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The Prime Minister's Office went on the offensive Thursday, hoping to quash a bid to bring Sharon to trial over a massacre of Palestinians by pro-Israeli Christian militiamen during the then-defense minister's 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

This offensive represents a policy reversal fuelled by fears that Ariel Sharon, the IDF chief of staff, and other senior Israeli officials could face arrest abroad for a range of war crimes and torture allegations.

Advisers to the prime minister voiced apprehension that a pending lawsuit against Sharon in Belgium over the Beirut refugee camp atrocities could snowball into a attempts to bring war-crimes charges against Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz, Air Force Commander Dan Halutz, and other defense force officials for their roles in Intifada-related IDF retaliation attacks in which civilians were killed or wounded.

Ironically, noted one government legal authority, Israel's long-time backing for vigilance in pursuing Holocaust war criminals helped spur international mechanisms that could be used to see to it that Israeli diplomats, politicians, generals and even pilots could be arrested on setting foot in certain European countries.

The mounting concern in official circles has been compounded by a crisis in Israeli-Danish relations over threats to seize ambassador-designate Carmi Gillon - a former head of the Shin Bet security service - on his arrival in Copenhagen next month.

Israeli trepidation has increased as some Europeans have likened Sharon and other Israeli officials to ousted Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic, shipped to the United Nations war crimes tribunal in the Hague, Netherlands, after his April 1 arrest. Milosevic faces allegations of crimes against humanity which are tied to atrocities his forces committed against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

Citing provisions of diplomatic immunity, Danish officials have backed away from earlier warnings that Gillon faced arrest for his role as the head of an organization whose interrogators allegedly violated a UN convention against torture. However, reports Ha'aretz correspondent Nitzan Horowitz, "Danish courts could yet decide that the UN Treaty against Torture overrides the Vienna Treaty, which grants diplomats immunity."

Foreign Ministry Legal Counselor Alan Baker called the legal moves in Belgium and Denmark examples of "globalization of international criminal law." Citing the cases of Milosevic and extradition proceedings against former Chilean strongman Augusto Pinochet, Baker told Israel Radio: "There is a tendency to expand the criminal jurisdiction authority of nations so that they may try people who are not their citizens for offenses not committed within their borders, in particular where serious crimes are concerned, such as war crimes and atrocities."

Baker said that Israel, desiring to bring to justice fugitives guilty of crimes during the Holocaust, had since its founding supported the concept of expanding such jurisdiction. "The problem is that in the last few years, as the result of efforts by Arab states, politicization has been introduced into the concept. Now there is a tendency to exploit this positive [trend] in order to achieve political gains of de-legitimizing Israel and its leaders, and that is what we are trying to deal with now."

Ha'aretz correspondent Aluf Benn reported Thursday that in response to the appeals of a number of present and past senior security officers concerned over traveling abroad, the Foreign Ministry has begun "mapping" the criminal justice systems of European countries, trying to identify "problematic states" where prominent officials in the Israeli security services might face legal action because of wide-ranging local authority to prosecute suspected human-rights violators.

Benn said Sharon's office has decided to hire a Belgian attorney in order to battle the possible legal consequences of the lawsuit filed in Belgium against Sharon for alleged responsibility for the massacres in the Sabra and Chatila camps.

Until now, the policy of the Prime Minister's Office had been to ignore the legal processes against Sharon. But, Benn states, Sharon aides have now shifted to a more active posture, with the goal of submitting a petition to dismiss the lawsuit.

Baker said of the decision to secure Belgian legal help, "The Foreign Ministry, along with the State Prosecutor's Office and the Justice Ministry, are taking these matters very seriously."

Israel Radio reported Foreign Ministry director-general Avi Gil saying that, "The ministry advises all leaders in Israel not to visit nations whose legal systems are liable to cause them inconvenience and embarassment."

The issue first arose with a complaint to the Belgian court system against Sharon, whom an Israeli inquiry panel ruled bore indirect responsibility for not having prevented Christian Phalangist militiamen from entering the Palestinian refugee camps and slaughtering hundreds of residents in a revenge operation.

Prominent Israeli attorney Dov Weisglass, who represented Sharon before the Kahan State Commission of Inquiry as well as in a libel suit against Time Magazine (tied to its reporting of the then-defense minister's actions during the Lebanon War), said Thursday that he believed Sharon would succeed in repelling the Belgian legal challenge.

But Weisglass told Army Radio that the Carmi Gillon affair showed "the extent to which there is a powerful danger to every Israeli official who at any stage of his life was connected to security events here in Israel. There is no limit to this, nor for most offenses defined as war crimes is there a statute of limitations, so this can relate even to the [1948] War of Independence, or before."

The lawsuit against Sharon was closely followed by complaints from Danish parliamentary and human rights groups against Gillon. President Moshe Katsav blasted Danish officials for "mystifying" inconsistency in condemning Israeli actions while failing to "clearly and decisively raise its voice as it was duty-bound to do against the Palestinian terrorists who carry out gruesome acts in Israeli cities against men, women and children."

Those states considered most problematic are Belgium, where the courts have a broad mandate to prosecute war crimes committed outside the country's borders; Spain, where the legal battle for the extradition of Pinochet took place; and Britain.

Several high-ranking security officers, both past and present, have recently approached the Foreign Ministry, asking whether they might face difficulties traveling through Europe. A ministry source told Ha'aretz that, "there may be problems in the future and those who are famous may be at risk. The main fear is for officers at the field level." Another source said that "even a commander of the air force might be liable, charged with sending bombers to attack targets in civilian areas."