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Ariel Sharon is dead. Warrior and politician, Arik, as he was known to his friends, was reviled, feared, and admired by many. He lived his life under a shadow of controversy and epitomised Israeli sabra culture – lacking in charm, eloquence, or idealism but having an abundance of self-reliance and no-nonsense, can-do grit.

Ariel Sharon 1966Born Ariel Scheinermann on February 26, 1928, in a family of Belorussian Jews in Kfar Malal, Sharon joined Hassadeh, a Zionist youth movement literally meaning the Field, at 10. At 14, he took the week-long training of the Gdudei No’ar (youth battalions), and participated in armed patrols of his moshav. Sheinermann joined the Haganah the same year, 1942, as the turbulence in Europe reached a frenzied pitch in the Middle East. With the proclamation of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948, the Haganah became the Israeli Defence Forces and the future prime minister was pulled into Israel’s first war. For his valour at the Battle of Latrun in which he was severely wounded, Israel’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion bestowed upon the young Sheinermann the name of Sharon, meaning ‘body armour’ in Hebrew (it is unlikely that a Jewish audience would have taken theologian Wilhelm Gesenius’ meaning of Sharon as upright or just).

Sharon was regarded as a tough soldier and a brilliant commander which helped him rise rapidly through the ranks despite his frequent insubordination. By the end of Israel’s War of Independence, he was already a company commander; during the Suez Crisis, Sharon was a major. He rose to major-general rank by the Six-Day War, and in 1969, he was put in charge of the IDF’s Southern Command. Sharon retired from the military in 1973 just a few months before the Yom Kippur War to form the right-wing Likud party, a complete about-turn from his early inclinations towards the socialistic Mifleget Poalei Eretz Yisrael, or Mapai. However, Sharon paused his political career to return to military service and fight in Israel’s most trying conflict.

As in his military career, Sharon moved through different positions in the government – special security advisor to Yitzhak Rabin, minister of agriculture and minister of defence under Menachem Begin, minister of national infrastructure and the foreign minister under Benjamin Netanyahu – until he rose to the highest office of the land in 2001. After losing the support of his own party in 2005 over the removal of Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip, Sharon left the Likud to form the Kadima and called for general elections – elections he appeared poised to win had he not suffered a serious stroke in January 2006 and gone into a coma until his death.

It is not surprising that Sharon’s life was surrounded by bloodshed; his long military career and Israel’s troubled existence hardly allowed anything else. However, Sharon’s critics point to the several massacres by Israeli units under his watch in the military or in government. To them, Sharon is an unrepentant war criminal and a scheming politician whose actions were excessive even in times of war.

As head of Unit 101 in 1953, Sharon’s men were accused of massacring over 60 civilians at Qibya in Jordanian-occupied West Bank. However, this was in retaliation to the constant raids by Palestinian fedayeen into Israel – over 9,000 between 1948 and 1956 according to Israel – that had left dozens of Israelis dead and damaged agriculture and infrastructure. Moreover, the attack had received sanction from Defence Minister Pinhas Lavon and Ben-Gurion himself. Despite public perception, most of Unit 101’s raids were on military targets in Egypt, Syria, and Jordan.

Ariel SharonSharon’s aggressiveness got him into trouble as many times as it earned him accolades; his command came under strong rebuke during the Suez Crisis in 1956 for disobeying orders and provoking a battle with Egyptian forces at Mitla Pass, but his actions at Abu-Ageila proved decisive on the southern front during the Six Day War and received praise from strategists all around the world. In Israel, he was christened, The Lion of God (meaning of Ariel in Hebrew), and The King of Israel by the public. Similarly, during Israel’s darkest hour during the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Sharon’s forces crossed the Suez into Africa and moved towards Ismailia and Cairo to cut off Egypt’s Second Army and encircle its Third Army in the Sinai. As a result, Sharon was seen as the architect of Israel’s military victory in the Sinai in 1973.

It was during the War of Attrition, that death-by-a-thousand-cuts period between the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War, that Sharon earned a reputation for being in favour of Israeli settlements in disputed and occupied territories. Not only was this a blatant violation of international law, but the settlements resulted in dispossession, deaths, and deportation of Palestinians from the areas. In 1971, as a measure to pacify the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, Sharon had resorted to bulldozing hundreds of homes in the Gaza Strip. Again, although Sharon’s actions in the Gaza Strip did not have higher authorisation, he received full support from then prime minister Golda Meir and the evacuations were given post facto approval. As a new minister in Begin’s government, Sharon supported the Gush Emunim settler movement and doubled the number of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories before the end of the decade.

Perhaps the most controversial episode in Sharon’s career was the invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Sharon, then defence minister, is thought to have masterminded the operation with the end goals of evicting the PLO from Lebanon, ending Syrian influence in the country, and installing a Christian pro-Israel government in Beirut. The war has a complex background and history with several paramilitary actors fighting alongside government forces, and in September 1982, the Phalangists, a Christian militia, entered the camps of Sabra and Shatila and massacred anywhere between 800 and 3,000 Palestinian men, women, and children with incredible brutality as revenge for the assassination of their leader, Bachir Gemayel. It was later learned that the assassination was masterminded by Syria and not the PLO.

The Knesset-appointed Kahan Commission, despite its many weaknesses, found that Ariel Sharon bore a personal if indirect responsibility for the massacre as he, along with Begin and Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan, had agreed to allow the Phalangists into the camps to search for terrorists. Given the ties between the IDF and the Phalangists, not to mention the IDF forward command post barely 200 metres southwest of Shatilla, it would be impossible for the Phalangists to have done their dastardly deed. However, a bodyguard of Phalangist commander Elie Hobeika wrote in his memoirs that the massacre at the camps had been carried out contrary to Israeli instructions. If this is true, it reduces Sharon’s culpability but the safety of the camps was, regardless, Israel’s responsibility as the occupying power and it is improbable that the IDF did not know what was happening just down the road.

Despite his aggressiveness on the battlefield, Sharon was ultimately a pragmatist. During the Camp David talks with Anwar Sadat, he advocated the dismantling the settlements in the Sinai if it bought peace. In 2003, Sharon accepted a Road Map to Peace proposed by the United States, European Union, and Russia. Israel adopted the Disengagement Plan the next year, and by August 2005, all Israeli settlements in Gaza and a few in the West Bank had been abandoned. Sharon faced strong opposition not only from the military and intelligence arms but also within his own party. Among the public, initial support for his plan was at nearly 70% but dropped to approximately 55% by the time the settlements had been removed, probably due to disenchantment with implementation.

Yet Sharon’s military record and reputation for aggressive strategy gave him credibility in any peace overture – few Israelis had forgotten that their prime minister had fought in every one of their country’s wars. In popular parlance, he was Israel’s Nixon who could go to China. To be clear, Sharon’s plan was no naïve utopia – it was merely a foundation upon which peace could be built if, as he stressed, he found a reliable partner for peace. Palestinians were not consulted in the removal of settlements, nor did Israel give up control over Gaza’s coast or airspace. Furthermore, the construction of the security fence was accelerated.

Sharon was a deeply controversial figure, a war criminal even, for those who think that life is quantifiable and can be neatly codified. A pertinent question to ask is whether Israeli history would have been different without Sharon. Given the country’s policies and other behaviour, at Entebbe for example, it is unlikely that Suez, the Six Day War, or Lebanon could have been avoided; it would just have been someone else instead of Sharon.

It is ironic that the final legacy of a man of war was peace – almost. After conquering land for Israel and expanding Jewish settlements throughout his career, Sharon’s last days were spent considering land for peace and giving up the settlements. The former Israeli prime minister has been made out to be a monster but his did nothing more than many generals in war. Even the haloed George S Patton was implicated in the massacre of 73 Italians at Biscari, and the same callous approach to prisoners of war was shown at Normandy on D-Day. Similarly, over 10,000 German prisoners died at Rheinwiesenlager, the Allied POW camp, from starvation, dehydration, and exposure. There is also the case of the massacre of the Dachau prison guards by American soldiers who flew into a rage at the sight of the camp’s inmates. While one crime does not excuse another, these incidents illustrate the nature of war.

Ariel Sharon remains one of Israel’s most popular sons, and for all the differences they may have had with him, Israelis will miss him. May G-d comfort him among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

המקום ינחם אותך בתוך שאר אבלי ציון וירושלים

This post appeared on Daily News & Analysis on January 11, 2014.