Ariel Sharon: Beyond the eulogies
There were mixed reactions after it was announced by Gilad Sharon, the son of Israeli former Prime Minister Arik (Ariel) Sharon, from the Chaim Sehba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer that his father had passed away in his hospital bed on January 11, 2014.
Officials from the US and other countries that have traditionally backed Israel began sending their condolences. Some lionized Sharon as a great leader while others, aware of Sharon’s blood-stained history, were more cautious with their words.
Architect of modern Israel?
“I remember reading about Arik in the papers when I was a young lawyer in Boston and marveling at his commitment to cause and country. I will never forget meeting with this big bear of a man when he became prime minister as he sought to bend the course of history toward peace, even as it meant testing the patience of his own longtime supporters and the limits of his own, lifelong convictions in the process,” US Secretary of State John Kerry said of Sharon.
Kerry’s boss in the White House, President Barack Obama, was more cautious in the selection of his words than his secretary of state.
“On behalf of the American people, Michelle and I send our deepest condolences to the family of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and to the people of Israel on the loss of a leader who dedicated his life to the State of Israel,” he said in a statement.
Senator John McCain’s condolences utterly lionized Sharon by having nothing but praise for the deceased former prime minister. McCain stated that Tel Aviv “has lost one of its greatest heroes and defenders.”
North of the border from Washington, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whose government in Ottawa has been one of Israel’s staunchest supporters, joined McCain in praising the dead Israeli leader as “one of the architects of modern-day Israel.”
Cautious or not about their condolences, these officials all essentially described Sharon, who served as PM from 2001 until he fell into a coma in 2006, as the man who has shaped modern Israel. They equated Sharon’s life with that of the State of Israel as if Ariel Sharon were the very country of Israel itself. Secretary Kerry even articulated this point by saying, “Ariel Sharon's journey was Israel’s journey.”
A divisive death
Sharon has proven to be just as divisive in death as he was in life. While eulogies and condolences to Israel came from the US, Canada, the UK, France, Germany, and places like Colombia and Singapore, there was a mixture of criticism, welcome, and restrained silence from the Palestinians, the Arab countries next-door to Israel, and the vast majority of the world.
Little sorrow has been felt over the death in the Arab World. The Palestinians particularly loathed him as the murder that was responsible for the killing of unarmed civilians during events like the Qibya Massacre in 1953 or the Shatila and Sabre Massacre in 1982.
The impotent Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas initially stayed silent, not wishing to anger the Israelis and knowing full well that any condolences from Ramallah about the death of the man known by the epithet of ‘butcher’ by Palestinians would make Abbas even more unpopular among the Palestinians.
Other Palestinian officials across the political spectrum, however, expressed the fillings of Palestinians towards Sharon in their remarks.
“After eight years, he is going in the same direction as other tyrants and criminals whose hands were covered with Palestinian blood,” Khalil Ismail Haya, a senior Palestinian official in the Gaza Strip, remarked to Reuters. Tawfik Tirawi, a security advisor to Mahmoud Abbas and the former security aide of the late Yasser Arafat, would also weigh in, commenting that Ariel Sharon “wanted to erase the Palestinian people from the map” and “wanted to kill us, but at the end of the day, Sharon is dead and the Palestinian people are alive.”
Even amongst the Israeli population there were mixed reactions to the death, with some Israeli communities welcoming it. Some bitterly remembered him for the execution of the so-called ‘disengagement’ from Gaza that forced Israeli settlers to leave. Other Israelis saw him as a war criminal. He is also still remembered as one of Israel’s most corrupt and dishonest politicians. There is now an attempt to effectively outlaw any expressions of delight about Sharon’s death. The Israeli media has reported that Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch angrily described public expressions against Ariel Sharon as criminal and instructed Israeli police units to find any public signs expressing satisfaction at Sharon’s demise liable for criminal prosecution.
Sharon’s rise from soldier to PM
Sharon started his life as a soldier fighting for the establishment of Israel in 1948 and was adamant that the entire land be forcibly cleared of Palestinians. He later became the head of a commando unit responsible for enforcing Israeli collective punishment on Palestinian villages. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, who described Sharon as a pathological liar, ordered him to carry out the Qibya Massacre against unarmed civilians.
The New York Times misleadingly refers to this as the Battle of Qibya to hide the true nature of what happened; there was never a fight and more than half the people killed by Sharon were women and children. The act was condemned internationally and Sharon claimed that he thought most the civilian homes — 45 of which he destroyed — were empty and that an armed force was there, but the UN observers’ reports contradict his claims.
As a soldier Sharon was insolent, refusing to follow orders many times. While commanding an elite Israeli paratrooper brigade in 1956 he ignored orders and advanced to the Mitla Pass where he was defeated and forced back by the Egyptians. During the fighting, Sharon had Egyptian prisoners of war killed and even ordered the massacre of 49 Egyptian quarry workers who were civilians that played no role in the fighting. In 1973 he ignored direct commands again by rushing into battle. He came out victorious this time. Moshe Dayan said that if Israel had lost the war against Egypt in 1973 that Ariel Sharon, then acting as a major-general, would have been tried by a military court for not following orders.
His success in 1973 empowered his political ambitions. He then made his entry into the Israeli cabinet in 1977 as the minister of agriculture. This was a post that he would hold until 1982. A fervent expansionist, as the minister of agriculture Sharon created the current Israeli settler system that he admitted was specifically designed to partition the West Bank and annex most the Palestinian territory there.
In 1982 he became the cabinet minister responsible for the Israeli military. In his new post, Sharon ordered Israeli forces to invade Lebanon during its civil war, which resulted in the deaths of approximately 20,000 civilians. The Jewish Dutch director George Sluizer even claimed that he saw Sharon murder two Palestinian infants in Lebanon with his handgun.
Under the pretext of fighting the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) to justify their invasion, the Israeli military advancing into Lebanon’s capital Beirut from Lebanon’s southern border. The main aims were to impose an Israeli-controlled puppet regime in Lebanon and expand Israeli territory. Once the Israeli military arrived in Beirut, Sharon had the Palestinian refugee camps there surrounded by his armed forces. He then arranged for Lebanese collaborators in the Kataeb (Phalange) militia — currently represented by the Kataeb and Lebanese Forces political parties in the Hariri-led March 14 Alliance that is arming the anti-government forces in Syria — to enter Shatila and Sabre with Israeli aid and cover. What ensued was a three-day orgy of torture, rape, and murder of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians, most of whom where were women and children.
International pressure and public outrage forced Israel to form the Kahan Commission. The Kahan Commission found Sharon personally responsible and guilty of knowingly let the massacre of civilians take place, but took no action against him. Political pressure from within the political establishment resulted in Sharon’s humiliation and then his resignation in 1983 from his post as the minister responsible for the Israeli military.
Elie Hobeika, the leader of the Phalange militia that carried out the massacre, would volunteer in 2001 to testify that Sharon and the Israelis played a central role in the massacre to a Belgian court. Hobeika, however, was assassinated by a car bomb a few months before he was scheduled to testify in Belgium. Hobeika’s murder would open the door to an era of assassinations against Lebanese politicians by car bombs that many point the figure at Israel for. In fact, during the course of the fighting in Lebanon, Sharon authorized the use of car bombs as an Israeli tactic.
The political polarization of the sentiments of Israeli society against the Palestinians during their Second Intifada (Uprising) helped catapult Sharon into the office of prime minister and undermine his political opponents. Sharon is widely credited for starting the Second Intifada in the year 2000 by paying a controversial public visit to Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Noble Sanctuary (known as Haram Al-Sharif in Arabic to Muslims) or Temple Mount (known as Har Habayit in Hebrew to Jewry) with a Likudnik delegation and an armed riot police guard of about one thousand men. Ironically, the visit was approved by both Prime Minister Ehud Barak and the Palestinian Authority, the latter insisting that Sharon not do anything controversial like threaten to enter Al-Aqsa Mosque.
Sharon’s visit is widely seen as lighting a powder keg and deliberately engineering an end to the peace process by igniting violence as a means of helping himself politically in his bid to become Israeli prime minister. Sharon’s visit accompanied by a flagrantly large armed guard on what is seen as both symbolically sentimental and holy ground by Muslims and Jews was merely the provocative straw that broke the camel’s back, so to speak, for the disillusioned Palestinians. Tensions were already high among the Palestinians about the continuation of the Israeli occupation and the bankruptcy of the Oslo Accords and peace talks, but for them Sharon’s presence was a provocation.
The so-called ‘Gaza disengagement’
Not only did officials from countries supporting Israel describe Ariel Sharon as the individual who shaped modern-day Israel, they also described him as a soldier who turned into a man of peace.
British Prime Minister David Cameron stated that “Ariel Sharon is one of the most significant figures in Israeli history and as prime minister he took brave and controversial decisions in pursuit of peace.”
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon would echo Cameron by saying, “Sharon will be remembered for his political courage and determination to carry through with the painful and historic decision to withdraw Israeli settlers and troops from the Gaza Strip.”
Stating that Sharon’s “brave decision to withdraw Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip” was a “historic step” towards peace, German Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel would use the same theme.
The emphasis on Ariel Sharon’s decision in 2005 to unilaterally withdraw the Israeli military and Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip is harkened as a mark of his commitment for peace, but Sharon’s so-called ‘disengagement’ from Gaza was at its heart a strategic and Machiavellian move aimed at furthering Israel’s expansionist objective of annexing East Jerusalem and most the West Bank. Above all things, this ‘disengagement’ was intended to enable Israeli territorial expansion. He sent almost four times the number of Israeli settlers into the West Bank to compensate for the 8,000 Israeli settlers he removed from Gaza. Nor was there much of a withdrawal from Gaza either, because Israel still controlled the trade, entry, exit, finances, coastline, the water, the air, and airwaves. It also set up a security perimeter inside Gaza and periodically had troops and sailors conduct patrols inside Gaza’s territory.
The decision to leave Gaza was actually made through security, demographic, and geopolitical calculations to give the maximum amount of Palestinians the smallest amount of land possible and to control the Palestinians in the most effective way. There was no way that Israel would annex the minuscule Gaza Strip where the highest concentration of the Palestinian population amount to just under 40 percent of their population lived when it could annex the much larger and less densely-populated West Bank. Moreover, with the Israeli settlers in Gaza gone, Israel was free to effectively blockade the most densely held Palestinian area and to launch its military assaults to pressure the Palestinians, which would have come at high costs or have been nearly impossible to Israel if the settlers remained. Coupled with the construction of the Separation/Apartheid Wall, the ‘disengagement’ was really a ‘re-engagement’ for more effective Israeli control over Gaza that would be sold as a part of desire for peace.
Netanyahu continuing Sharon’s legacy?
Although Benjamin Netanyahu publicly opposed the ‘disengagement’ from Gaza in 2005, the same strategies are being implemented and continued by him. In this regard, it can be argued that Prime Minister Netanyahu is executing Sharon’s plan to create Greater Israel by continuing his expansionist policy of annexing East Jerusalem and the West Bank through the systematic development of Israeli settlements/colonies. Beneath the surface, the continuation and expansion of the Israeli settlements and the leverage they have given Israel in negotiations is why Ariel Sharon is really the “architect of modern Israel.”
Sharon’s objectives of annexing East Jerusalem and the West Bank, however, are not a view he shaped, they are part of an expansionist ideology widely held in the Israeli political establishment and popularly supported in Israeli society. He is merely the man who put together the strategy of doing it while appearing to pursue peace. In this context, it should come as no surprise just days before Sharon died, in late December 2013, that the Israeli government’s Ministerial Legislative Committee voted to annex the West Bank’s Jordan Valley, effectively insuring that the West Bank will barely have a border with Jordan and that most the West Bank will encircled by Israel.
Nor does Sharon’s death mean that Israel’s embrace of militarism has ended. Sharon is just one of many military leaders, like Shimon Peres, that have built Israel with war and around the military as the most important institution in Israel. To equate Ariel Sharon with Israel means that his death marks an end to a bloody history, when in reality the bloody history still continues with Netanyahu and Israel’s current leaders.
Since Sharon left office due to his coma, Israel attacked Lebanon in 2006, has launching multiple attacks on Gaza, conducted attacks on Syria, and repeatedly threatened to start wars against other countries. Tel Aviv’s leaders have always blamed Hamas for attacking Gaza, but it is important to note that they have done this while Israel continues its military operations and occupation in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, even though Fatah rules the West Bank and has insured that no real attacks have been launched against Israel for years.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.