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Thursday, 13 February, 2003, 11:35 GMT
Belgian move against Sharon angers Israel
A Palestinian woman brandishes helmets during a memorial service in Beirut September 27, 1982, for victims of Lebanon's Sabra refugee camp massacre
Hundreds were killed in the refugee camps
Israel has reacted angrily to a ruling by Belgium's Supreme Court which could pave the way for the prosecution of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for war crimes.

The Belgian ambassador to Israel has been ordered to report to the Israeli Foreign Minstry on Thursday, while Israel has recalled its ambassador to Brussels for talks.

Belgium cannot be Israel's judge

Shimon Peres, former Labour Party leader
Israeli Foreign Minister Binyamin Netanyahu accused Belgium of "helping to harm not only Israel but also the entire free world", and vowed to "respond with severity".

The Belgian ruling means Mr Sharon and the current director-general of the Israeli Defence Ministry, General Amos Yaron, could eventually be tried in relation to massacres committed during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982.

The decision stems from a case brought against Mr Sharon and Mr Yaron by Palestinian survivors of the killings in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps, which was dismissed last year by a lower court.

In its latest ruling, the Supreme Court said the case against Mr Yaron could proceed, while new investigations into Mr Sharon could get under way once he leaves office.

Threat to relations

Israeli officials denounced the ruling and warned could create a serious crisis between the two countries.

Chairman of Brussels Cour de cassation Marc Lahousse
The court overturned an earlier ruling

Former Labour Party leader and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres accused Belgium of interfering.

"Belgium cannot be Israel's judge. It has not gone through [the same things] as Israel and cannot judge history," he said.

However, a lawyer for the Palestinians, Chibli Mallat, called the Belgian decision "one of the most important rulings that there has been in international law".

The law, which allows for prosecution even if the defendant is not in the country, is expected to be passed this spring.

Indirect responsibility

Mr Sharon was Israel's defence minister and Mr Yaron oversaw the Beirut sector when Israel sent its forces into Lebanon to repel attacks by Palestinian fighters.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon
Mr Sharon resigned over the killings

The killings in the refugee camps were carried out by Lebanese Christian militia allied to Israel, which then occupied southern Lebanon.

An Israeli investigation found Mr Sharon indirectly responsible for failing to prevent the massacre of between 800 and 2,000 refugees.

Mr Sharon was forced to resign from government but never faced charges.

In the run-up to the 2001 Israeli elections, he expressed regret about the "terrible tragedy" at the refugee camps - but rejected any responsibility.

Besides Mr Sharon, war crimes proceedings have been brought in Belgium against a number of world figures.

These include Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Cuban President Fidel Castro, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's James Reynolds in Jerusalem
"The Palestinian leadership has welcomed events in Belgium"

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