Immoral and bullheaded, Sharon changed for the better

There are no easy lessons to take from Sharon’s life

David Guttenfelder/AP

Ariel Sharon’s political career arguably should have been derailed almost 50 years before he became prime minister.

In 1953, he led a group of commandos, Unit 101, on a retaliatory raid against the Jordanian border village of Qibya. The raid took place in the context of armed forays across the frontier by both Israelis and Jordanians. Two days before the Qibya assault, a grenade was thrown into a Jewish home in Yehud, east of Tel Aviv, killing a woman and two children.

Unit 101 and a paratroop company were sent to Qibya with orders to carry out “destruction and maximum killing.” They did. At least 60 inhabitants, mostly women and children, died in the assault, plus a small number of Jordanian soldiers who were ambushed as they came to help.

Sharon’s claims that villagers were hiding in cellars and attics and that Israeli troops were unaware of this when they blew up the houses are simply not credible. As Israeli historian Benny Morris notes, the troops moved from house to house, firing through windows and doorways. Jordanian pathologists later reported that most victims died from bullets and shrapnel rather than collapsing roofs and walls.

Facing international outcry, Israel Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion decided to lie. Shamefully evoking the Holocaust to justify a fictitious version of what took place, he blamed the attack on Israeli civilians — “refugees from Arab countries and survivors of Nazi concentration camps, who had suffered terribly at the hands of their tormentors and had shown great restraint until now.”

The stain from this incident didn’t slow Sharon’s rise through the Israeli military (though the freeness with which he criticized his superiors sometimes did). He commanded a brigade in the 1956 Suez War, during which he pushed deep into Sinai and his unit suffered numerous casualties. He was much more successful in the 1967 Six-Day War, and in 1973, when he ordered a risky crossing of the Suez Canal behind Egyptian lines, and emerged from that war as a popular icon of Israeli military strength.

Sharon’s move into politics saw him champion the settlement of Israelis in the newly occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, and therefore earn him the nickname “Bulldozer.”

As defence minister in 1982, he ordered an invasion of Lebanon to root out Palestinian guerillas there. The supposedly surgical mission expanded in duration and scope. Soon Israeli troops were besieging the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps in West Beirut where Israel claimed the Palestinian Liberation Organization had arms and fighters. Israel sent its Lebanese allies, the Christian Phalangist militia, into the camps, killing hundreds of civilians.

An Israeli investigating committee ruled that Sharon bore “indirect responsibility” for the slaughter, and cabinet voted to remove him as defence minister. This, too, might have ended Sharon’s political career. It didn’t. But Sabra and Shatila have clung to Sharon in a way Qibya never did. Few obituaries neglect to mention his role in the tragedies there.

What is often left unexamined, though, is what Sharon’s Lebanese invasion meant for Israel. (This article, by the Globe’s Patrick Martin, is an excellent exception.) Here I think much of the analysis of Sharon’s legacy conflates his ambitions with what he actually achieved.

“He defended this land like a lion,” Israeli President Shimon Peres said in his eulogy of Sharon.

True. But loving a place doesn’t make one a good guardian of it. Sharon’s Lebanon campaign eroded Israel’s security. It led, in part, to the birth and growth of Hezbollah, now a greater threat to Israel than the Palestinian militants Sharon sent troops to Lebanon to destroy.

Sharon’s most consequential political decision, however, came later.

In 2004, following his 2001 election as prime minister, Sharon announced plans to evacuate all Israeli settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip and from several West Bank settlements. The move, completed in 2005, surprised almost everyone. When Sharon faced criticism from his colleagues in the Likud Party, he left it and founded a new party, Kadima, aimed at further unilateral territorial withdrawals.

Israeli settlers felt betrayed. Many on the Israeli left were flummoxed. Israel had had leaders far more left wing than Sharon since 1967. But it was Sharon, the Bulldozer, who got Israel out of Gaza. Had a stroke not left him incapacitated soon after, it’s reasonable to speculate that more territory would have been evacuated. Perhaps Israel and the Palestinians would have been closer to a peaceful division of the land they share than they are now.

It’s difficult to know exactly what pushed Sharon toward such a policy shift. He may have been simply trying to establish new borders that were strong and defensible, and that would absorb most of the largest West Bank settlements at the cost of a few Israel could do without — a measured retreat, in other words, rather than a real attitudinal reversal.

He may have come to believe that the original Zionist dream — a Jewish and democratic state — could not survive unending rule over an increasingly large Palestinian population without democratic rights.

Sharon’s own explanation rings true: “As one who fought in all of Israel’s wars, and learned from personal experience that without proper force, we do not have a chance of surviving in this region … I have also learned from experience that the sword alone cannot decide this bitter dispute in this land.”

There are no easy lessons to take from Sharon’s life. His career was full of immorality and bullheadedness. He was a brilliant military tactician but a poor geopolitical strategist. Yet in the darkening twilight of his life, in the words of Shimon Peres, he “turned his gaze to the day Israel would dwell in safety, when our children would return to our borders and peace would grace the Promised Land.”

It’s unlikely that Sharon, for much of his career, believed that Israel’s borders should be anything other than what they became following the country’s conquests of 1967. He changed. The change came late in his life, but he still had time to act on it.

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