Tucked away behind lush clementine groves, al-Bureij’s crumbling shelters house three generations of expelled Palestinians.
Their homes are packed along winding alleys and overshadowed by unfinished three-storey breeze-block houses. The smells of citrus and sewage intermingle.
It was to al-Bureij, 52 years ago, that Palestinian families fled after attacks on their homes in Ashdod and Yibna. And it was there that a 25-year-old Ariel “Arik” Sharon would make his debut.
To many Israelis, Sharon was Bulldozer, a military maverick who saved their country from defeat numerous times in its wars with the Arabs.
Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, called Sharon a man of “greatness”, saying that for the Gaza withdrawal plan, “he came up with the initiative, took the responsibility, marked the goals, took the risks and won thanks for all that”.
An alley in the al-Bureij, home to
George Bush, the US president, has called him a man of peace, but to Palestinians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon he is the Butcher of Beirut.
In Gaza, he is the man who left a legacy of terror and destruction, and to the people of al-Bureij, he is remembered as the man who carried out the massacre there when he was commander of the infamous Israeli Unit 101.
Nicknamed The Avengers, the unit was an elite squadron tasked with attacking so-called Arab infiltrators entering the newly declared state of Israel after the 1948 war.
According to Israeli historian Benny Morris’s book Israel’s Border Wars, 1949-1956: Arab Infiltration, Israeli Retaliation and the Countdown to the Suez War, Israelis mounted a violent campaign against Arab “infiltrators” labelling refugees and farmers trying to reclaim their lands as enemies of the state and terrorists.
Morris, a member of the New Historians, a group of scholars who have challenged much of the received wisdom of the origins of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, also says Israel retaliated with great, sometimes unmerciful force against Arab civilians.
“They initially left their homes to seek refuge for what they thought was a few days, not forever, so they wanted to go back”
According to Zakariya al-Sinwar, a history lecturer at the Islamic University in Gaza, “When the war of 1948 happened, many people of Gaza began to return to get their money and belongings. They initially left their homes to seek refuge for what they thought was a few days, not forever, so they wanted to go back.”
Salman Abu Sitta, a Palestinian researcher, says their attempts to return were used as grounds for attacks against the refugee camps and villages.
“The successful continued war against the returning Palestinians by ruthless expulsion and killing returnees on the spot gave rise to a well-planned policy justified in the media as retaliatory raids. Hence, Unit 101 was formed to undertake this task,” says Abu Sitta.
It was a unit that Sharon himself described as “spirited”, as one that stood out among the “many outstanding units” of the Israeli army. In his autobiography, Warrior, sharon wrote: They [Unit 101] understood fully the stakes they were fighting for; they were imbued with the need to react.”
During the next three years, Sharon and his men carried out a number of strikes against targets in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Mostly, these targets were villages or refugee camps, such as al-Bureij.
Deliberate mass murder?
On their way into al-Bureij on the night of August 28, 1953, Sharon’s squad was spotted by Palestinian farmers.
A girl from Nabahini’s family
According to the chief UN observer at the time, Vagn Bennike, rather than retreat, Unit 101 forced its way through the village and attacked refugees with explosives and automatic weapons.
“Bombs were thrown through the windows of huts in which refugees were sleeping and, as they fled, they were attacked by small arms and automatic weapons,” said Bennike, in a report to the Security Council.
Mohammad Nabahini, 55, was two at the time and lived in the camp. He survived the attack in the arms of his slain mother.
“My father decided to stay behind when they attacked. He hid in a pile of firewood and pleaded with my mother to stay with him. She was too afraid, and fled with hundreds of others, only to return to take me and a few of her belongings with her,” he said.
“As she was escaping, her dress got caught in a fence around the camp, just over there,” he gestured, near a field now covered with olive trees.
“And then they threw a bomb at her, Sharon and his men. She tossed me on the ground behind her before she died.”
Forty-three Palestinian refugees, including seven women, were killed in the attack.
Deaths in Qibya
A few weeks later, Sharon’s unit participated in the attack and expulsion of Bedouins of the Azazme tribe in the western Negev desert, killing an unknown number and expelling 6,000 to 7,000 of them into Egyptian territory, according to the UN.
Another 2,000 Palestinians were forced from El Majdal to the then Egyptian-controlled Gaza Strip under Sharon’s command, according to Major Bennike.
In October 1953, Bennike would report on another attack Sharon carried out in the village of Qibya, killing 69 Palestinians in their homes, half of them women and children.
“Bullet-riddled bodies near the doorways and multiple bullet hits on the doors of the demolished houses indicated that the inhabitants had been forced to remain inside until their homes were blown up over them,” he said.
According to Uzi Benziman, an Israeli reporter and author of two books on Sharon, Sharon never apologised for his actions and defended them till the end.
“He never admitted he made mistakes – not only with the military, but with the Arabs. He was quite arrogant – he never publicly stated that he regretted any of his actions, even when faced with military inquiries.
“He and his supporters continued to say that the Lebanon war was the most right and justified war he had fought.”
Beware the Arabs
Benziman says Sharon’s career was characterised by a fear of Arabs and an obligation to protect the Jewish people at any cost.
“The main theme was ‘beware of the Arabs’. He talked about them in the generalisations reflected in his terms: ‘All the Arabs are the same’. I think he believed up to his last days as a sober person that we cannot trust them, and that we cannot come to terms with them because we cannot trust them.”
“Sharon’s childhood, growing on his father’s farm surrounded by Arab tribes, enforced the belief that the Arabs were trying to harm him and damage his property.
A woman holds pictures of
“His career as a military person was according to these themes. That we and all Israelis have to defend [ourselves] from Arab aggression.”
Baruch Kimmerling, a sociologist at Hebrew University, says Sharon implemented a strategy of inciting Arabs and Jews to fight one another, but that this inflicted suffering on both sides.
“The fact was that Sharon’s expansive actions caused greater casualties, not only among the Arabs, but among Israeli soldiers,” he told Aljazeera.net.
During Sharon’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 to remove the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), nearly 18,000 Lebanese and Palestinians, most non-combatants, and 675 Israeli soldiers were killed.
The killing of about 2000 Palestinian refugees in the Sabra and Shatila camps by Phalange militia in an area controlled by Israeli forces caused an international outcry and embarrassed Israel.
Sharon was eventually forced to resign as minister of defence.
In 2001, after holding several ministerial posts, Sharon was elected prime minister.
Israel has killed thousands of
No longer an eschewed defence minister, and now embraced by a vulnerable Israeli population recoiling in anger and rebounding from the shock of a failed peace process, Sharon found an opportune re-entry into politics, and lived true to his nickname.
According to Israeli human rights group B’tselem, under Sharon’s tenure more than 3,360 Palestinians were killed between September 2000 and April 2006. Of those, 690 – or one in five – were children.
Nearly 30,000 Palestinians were wounded by live ammunition, rubber-coated metal bullets, teargas and other Israeli military measures, at least 6000 of them permanently disabled, the Palestinian Red Crescent says.
In the same period, the Israeli army says 1,084 Israelis have been killed and another 7,633 wounded by Palestinian fighters and bombers.
To much of the non-Arab world, Sharon’s lasting legacy will probably be his much-heralded withdrawal of illegal settlers and troops from Gaza.
Israeli author Benziman says: “History will judge him as the first Israeli leader who started to withdraw from territories.”
House demolitions by Israel during al-Aqsa Intifada in Gaza
Houses demolished: 2,991
Figures supplied by UNRWA
But was Sharon a peace-maker?
“He might have paid lip service to peace, but in his heart he still did not believe that peace was possible during his lifetime,” Benziman said.
For Nabahini, who grew up without ever knowing his mother, Sharon was never a man of peace.
“Peace is not just with words,” he says. “It’s with real actions. And his actions are that of a blood-thirsty murderer.”