Israel tells officials to avoid threat of arrest in Europe

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The Independent Online

Israel has launched a fierce counter-attack against efforts in Belgium to try Ariel Sharon, its Prime Minister, for war crimes, amid warnings that Israeli army officers and senior government figures face a growing threat of arrest and prosecution in Europe for their conduct during the Palestinian intifada.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry has ordered past and present army officials and security service agents to avoid travelling to countries where they could find themselves in an "embarrassing situation". And its diplomats in Europe have been asked to send home information on the local criminal justice systems, for the identification of nations where visiting Israelis could face arrest.

Israeli officials confirmed yesterday that the government had hired lawyers in Belgium, where a judge is pondering whether to indict Mr Sharon for his role in the 1982 Sabra and Shatila refugee camp massacres in Lebanon. One official in Jerusalem said the case was "being taken very seriously".

Government officials are concerned that the lawsuit could spawn attempts to bring war crimes charges against the chief of staff of Israel's armed forces, Shaul Mofaz; the commander of the air force, Dan Hilutz; and other military officials, over the present conflict with the Palestinians.

A host of military measures by Israeli security forces has been condemned by human rights groups. They include at least 45 assassinations, the use of torture, the shooting dead of hundreds of unarmed demonstrators, blasting police stations with F-16 bombers, and a military siege of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israel has said they were necessary to defend against suicide bombings and other Palestinian assaults.

Alan Baker, a legal counsellor to the Foreign Ministry, said it was "theoretically possible" that the attempt to try Mr Sharon in Belgium could produce other cases against Israeli military and security officials. "This is an area of concern .... It could very quickly be brought into the context of the intifada."

Israel has been involved in a ferocious argument with Denmark over its new ambassador to Copenhagen, Carmi Gillon, the former chief of Israel's Shin Bet security agency who has admitted authorising the use of torture against Arab suspects. The Danish Justice Minister, Frank Jensen, hinted that Mr Gillon could be arrested on his arrival for violating a UN convention against torture. But later he acknowledged that the Israeli diplomat would have diplomatic immunity.

The case in Belgium is being brought by 23 survivors of the Sabra and Shatila massacres, making use of the country's broad laws, in which the courts have jurisdiction over violations of the Geneva Convention and other international laws, no matter where they were committed or who was involved.

Hundreds of Palestinians were killed by an Israeli-allied Lebanese militia – a slaughter for which an Israeli judicial commission found Mr Sharon indirectly responsible, in 1993.

Israel emphasises that a similar case has yet to be brought against Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, and his security forces, who are also responsible for severe human rights abuses, against Palestinians and Israelis.

Israel was one of the first nations to support the concept of "universal jurisdiction" for genocide and war crimes, now adopted by the Belgians. It used it to put Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi leader, on trial in Israel in 1961. He was later hanged.

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