Washington Report, January/February 2006, pages 22-23
Will Ariel Sharon’s Latest Bombshell Be a Dud?
By Richard H. Curtiss
AN OBSERVER of Ariel Sharon over many years can only conclude that one is never quite sure what “the butcher of Beirut” is up to. On Nov. 21 he decided to discard the Likud, the political party he helped found 30 years ago, and launch a new party named “Kadima,” Hebrew for “forward.” Sharon wants to keep only those followers who won’t second-guess his own decisions—such as former Labor Prime Minister Shimon Peres—and drop those who want to ask questions. From this point on, only Sharon knows exactly where he is headed.
One of the world’s most ruthless leaders, Sharon reminds this writer of the Assyrians of more than 3,000 years ago who made a point of carrying out bloodthirsty acts of terror. They then made sure that everyone knew the details of what they had done. As a result, their Near Eastern neighbors were so frightened and intimidated that they would do anything to keep the Assyrians out of their neighborhood.
Sharon’s activities over more than half a century have left behind him a wide swath of destruction. Early in his career he was given command of “counter terror“ Unit 101, and directed a massacre in the West Bank village of Qibya in 1953. Sharon’s special forces slipped into the village, blocked the doors of the homes of sleeping villagers and then blew up the occupants. U.N. observers later counted 60 bodies.
The Israeli government later claimed that the massacre was committed by so-called “Israeli frontier settlers.” It was only after members of Unit 101 began boasting to other Israelis that they acknowledged they had been carrying out terror raids throughout the West Bank.
In another Unit 101 terror raid against Palestinian civilians, Israeli commandos went to the West Bank border in 1955 and seized six young Palestinian shepherds, methodically stabbing five of them to death. They then released the youngest boy so that he would return to the village to tell what had happened to the others.
As Sharon helped prepare for the 1956 attack on the Suez Canal, he made extremely reckless decisions that nearly ended his military career. He led a series of bloody clashes against Arab forces, including a provocative 1955 attack on Egyptian troops in Gaza and a 1956 attack on Qalqilya. His aggressive policies in the north, on the border with Syria, so inflamed relations between the two countries that Sharon was ordered to limit his operations. Four young Israeli battalion commanders, including future chiefs of staff Mordechai Gur and Rafael Eitan, accused Sharon of exceeding his orders and needlessly sending Israeli military personnel to their deaths.
Some two decades later, Sharon nearly caused a disastrous confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. He already had taken his troops into a counterattack across the Suez Canal when Egypt and Israel, under pressure from their Soviet and American mentors, agreed to a cease-fire. Totally ignoring the agreement, Sharon continued to cut off Egyptian units from their supply lines. Moscow finally told Washington that if Israel did not stop this unauthorized war, Russian troops would.
Sharon began planning to invade Lebanon in 1981, when he was minister of defense. Ten months later, however, he had yet to find a pretext for an assault, since Palestinian forces were observing a cease-fire along the Lebanese-Israeli border guaranteed by the U.S. in the summer of 1981. Sharon finally seized upon the excuse of an attempted assassination of Israel’s ambassador to London. He prevented an Israeli intelligence officer from informing Israel’s cabinet that the thwarted assassins were not from the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), so that the Israeli cabinet would not abort what Sharon told them was merely a strike against the PLO in Lebanon.
Yacov Guterman, an Israeli whose only son was killed in the battle of Beaufort Castle at the beginning of Sharon’s invasion of Lebanon, has written: “If they [Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Defense Minister Ariel Sharon] have only a spark of conscience and humanity, may my great pain pursue them forever, the suffering of a father in Israel whose world has been destroyed.”
From a military point of view, Sharon’s invasion of Lebanon was a seemingly brilliant campaign. He had assured Begin that he would stop after seizing PLO positions on the Lebanese border, moving no more than 50 kilometers into Lebanon. He had no intention of following his stated plan, however, and, as the world knows, instead headed directly into Beirut.
In an attempt to batter the Lebanese into submission, the Israeli siege of Beirut went on day and night. In the midst of it, an unexpected event interrupted Sharon’s plans. The reckless and conniving Lebanese President Bashir Gemayel was killed and his older and less audacious brother, Amin, took over. Sharon, who had been on good terms with both brothers, paid a condolence call on the Gemayel family, during which he appears to have suggested that the family avenge Bashir’s death. There was no written transcript of the discussion, but the following day Sharon’s forces moved forward to the edge of the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps.
Israeli forces had assembled 150 Lebanese Maronite militiamen and trucked them to the site. For two days, the militiamen slaughtered Palestinian men, women and children while the Israeli troops provided food, water and ammunition for the Maronites so they could continue the killing. When the Maronites needed illumination, the Israelis provided it. As word of the atrocity seeped out, members of the world press burst into the camps.
Newsmen saw that bodies of the victims were being bulldozed and covered up as rapidly as possible. The Israelis later said that 600 victims had been buried, but according to the International Red Cross, between 2,000 and 2,500 Palestinians were dead. Hundreds of them are still buried in a mound that is now covered over by a soccer field and others may have been concealed elsewhere.
Israel’s Kahan Commission later found that Sharon had “indirect responsibility for failing to foresee and prevent the massacre” and banned him from serving again as defense minister.
Sharon set out to clear his name in an American court by filing a libel suit against Time magazine over its allegations of his conduct relating to the massacres at Sabra and Shatila. Although the jury did not find that the magazine had libeled Sharon, the Israeli press still declared Sharon had won a “moral victory.”
Meanwhile, former Prime Minister Begin decided he had been deceived by Sharon into invading Lebanon and retired, spending the rest of his life in near-seclusion.
More recently, Sharon incited the al-Aqsa intifada with his Sept. 28, 2000 “visit” to Jerusalem’s Haram al Sharif—on the eve of the election in which he was running for prime minister against the Labor incumbent, Ehud Barak.
Over the years, people seem to have forgotten the viciousness of Sharon’s military record. Even his sobriquet “the butcher of Beirut” has morphed into “the bulldozer,” or similar nicknames indicating courage and resolution. Even the bulldozer nickname, however, is the result of a chilling remark he made as candidate for prime minister. Asked what he would do about Palestinians from Beit Jala shooting at the illegal Jewish settlement of Gilo, Sharon replied, “I would eliminate the first row of houses in Beit Jala.” And if the shootingcontinued? “I would eliminate the second row of houses; and so on. I know the Arabs...For them, there is nothing more important than their house. So, under me you will not see a child shot next to his father. It is better to level an entire village with bulldozers—row after row.”
As new Israeli elections loom, Sever Plocker, Yediot Ahronot’s top economics writer, has written, “Israel is one of the most unequal societies in the world. Twenty-five percent of Israelis live below the poverty line—one third of all Israeli children. We have the highest rate of poverty among people 65 and older in the Western world. Those are terrible numbers.”
Very early predictions indicate that Sharon’s new Kadima party would win 28 of the 120 parliamentary seats. Moroccan-born Amir Peretz, 54, an unabashed land-for-peace dove, is the new leader of Israel’s Labor Party, which, it is predicted, would gain more than 20 seats. The remnants of the right-leaning Likud Party are expected to win 18 seats.
A coalition of some of the remaining parties will be needed to cobble together a new Israeli government. Former Labor party leader Peres, 82, has agreed to support Sharon’s Kadima party, but will not run for a party seat himself. Presumably he expects in return a cabinet seat, perhaps dealing with under developed areas such as the Negev and Galilee.
Meanwhile the Palestinians aren’t vanishing from the scene. Not only are there are more of them than there are Israelis, but the gap will only widen, since the Palestinians have a much higher birthrate. They won’t go away unless they are “ethnically cleansed”—which is precisely what Ariel Sharon envisions.
While President Bush has called Sharon a “man of peace,” in the past 50 years Palestinians have seen few peaceful acts by Israel’s prime minister. In fact, if Sharon had any intention of making peace with his neighbors, he would have accepted the olive branch Arab countries offered him in 2002. When King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia was still Crown Prince, he convinced Arab League members meeting in Beirut that March to agree to grant Israel full recognition if the Jewish state would return to its 1967 borders—giving it 78 percent of historic Palestine. The Saudi peace plan, which basically reiterates the land-for-peace formula of U.N. Resolution 242, is the only solution upon which virtually the entire world has agreed. The only countries to reject this Arab compromise are Israel itself and the United States.
Richard H. Curtiss is executive editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.