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Sharon’s political legacy

Jan 15,2014 - Last updated at Jan 15,2014

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, 85, was, as they say, “a long time a-dying”.

Eight years, to be precise.

The stroke that made him comatose took place on January 4, 2006. Last week his doctors said he was close to death, but he lingered on life support that cost the Israeli taxpayer nearly $500,000 a year for a private room, special care and a round-the-clock nurse.

While many Israelis mourned a man who suffered a living death for three quarters of a decade, most Palestinians point out that the damage he did to their prospects for independence in their own state lives on.

He was born Ariel Schienermann on February 26, 1928, at Kafr Malal, a colony established by Belarusian Jews in British-ruled Palestine.

He followed the pattern of involvement in the Zionist project set for Jewish youngsters by joining the movement’s youth movement at 10 and a Gadna paramilitary youth battalion at 14, and ending up in the Haganah, the underground pre-state army.

In the months before Israel was proclaimed, on May 15, 1948, the small unit he commanded staged attacks on Arab forces and Palestinian villages.

In 1949, after the emergence of Israel, Sharon, regarded as a tough and aggressive soldier, was promoted to company commander and a year later as intelligence officer for central command.

Three years on he established and led special forces Unit 101, tasked with carrying out operations across ceasefire lines fixed in 1948-49. These operations were said to be in retaliation for Palestinian guerrilla attacks on Israel following the expulsion from their homes of 711,000-726,000 Palestinians, 80 per cent of the population. Most of these “attacks” were simply infiltrations of people wanting to go home.

The most notorious of these actions was the October 1953 raid on the West Bank village of Qibya, then under Jordanian rule, where 69 people, two-third of them women and children, were slain, and 45 houses, a school and a mosque were blown up.

Documents show that Sharon ordered his men to inflict “maximal killing and damage to property”, achieved by storming houses with grenades and shooting.

Sharon, who led the operation, later claimed the he thought the villagers had run away. 

However, UN observers reported that they may have been forced to take shelter in their homes by bombardment and heavy fire.

The attack was widely condemned by the international community.

Much braver then than now, the US State Department called the raid “shocking” and said those responsible “should be brought to account and that effective measures should be taken to prevent such incidents in the future”.

The UN Security Council adopted a resolution, appropriately numbered 101, expressing the “strongest possible censure of this action”.

Unsettled by the outpouring of condemnation, Israeli prime minister David Ben Gurion falsely claimed that the raid had been carried out by Israeli civilians angered by cross-border attacks by Palestinians.

Sharon was not prosecuted for the Qibya incident, but Israel limited attacks on Palestinian civilians and Unit 101 was dissolved.

Qibya showed Sharon to be a loose cannon and an aggressive, ruthless operator, characteristics that stayed with him throughout his career in the military and in politics.

During the 1956, Israeli, French and British war on Egypt, Sharon exceeded orders by seizing the strategic Mitla pass in the Sinai Peninsula, risking Israeli lives.

By 1967, when Israel occupied East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, he had earned a reputation as a brilliant tactician and was promoted to major general. This time, he again commanded troops in Sinai and on the shore of the Suez Canal.

After being appointed head of southern command, he ordered his forces to bulldoze thousands of homes in Palestinian refugee camps in Gaza, arrested hundreds of Palestinians, and illegally deported to Sinai families of men who resisted the occupation.

During the October 1973 war, initiated by Syria and Egypt, Sharon took his troops across the Suez Canal into Egypt and was credited for winning the ground war.

His military legacy involved always taking the fight to the enemy and striking hard and with overwhelming force.

In spite of his fame as a solider, Israel’s political parties shunned the retired Sharon, forcing him to form his own small faction that won two seats in parliament in the 1977 election.

He merged with the right-wing, expansionist Likud, was given the agriculture ministry and appointed himself minister of colonisation, urging Israelis to “grab as many [West Bank] hilltops… [as] everything we take now will stay ours. Everything we don’t grab will go to them [the Palestinians]”.

Israel has followed this dictum ever since, creating facts on the ground in East Jerusalem and the West Bank in order to prevent Palestinians from ever attaining statehood.

This is his political legacy to his country, the Palestinians and the world.

Appointed defence minister in 1981, at a time Israel had agreed a ceasefire in southern Lebanon with the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), Sharon carefully prepared for an all-out “war of choice” with the aim of ending the Palestinian resistance presence in Lebanon.

From early 1982, Israeli forces took up positions along the border and conducted cross-border raids into Lebanon, hoping to provoke the PLO.

On June 4 and 5, Israel bombed the southern suburbs of Beirut, where PLO chairman Yasser Arafat was based, and on June 6, Israel invaded Lebanon under the pretext that there was an assassination attempt by PLO enemy Abu Nidal on the Israeli ambassador in London.

Sharon told prime minister Menachem Begin and the world that the incursion would be limited to 45 kilometres, establishing a buffer zone between PLO forces and Israel. However, Sharon sent his army to Beirut.

The climax of the campaign came when his troops occupied the city, where they formed a ring around the Sabra and Shatilla Palestinian refugee camps and introduced Lebanese Phalangist allies who massacred hundreds of women, children and elderly men.

An Israeli commission of inquiry found Sharon responsible for ignoring the “danger of bloodshed” and taking no measures to avert it. He was removed from defence but was kept as minister without portfolio.

He later served in a number of capacities that enabled him to accelerate the colonisation of the occupied Palestinian territories.

In 2000, Sharon paid a visit to the Haram Al Sharif in East Jerusalem and declared that the Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock would remain under eternal Israeli control, sparking Palestinian demonstrations that launched the second Intifada.

In February 2001 he became prime minister; 13 months later he reinvaded West Bank areas ceded to the Palestinians under the 1993 Oslo peace accords.

Five-hundred Palestinians were slain and 1,400 injured while 30 Israeli soldiers were killed and 127 wounded. Israel was condemned for carrying out a massacre in Jenin and its refugee camp.

In 2005, Sharon evacuated Israeli colonists and troops from Gaza while urging the expansion of colonies across the West Bank with the aim of annexing it.

Since the withdrawal from Gaza was highly controversial and opposed by many in the Likud, Sharon stepped down as head of the party and established Kadima.

His new party was expected to win the largest number of seats in parliament and form the next government, but Sharon’s stroke, brought on by obesity and high living, shut down his career three months before the vote.

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