Eulogies for a mass murderer

January 21, 2014

Hadas Thier passes a different judgment on ex-Israeli Prime Minister Arial Sharon.

NEVER SPEAK ill of the dead, goes the old saying. But as Noam Chomsky pointed out, to not speak ill of Ariel Sharon would be to take a vow of silence, as there is nothing else that could be said.

Following his long-awaited death on January 11 after years of existing in a vegetative state, mainstream media outlets such as New York Times published flowery rewritings of history, depicting Sharon as a dignified and charismatic, if "controversial," Israeli political leader.

The real story of Ariel Sharon is of a war criminal and mass murderer. As British journalist Robert Fisk rightly wrote: "Thus do we remake history. How speedily did toady journalists in Washington and New York patch up this brutal man's image."

Instead of honoring Sharon's vile history, I think it's more fitting to take the opportunity to pay tribute to another group of people: the more than 800 (according to the official count, but probably closer to 2,000 or 3,000) Palestinian refugees killed in 1982 at the Sabra and Shatila camps in Lebanon, murdered by militias working in close coordination with the Israeli Army led by Ariel Sharon.

Ariel Sharon
Ariel Sharon (Jim Wallace | Smithsonian Institute)

Fisk, who reported on the massacres at the time, recalled the horror at the camps in his book Pity the Nation:

[We] were so overwhelmed by what we found in Shatila that at first, we were unable to register our own shock. 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 U.S. Army ration tins, Israeli army equipment and empty bottles of whiskey.

This is the true legacy of Ariel Sharon--a man who spent more than five decades shaping Israeli politics and who was driven by a single motivation: To eradicate the Palestinian people and their movement for self-determination.

SHARON BEGAN his career as a major in the Israeli army during the early days of the Zionist state. His Unit 101 was responsible for the massacres of 50 refugees at the Bureij camp and 69 civilians at Qibya in 1953.

Time magazine reported that Sharon's soldiers shot "every man, woman and child they could find. The cries of the dying could be heard amidst the explosions." In his autobiography, Sharon would later boast that Qibya was "a turning point" that gave the army a new sense of confidence.

Sharon was consistently promoted up the military--and later political--ladder during his life, and he played major roles in the all of Israel's wars. In the 1956 Suez War, he led the initial attack through the Sinai Desert, capturing the Mitla Pass. During the 1967 war, he commanded brigades that seized Umm-Katif, blasting an opening into the Sinai.

After the 1967 war, Sharon, now head of the Israel Defense Forces' Southern command, was charged with the task of "pacifying" the Gaza Strip. Hundreds of Palestinian militants were killed and thousands of homes destroyed as part of the savage violence he inflicted to bring Gaza under control. It was there that Sharon gained his nickname as "the Bulldozer"--for his penchant for flattening entire streets and neighborhoods.

Though his career to point thrived within the ranks of the Israeli Labor Party-dominated political establishment, Sharon found a natural home in the right-wing Likud Party, founded in 1973. Likud was led by Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, who led the pre-Israeli state terrorist armies called the Irgun and Lehi, which were responsible for the massacres of civilians at Deir Yassin and countless other Arab villages.

When the Likud Party won national elections in 1977, Sharon was appointed to be minister of agriculture, a seemingly benign post, but which was used by the Israeli state to further its settlement policies in the Occupied Territories. Sharon was charged with confiscation of Palestinian lands, resettling them with Zionist fanatics and reinforcing those settlers as they gained a high degree of legal, economic and military autonomy. Sharon thus earned the heinous reputation as the father of the settlement movement.

Sharon was quite open about his aims: "We'll make a pastrami sandwich out of them. We'll insert a strip of Jewish settlements in between the Palestinians, and then another strip of Jewish settlements right across the West Bank, so that in 25 years' time, neither the United Nations nor the United States, nobody, will be able to tear it apart."

By 1981, Sharon was promoted to defense minister, where he could even more effectively carry out his expansionist vision of a greater Israel, freed of all Palestinians. As author and journalist Max Blumenthal wrote: "Sharon yearned to finish 1948--to complete the expulsion project he viewed as deficient."

THE CLIMAX of his command of the Israeli military resulted in one of the most savage chapters of an already barbaric Zionist book: the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Sharon was the architect of a 10-week siege that was given the Orwellian code name "Operation Peace for Galilee."

The grisly toll of Peace for Galilee included 20,000 Palestinians and Lebanese dead, 100,000 seriously wounded, and half a million left homeless. Civilian infrastructure was systematically attacked by all the weapons in Israel's bristling armory, Palestinian refugee camps and Lebanese towns were leveled, and the capital of Beirut was battered for 75 days.

The goal of the invasion and bombardment was to create a new order in Lebanon--one in which the influence of the Syrian government was eliminated; the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which had a stronghold in Southern Lebanon, was destroyed; and a minority Maronite Christian government could rule the country as a satellite state of Israel.

By early August, the PLO had conceded defeat. Under an agreement brokered by the U.S., a multinational force was to secure safe passage for the 8,300 PLO fighters out of Beirut to Tunisia. As I wrote in an article for the International Socialist Review in 2006:

PLO defeat did not, however, stop the mounting ferocity of Israel's attack on West Beirut. On August 12, "Black Thursday," Israeli forces ordered saturation bombing on the scale of the Second World War attack on Dresden. This went uninterrupted for 11 hours and "when the shelling finally stopped, the Israelis were back at their roadblocks, stopping food supplies from entering the western section of the city." That day alone resulted in 300 deaths.

Charles Powers, an eyewitness to the events commented, "All of West Beirut, finally, was living in wreckage and garbage and loss. But the PLO was leaving. Somewhere the taste of victory must have been sweet."

The monstrous episode of the 1982 war ended with the massacres of Palestinian refugees in Sabra and Shatila, carried out by a Christian fascist militia, the Phalange, operating under the protection of--and under the illumination flares fired by--the Israel Defense Frces.

At the time, Ariel Sharon was found by an internal Israeli commission to be "indirectly responsible" for allowing the carnage to take place. More recently, declassified documents at the Israel State Archives show clearly that Sharon was fully and directly responsible, including in the coordination of a "mopping-up" operation carried out by Lebanese troops.

The documents, published last year by the New York Times, provide full transcripts of meetings that took place between top Israeli officials and an American envoy. Sitting in discussions while the massacres were going on, Sharon explained quite clearly that Lebanese troops were getting instructions from the Phalange, "coordinated with all of them together by our officers."

THE LAST chapter of Sharon's political life--culminating in his becoming prime minister in 2001 until he was incapacitated by a stroke in 2006--has often been characterized as a pragmatic shift towards the center. George W. Bush went so far as to call Sharon "a man of peace."

In 2005, Sharon led the strategy for a "disengagement from Gaza" and subsequently split with the Likud Party to form the "centrist" Kadima Party. In fact, Kadima was less a move to the center than an acknowledgement that Israeli politics had moved so far to the right that Sharon was left without any room to maneuver.

The "disengagement" from Gaza gave cover for a massive expansion of settlements in the West Bank, while replacing any pretext of the post-Oslo Accords "peace process" with Israeli unilateralism. The end effect was to maintain physical, military and economic control over Gaza, while trapping its Palestinian residents in what is famously known as the world's largest open-air prison.

In the end, Sharon escaped the fates he deserved--to be brought to trial as a war criminal; to suffer his last years languishing in prison; to see his dreams of a Greater Israel and the extermination of Palestine rejected and reversed. But we can gain some comfort in knowing he spent the last eight years of his life as a slowly rotting vegetable. We can only hope--and fight--for a movement that puts his vision for Israel in a similar condition.

Instead of eulogizing this brutal killer, supporters of justice and peace in this world will do the opposite: celebrate the courage and perseverance of the Palestinian people that Ariel Sharon was ultimately unable to destroy.

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