Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - The recent resurfacing of war crimes accusations against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is part of an "Arab strategy" to defeat Israel and tarnish the image of the Lebanese Christian community, according to Lebanese and Israeli sources.
Sharon has been blamed for the massacres of some 800 Palestinians in the Beirut refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla in 1982.
Israel's defense minister at the time, he oversaw Israel's invasion of Lebanon, aimed at driving out the PLO, which was using the country as an international terrorism base.
The actual killings in Sabra and Shatilla were committed by Christian militiamen under the command of Elias Hobeika, a Lebanese national subsequently accused of being a traitor and Syrian agent.
An official Israeli inquiry later held Sharon indirectly responsible, for not having foreseen the possibility that the militiamen might carry out revenge killings against Palestinians many held responsible for atrocities against their community in Lebanon.
Nagi Najjar, director of the Lebanon Foundation for Peace, a U.S.-based advocacy group, sees an Arab political agenda behind the fact that the issue of Sharon's involvement is being raised again almost 20 years after the tragedy.
He claimed this week the campaign was backed by PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Saudi Arabia, with the express purpose of undermining and weakening Sharon to force Israel to offer more far-reaching concessions to the Palestinians.
"If the Arab world can burn Sharon, there is no hardcore [Israeli] politician that will stand in their way," Najjar said in a telephone interview.
"Sabra and Shatilla is their best card. If they succeed [in bringing a conviction against Sharon] with Sabra and Shatilla, they will win over Israel big time," he said.
Calls to hold Sharon responsible for what happened in the Beirut camps have been gathering momentum in recent weeks.
Twenty-eight survivors of the massacre accused Sharon of crimes against humanity in a Belgian court this month.
According to a 1993 law, Belgium will prosecute war crimes suspects regardless of the nationality of the complainant or where or when the crime was committed.
Just days earlier, the BBC aired an investigative program examining Sharon's role in the affair and suggesting that in light of international legislation, he be tried as a war criminal.
Although the program noted that Hobeika had been responsible for the slaughter, it did not suggest that he be prosecuted.
This week, Lebanon's chief military prosecutor, Nasri Lahoud, announced that he plans to re-open an investigation in the Sabra and Shatilla killings.
But Lahoud said neither Hobeika - who served three terms as a minister in Damascus-controlled Lebanese governments - nor any other Lebanese would be prosecuted or even questioned.
A copy of an original Lebanese investigation into the tragedy could not be found, a report in the Beirut Daily Star said. Instead, the prosecution will rely solely on the testimonies of Palestinian survivors of the massacre and focus on the culpability of Sharon.
Najjar, who claims to maintain very good sources in Lebanese intelligence, said the head of the Syrian Secret Service in Lebanon, Brig. Gen. Ghazy Khanon, has now been intimidating former commanders of the Lebanese forces, in order to persuade them to testify in Lebanese courts against Sharon.
Such a move, he said, would relieve pressure on Hobeika.
Najjar claimed that Hobeika, backed by Syria, had incited and led the event without Sharon's knowledge to blacken his reputation and shame the Lebanese Christian community.
Hobeika's bodyguard, Robert Maroun Hatem, later wrote an eyewitness account in which he claimed that Sharon had repeatedly emphasized to the Christian militiamen that they were to behave like a civilized army and not lose control.
Najjar said the behavior of the militiamen who followed Hobeika into the camps had to be seen in the context of the PLO's assault, rape, and murder of some 200,000 mostly Christian Lebanese during the country's civil war.
While Sabra and Shatilla are painted as civilian refugee camps, they were also well-known international terrorist training centers, he said.
Militants from Italy's Red Brigades, the Basque separatist movement and Islamic mercenaries from Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Egypt visited to receive instruction in terror techniques.
Professor Gabriel Ben-Dor, director of the Center for National Security Studies at the University of Haifa, agreed that the war crimes accusations were being brought up at this time in order to target Sharon and his popularity among the Israelis.
"Sharon has a large degree of legitimacy in the international community," Ben-Dor said. "The Palestinians are trying to undermine that support."
Ben-Dor said he did not know who was behind the accusations, but there were plenty in the Arab world who would like to "settle a score" with Sharon, among them Egypt and Syria.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry is keeping fairly quiet on the subject. It has said that it sees the charges in the Belgian court as "baseless" and "part of a concerted front against Israel."
As a result of the findings of the Israeli inquiry, Sharon was forced to resign as defense minister. But the quasi-judicial committee did not recommend criminal proceedings be launched.
Sharon in 1985 sued the newsweekly Time for libel over a report on the massacre.
Although Sharon lost the suit because he could not prove malicious intent, a federal jury accused the magazine of careless and negligent reporting and forced it to retract a key portion of the report.