In Depth

Ariel Sharon: a time to eulogise or to face the brutal facts?

As Sharon's death is announced from Tel Aviv, young Israelis look to the future not the past

ariel-sharon.jpg

THAT an Israeli politician, indirectly responsible for the massacre in 1982 of hundreds of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians, should get near rolling coverage of his deteriorating health and eventual death similar to that afforded to Nelson Mandela is not surprising - if one looks at who has been doing the reporting.

The eulogies and appraisals published by the American, British and Israeli media for Ariel Sharon, the man who went from a teenage member of Haganah (the paramilitary force that preceded the Israeli army) to prime minister (2001-2006), are heavy on the word "legacy" and seem intent on weighing the man's actions to determine whether he was, overall, a force for peace or war.

His more than 65 years in the service of Israel, both on the battlefield and in the Knesset, leave plenty to be picked over.

Inevitably, much has been made of his final contribution to Israel's history - his decision in 2005, four years into his premiership, to forcibly remove nearly 10,000 illegal Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip.

Framed as a "shock" move in light of his previous hawkishness, the decision to be rid - on his own terms - of a stretch of land that would never be part of Israel actually fitted perfectly with his lifelong aim to strengthen his country.

But this final political act, less than six months before he suffered the stroke that would put him in a coma for eight years, has been turned into something more: an exaggerated glimpse of what might have been.

Numerous commentators have suggested that the Gaza withdrawal was the start of a new direction, that Sharon, aka the Bulldozer, was in the process of developing a more flexible, pragmatic face for Israel. What might he have gone on to achieve? We will never know, and never can.

Such speculation, which serves only to further lionise the so-called 'Lion of God' (even in his final hours, hospital bulletins talked of him "fighting like a lion"), should not form part of his final weighing. We have more than enough facts to go on.

During his short tenure as Defence Minister, he oversaw the 1982 invasion of Lebanon and was held indirectly responsible – by an Israeli commission of inquiry - for "not taking appropriate measures to prevent bloodshed" when Lebanese Christian Phalangist forces entered the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut and massacred thousands of Palestinians and Lebanese Shiites.

To Sharon's fury, the commission demanded his resignation; it took the death of a protester at a Peace Now march to make him stand down.

And despite his eventual about-turn on the issue of Israel’s presence in Gaza, he is inextricably linked to the birth of the Israeli settlement movement in the 1970s and 80s.

During his tenure as Minister of Agriculture (1977-81) under the premiership of Menachem Begin, Sharon was a forceful proponent of the right-wing Gush Enumin's activities as it sought - regardless of legality - to install Jewish people in the occupied Palestinian territories, land they believed God had given them.

Even his much-heralded military career has its stains. As the 25-year-old commander of the special forces Unit 101, he led a “reprisal” attack on Qibya village in October 1953. A UN Security Council document on the incident reports: “All occupants of dwellings had been murdered at close range. In all, there were 66 innocent victims, most of them women and children.”

In Israel, of course, most of these facts are well known. Yet with the non-stop Western media coverage of his deathbed bulletins, you'd be forgiven for assuming that Sharon and his legacy have been the dominant topics of conversation among Israelis in recent weeks. However, this is another western distortion: the extent to which his death will resonate in Israel.

Chatting online with young friends in Israel, all admitted they had followed the news of his deteriorating health, but said they had no particular thoughts on either the man or his demise after eight years in a vegetative state.

"No one really cares, it's only the media," Omer, an Israeli in his early 20s, told me a few days before his death was announced on Saturday. "When I open the paper, it's everywhere, but when I open my Facebook, there is nothing. Just a few jokes about why he is even still alive."

"And I don't think it's even just the younger generation, a lot of the older ones too. Even my parents don't care."

Even lions cannot roar from beyond the grave.

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