After eight years in a coma Ariel Sharon (1928-2014), Israeli military leader, Prime Minister and war criminal, died on 11 January. Ironically, but quite understandably, he was lauded as a man of peace by western leaders. American Secretary of State John Kerry asserted that Sharon was a man who attempted to “bend the course of history toward peace,” a truly ludicrous proposition that demonstrates the stranglehold Israel has on US politicians. Among Israelis he was more honestly known as the “Bulldozer,” while for Palestinians he was the “Butcher,” a recognition of his complete disregard for non-Jewish lives. Apart from his Jewishness Sharon was an individual who would have been quite comfortable in the Hitler administration, something that may be said about a disturbing number of Israeli politicians these days.
Sharon was a sabra, that is, he was actually born in Palestine, giving him marginally more credibility in his claim to the land than someone who had recently arrived from Brooklyn. To his credit he was not involved in terrorism against the British, as were two other Israeli Prime Ministers, Menachim Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, but this may simply be because of his youth. He fought as part of the Haganah in the War of Independence in 1947-48 and after the armistice in 1949 he remained in the Israeli military for the next quarter century. During this long tenure he showed himself to be a brilliant military commander, but he was also insubordinate and extremely aggressive, often losing more men than his superiors thought was necessary.
From the beginning of his career he also demonstrated a ruthlessness and complete lack of morality when dealing with his country’s enemies. Shortly after the armistice he organized Unit 101, a sort of special operations squad that conducted raids across the armistice lines in retaliation for Arab attacks, to some degree setting the standard for the Israeli military. Collateral damage among Arab civilians was not a concern, and responding in 1953 to an Arab raid into Israel, his unit attacked the West Bank (then controlled by Jordan) village of Qibya, which had been used by the Arab force. His men blew up 45 houses, a school and a mosque, killing between 65 and 70 civilians, at least half of them women and children. The operation was disavowed by the Israeli government.
Sharon performed brilliantly during the 1956 Suez crisis, the 1967 Six Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War, but controversial political views led to his dismissal in 1974. His political career began the following year, and despite his lack of experience he was made Minister of Agriculture when Menachim Begin became Prime Minister in 1977. During this period Sharon became the major supporter of the settlement movement, which began in 1974 with the creation of Gush Emunim (Block of the Faithful), whose members wished to see the West Bank annexed by Israel. Sharon’s policy: “Everybody has to move, run and grab as many (Judean) hilltops as they can to enlarge the (Jewish) settlements because everything we take now will stay ours. … Everything we don’t grab will go to them.” The Jewish settlement of Palestinian territory would be Sharon’s greatest achievement and his lasting legacy.
In 1981 Begin appointed Sharon Minister of Defense, and a year later Israel invaded Lebanon, providing the opportunity for Sharon to become an actual war criminal. On 15 September 1982 in response to the assassination of Lebanese president and Israeli ally Bashir Gemayel Sharon, Begin, chief of staff Rafael Eitan and foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir decided to reoccupy West Beirut, violating their agreement with the United States. The Israeli army surrounded the Sabra neighborhood and Shatila refugee camp, where thousands of Palestinians, mostly women, children and old men, lived, and the following day Sharon and Eitan invited the Christian Phalange militias (See Ironies from Israel #2) to “mop up” the refugee camps, providing Israeli jeeps to transport them. The Phalange, originally modeled on the Nazi SA, entered the camps and began raping, mutilating and butchering the inhabitants, all of this being observed by Israeli officers stationed in buildings around the area. When darkness fell, the Israeli army continuously fired flares, illuminating the camps. The following morning the army ordered the Phalange to stop. By that time more than a thousand Palestinians, including small children, had been killed.
The United Nations condemned the massacre as “genocide,” with which term the US and other nations disagreed. An independent commission headed by Seán MacBride concluded that Israeli authorities or forces were indirectly or directly responsible for the slaughter, while the Israeli Kahan Commission, created only after 400,000 protestors gathered in Tel Aviv, concluded that Israel was only indirectly responsible. Sharon, Eitan and some intelligence officials were found to “bear personal responsibility,” and it was recommended that Sharon be dismissed. He refused to resign and Begin refused to fire him until massive protests forced a compromise whereby Sharon would cease to be Minister of Defense but remain in the cabinet. He also acquired the name “Butcher of Beirut.”
International outrage subsided, and Sharon remained part of the cabinet for the next eighteen years, serving as Minister Without Portfolio, Minister for Trade and Industry, Minister of Housing and Construction, Minister of Energy and Water Resources and Minister of Foreign Affairs. He became Prime Minister in 2001 and served until his stroke in 2006. As a cabinet minister he vigorously pushed the settlement of the
West Bank, but in 2005 he “disengaged” from Gaza, forcibly removing some 7000 Jewish settlers. For this he was lauded as a “man of peace,” taking the first bold step towards ending the occupation and creating a Palestinian state. What nonsense. Unlike the West Bank, which is essentially Judea, Gaza was never part of ancient Israel and consequently expendable in the creation of Greater Israel, and the move took some of the attention away from the massive settlement program in the West Bank. “Disengagement” meant turning Gaza into a huge prison camp, its frontiers, territorial waters and air space controlled by the Israelis, who periodically bomb its fading infrastructure.
In an attempt to end terrorist attacks and suicide bombings in 2002 he launched Operation Defensive Shield, the largest military operation in the West Bank since the Six Day War. Various international organizations concluded that both sides could be faulted for their behavior and that Israeli use of heavy weapons in urban areas resulted in civilian casualties. More critically, the Israelis purposefully destroyed much of the Palestinian infrastructure, including private property belonging to a number of NGOs. By deliberately debilitating the Palestinian Administration and weakening the economic infrastructure Defensive Shield dramatically aided the settlement program.
In 2002 private groups began the construction of the “separation barrier,” which after some hesitation Sharon’s government embraced, pouring in funds. The concrete wall, generally more than twenty feet high, and other obstacles, including exclusion zones, are designed to protect Israel, but it also allows the Israelis to begin transferring Palestinian land to Israel by running the wall east of the 1967 cease fire line. More than 8% of the West Bank has now been in effect turned into Israel.
Many Israelis see Ariel Sharon as an embarrassment and even a war criminal, but generally he is remembered for his heroic and brilliant exploits during Israel’s major wars. His lasting legacy, though, is the settlement of the West Bank, where more than a half million Israelis now live and enjoy rights and resources denied the Palestinians. Israel now directly controls about two thirds of the proposed Palestinian homeland, while the remainder is cut up by Israeli-only roads and military enclaves. In complete conflict with international law Israel is gradually annexing the West Bank and painting herself into a corner. If the Palestinians are granted citizenship in Greater Israel, it will no longer be a Jewish state, which is unthinkable. The only alternative is apartheid, a system that is slowly being established. And through inaction and political cowardice my country is abetting this loathsome development.