Moral Low Ground


The Life and Legacy of Ariel Sharon

(Flickr Creative Commons)

(Flickr Creative Commons)

Ariel Sharon, 11th prime minister of Israel, military general, hero of Israeli independence, and accused war criminal, has died at age 85 after spending the last eight years of his life in a permanent vegetative state as the result of a stroke.

Sharon is widely considered one of the greatest military leaders in Israeli history. The brilliant strategist, often called the ‘King of Israel,’ was a key participant in that nation’s 1948 war of independence, 1956 Suez War, 1967 Six-Day War, 1967-1970 War of Attrition and 1973 Yom Kippur War. As defense minister, he commanded Israeli forces during the 1982 Lebanon War before resigning over a pair of refugee massacres for which he was deemed responsible. Sharon later became a prominent politician in the conservative Likud party he helped found, rising to prime minister in 2001. He served until suffering a stroke on January 4, 2006.

Sharon was born Ariel Scheinerman on February 26, 1928 in Kfar Malal, in what was then the British Mandate of Palestine. The son of Belarusian Jews fleeing one of the numerous pogroms that afflicted Eastern Europe, Arik, as he came to be known, was active in the Zionist youth movement and was participating in militaristic activities in his small agricultural community by his teens. He joined Haganah, the precursor to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), which was also a terrorist organization responsible for sinking a ship carrying 1,800 Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust and many attacks against Arab civilians during the period in which Zionist terror groups waged war against the British occupiers of Palestine and Arabs alike.

In 1947, Sharon met his first wife, Margalit, who was 16 and tending a vegetable field when they crossed paths. They married six years later and had one son, Gur.

From late 1947, Sharon participated in guerrilla warfare during the Battle for Jerusalem. He distinguished himself in combat and quickly rose in rank. After Israel won its independence in 1948, Sharon again found himself in the thick of combat as the fledgling nation’s Arab neighbors attempted to destroy it. He was shot multiple times during the First Battle of Latrun. In 1949, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, gave him the name ‘Sharon.’ He was promoted to company commander and, in 1953, was placed in command of the notorious Unit 101, a special forces outfit created to counter Arab resistance with retaliatory strikes.

Sharon, whose military career was characterized by outstanding leadership but also by insubordination and fierce aggression, was a ruthless commander. He led indiscriminate raids on Palestinian civilians that resulted in many innocent deaths. Unit 101 attacked the El-Bureij refugee camp in Gaza in 1953, killing 43 Palestinians, including seven women. Sharon’s forces threw grenades into huts in which refugees were sleeping; when the terrorized victims attempted to flee, they were mowed down with automatic weapons. The UN called the attack “an appalling case of deliberate mass murder.”

Two months later, Sharon’s unit attacked the Jordanian village of Qibya in retaliation for the Arab murder of an Israeli woman and her two children. Sharon ordered “maximum killing and damage to property.” According to Time magazine, the Israelis “shot every man, woman and child they could find.” Scores of innocent civilians, including dozens of women and children, were murdered. Unlike today, when Washington stands by Israel right or wrong, the US State Department suspended military aid over Qibya and other Israeli crimes.

While studying law at Tel Aviv University, Sharon rose to the rank of infantry brigade commander by the time the 1956 Suez War broke out. Sharon commanded a paratrooper unit and played an instrumental role in capturing the Sinai peninsula from Egypt. Displaying incredible bravery, Sharon was also heavily criticized for placing the lives of his troops in unacceptable danger due to his unauthorized aggressive actions.

After the war, Sharon received his law degree. Tragically, his wife Margalit was killed in an automobile accident in 1962. A year later, he married her sister Lily, and they had two sons, Omri (b. 1964) and Gilad (b. 1967). Tragedy struck again in 1967 when his first son, Gur, was killed by a friend while playing with an antique shotgun. Gur died in Ariel’s arms on the way to the hospital.

By 1967, Sharon was a general, commanding an armored division in the Sinai during the Six Day War. He was appointed chief of the IDF’s Southern Command in 1969. He retired to enter politics in 1973, but was called back to service during the Yom Kippur War. Again, he played a decisive role in capturing the Sinai from Egypt.

Sharon was instrumental in founding Likud, Israel’s main right-wing party, in 1973. He was a special aide to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and was later named agricultural minister and head of settlement policy following former terrorist Menachem Begin’s 1977 Likud victory. Sharon, nicknamed ‘Bulldozer,’ encouraged illegal Jewish settler colonization of occupied Palestine, doubling the number of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza during his tenure.

“Everything we take now will stay ours,” Sharon asserted in urging settlers to “grab as much” Palestinian territory as possible. “Everything we don’t grab will go to [Palestinians].” Jewish settlers often murdered Palestinians who resisted the theft of their homeland. These killings were rarely, if ever, punished.

After being promoted to defense minister in 1981, a military court heard evidence that Sharon had urged IDF troops to beat Arab school children in the occupied West Bank. Later that year, Sharon ordered IDF warplanes to bomb Beirut in order to provoke a war that would allow Israeli forces to invade and occupy much of Lebanon and crush the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). More than 300 innocent civilians died in the bombing; in 1982, Israel launched a full-scale invasion.

Sharon, later called a “man of peace” by US President George W. Bush, ordered his forces to “utterly destroy” Palestinian neighborhoods in Beirut. By the time the short but bloody war ended, more than 17,000 Lebanese and Palestinian civilians were dead and another 30,000 wounded. Much of Lebanon, already ravaged by years of civil war, lie in ruins.

On September 16, 1982, right-wing Christian Phalangist militias allied with Israel were given a green light by Sharon to attack the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. As many as 3,000 civilians were slaughtered. Women and girls were raped before being executed. Pregnant women were cut open, their fetuses torn out and thrown on garbage piles with other babies and small children. An Israeli board of inquiry found Sharon “personally responsible” for failing to prevent these horrific massacres, leading to his resignation.

Disgraced, Sharon then served in a number of lesser ministerial posts before rising to foreign minister under Likud Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 1998. When Ehud Barak’s Labor government took over, Sharon became leader of Likud. On September 28, 2000, he led a delegation on a visit to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest site in all of Islam, in occupied East Jerusalem. It was an act of provocation that sparked the Second Intifada, or uprising, of Palestinians against Israel. Some 3,395 Palestinians and 957 Israelis died in the ensuing violence.

But Sharon’s actions were wildly popular among Israelis, who elected him prime minister in February 2001. The following year, he presided over the IDF attack on the Jenin refugee camp in the occupied West Bank, from which militants launched terror attacks against Israeli targets. At least 22 innocent civilians were killed, including an old man in a wheelchair run over by a tank and a quadriplegic crushed in his home by a military bulldozer after being refused permission to evacuate. Gerald Kaufman, Britain’s most prominent Jewish parliamentarian, called Sharon a “war criminal.”

In 2003, Sharon endorsed the so-called Road Map to Peace brokered by the United States, European Union and Russia. He declared his support for a Palestinian state and presided over Israel’s withdrawal from occupied Gaza, although Israel maintained crippling control over its borders and airspace. His bold withdrawal from Gaza angered and alienated many of his erstwhile supporters, but he remained a popular leader.

In 2005, Sharon resigned as head of Likud. He dissolved parliament in order to form a new party, Kadima. With an election looming, Sharon was leading in public opinion polls, despite being dogged by allegations of involvement in illegal fundraising and other financial scandals. Sharon was never charged, but his son Omri, a member of the Knesset (parliament), was convicted and imprisoned for fraud.

Sharon, who was obese, was known for his prodigious appetite. He loved snacks, cigars, vodka and caviar and rebuffed attempts by doctors, family, friends and staff to curb his gluttony. He suffered a mild stroke in December 2005, followed by a massive cerebral hemorrhage on January 4, 2006. He remained in a vegetative state until his death. Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmertreplaced him in office, winning reelection for Kadima in the March 2006 elections.

Ariel Sharon leaves behind a mixed legacy. How he is viewed largely depends on one’s nationality and political leaning. To many Israelis, ‘Arik’ is the ‘Lion of God’ and ‘King of Israel,’ one of the Jewish state’s greatest leaders and most brilliant military commanders. To other Israelis, notably conservatives, he is the man who led the withdrawal from Gaza, opening the door for Hamas to take control of the territory and launch thousands of rockets into Israel. To many progressive Israelis, Sharon was anobstacle to peace and the two-state solution. To most Palestinians, and much of the Muslim and wider world, he is a ruthless war criminal with the blood of thousands of innocents on his hands. There is much truth to all sides of the story.

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