There are few individuals in the modern history of Israel/Palestine whose actions have been as consistently destructive as those of Ariel Sharon. Sharon, who died on January 11, had been involved in Israel’s war machine as early as 1948. He was known for his cut-throat attitude on the battlefield, often with wanton disregard for civilian lives. Time and again, Sharon left some of the bloodiest marks on the history of Palestine.
Perhaps the earliest instance in this trend was the events of Qibya in 1953. Qibya is a Palestinian village in the West Bank, located close to the Green Line. In an Israeli attack on the village, led on the ground by Sharon, scores of homes were destroyed while civilians were still inside. The outcome was a massacre that left 69 Palestinians dead, most of whom were women and children.
The attack was internationally condemned and Israel scrambled to control the damage to its image following the massacre. The United Nations condemned the massacre and the US State Department said those responsible “should be brought to account and that effective measures should be taken to prevent such incidents in the future”. None of the officials responsible were held to account, however. This culture of impunity would be a recurring theme – not only in Israeli history but in Sharon’s history in particular.
The massacre at Qibya only foreshadowed what was yet to come at the hands of Sharon
Sharon’s wanton disregard for civilian life was most pronounced in 1982 during the massacres at the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon. Israel, which had invaded and occupied southern Lebanon at the time, effectively controlled the area. In the camps, Israeli-allied Lebanese Phalangists entered and committed large-scale killings of the Palestinian civilian population, while Israeli forces guarded the perimeter. Sharon, who was then minister of defence, was once again at the centre of a massacre of Palestinians.
Operating with impunity
An Israeli commission, led by the president of the Israeli Supreme Court, Yitzhak Kahan, found that Israeli forces were indirectly responsible for the massacre, and that Sharon himself bore personal responsibility – as he knew full well what would happen when the decision was made to permit the Phalangists to enter into the camp.
Among the recommendations of the Kahan commission report, which was accepted by the Israeli cabinet, was that Sharon should be removed from office and to never again hold a ministerial position. The Israeli prime minister at the time, Menachem Begin, refused to dismiss Sharon, and Sharon refused to resign. After continued outrage, Sharon left the defence ministry but remained in the cabinet as a minister without portfolio.
Sharon escaped accountability in Qibya and, despite heavy criticisms of his role in the Sabra and Shatila massacres, Sharon’s career in public life did not end.
While he took a back seat for several years when the Likud party was led by Begin, Yitzhak Shamir and later Benjamin Netanyahu, Sharon eventually returned to the forefront of Israeli political life and campaigned for the premiership in 2000. During his campaign, then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak was engaged in negotiations with Yasser Arafat, chairman of the PLO – talks mediated by US President Bill Clinton.
In a stunt aimed at attacking Barak for what Israelis on the right considered to be the blasphemous act of negotiating with Palestinians, Sharon made a very provocative visit to the Haram al-Sharif – Temple Mount – in Jerusalem, with a massive armed guard on September 29, 2000. The act, aimed at inflaming tensions and attacking his opponent Barak who was engaged in the “peace process”, drew anger from Palestinians and Muslims around the world and triggered uprisings that would eventually become the second Palestinian intifada.
Palestinians living inside Israel joined in protest against Sharon’s visit and Israel’s occupation and claims over Palestinian land. They were quickly and brutally repressed by Israeli police, often with the use of live ammunition aimed at protesting crowds, which left 13 Palestinians dead and 1,000 hospitalised. Sharon had managed to pour fuel on the burning embers of occupation and discrimination on both sides of the Green Line.
The upcoming Israeli elections and the uprisings in the aftermath of Sharon’s visit meant there was little chance for an already struggling “peace process” to move forward. Even though talks were scheduled to be held in Taba in 2001, too many variables existed for any party to invest in the process at that particular moment. It was then – and despite a recommendation that he should never hold a ministerial position again after Sabra and Shatila – that Sharon was elected as prime minister of Israel
His premiership, much like his history before that, was characterised by destruction and violations of international law. He presided over the single most significant period of Israeli settlement expansion, illegal under international law, since the Begin era. In addition to the construction of Israeli settlements, he oversaw the wide-scale punitive destruction of Palestinian homes. It was under his tenure as prime minister that the policy of demolishing the homes of Palestinians involved in attacks against Israelis was established. This policy was decried by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International as collective punishment: illegal under international law.
Later in his premiership and shortly before suffering a stroke, Sharon took the decision to remove Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip in a unilateral withdrawal. The removal of some 5,000 settlers living among 1.5 million Palestinians was simple mathematics for Sharon. The costs of protecting such a small number of settlers among so many Palestinians in such a small piece of territory far outweighed any benefits of being there. Plus, the manoeuvre could be spun to argue that Israel had made a concession to the Palestinians.
Of course, the departure of Israeli settlers from Gaza did not advance the peace process. Instead it worked to effectively freeze it and, according to one of Sharon’s key aides at the time, that was precisely the plan. “The significance of our disengagement plan is the freezing of the peace process. It supplies the formaldehyde necessary so there is no political process with Palestinians,” Dov Weisglass, Sharon’s aide, said at the time. “When you freeze the process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state,” he added. “Effectively, this whole package called a Palestinian state, with all it entails, has been removed indefinitely from our agenda.”
The unilateral nature of the withdrawal meant that security coordination with the Palestinian Authority (PA) never happened. The Fatah-led PA found itself scrambling to fill a power vacuum left by the Israelis in an area where Hamas had significant sway and support. The events in the years that followed, including the political rise and election of Hamas, their eventual assertion of control in Gaza, and the ousting of the Fatah-led PA, meant that the West Bank and Gaza, the two territories of a would-be Palestinian state, were as separated as ever. Israel would continue to use this as an excuse not to make peace.
Sharon’s legacy is a bloody one that did far more to destroy peace than to advance it. The Gaza withdrawal was mistakenly characterised as a goodwill move that reflected a genuine shift in Sharon’s thinking, but the reality was far from that.
Former US President George W Bush received much criticism when he once called Sharon a “man of peace”. One of his predecessors however, President Ronald Reagan, far more accurately described Sharon in his diary in 1982, as “the bad guy who seemingly looks forward to a war”.
More often than not, in a life characterised by violence and slaughter, Sharon continued to find exactly what he was looking for – and it was anything but peace.
Yousef Munayyer is Executive Director of The Jerusalem Fund and its educational programme, The Palestine Center. Prior to joining The Palestine Center, he served as a Policy Analyst for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), the largest Arab American membership organisation in the US.
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