Watching the mainstream coverage of Ariel Sharon's stroke and subsequent medical treatment you'd be mistaken for thinking that the man was the reincarnation of Mahatma Gandhi himself. The reality
, as anyone with even a passing familiarity with Sharon's history is aware, doesn't present him in such a flattering light.
Former Knesset member and Israeli peace activist Uri Averny argues
that Sharon has remained true to "true to his fundamental approach, only adapting his slogans to changing times and circumstances." Averny suggests that Sharon's "simplistic" world view finds its roots in "19th century style nationalism, which says: our people stands above all others, other people are inferior. The rights of our nation are sacred, other nations have no rights at all. The rules of morality apply only to relations within the nation, not to relations between nations."
Our first reference point for Sharon's career is his founding and leaderhip of Unit 101 in 1953. This Unit was responsible for an attack
in October 1953 against the village of Qibya in the West Bank then under Jordanian control. This was ostensibly a reprisal for Arab attacks against the Israeli town of Yahud, but ended with the killing of 60 Palestinians and the demolition of nearly every house in the village. At the time the US State Department denounced the raid, demanding that those responsible be brought to account and temporarily suspending economic aid to Israel while the UN Security Council passed a condemnatory resolution in November.
Sharon's career in the military continued until 1973 when he retired and shortly thereafter joined the right-wing Likup party. By 1982 he had risen to the position of Israeli Defence Minister in Menachem Begin's cabinet. In this position he was in charge of the Israeli war against Lebanon, a brutal affair which may have killed as amny as 20,000 people, most of them
As horrific as the war itself was, Sharon's name became infamous for his connection with the Sabra and Shatila massacre
. The massacre takes its name from the two refugee camps where it took place. These were surrounded by Israeli soldiers who sent Lebanese Phalangist militias into the camps ostensibly to track down Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) fighters and hand them over to the Israeli defence Force (IDF). There was, however, no fighting and no PLO guerillas handed over to the IDF. Instead the militias proceeded to slaughter the inhabitants - women as well as men - resulting in the deaths of anything between 300-3,500 people. Throughout the IDF did nothing to intervene and indeed prevented refugees from fleeing the camps and providing illumination.
The responsibilty of the IDF for the massacre is, like so much surrounding the Israel-Palestine issue, hotly contested, but the order to send the militias into the camps was given by Sharon. In 1983 the Israeli Kahan Commission concluded
We have found, as has been detailed in this report, that the Minister of Defense [Ariel Sharon] bears personal responsibility. In our opinion, it is fitting that the Minister of Defense draw the appropriate personal conclusions arising out of the defects revealed with regard to the manner in which he discharged the duties of his office - and if necessary, that the Prime Minister consider whether he should exercise his authority under Section 21-A(a) of the Basic Law: the Government, according to which "the Prime Minister may, after informing the Cabinet of his intention to do so, remove a minister from office.
Sharon was indeed subsequently removed, but his political career was far from over. He remained in subsequent governments holding various positions. In 1999 he became the leader of Likud and in 2001 he was elected Israeli Prime Minister.
Robert Fisk points out
that one of the lesser-known facts about Sharon's career during this period was his opposition to the NATO war against Serbia. As you might expect given the foregoing, this was not motivated by an opposition to western aggression. On the contrary, as Israeli Foreign Minister he inveighed against "Islamic terror" in Kosovo warning, "The moment that Israel expresses support...it's likely to be the next victim. Imagine that one day Arabs in Galilee demand that the region in which they live be recognised as an autonomous area, connected to the Palestinian Authority..." In fact, Sharon's sympathies with Milosevic go back some way and in an interview in a Belgrade newspaper he stated "We stand together with you against the Islamic terror." Readers are invited to draw their own conclusions about the methods adopted by the two leaders to fight "Islamic terror".
Prior to his election as Prime Minister, Sharon decided to visit the site of the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Accompanied by armed guards, this visit, to what is considered the third holiest site in Islam, was seen as an incitement by many Palestinians and trigggered the Second (or Al-Aqsa) Intifada. During the Intifada, Sharon oversaw the brutal Israeli response which witnessed the reoccupation of extensive areas of Palestinian territory, the bulldzong of homes and the use of jet fighters and attack helicopters against targets in civillian areas.
Sharon also took the decision to build the controversial wall around large parts of the West bank. This was unpopular not just because of the symbolism of such a structure, but because of the route which it follows which places stretches of Palestinian territory on the Israeli side and carves some Palestinian communities in two, further problematising the day-to-day lives of residents.
That somebody responsible for all this could go on to become the darling
of the liberal Israeli peace movement seems unlikely, but that's exactly what's happened. The reason for this is Sharon's Gaza withdrawal plan which saw settlers withdrawn from tiny Gaza Strip. This was heralded by much of the mainstream media as a glorious, brave step towards peace, but as Sharon's top adviser Dov Weisglass openly admits
, "The disengagement is actually formaldehyde. It supplies the amount of formaldehyde that's necessary so that there will not be a political process with the Palestinians." Giving up Gaza was part of a wider strategy to ensure Israeli control over the much larger and more significant West bank.
Even in Gaza the withdrawal is not quite everything it's been presented as. Israel remains
the occupying power and still believes it has the authority to declare
an area in the north a no-go buffer zone. In fact withdrawing the Israeli presence on the ground actually seems to have freed the IDF's hand somewhat. Air raids in october saw the introduction
of sonic booms, caused by low-flying F16 jets travelling at supersonic speeds, as a tactic for instilling terror in the populace.
Given how relentlessly depressing the Israel-Palestine situation is, it shouldn't be surprising that people will grab for any and every straw which is waved in their general direction, but we shouldn't let our hope for a solution cloud our judgement of reality. It is possible
that Sharon was
moving towards a position which would have seen him endorse a genuinely sustainable, just solution to the conflict, but the evidence seems scant at best.