WAS ARIEL Sharon a psychopath and a war criminal? Or was he just a good soldier, determined to ensure the survival of Israel?
When Sharon was celebrated ahead of a burial on the family farm six miles outside Gaza in mid-January global leaders were notable by their absence. The great and the good, who fought for front row seats at Mandela’s protracted funeral, decided a ‘no show’ was the wisest course of action.
The Free World was represented at his memorial ceremony outside the Knesset by Joe Biden, the US vice president who does what he is told to do, and by the tireless public speaker Tony Blair who wore a yarmulke throughout. No country, except the Czech Republic, sent its head of state.
Tony Blair delivering his speech at the coffin of Ariel Sharon. PA: Sebastian Scheiner/AP/Press Association Images
Biden and Blair may have swapped notes ahead of the ceremony. Rather than deal directly with Sharon’s blood-stained legacy both diffused the issue by employing metaphors borrowed from construction.
Biden referred to Sharon as the “bulldozer”, his nickname in some quarters. Blair noted that he had left a “lot of debris in his wake”. In death, as in life, Sharon was not exactly the first name on anybody’s dance card.
This should not surprise. The American writer Rich Cohen best summed up the problem of Ariel Sharon as follows:
Sharon was conjured up from the dreams of the Jewish people, from the centuries of fear and humiliation, the man prophesied in the Zohar come to finish the work of Saul. People see in him what they want to see: either Arik, King of the Jews, or the kosher butcher, apron covered in blood.
An Israeli newspaper once described Sharon as “this Aryan general”. Sharon, despite his fair hair, was no Aryan. He was a Sabra, a native-born Israeli.
Yet Cohen recognised him as a “Jewish Aryan, the Jewish Rommel, the ultimate expression of emancipation: we (the Jewish people) are free to worship our own strongman”.
Like all strongmen Sharon posed a problem for those who were more politically astute than he. He was quarrelsome, plain-speaking and given to righteous insubordination. His ‘post hoc’ efforts to explain himself rarely convinced.
Sharon’s military past
This was evident in the winter of 1953 when he was handpicked by David Ben-Gurion, the father of modern Israel, to lead Unit 101 – an Israeli rapid response unit.
Following a grenade attack which killed an Israeli mother and two children, Sharon led a reprisal raid on the Jordanian village of Qibya. Sharon’s unit planted explosives in 45 Arab homes, killing 70 civilians, mainly women and children. Lamely, he claimed shortly afterwards that he thought the houses were empty.
But he was not the only one washing his hands. The raid had been sanctioned by four Israeli leaders including Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan, behind the back of the-then prime minister Moshe Sharett. After the massacre Ben-Gurion issued a communique which said that a thorough investigation had found that no Israeli soldier had been absent from barracks on the night of the attack. They concluded it was the work of avenging civilians whom they roundly condemned.
Some 34 years later Sharon co-authored a book called Warrior in which he said that his orders were:
to blow up every major building in town. A political decision had been made at the highest level. The Jordanians were to understand that Jewish blood could no longer be shed with impunity. From this point on there would be a heavy price to pay.
Historian Patrick Tyler describes how after the Qibya attack Ben-Gurion and Sharon sealed a sort of Faustian pact.
Ben-Gurion invited Sharon to his office in Jerusalem, and after receiving assurances that the men of Unit 101 were politically sound, told Sharon to disregard international opinion. The raid would “give us the possibility of living here”.
To mark the occasion Ben-Gurion gave the young soldier a new name Sharon in place of his birth name Scheinerman. It was time he had ‘a Hebrew name.’
The political cover afforded him by Ben-Gurion was again vital in 1956 when the Commando in Chief openly disobeyed orders – this time after a shouting match with Dayan – during the Suez Crisis.
After Sharon led a reckless attack near Qalqilya, which cost the lives of 18 of his own soldiers, Dayan wanted to end Sharon’s career but was stopped by Ben-Gurion.
Ariel Sharon as a brigadier general in June 1967, pictured here with then Israeli Prime Minister Menahem on the southern front of the 6-Day War in the Sinai Desert. Pic: AP/PA Images.
Later in that campaign further adventurism saw Sharon order men under his control into a natural ambush site called the Mitla Pass. They were cut down by superior Egyptian fire, suffering 40 dead and 150 wounded. Dayan raged but he was forced to climb down saying he would rather “have to restrain a dashing horse than prod lazy oxen”.
Insubordination and recklessness were the hall marks of Sharon’s career.
Yom Kippur War
In the Yom Kippur War in 1973 he ignored repeated direct orders from General Gonen, then commander of Israel’s southern front, and drove his so-called ‘Likud Division’ through the centre of Sinai and across the canal. Ordinary soldiers could overhear Sharon shouting insults at his commanding officer across military radio.
The headstrong manoeuvre allowed Sharon and the IDF to encircle Egypt’s third army, trapping 100,000 enemy soldiers in Sinai and proving crucial to Israel’s swift victory in a war in which Israel had been caught hopelessly off guard. Sharon’s name and reputation won a place in military textbooks as a result. He was retrospectively redeemed.
His military adversaries, including General Shmuel Gonen, did not enjoy the same fate. Israel established a commission of inquiry into the conduct of the war and this in turn forced the exit of Gonen who was accused of failing to perform his duty adequately. Israel had lost 2,700 men and women despite advance warning from their intelligence sources of what was about to unfold and other officers fell on their swords.
Sharon turned to politics, too old for direct military action. But even as a politician his career was marked by rivers of blood.
Shifting the blame
In 1982 following the slaughter of thousands of mainly Palestinian civilians in the refugee camps in Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon Sharon tried the old Ben-Gurion trick of shifting the blame. He said that it was the work of a vengeful Christian militia. Israel had no involvement.
But a tribunal of inquiry established by Israel’s government accused Sharon of being “indirectly responsible”.
The Kahan commission said that the Defence minister had not shown the slightest consideration that by allowing the Falangist militia to have access to the camps he was inviting slaughter. When Sharon subsequently made himself the subject of a vote of confidence at cabinet he was voted down by a majority of 16 votes to one (his own).
Sharon as Defence Minister in July 1982, speaking with Israeli troops on a visit during the occupation of East Beirut, Lebanon at the time. Pic: AP/Press Association Images.
All great political careers end in failure. Sharon might argue that this was not true of his case: Israel survives. But his career did end in a remarkable volte face in relation to settlements in occupied territories.
Always a soldier Sharon saw the settlements as a logistical and not a moral issue. In purely mathematical terms the Arab families in Gaza and the West Bank would ultimately outbreed their Israeli neighbours, he said. He argued that they were unsustainable in the long term. To that end Sharon destroyed 21 settlements in Gaza and evacuated 9,500 settlers by force.
Again and for the last time he employed the same crude ‘force majeure’ type logic as he used more than fifty years earlier during the attack at Qibya.
According to Cohen he told his men then that because of the Holocaust the Jewish nation had lost six million people. As a result the value of each remaining Jewish life had risen. If the enemy took Jewish life it would have to be shown that it would pay a fearful price. It had to be taught that it could never win.
After the Gaza withdrawal in 2004 Sharon himself became the target of political extremists. One religious leader invoked an ancient curse that called upon the angel of death to kill him. Some weeks later his brain ceased to function.
The man who had cheated death in so many battles, who refused to wear a bullet proof vest because none would fit him, was to be kept on life support for eight years.