As the world watches with trepidation the daily scenes of murder and outrage in the West Bank and Gaza strip, there is one thing we can all agree about. This particular escalation would not have taken place if it were not for good ole Ariel Sharon. His visit to the Holy Al-Aqsa compound on 28 September sparked the chain of tragic events that have claimed the lives of several hundred innocent civilians, almost all of whom have been Palestinian. It seems that Mr. Sharon was not happy to enter history merely for the war crimes he committed in Lebanon in 1982; he wanted to crown his record of disgrace with more innocent blood.
And quite remarkably, Sharon is now trying to run for the post of Prime Minister. There seems to be no limit to the audacity of this man! But I for one trust that the Israeli population will reject this war criminal at the polls, if he managed to get that far. I know first-hand that a substantial segment of Israeli society is as scathing about this man as all Arabs are. I witnessed this as a university student nine years ago.
I only took part in a peaceful demonstration twice in my life, both times in England. The first protest was against Ariel Sharon. An Arab friend called me the night before to ask me to take part in a demonstration to be held in front of the Oxford Union Society; Sharon had been invited to address the Society by an extremist group of Jewish students.
Early the next morning, I walked with great unease to the Society’s building. I was soon to see first hand the man who -in the eyes of Arabs, independent commentators across the world and a substantial number of Israelis- is a war criminal; the man whose arrogant face I first saw as a child in the news coverage of the litany of massacres left in the wake of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. For if there is one defining moment in my political consciousness, it is without a doubt the summer of 1982. I remember with absolute clarity my utter disbelief, that of an 11-year-old, as I watched the reports of the blatant atrocities committed by the Israeli army and the cowardice of most Arabs who just watched or, at best, gave useless fiery speeches to clear their consciences.
As I approached the site of the demonstration, I was sure of the kind of crowd that awaited me. I expected a mix of a few Arabs and Muslims. I was just hoping that the size of the crowd would not be derisory; Arab students abroad tend to have an obsessive fear of any form of political action, even if it is directed at one of their Governments’ enemies. When I arrived, I was totally surprised to find that the number of Jewish and Israeli demonstrators outnumbered that of the Arabs. I was then further struck by the gregarious nature in which the Israelis and Arabs were mingling, at a time well before Oslo and the Jordanian/Israeli peace treaty. We were all united for a moment – united in our disgust and opposition to the actions of this war criminal, whose presence in our university we regarded as a sacrilege.
On that cold morning, fear of terror brought us together. In order to illustrate poignantly the extent of the protesters’ unity, one of those present suggested that the Palestinian and Israeli flags be held up jointly, side by side, in defiance of our unwelcome visitor. To make the point even more strongly, it was decided that an Arab student should carry the Israeli flag and an Israeli the Palestinian flag. I remember the hesitation of an Arab protester as he was asked to carry the Israeli flag. He looked to ensure that a Jewish student was sticking to his side of the bargain. The Arab protester saw for the first time in his life an Israeli carrying a Palestinian flag; he subdued his hesitation and proceeded to hold the Israeli flag.
The car carrying the war criminal and his hosts stopped at the bottom of the road leading to the Oxford Union Society. Sharon, and an extremist companion wearing a smug look for the morning, walked up the road. I don’t recall having been instructed on the form of protest we should direct at Sharon. But the minute Sharon was in our sight, a deep silence swept our group. Then, in unison, each of us lifted his right arm and pointed the index finger at Ariel Sharon. We just stood there, proud of our common stand against terror and one of its greatest agents. We pointed the finger of accusation at a visibly dumbstruck Ariel Sharon. He might have expected a few Arab hecklers, but nothing had prepared him for the sight of a Jew carrying a Palestinian flag and pointing the finger of accusation in his face. Our hands stretched out, unwavering, until Sharon entered the safety of the Society’s building.
On that cold morning, we accused Ariel Sharon. We accused him of the murder of 17,825 innocent persons, and the infliction of grievous injuries on another 30,000 innocent persons, during the invasion of Lebanon (according to sources quoted by the Library of Congress). We accused him of inciting, aiding and abetting the massacre of “well over a thousand people” in Sabra and Shatilla (according to the most conservative estimates quoted by Robert Fisk in Pity the Nation, Lebanon at War, Oxford University Press, 1990).
Months after that protest, I attended a lecture on war crimes given by one of my law professors. The British professor ended her talk by listing a few persons whom she regarded as undisputed war criminals; she told us that any law-abiding citizen of the world has the right to arrest these persons on sight. The first name on that ignominious list was that of the current Chairman of the Likud Party.
Sharon’s continuing involvement in Israeli national politics is an insult to all Arabs and Israelis alike, including those who stood with us pointing the finger of accusation that morning in England. A man with such a past should not be accepted as a legitimate national leader on the world stage. But sadly, not only is Sharon given the red-carpet treatment wherever he goes, Arab officials have never had the courage to take bold measures against him.
There is a lot that Arab Governments can do, on both the symbolic and tangible fronts. For example, Arab Governments could make it clear to the world that they will never deal with an Israeli Government headed by Ariel Sharon – this should equally apply to Arab countries that have normalized ties with Israel. Also, Arab governments could investigate the possibility of bringing Sharon to justice in accordance with applicable international legal standards.
This kind of action will not only show Arabs all over the world that their leaders value Arab life and do not accept to sit idly by while a man who committed murderous crimes against Arabs struts on the world stage – it would also strengthen the hand of those numerous Israeli citizens who are ashamed to have somebody like Sharon as a major local leader, and who are dreading the prospect of having such a man as their Prime Minister. Arab officials should no longer duck the question by parroting the official line that this is an internal Israeli affair.
This is not an internal Israeli affair. This is an affair about the illicit invasion of a country and the massacres committed by the leader of that invasion. This is an affair about innocent lives that lay crushed by tanks on Lebanese soil 16 years ago. Even the Kahan Commission, formed by the Israeli Government to investigate the Sabra and Chattila massacres, reached the conclusion that Sharon bore “personal responsibility” for the atrocities, and further requested that Begin, then-Prime Minister of Israel, fire Sharon from his Government post.
I call on Arab officials and all those who seek justice, wherever they may be, to defy Sharon like we did as a bunch of students nine years ago. I call on them to honor the memory of all those innocent lives this man destroyed. I call on them to accuse Sharon of crimes against humanity, of which his own people and legal system have already convicted him. And if these officials cannot help but meet Sharon in person, I remind them of my law professor’s advice: Don’t forget the handcuffs.