Survivors of Camp Massacre Blame Sharon

In her tiny home in the Palestinian refugee camp of Sabra in Beirut, Nadima Nasser dabs her eyes as she recalls the horrific events of September 1982, when virtually every male in her family was slaughtered or went missing in one of the worst atrocities of the Middle East conflict.

History hangs heavy in Nasser's spotlessly clean one-room home in the northern edge of the sprawling camp. Photographs of dead and missing relatives on the walls, her soft weeping and the family silence as she recounts her story are testimony to the fact that in the Nasser household, life may go on, but the past prevails.

Naseer is one of 23 plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed in a Belgian court against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for his alleged involvement in the September 1982 massacres in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Chatilla.

More than 800 people were killed or went missing in a three-day killing spree by Lebanese Christian militiamen allowed into the camps by Israeli soldiers. Some estimates, however, put the death toll at 1,800. Israel had invaded Lebanon in June 1982 and as occupiers responsible for the security of civilians in Lebanon, Israeli troops were stationed around the camps during the time the massacres occurred.

On Wednesday, a legal panel is expected to rule on whether Sharon can be tried in a Brussels court under a 1993 Belgian law, which allows crimes against humanity and genocide to be tried in Belgian courts, regardless of where the crimes were committed.

Sharon's lawyers have argued that the Israeli prime minister — who was defense minister during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon when the massacres occurred — enjoys diplomatic immunity. They have also questioned the competence of the court to try a crime not committed on Belgian soil.

But Chibli Mallat, one of three lawyers who filed the case on behalf of the plaintiffs, says he is ready for a long legal haul. "Obviously we are going to exhaust all legal possibilities on March 6 and so will Sharon's lawyers. If we lose, we will appeal to a cessation court in Belgium and we expect Sharon's lawyers to do the same."

An ‘Inconvenient’ Assassination

Despite Mallat's confidence, the case against Sharon took a step back on Jan. 24, when Elie Hobeika, a former leader of the pro-Israeli Christian militia widely blamed for carrying out the massacres, was assassinated in Beirut.

Months before his assassination, Hoebeika held a press conference where he swore his innocence and declared he had proof of Sharon's involvement in the incident. Breaking years of silence on the massacres, Hobeika also expressed his willingness to travel to Belgium and testify against his former political protector.

Although Sharon has pleaded innocence in the case, saying he could not have predicted and did not know what was going on in the camps those three days, an official Israeli investigation in 1983 found him indirectly but "personally" responsible for the deaths.

Following the recommendations of the Kahan Commission, Sharon resigned as defense minister, but stayed on in the government as a minister without portfolio until he was elected prime minister in February 2001.

But the details of Sharon's alleged role in the massacre have been murky. A 1991 Lebanese parliamentary amnesty for crimes committed during the country's war years has stopped many details on the Sabra and Chatilla massacres from coming out.

With Hobeika's death, victims of the massacres worry that, as a key witness in the case, the ghosts and secrets of Sabra and Chatilla have gone to the grave with him.

The governments of Lebanon and Syria have blamed Israel for the assassination, a charge the Israeli government has denied. A Lebanese governmental inquiry into the killing is under way.

Memory and Forgetting

A day after Hobeika's killing, spoke to Nasser. She appeared dejected that the man she holds responsible for her husband's death had been assassinated. "We don't like it if someone dies so violently — even if we don't like him," she says evenly. "God has got rid of him. But this is not good for us."

In his family home in Shatilla, Muhammad Roudeina, another plaintiff in the case, is not mincing his words.

"I am in shock," says the burly 36-year-old. "We are devastated because we lost a major figure in the case. Hobeika was going to testify against him [Sharon] — and I was expecting him to tell the truth. But now we have lost a key witness."

Roudeina was only 16 and just a few meters away from his father and uncle when they were shot by gunmen in the camp on Sept. 16, 1982. But the memory of that day still haunts him 20 years later. "I won't forget," he says as he mops his brow in his steamy living room. "I will never forget. The image of that day is engraved in my memory. This case, I am doing this for my family. For all the things we went through."

Although the massacres were conducted by Lebanese Christian militias, Roudeina believes Sharon bears ultimate responsibility for one of the darkest chapters in Lebanon's troubled history.

"The Lebanese were just tools," he dismisses. "The orders came from the Israelis. Sharon controlled West Beirut then. He was responsible for the safety of the people."

In June 1982, Israel had launched a full-scale attack on Lebanon under "Operation Peace in Galilee" sending Syrian troops, who were invited into Lebanon in 1976, back across Lebanon's northern borders. The massacres were widely believed to be a retaliation by Lebanese Christian militias for the assassination of Bashir Gemayel, a Christian Phalangist leader and president-elect at the time of his murder.

Rejecting Belgian Law

But a recent legal development has put a shadow on Roudeina's hopes of having Sharon tried for his alleged involvement in the massacres of Sabra and Chatilla.

On Feb. 14, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague ruled that Belgium cannot bring war crimes charges against a foreign government minister who enjoys diplomatic immunity.

The ICJ was deciding on a case brought by Belgium against a former foreign minister from the Democratic Republic of Congo over the 1998 killings of hundreds of ethnic Tutsis.

The ruling, according to Ralph Steinhardt, a professor of law and international relations at George Washington University Law School, could stymie attempts to bring charges against Sharon.

"The [ICJ] decision cuts back on the ability to sue sitting heads of state," he says. "The functional purpose of the heads of state immunity is that as a head of state you do not need to worry about lawsuits to perform your duty. However, this argument will not prevail, of course, for former heads of state."

But while Sharon could arguably be more vulnerable to a lawsuit once he is out of office, another tragic outcome of a possible dismissal of the case is that Lebanese nationals linked to the massacres, who enjoy amnesty under Lebanese law, could also escape scrutiny.

"We have brought the case against anyone responsible for the massacres," says Mallat. "If the Belgian court goes forward with the case we will hopefully not exclude anyone responsible for the massacre at Sabra and Chatilla."

But while there are people who would much rather clamp the lid on this chapter of Middle East history, Nasser says she still craves acknowledgment and justice for the horrific loses she has suffered. "If this case happens, yes, I will get peace," she says.

"But what I have lost I can't get back, I can never get it back. But if this [the case] goes on, I will at least feel that what I have — what we all have — lost will come back, because justice will come."

Leela Jacinto visited the camps in Lebanon in January for these interviews.