The shadow of the ex-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who has died aged 85, has always had a peculiar place in my life. He was in part the trigger of my interest in the Palestine-Israel conflict.
I recall sitting in the living room in Montreal on an autumnal September day watching the news with my family as the camera zoomed-in on an elderly, black-suited man with sunglasses. Striding across the courtyard of Al-Aqsa Mosque, he was shepherding a large group of armed men.
“What is he doing,” I asked my dad. “Who is he?”
“That’s Sharon,” he replied. “Apparently, he wants to take a walk on Temple Mount.” He said the last bit begrudgingly.
“But why all those soldiers?” I enquired, through a confused 11-year-old’s eyes.
“Because that is Sharon, and he wants a war,” replied my father in a tone that suggested that the questions should stop there.
I found out later that reports had confirmed that the 11th prime minister of Israel was, in fact, accompanied by more than 1,000 Israeli troops and paramilitary police for a promenade on what Jews calls the Temple Mount and which Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary of Al-Aqsa, home to Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock Mosque.
What began as an altercation between Palestinians and Israeli security forces in Al-Aqsa’s grounds escalated quickly into the Second Intifada (uprising) that saw, a couple of days later, the murder of 12-year-old Mohamad Al-Durah as his father tried to shelter him from the Israeli soldiers determined to kill the boy. Al-Durah, who died in the arms of his father, became the emblem of the Second Intifada. From 2000 to 2005, it was a bloody debut to the new millennium in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The death toll was estimated at 3,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis; all the while, Sharon insisted that all he had wanted was a peaceful stroll on the Temple Mount.
That was my introduction to Sharon; surely, though, there was more to this man.
When politicians die oceans of words usually pour out in memoriam, describing the person as a saint or a sinner. When Nelson Mandela died in December 2013, few dared to utter anything negative about him; a notable exception was Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. On the other hand, when Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic died in his prison cell in The Hague, not many people shed a tear or had much nice to say about him. There are those who died in such confusing and ambiguous circumstances that no one wants to be the first to comment before the autopsy tests are over (and even then there was doubt), as was the case with the late President Yasser Arafat. Sharon is an interesting case because, due to a number of false alarms, commentators were debating how best to remember him once he’d gone.
However, such binaries are counterproductive. For one thing, they tend to depoliticise and de-contextualise the legacy of these public figures: “Mandela was a nice person”; “Saddam was a bad person”; “Arafat betrayed Palestine”. Generic lines such as these fail to provide substantive information to help us understand how and why these personalities mattered and what should be retained from their trajectory to move forward into progressive politics. Second, there is no need to dive into binaries when history provides us with a bookshelf on the life of the late Prime Minister of Israel.
The general and the statesman
Before entering politics, Sharon was regarded as a high-calibre military man. He built a reputation as one of the most experienced and shrewd generals Israel had known. He went by the nicknames “King of Israel” and “Lion of God” (which is in fact, the literal translation of his name). Some of his accomplishments include his role as the mastermind behind numerous operations in which many Palestinian civilians were killed. For example, during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the massacre in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps showcased how sharp and effective Sharon had become in the execution of Palestinians.
There is still no accurate figure for the number of people killed in the massacre. The official Israeli investigation under the Kahan Commission concluded that between 700 and 800 people were murdered. Journalist Robert Fisk, who was one of the first people on the scene after the massacre, concluded that 1,700 people lost their lives. Meanwhile, the Palestinian Red Crescent estimate was more than 2,000. The research of Amnon Kapeliouk, an Israeli journalist and author of “Sabra and Shatila: Inquiry into a Massacre”, puts the figure between 3,000 and 3,500 dead.
Twenty years later, in April 2002, Sharon also ordered the killings in the Jenin refugee camp in the occupied West Bank. According to the Badil Resource Centre: “…by the time the military assault ended on 11 April it was estimated that more than 50 Palestinians had been killed. Around 10 per cent of the camp, including hundreds of refugee shelters, had been completely levelled.”
No media were allowed inside during the Israeli attack. It was only after 2 weeks that local and international human rights organisations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, were allowed inside Jenin. They soon uncovered evidence of serious breaches of international humanitarian and human rights law, including war crimes. With international pressure, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1405, 19 April 2002, calling for an international investigation into the invasion.
In fact, that same year, Ariel Sharon was facing possible war crime prosecutions in Belgium for both Sabra and Shatila and the Jenin massacres under the country’s 1993 law that gives the courts ”universal jurisdiction” to charge individuals over crimes against humanity or war crimes committed anywhere.
Sharon’s track record as a military man who gets the job done pre-dates the state of Israel. Aged 14, he was a member of the Haganah, the Jewish militia which became the “Israel Defence Forces”. At 20, he headed an infantry company in the Alexandroni Brigade during the 1948 War, where Israeli forces drove an estimated 700,000 Palestinians from their land, in what would today be called an act of ethnic cleansing. In August 1953, as commander of the 101 Unit, Sharon led an attack on Al-Bureig refugee camp south of Gaza, killing over 50 people. He repeated the same exercise in several other villages including the infamous Qibya village massacre. In his book “The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World since 1948”, Israeli historian Avi Shlaim described the massacre thus: “Sharon’s order was to penetrate Qibya, blow up houses and inflict heavy casualties on its inhabitants. His success in carrying out the order surpassed all expectations. The full and macabre story of what happened at Qibya was revealed only during the morning after the attack. The village had been reduced to rubble: forty-five houses had been blown up, and sixty-nine civilians, two thirds of them women and children, had been killed.”
Later on, in 1972, under the Galilee Protocols, Ariel Sharon “drove off some ten thousand farmers and Bedouins, bulldozed or dynamited their houses, pulled down their tents, destroyed their crops and filled in their wells” to prepare the ground for the establishment of six kibbutzim, 9 villages and the city of Yamit.
As a commander, Sharon knew how to suck the life out of a village effectively. In most operations, he would not only call the shots, but would also join his troops and participate fully.
As for his political career, in mainstream international relations Sharon is often thanked for pushing forward the unilateral withdrawal of Israeli settlers from Gaza in 2004-2005, which was seen as a great sacrifice and difficult decision for the prime minister to make such “a sign of good will for peace”. Ironically, since the withdrawal, the residents of Gaza have been paying the price under the Israeli-imposed siege of the Strip that has reached an all-time low this year. In fact, Sharon’s coma has been concurrent with the threat of the Palestinians in Gaza. He may have been in a vegetative state, but the people in Gaza must continue to resist the illegal blockade.
Another noteworthy contribution of Sharon the politician is the approval and management of the Apartheid Wall. Started in 2001 it now runs across the West Bank like a snake, separating towns and houses and neighbours from each other, providing resources on one side and collective punishment on the other.
Finally, Sharon has an interesting record of voting against or abstaining from diplomatic initiatives for peace in the region, leaving little leverage to suggest that Sharon was a man of peace. In 1979, in the Begin government, he voted against a peace treaty with Egypt and in 1994 he abstained from the vote for a peace agreement with Jordan. He also voted against a withdrawal of Israeli troops from Southern Lebanon in 1985. During the Madrid peace conference in 1991, he opposed the participation of Israel on the basis that it was not worth the trouble. He did the same with the Oslo agreement in 1993, voting against it in the Knesset.
The individual and the system
Now that he is gone, there is not much left to say about Ariel Sharon. To be fair, he has been gone for quite some time in all but name, but the effect of his deeds carry on. More importantly, we must realise that Sharon is only one face – albeit all-encompassing of the same persistent calamity: Israeli apartheid and colonisation. Perhaps for many Israelis, Sharon served his nation in good and bad times: he wore the suits and ties as well as the military uniforms; he shook hands with politicians and aimed artillery at civilians; and he did this in the name and for the sake of a Zionist state that believes it can strip another people of their rights and integrity for the sake of its own existence. As his track record demonstrates, leaders like Sharon reinforce injustice and oppression for the sake of statehood. They do not undertake these actions alone; they are part of an apparatus that imposes the normalisation of power dynamics based on militarisation, colonisation and apartheid, and expect the world to either follow suit or keep quiet about it.
Thirteen years on, as I see the man that provoked followers at Al-Aqsa Mosque and ignited the Second Intifada pass away after being incapacitated for almost a decade, I can only say the following: Sharon is dead but Israeli apartheid isn’t. That ought to be the focus of discussion about his life and contributions towards “peace”. That ought to be the concern of people interested in ending the conflict on realistic and just terms.
The author is a Research Assistant, Levant Politics, Foreign Policy Division Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA) in Ankara, Turkey
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