Sharon: The architect of terror

Sharon led Israel down the path of isolation and apartheid.

Ariel Sharon's visit to the al-Aqsa mosque prompted the second intifada [AP]

In many ways, Ariel Sharon was the most complete Zionist of his generation. He embodied an expansionary, rapacious view of Jewish privilege in Palestine – the essential Zionism – well after many of his co-religionists had claimed to settle for less. His prophetic insights into his society enabled him to wield his wily politics and martialism to great effect. His lifelong campaign of ethnic cleansing, the eagerness with which he employed atrocities against Palestinian and Lebanese civilians and his relentless savagery enabled the emergence of the Greater Israel he longed for. For Palestinians and human rights advocates the tactics and strategies he employed form the greater part of his legacy. Yet it would be a mistake to overlook his contributions to the settlement programme and the related fragmentation of the Israeli army – legacies which will continue to shape the deepening rents in Israeli society for decades to come.

Ariel Scheinerman was born in British-occupied Palestine in 1928 to Jewish immigrants from present-day Belarus. His well-educated parents arrived in Palestine as members of the third wave of European immigration under the aegis of Mapai, an exclusively Jewish labour movement. It is unclear when Scheinerman changed his name to Sharon but in doing so he reaffirmed the Jewish-Israeli habit of attempting to break with European Jewry and all its associations. At 14, Sharon joined a paramilitary youth group; he eventually became a member of the Haganah – the militia that later gave rise to the Israeli army.

Sharon’s daring and willingness to lead attacks against civilians marked him for command among his fellows. In 1953, he orchestrated the massacre of 69 Palestinian civilians in Qibya while leading “Unit 101” – an infamous Israeli army unit dedicated to extracting high civilian costs among Palestinian communities that resisted the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. The murders of mostly women and children served to foreshadow Sharon’s responsibility for Sabra and Shatila decades later.

Sabra, Shatila and Hezbollah

Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 was ostensibly designed to prevent Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) guerrillas from striking Israeli outposts near the Lebanon-Israel border. His forces shelled and besieged Beirut while world powers negotiated an end to the devastation. The Israelis agreed to withdraw in return for Yasser Arafat’s exile to Tunisia. Arafat and his fighters were forced to abandon the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps – densely populated and impoverished urban ghettos on the outskirts of Beirut. The civilians there were left defenceless against the Israelis and their allies, the Lebanese Phalange militia. After the departure of the PLO, Sharon invited the Phalangists into the camps where they spent two days massacring approximately 3,000 Palestinian and Lebanese men, women and children.

Robert Fisk, a journalist with the Independent newspaper, was one of the first people to arrive in Shatila after the Israelis withdrew. He describes the extent of the atrocity in his book Pity the Nation:

“What we found inside the Palestinian camp at ten o’clock on the morning of September 1982 did not quite beggar description… But these people, hundreds of them had been shot down unarmed. This was a mass killing, an incident – how easily we used the word ‘incident’ in Lebanon – that was also an atrocity. It went beyond even what the Israelis would have in other circumstances called a terrorist activity. It was a war crime.

Bill Foley of AP had come with us. All he could say as he walked round was ‘Jesus Christ’ over and over again. We might have accepted evidence of a few murders; even dozens of bodies, killed in the heat of combat. But there were women lying in houses with their skirts torn up to their waists and their legs wide apart, children with their throats cut, rows of young men shot in the back after being lined up at an execution wall. There were babies – blackened babies because they had been slaughtered more than 24-hours earlier and their small bodies were already in a state of decomposition – tossed into rubbish heaps alongside discarded US army ration tins, Israeli army equipment and empty bottles of whiskey.

Where were the murderers? Or to use the Israelis’ vocabulary, where were the ‘terrorists’ ?When we drove down to Chatila, we had seen the Israelis on the top of the apartments in the Avenue Camille Chamoun but they made no attempt to stop us. It was only when we were driving back past the entrance to Chatila that Jenkins decided to stop the car. ‘I don’t like this’, he said. ‘Where is everyone? What the f**k is that smell?’

Down a laneway to our right, no more than 50 yards from the entrance, there lay a pile of corpses.”

Nor were the Palestinians the only civilians he terrorised in Lebanon. The vicious assault on Lebanese Shia during the march to Beirut gave rise to Hezbollah. Israel’s ill-fated 20-year occupation of southern Lebanon further galvanised and strengthened the movement. Its fighters quickly began to inflict casualties on the Israelis eventually causing them to withdraw from most of Lebanon in 2000.

Al Jazeera’s Zeina Khodr updates on Sharon’s death

Jewish-Israelis initially rejected Sharon’s sectarian brutality and war crimes, if not his objectives. A governmental panel censured him and forced him to resign from his post as minister of defence after investigating his role in Sabra and Shatila. Yet, in 2001 Jewish-Israelis empowered him as their prime minister. His notoriety qualified him for the pacification of the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories during the second intifada – an uprising he helped spark in the fall of 2000 when he led a phalanx of troops onto the al-Aqsa mosque compound in occupied East Jerusalem.

Settlements and Gaza

Sharon’s victories extended beyond the narrow confines of Palestinian refugee camps. In the 1960s he presciently foresaw the development of a “peace process” and helped to undermine the establishment of a Palestinian state by forcefully promoting Israel’s mass colonisation programme in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. The political consensus on settlements – every Israeli Prime Minister since 1967 established them – only began to break when Sharon himself decided to withdraw 8,000 settlers from among 1.2 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip in 2005.   

The politically expedient move was intended to promote the view that Israel was no longer responsible for the lives of the Palestinian refugees; that the Gaza Strip was no longer occupied. It was accompanied by a decision to build an annexation wall through the West Bank. Today the wall stands as an enduring legacy. A violent and alien object imposed on the Palestinian landscape, tribute to the man who decided to build it.  

Sharon’s “disengagement” was heartily welcomed by liberal Zionists who have always fretted over the fertility rates of Palestinians and African immigrants. The settler withdrawal and subsequent Israeli siege were the first steps towards jettisoning undesirable non-Jewish people from Israel. Those decisions would help resolve the “tension” between the Jewish and “democratic” attributes of the state. Nearly nine years later, their hopes continue to go unfulfilled. Few have accepted the claim that the Israeli occupation of Gaza has ended, particularly after the Gaza massacre and the murder of nine activists aboard the Turkish Mavi Marmara in 2010. 

Among colonists in the West Bank, it increased the perception and fear that the Israeli army may one day be commanded to evict them from their settlements. Their fears were not unfounded. All Israeli settlements are illegal under international law; no country recognises them as legitimate. An eventual peace deal with the Palestinians would have likely entailed their evacuation.

The colonists’ response, beginning in 2005, was to join the army in greater numbers than they had previously done. Settler rabbis and politicians encouraged young members of their communities to enlist expressly to prevent more settler evictions by the army. The prospect that growing numbers of conscripts are prepared to refuse orders has alarmed Israeli politicians, particularly Ehud Barak, a former minister of defence.

Today, there are few distinctions between settler militiamen in the West Bank and the Israeli army, and they are growing increasingly difficult to discern. That fact has diminished the likelihood that any Israeli politician will risk evacuating settlements. No Israeli leader is prepared to risk even a limited mutiny within the army. That means that Israeli apartheid will persist and deepen with time. It also means that the Palestinian struggle for equal rights will only grow in force and viability. It means that the BDS movement will continue to undermine Jewish supremacy in Palestine.

And thus, Sharon’s most enduring legacy will likely be one of failure. He spent his life terrorising civilians and building settlements to secure the existence of the Jewish-privilege state. He led his people backwards into the 19th century, down a path of pariah-hood, isolation and apartheid. Yet Jewish supremacy in Israel cannot last; democracy cannot be delayed forever. The perfect Zionist, his life was the perfect indictment of Zionism.

Ahmed Moor is a Palestinian-American graduate student of Public Policy at Harvard University.