By Shafiq Morton
Ariel Sharon, former Israeli Prime Minister, has passed on at the age of 85. After a lingering coma induced by a stroke in 2006, his body has finally shut down – and the curtain has fallen on what can only be described as a colorful, if not chequered career.
Although I never met him personally, Sharon’s presence appeared to haunt me wherever I went in the Middle East. Larger than life, his brazenness has seen him enjoying a career in which a bull in a china shop has seemed like a ballet dancer.
Indeed, no amount of apologetic obituaries will be able to wish away the fact that Ariel Sharon was one of Israel’s most belligerent political figures – the word “political architect” (as used by a US journalist) is certainly inflated language for a man whose solution in 2000 was to suggest the killing of arch foe Yasser Arafat.
Sentimental tributes written about him being an “avuncular figure”, a “warrior statesman” or a “complicated man” wrestling with the inevitability of a Palestinian settlement, are as authentic as Count Dracula being a teddy bear.
The truth is that the arrogantly imperial Sharon was never about peace. “Pragmatic” he may have been, but his chief business was ethnic separation between Israelis and Arabs. As a soldier this meant enforcement by the gun; and as a politician it meant concrete walls, razor wire and illegal settlements.
His response to Ehud Barak’s Camp David talks with PLO leader Yasser ‘Arafat is a typical example of his lack of subtlety. His Al-Aqsa mosque walkabout, accompanied by over 1,000 guards, lit the fires of the second Palestinian Intifada.
As I dig through old notebooks, Sharon’s name crops up time and again. Unit 101, a special “retaliation” force created by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion – of which Sharon was a 25-year old major – features as prominently as the Deir Yasin massacre.
For in August 1953, Unit 101 attacked the Gazan refugee camp of Al-Bureij, killing at least 20 refugees. This was followed by Sharon leading the Qibya massacre in Jordan two months later. This time there were 69 fatalities with the victims, mainly civilians, being dynamited whilst in their homes.
The Qibya attack was condemned by the UN and the US State Department, but no-one was ever held accountable.
Sharon’s trail of destruction did not end there. In Gaza in 1971, as head of the IDF southern command, he’d bulldozed 2,000 homes, rendered 16,000 people homeless and assassinated over 100 resistance fighters.
As a politician his hand was no less heavy. The Negev Bedouin do not have happy memories of him as Agriculture Minister. In 1979 he declared a 1,500 square kilometer area a “national park”, denying the Bedouin access to their ancestral land.
He created a para-military unit called the Green Patrol that uprooted 900 Bedouin encampments and almost saw the extinction of the black goat, whose wool provided material for traditional nomad tents.
But it was in Lebanon that Sharon, as Defense Minister, became a household name. Space does not permit more than a summary background to Israel’s 1982 invasion, essentially aimed at chasing Yasser Arafat’s PLO out of the Levant and neutralizing the Syrian presence.
Bashir Gemayel, leader of the Kata’ib Party, had been voted into power with the help of western intelligence. Unfortunately, one of his neighbors was a Syrian agent, who blew him up whilst addressing party members. Sharon’s response to the assassination was to blame the Palestinians.
The PLO had just withdrawn from Beirut and Kata’ib – or Phalangist – forces were in the vicinity of the Sabra and Shatila, which were now defenseless Palestinian neighborhoods. In violation of a ceasefire accord, the Israeli IDF had reoccupied the area, sealing off Sabra and Shatila.
According to reports, Ariel Sharon and IDF chief of staff, Rafael Eitan, met with Phalangist units, inviting them to enter Sabra and Shatila. Hours later about 1,500 militias under the command of Elie Hobeika moved in. Watched by Israeli forces, and aided by IDF flares, the raping, mutilation and killing began.
All in all, it’s believed that about 2,000 people were massacred by Phalangist forces whilst the IDF looked on. The UN General Assembly condemned the killings as “genocide” and Israel’s own Yitzhak Kahan Commission fingered Sharon. However, Prime Minister Menachim Begin refused to fire him.
I visited Sabra and Shatila some 15 years after the massacre to do research for a book. Although some buildings were still burnt out and pockmarked with bullets, most of the neighborhood had been rebuilt.
But in the dark and cramped alleys there was still a somber mood. Those who’d survived asked why nobody had protected them and – unsurprisingly – had emotional difficulty recounting events. In Shatila I discovered that the mosque floor had been dug up to bury the dead because of lack of space.
I visited the main graveyard of the massacre, an open, cold space devoid of tombstones. “Too many bodies,” said my translator, “too many bodies.”
But that was not the end of the story. People kept on talking about a secondary massacre, when hundreds of people had been detained and questioned at the sports stadium, some disappearing without trace.
“There are hundreds bodies under the Rihab Gas Station,” I was told.
This took me by surprise, for not even The Independent’s Robert Fisk – who had reported on the stadium events – had spoken about this particular graveyard. Were these yet more trampled ghosts of Sharon’s past? I do not have the answer.
But who exactly was Sharon? The acerbic Israeli commentator, Uri Avnery, describes Sharon as an “Israeli Napoleon”, the ultimate integration of personal and national egocentrism. What was good for Sharon was good for national interest – and whoever wanted to stop him had to get out the way for Sharon, and Sharon alone, could save Israel.
He thought he was well on his way to doing this via Kadima when he met his Waterloo, a debilitating stroke that saw his dream of an ethnically cleansed Israel – with Palestinians finally crammed into Jordan and Gaza – condemned to an inter-space of chronic comatose incapacity between life and death.
– Shafiq Morton is an award-winning Cape Town photojournalist and author. He has covered the anti-apartheid struggle, the release of Nelson Mandela and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as well as conflict worldwide. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.