He had been in a coma for eight years after suffering a massive stroke. Now, world leaders have paid their respects to Ariel Sharon’s passing at an official ceremony at the Knesset, prior to the body’s burial on the site of Sycamore Farm in the Negev. At the funeral’s end, two missiles were fired into southern Israel. Retaliatory air strikes followed on two militant camps in Gaza. Such was Sharon’s busy, brutal and often opportunistic life, a fate he has shared with his country.
Gushing tributes have piled up on the funeral pyre. From the comments of unnamed people lining up outside the Knesset to pay their respects, to the usual suspects in power, they have crested on the media waves. “He was one of a kind, a real leader,” claimed a woman paying her respects on the BBC. Veterans spoke of their memories of the wars of 1967 and 1973. Tamir Ezra from Bat Yam, a reserve soldier in 1973, “felt this was someone we could trust and who could do the right thing” (BBC, Jan 13).
For Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: “I believe that his memory as one of the most outstanding leaders and daring commanders will remain in the hearts of the Israeli people for eternity.” UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon came up with his own sugary tribute. “Prime Minister 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 Trip.”
An anonymous insider within the UN, with links to the Department of Political Affairs in New York, was taken aback by Ban’s statement. The statement on Sharon “brings the UN’s obsequiousness towards Israel to a new high and the UN’s standing in the Middle East to a new low” (Electronic Intifada, Jan 13).
Others chomp at the pragmatic line — Sharon was, in the words of Yoaz Hendel, head of the Institute for Zionist Studies, “the most pragmatic Israeli and the most Zionistic Israeli. He believed in the Zionistic idea and he believed that if you want to survive and to maintain and strengthen Israel, you need to be pragmatic in the neighbourhood.”
Sharon’s mark, much like his bulky frame, impressed itself on Israeli — and Palestinian — history. It was not merely the engagements in battle. He was housing minister during the 1990s, a period which saw a fanatically expansive drive of construction in the settlements. The military man had turned social engineer and manipulating colonist. Settler leader Danny Dayan remembers “the Ariel Sharon that established thousands of communities al around Israel, changing forever the landscape of the country.”
Sharon was a political hybrid, an unbalanced mix of spontaneous insubordination and calculation — in the words of historian Tom Segev, a political soldier and a military politician. Such a legacy proved “more harmful than useful.” Such a mix could also prove bumbling — Sharon’s visit to the al-Aqsa Mosque in 2000 prompted the second intifada, though this did not deter his election as prime minister the following the year.
He could also prove opportunistically exciting — some might remember his efforts after the 1973 war, when he attempted to start a party of his own. The gist of his action was simple: form a party with a peace platform, and make peace with a crushed enemy who would never have any illusions about compassion or understanding about their cause. The experiment was short lived.
Sharon’s career was also punctuated by brutal exercises of power, some of which are documented by the late Christopher Hitchens in Slate (Jan 5, 2006) — as an enforcer of the occupation of Gaza in 1967, as an important figure in the attack of Egypt in 1956 in collusion with Britain and France, as a leader of Unit 101, responsible for the massacre of the inhabitants of Qibya, a village located in the then Jordanian West Bank (1953). Certainly, when it came to Sharon, Hitch was no cruise missile leftist.
During the 1980s, when the Israeli war machine started to stutter, Sharon would make his presence felt again. His finger prints were all over the 1982 massacre of Palestinians and Lebanese in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut, an outgrowth of Israel’s disastrous invasion of Lebanon. The massacre, which comprised anywhere between 700 to 3,500 civilians, were the enthusiastic labour of the Lebanese Christian militia, which had wrongly assumed that Palestinians were behind the killing of Lebanese president Bachir Gemayel.
The catastrophe, and here Sharon has much to answer for as then Defence Minister, was furthered by Israeli complicity — the IDF, at the request of the blood enthused militants, sealed off the exits to the camps as the massacres took place.
The Lion of God had turned bloodied slayer, transforming into the Butcher of Beirut. Much of the gruesomeness of the event was documented in the Kahane Commission Report of 1983, which investigated the events surrounding Sabra and Shatila. The Commission’s ultimate recommendation was the removal of Sharon from office. That said, the finding of “indirect responsibility” on his part raised more than a few eyebrows, including those of Noam Chomsky, who penned an aggressive critique of the findings in his Fateful Triangle.
The final play of the Sharon dice came during his years as Prime Minister (2001-6). He announced that an Israel complete in the grand scheme of things would have to be abandoned. The Palestinian territories were, in fact, being subjected to occupation. Land had to be bartered, or at the every least, exited. To that end, he evacuated 8,000 settlers, and withdrew troops from Gaza in August 2005. The Likud Party was incensed and split, leading to the formation of the centrist Kadima grouping.
Sharon’s political gymnastics at the time, as it always was, proved expeditious, a case of tactical re-ordering. This was, after all, the man behind the building of the 400-mile barrier in West Bank, purportedly designed to limit the effects of suicide bombers in Israel. In any negotiations, it was imperative that Israel retain the upper hand, the Palestinians, a significantly withered lower one.
Ghassan Khatib of Bir Zeit University sums this byzantine legacy rather well, charting the moral, or rather moral free territory Sharon traversed. “The difference between him and other right wing leaders is that he wouldn’t hesitate in pursuing massacres or war crimes in order to achieve political objectives; he might be a soldier but that doesn’t tell a lot because there are good soldiers and there are bad soldiers and I think Sharon was a bad soldier in the moral sense.”
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was as Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: email@example.com