TEL AVIV // Ariel Sharon, who died yesterday at the age of 85, was not an especially religious man, in any formal sense anyway. He was, rather, a man of the land, often to be found traipsing across sprawling ranch in southern Israel, less than eight kilometres from the Gaza Strip.
And it was to the power of possessing land that he always returned — personally, politically and militarily.
“When the land belongs to you physically, when you know every hill and wadi and orchard, when your family is there, that is when you have power, not just physical power, but spiritual power …Your strength comes from the land,” he once wrote.
It was that obsession with land that both characterised Sharon and set him apart as one of the most polarising, vilified and demonised figures in Israel’s history.
Among Arabs, he is perhaps most remembered for almost single-handedly launching the Jewish settlement movement in the occupied West Bank, for his role in the 1982 massacre of hundreds of Palestinians in Beirut’s Sabra and Shatila refugee camps and for the 2005 evacuation of Israeli settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip.
Among Israelis, he was known simply as “Arik.” But as a distillation of the brash style he brought to his often volatile public life, his other nickname — “the Bulldozer” — was more fitting. His military career was characterised by insubordination and disobedience but also tactical brilliance.
He was reviled by many Israelis, yet at the time that he suffered an incapacitating stroke in 2006, he was poised to easily win re-election as the country’s leader.
Sharon’s 52-year military and political career, which began at the age of 14 when he picked up arms against Arab villages in Palestine, spanned the establishment of state of Israel and its rise as a regional power. He leaves behind an indelible mark on a nation that, like the man himself, emerged from the crucible of the Second World War and the Holocaust to become a powerful force in the Middle East and the post-war world.
His death leaves Shimon Peres, Israel’s president, as the only surviving member of the generation of Israeli leaders who were alive at the state’s inception — a group that includes David Ben-Gurion, Yitzhak Rabin, Abba Eban, Chaim Weizmann, Menachem Begin and Golda Meir.
Yaron Ezrahi, a political science professor at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, said: “He was a brilliant military general, a pathological liar to his army superiors, an audacious politician, the most popular premier that Israel has had in years, but also one who has made some colossal mistakes. Those include leading the settlement movement as well as initiating the Gaza evacuation on the basis of unilateralism rather than an agreement with the Palestinians.”
For the region’s 4.3 million Palestinians, in particular, Sharon remains the personification of their delayed and stolen dreams of an independent Palestinian state. His memory triggers instant hostility among most Palestinians, due to his decisions to launch air strikes, assassinations and other brutal attacks in occupied Palestinian territory during the second intifada, which erupted in 2000.
Ghassan Khatib, a spokesman for the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, said: “For the current generation of Palestinians, the most harmful, aggressive era is the one in which Sharon was prime minister. Under his leadership, we had the worst incursions and reoccupations of Palestinian territories. He reoccupied the West Bank in a very bloody and destructive way.”
Sharon was born Ariel Scheinermann on February 26, 1928, in what was then the British Mandate of Palestine, the second child to a German-Polish father and a Russian mother. He was raised to believe in the strength of Jews and in their right to do anything to defend what they perceived as their homeland — a conviction later exemplified by the title of his autobiography, Warrior.
At age 13, armed with a club and a dagger, Sharon joined the older men in his community in guarding their fields at night from attacks by Arab villagers living nearby. At age 14, he joined the Haganah, the Jewish underground paramilitary group that was the forerunner of Israel’s army created after the country’s establishment in 1948.
In the 1950s, he became known for fierce raids against Arab villages and refugee camps in Gaza and Jordan. Among the most notorious was in 1953, during which he led a special commando force that blew up 45 homes in Qibya, a village in the West Bank which was then under Jordanian rule, resulting in the deaths of more than 60 Palestinian civilians — including children — many of them buried under the rubble.
The attack, meant as retribution for the killing of a Jewish mother and her two children by a grenade thrown into their home, was harshly condemned by western countries, including the United States.
Still, Sharon appeared unrepentant. In a television documentary years later, he described being summoned after the raid to a meeting with then-prime minister David Ben-Gurion, who told him that “it doesn’t matter what the world says about Israel … unless we show the Arabs that there is a high price to pay for murdering Jews, we won’t survive”.
As a reserve general during the 1973 Mideast war, when Israel faced possible defeat for the first time since 1948, he pressed for more aggressive action. In violation of orders by his superiors, many of whom viewed him as uncontrollable, he pushed his troops across the Suez Canal in a counterattack that broke through Egyptian lines and is credited by many Israelis as turning the war in their country’s favour.
For Israelis, a photo of Sharon, his head bandaged and conferring with a fellow general as he holds a map of the Sinai desert, has become one of the 1973 war’s most famous images.
His political career began later that year, when he was first elected to Israel’s parliament at the age of 45 as part of the right-wing Likud party that he had helped found. He later said that his military experience spurred him to enter politics, adding: “I saw all of the horror of the war. Therefore, I believe that I understand the importance of peace. For me, peace should provide security.”
As defence minister in 1982, and the second-most powerful man in the government of then-prime minister Menachem Begin, he masterminded Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, the country’s first major foray into its northern neighbour’s territory. Without explicitly informing Begin, Sharon ordered the Israeli army all the way to Beirut in a step aimed at installing a friendly Lebanese government and ousting the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) from Lebanon.
The first objective failed when Bashir Gemayel, the Israel-backed Lebanese president-elect, a Maronite Christian, was assassinated shortly before his inauguration. But Israel largely accomplished its second aim, running Yasser Arafat’s PLO out of Lebanon so it could no longer use that country as a base from which to launch attacks against Israel.
The invasion became infamous for the role that the Israeli army — and more specifically, Sharon — played in the massacre by allied Lebanese Christian militiamen of up to 2,000 men, women and children at the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila on the outskirts of Beirut.
Philip Habib, who was sent to Lebanon by the then US president Ronald Reagan to negotiate an end to the Israeli invasion, called Sharon “a killer, obsessed by hatred of the Palestinians”. His word, Habib said, “was worth nothing”.
The slayings and the Israeli government’s complicity in them spurred shock and shame even among Israelis often apathetic to Palestinian suffering.
Many have also blamed Sharon for the consequences of the invasion — most notably, the damage to Israel’s reputation internationally and the catalyst it provided for the creation of Hizbollah, a Shiite Muslim militant group that is backed by Iran and Syria and vows to force Israel and the US out of the region.
An Israeli tribunal, in a report published later in 1982, found Sharon indirectly responsible for the killings, prompting his resignation as defence minister. Prime minister Begin kept him on as a minister without portfolio.
His resignation, however, did not signal the end of Sharon’s political ascent. His popularity among the Israeli right-wing survived and grew, and he did not disappoint those supporters.
As minister of agriculture from 1977 to 1981, when he also served as chairman of the ministerial committee on settlements, he had doubled the number of Jewish communities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, territories captured by Israel during the 1967 Middle East war.
While serving as housing minister during the early 1990s, he oversaw a major expansion of the settlements, using any state funds that he could get his hands on to seize more West Bank hilltops. He was elevated to a revered status in the settler movement, and he argued vehemently against returning captured territories to Arab sovereignty.
He gained the helm of the hardline Likud party while it was in opposition, after its then-leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, lost the 1999 general election to Ehud Barak of the centrist Labour party.
Sharon was one of the loudest critics of Mr Barak’s efforts to reach a peace deal with the Palestinians, and is at least partly blamed for sparking the second intifada in September 2000. Accompanied by dozens of Israeli police, he embarked on the unusual and provocative move to visit the Al Aqsa mosque compound in east Jerusalem, the third-holiest site for Muslims and a place also considered holy by Jews.
Some commentators have said that the veteran politician knew the visit would incite rioting, and that the Israeli public would turn to a hardline figure like him to handle it. However, Sharon denied any responsibility and instead blasted the Palestinian Authority for orchestrating a premeditated campaign that triggered the uprising.
Nevertheless, the move may have helped accomplish his lifelong dream. A year later, at the age of 73, he became Israel’s 11th prime minister after winning election in a landslide victory. Sharon held that office until he suffered a debilitating stroke and fell into a coma five years later.
He remained mostly restrained toward the Palestinians in his first year in office, possibly to gain international legitimacy for his government. But his belligerent style re-emerged following the September 11, 2001, attacks in the US, after which the administration of George W Bush signalled its approval of more aggressive action against Palestinian assaults.
Following a Palestinian suicide bombing in 2002 at a hotel in central Israel, in which 30 people were killed, Sharon ordered the invasion and occupation of West Bank towns. He also soon stepped up the assassinations of leaders of Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group, and accelerated the construction of a controversial barrier — a network of fences interspersed with concrete walls, and projected to be 720 kilometres long when completed — in and around the West Bank.
While in office, Mr Sharon oversaw the withdrawal of Israeli civilians and troops from the Gaza Strip in 2005 and the formation that year of the centrist Kadima political party.
While the pullout from the impoverished seaside territory of 1.5 million Palestinians after 38 years of occupation appeared to be one of the great turnabouts in modern Israeli political history, it was also widely viewed as Sharon’s attempt to win international goodwill and shift attention away from Israel’s strengthening hold on the more significant settlements in the West Bank.
Critics also accused Israel of maintaining its hold over Gaza because the country still controlled all the border crossings into and out of the enclave except for Rafah, which is operated by Egypt.
Sharon did not emerge unscathed from his Gaza decision. Many of the right-wing supporters who had brought him to power blasted him as a traitor and he received death threats from extremists. He also lost the confidence of many in his party, who accused him of ordering the evacuation against their will.
Sharon remained characteristically unafflicted by any second-guessing, telling Yediot Ahronot, the country’s biggest newspaper: “I have no regrets. Even if I knew the scope of opposition in advance, I would do it.”
Just months before he became incapacitated, he embarked on what at the time was termed the “big bang” of Israeli politics. Amid strong opposition to the Gaza withdrawal within Likud, which he had helped establish in 1973, he left the movement along with four Likud ministers and nine other members of parliament to form a centrist bloc called Kadima, which means “forward” in Hebrew.
Sharon said his move was prompted by the Gaza evacuation, which provided a “historic opportunity” for Israel and the Palestinians to advance the peace process by establishing permanent borders and ceasing attacks. He added that “remaining in the Likud means wasting time in political struggles”.
Shortly afterwards, Sharon became comatose and Ehud Olmert, a co-founder of Kadima, led the movement to victory in the 2006 parliamentary election.
During his lifetime, Sharon had also experienced several personal tragedies. His first wife, Margalit, was killed in a car accident in 1962. Their only son died at age 11 in Sharon’s arms after being shot accidentally by another youth. Sharon later married his wife’s younger sister, Lily, who died of cancer in 2000. Two sons from his second marriage survive him.
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