Call Off the Sainthood of Ariel Sharon
Why Israel's late leader was a war criminal not a peacemaker.
During Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, all of us living in besieged West Beirut were aware that the Israeli military was seeking to eliminate the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and had no qualms about killing large numbers of civilians in the process. We knew this from the aerial bombardment of the area around Beirut’s Arab University, where the PLO had many of its offices. Dozens of apartment buildings there had been reduced to rubble.
Toward the end of Israel’s ten-week bombardment and siege of Beirut, a building that housed refugees located several blocks from my home in the Sanayeh neighborhood was entirely destroyed from the air, killing dozens. Immediately after the attack, I surveyed the carnage with a friend. After leaving him to return home, I heard another huge explosion — it was a car bomb, presumably set off close to the destroyed building in order to kill those trying to rescue survivors. My friend barely escaped with his life.
This and other examples of the handiwork of the architects of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, preeminent among whom was Ariel Sharon, failed to make it into most of the hagiographic coverage of the man’s passing in the American and Israeli media. We were instead told that Sharon was "controversial," and that Palestinians had criticisms of him, but that he was a "hero," a "staunch defender of Israel’s security," and most grotesquely, "a peacemaker."
In September 2012, the New York Times published an op-ed on the 30th anniversary of the Sabra and Shatila massacres, during which the Israeli military stood by while their right-wing Lebanese allies murdered nearly 1,400 defenseless Palestinian and Lebanese civilians in a Beirut refugee camp. The article, which was based on newly uncovered documents in the Israel State Archives, revealed new details on Sharon’s role in, and indirect American diplomatic responsibility for, these atrocities. The New York Times did not, however, feature this account in its coverage of Sharon’s death. Instead, it re-ran online a 1983 apologia by Sharon for his invasion of Lebanon, during which there were nearly 50,000 casualties, most of them civilians.
The Lebanon war that Sharon, then the defense minister, did more than anyone else to launch was an unmitigated catastrophe for the Palestinians, the Lebanese, and in the view of most Israelis at the time, Israel itself. Israel’s subsequent occupation of South Lebanon until 2000, the consequent intensification of the Lebanese civil war, the slaughter of untold numbers of innocents, and the deaths of hundreds of Israeli soldiers and thousands of other combatants should all be laid in large part at Sharon’s feet.
Sharon’s profound impact on the Middle East stretched far beyond Lebanon. If the creation of a truly sovereign, independent, contiguous, and viable Palestinian state is not possible today — as most sober observers believe — this is largely his achievement. From his appointment as agriculture minister in 1977 until his passing from the Israeli political scene after his stroke in 2006, he probably did more than any other Israeli leader to make Israel’s colonization of the occupied West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem an astonishing success.
Sharon flew over the region in a helicopter to select sites for new colonies, all the while pioneering novel means of stealing land from its Palestinian owners. As prime minister, he continued this expansion process, which has turned the occupied West Bank into a Swiss cheese patchwork thoroughly dominated by lush Israeli settlements on what seems to be every hilltop. Simultaneously, he engineered a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, while retaining draconian control over it from without, thereby turning it into the world’s largest open-air prison.
Vice President Joe Biden eulogized Sharon today as a "historic leader" who was dedicated to the pursuit of peace. The very idea is ludicrous. Sharon began his career as a military commander renowned for ruthless assaults on innocent civilians — like the slaughter in the West Bank village of Qibya in 1953, when commandos of his Unit 101 blew up homes over the heads of their residents, killing 69 people.
The attack led to the first ever U.N. Security Council condemnation of Israel. It was not an isolated incident: Indeed, it established a pattern of dozens of "eyes for an eye," and of the Israeli leadership’s systematic deception about what was actually happening on the ground. This approach has characterized Israel’s response to any resistance to its expansion since the foundation of the state.
Sharon was emblematic of the Israeli refusal to accept that Palestinian resistance was an inevitable response to the forcible establishment of a Jewish state and the concomitant expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. In later years, he became one of the most sophisticated employers of the trope of "terrorism" to demean this resistance.
The characterization not only of those who took up arms against Israel, but of all Palestinians, as "terrorists" can be seen in the transcript of a meeting between Sharon, other Israeli ministers, and U.S. envoy Morris Draper on Sept. 17, 1982, in the midst of the Sabra and Shatila massacres.
Morris Draper: The hostile people will say, sure the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] is going to stay in West Beirut and they will let the Lebanese go and kill the Palestinians in the camps.
Ariel Sharon: So we’ll kill them. They will not be left there. You are not going to save them. You are not going to save these groups of the international terrorism [sic].
MD: We are not interested in saving any of these people.
AS: If you don’t want the Lebanese to kill them, we will kill them.
Everyone present at this meeting, American and Israelis, knew that there were no PLO fighters in the camps. More than 15,000 PLO personnel had been evacuated from Beirut weeks earlier in a deal brokered by the United States. Had any number of these hardened combatants — who had resisted the Israeli siege of Beirut for nearly two months — been present, the perpetrators of these massacres would not have been able to operate with total impunity.
Nonetheless, during this 90-minute meeting with Draper, Sharon repeated the canard that thousands of "terrorists" had remained behind after the PLO evacuation. He used the term "terrorist" 39 times, as part of a ceaseless browbeating of Draper, who had been told to demand that the Israelis immediately withdraw their forces from West Beirut. Instead of complying with Draper’s request, Sharon stonewalled, giving the butchers inside the camps many more hours to complete their gruesome work under the glow of star shells fired by Israeli troops to illuminate the killing ground.
Today, the American and Israeli media are celebrating this very same man. It is hard to imagine this kind of kid-glove treatment of anyone else with such a list of atrocities to his name. But apparently, such inconvenient facts are not welcome. In a more just world, he would have ended up facing the International Criminal Court in The Hague.