The Middle-East is probably the only place where the death of one man leads to queues to pay respect in one country, and people handing out lollies to celebrate in another. Ariel Sharon, the Prime Minster of Israel, died on Saturday the 11th, after being in a coma for 8 years. For most people in Israel and its neighbours, there is no middle ground on his legacy. Ariel Sharon was:
“a man of peace”
“one of the great, original figures who fought for Israel”
“one of a kind, a real leader”
“directly responsible for the massacre at Sabra and Chatila”
So who was Ariel Sharon? In a region so divided as the Middle-East, this is a hard question to answer. Perhaps a good way to start is by looking at who he was to his own people and to his enemies.
Israel – A leader through the worst of times
In Israel, he was the man who was there from the start. He either fought or commanded in every war Israel fought. He fought as a platoon commander in the 1948 War of Independence, led a paratrooper unit in the 1956 Suez War, commanded an armoured division in the 1967 Six-Day War and encircled the Egyptian Third Army in the Yom Kippur War of 1973. After retiring from the military he was Defence Minister in the 1982 Lebanon War and eventually became Prime Minister in 2001. This was just in time to lead the country through the violent conflict with the Palestinians lasting until 2005. All in all, a military history possibly unparalleled in the 20th century.
Israel is a country defined by its struggle for existence, and Sharon was there for every moment of the fight. Throughout his career there were debates in Israel itself about his excesses. In 1953 his commando unit killed dozens of Palestinian civilians in the town of Qibya. Sharon claimed he didn’t know that the civilians were still in their homes when they were blown up. During the Suez War he disobeyed orders and captured the Mitla pass, leading to him being blamed for “unauthorised aggression” and wasting lives. Finally, even an Israeli Commission found him responsible for failing to prevent the Sabra and Chatila massacre in Lebanon (see below). However, in the case of the ’48, ’67 and ’73 wars, defeat could have meant the end of Israel. To this day he is seen as a military hero.
Despite these excesses, Sharon was also seen as a leader, a man who got things done. In his last years in office he ordered a complete Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Thousands of Jewish settlers were forced to leave, and their homes demolished. This was hugely controversial in Israel, but Sharon was seen as the only man with the authority to get it done, and to at least start negotiations with the Palestinians. This action also gave him the reputation of a peacemaker in the West; a reputation that must infuriate Palestinians. So for Israel, Ariel Sharon was one of their greatest leaders, a man who kept the nation safe through the worst of times.
Palestinians and Arabs – “The Butcher of Beirut”
To the Palestinians and other Arabs, especially the Lebanese, Ariel Sharon’s record is soaked in blood. This is of course to be expected of a man who fought against Arabs in six conflicts; conflicts where atrocities were committed on both sides. To Palestinians Israel is a state which took their land, keeps them in poverty, and denies them their rights. However, the main reason that lollies were handed out in Gaza after Sharon’s death is the killing of over a thousand Palestinians in the massacre at Sabra and Chatila.
In 1982 Israel (with Ariel Sharon as Defence Minister) invaded Lebanon, hoping to eradicate the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) which was active there at the time. According to the journalist Robert Fisk, this invasion was accompanied by numerous killings of civilians. During the siege of Beirut Sharon’s powers were limited by the Prime Minster after the deaths of hundreds of civilians. Eventually a deal was reached where the PLO fighters and leaders left the country. However, this left behind thousands of Palestinian refugees living in camps in Beirut.
The Israelis were allied with a Christian militia in Beirut, the Phalangists, who were bitter enemies of the PLO. On the 14th of September 1982, the Phalangist leader was assassinated in a car bomb. In the aftermath Sharon made the decision to allow the Phalangists to enter the camps of Sabra and Chatila, full of Palestinian refugees, so that they could search for ‘terrorists’. The Phalangists proceeded to rape, mutilate and execute over a thousand men, women and children. The Israeli army, who were surrounding the camp, knew what was going on but were ordered not to intervene. Instead they stopped refugees from leaving the camp, despite having seen what was happening.
In the huge outcry after the massacre, the Israeli government itself formed an investigation. The investigators found that Ariel Sharon was personally responsible for ignoring the danger of allowing the Phalangists to enter the camp, and for not intervening to stop the killing. Despite this Sharon refused to resign, and was eventually demoted from his post as Defence Minister. 20 years later he was elected Prime Minister. To Palestinians, Ariel Sharon is a murderer, simple as that.
So who is Ariel Sharon?
In my opinion, it is impossible to separate these two sides of Ariel Sharon. He was a man who grew up in conflict. He first joined a Jewish military organisation at the age of 14, and was only 20 when he first fought against Arab states aiming to completely destroy his country. That provides context for his actions in Lebanon. However, he is still guilty of appalling apathy towards the Palestinians in Sabra and Chatila. Coming after the assassination of their leader, it would take a fool not to see what the consequences of letting the Phalangists loose would be, and Sharon was no fool. He knew what was happening in the camps, and failed to take any action, or ever admit responsibility. It’s a tragedy that his years of service to his country blinded him to the humanity of those he fought.
For those wanting to know more about Sabra and Chatila, and the Israeli role, Robert Fisk’s book “Pity the Nation” contains a graphic account of what he saw in the camps, and his excellent investigation into the events.