In the documentary, journalist Fergal Keane painted a picture that placed ultimate blame for the massacres on Sharon.

The documentary relied on interviews with Palestinian victims, international law experts and a former U.S. envoy to the Middle East under President Reagan.

The film was punctuated by the assertion of Princeton international law Professor Richard Falk that Sharon is "indictable" for war crimes.