I do not imagine that many Palestinians will mourn if Ariel Sharon passes away.
His military and political activities were largely devoted to removing the Palestinian ‘problem’ by any means possible and his later years were dominated by an enduring hatred for his nemesis, Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) leader, Yasser Arafat. An antipathy that was shared. The men were born only a year apart. Sharon in Palestine, in 1928. Arafat, whom Nasser would dub the “father of the Palestinians”, in Cairo, in 1929. This paradox was undoubtedly more awkward for the Palestinian than the Jew.
Sharon referred to Palestinian/Israeli place names in their original Arabic form for the rest of his life, an implied recognition that the land of his birth was, indeed, Arab land, and this showed his attitude to the Palestinians. Unlike Golda Meir, who famously declared that there was no such thing as Palestinians, Sharon recognised both the nation and their claim to the land. He was simply determined to wrest it from them by whatever means necessary.
Sharon was a man of war. What international justice, morality or the constraints of natural wisdom denied him, he would seize. Sharon became the scourge of the Palestinian resistance movement, insisting it be labelled “terrorism” from the opening shots of the earliest propaganda battles. He understood the psychology of the international community that loves a “freedom fighter” but fears the “terrorist” who must be “stamped out”.
Sharon himself was a member of the Zionist terror group Haganah that had masterminded the 1946 bombing of occupied Jerusalem’s King David Hotel, in which nearly a hundred (mostly Britons) lost their lives. History has re-packaged Haganah, as well as the Irgun and Stern terror groups, as “underground resistance movements”.
When fighters from the Zionist terror gangs were absorbed into the Israeli army, Sharon was made a bona fide ‘Commander’. He was a zealous participant in the first great wave of ethnic cleansing, the 1948 catastrophe, or Nakhba, which saw nearly a million Palestinians chased from their homes and into refugee camps that many still inhabit, most notably in Gaza.
With the demise of Sharon, the last of the Zionist senior soldiers who oversaw the Nakhba will be gone — a situation one is inclined to celebrate.
However, the Nakbha was just the beginning: Throughout the 1950s, Sharon headed the Israeli army’s ‘Unit 101’ whose business was to exact revenge and suppress any resistance by creating a paralysing atmosphere of terror. Raids on dozens of Palestinian villages killed or maimed hundreds and ‘Unit 101’ instigated the “punishment” — still carried out by today’s Israeli Army — of destroying Palestinian crops, infrastructure and homes.
In 1953, Sharon presided over his first massacre of innocent Palestinian civilians in the West Bank village of Qibya where 69 people — three quarters of them women and children — were slaughtered in cold blood in ‘retaliation’ for the deaths of two Israeli children whose mother was killed by a hand-grenade of uncertain origin that had landed in their kibbutz home a few miles inside the ‘green line’.
The battle became personal in the late 1960s when Yasser Arafat emerged, not only as the leader of the PLO, but as a charismatic figurehead for armed struggle, both at home and abroad. Such a figure might not only unite Palestinian resistance around his leadership, but also attract the sympathies of the international community. As Arafat’s trademark black and white keffiyah became an increasingly popular garment among the world’s leftists, Sharon set himself the task of eliminating the PLO and its leader. His methods were increasingly brutal.
In 1971, as head of the Israeli Army’s southern command, Sharon’s ‘clearance’ campaign saw bulldozers enter the restive refugee camps in the Gaza strip. In order to clear wide paths for future raids by Israeli tanks, makeshift huts and shelters were flattened as people ran for their lives. Two thousand homes were destroyed and 16,000 people who had survived the Nakhba were uprooted for a second time. Anybody suspected of being in the resistance was summarily executed — a fate that befell 104 young men — and hundreds were deported to Jordan and Lebanon in case they became fighters in the future.
Sharon became engaged in politics in the mid-1970s, when he found the right-wing coalition, Likud. He was close to Menachem Begin, who was elected prime minister in 1977, and became his minister of defence in 1981. This appointment led Palestinians to rebrand Sharon “the Butcher of Beirut”: In 1982, he decided to eradicate Arafat and the PLO, which was based in Lebanon. Indiscriminate Israeli bombs killed around 20,000 Palestinian refugees and their Lebanese hosts. Arafat and the core PLO leadership were forced to flee, relocating to Tunis. Shortly afterwards, Sharon permitted (and most probably encouraged) the massacre at Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, of 3,500 Palestinians during a 62-hour rampage by Phalangists.
But Sharon’s actions began to backfire, harming not only the Palestinians, but his own people. He had become a loose cannon, failing to alert his boss, Begin, of the imminent massacre. Israeli historians have claimed that this, albeit unwitting, association with Sharon’s war crimes plunged Begin into a deep depression from which he never recovered. Begin ordered an official inquiry that held Sharon personally responsible. He was removed from his position in 1983 and a few months later, Begin himself resigned.
Sharon’s Lebanese atrocities not only transformed the way the rest of the world viewed Israel, allowing glimpses of the pariah state it has now become, but paved the way for the rise of Hezbollah — one of present-day Israel’s most formidable enemies.
Turning to political, rather than military, methods to drive out the Palestinians, Sharon’s term as housing minister in the 1990s saw the biggest colony-building drive to date.
“Everybody has to move, run and grab as many hilltops as they can to enlarge the settlements [colonies] because everything we take now will stay ours ... everything we don’t grab will go to them,” he told a group of Jewish extremists in 1998.
The proliferation of illegal colonies continues to be a major obstruction to the peace process, but Sharon would not have regretted that. In 1991, he had opposed Israel attending the Madrid Peace conference and the following year, he voted in the Knesset against signing the Oslo agreement.
In 1996, Arafat was elected president of the Palestinian National Authority and he settled in Ramallah. This could have marked a major step forward towards implementing the two-state solution. However. with Benjamin Netanyahu back in power, and Sharon as his foreign minister, the peace process ground to a halt and the Israeli public demonstrated how short-lived their memories were when they elected Sharon as the prime minister in 1999.
In 2000, Sharon deliberately provoked the second intifada when he walked into the Al Aqsa mosque in occupied Jerusalem with his henchmen. Arafat publicly endorsed the uprising and Sharon’s desire to see him dead became common knowledge. Journalist Jeffrey Goldberg recalls “several conversations on the subject of assassinating Arafat with his principle Israeli nemesis, Ariel Sharon”. I was in regular contact with the PLO leader at that time and he often told me that he believed Sharon wanted him dead.
By 2002, Arafat had been effectively imprisoned in his Ramallah compound, besieged by Israeli tanks and troops. Meanwhile, construction began on another of Sharon’s pet projects — the apartheid wall in the West Bank.
In November 2004, Arafat fell into a coma from which he never emerged. Recent tests have confirmed that he was poisoned with polonium, making it highly likely that his suspicion that he would be murdered on Sharon’s watch was correct.
So far, I have found nothing remotely positive to say about Sharon, but I confess that I was pleasantly amazed when, in October and November 2005, he performed a U-turn and oversaw the full, unilateral withdrawal of Israeli troops and the forced eviction of illegal colonists from Gaza. Sharon announced that the plight of the people of Gaza was untenable and that he favoured a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians. Later that year, he left Likud and formed the marginally more liberal Kadima party.
Had Sharon’s hatred of Arafat obscured his political vision for all those years? With the demise of his enemy, would Sharon have entered a new phase of political pragmatism, revisiting the peace process with genuine interest, now that the more pliable Mahmoud Abbas had become his counterpart? Was a just solution at last in reach for the Palestinians?
We shall never know, because, just weeks after he made the most sensible public decision of his life, Sharon suffered a massive stroke that left him in a coma from which he will never emerge.
Sharon preceded Arafat into this world by just one year. They left in reverse order, with the same interlude. The final irony is that Sharon, who longed to savour the death of Arafat, had only a few brief months in which to enjoy it.
Abdel Bari Atwan is the former editor of the pan-Arab newspaper Al Quds Al Arabi. His latest book is After Bin Laden: Al Qaida, the Next Generation.