Israel's Sharon, Sharon's Israel

January 13, 2014 | Revolution Newspaper |


January 13, 2014. A World to Win News Service. When Ariel Sharon died January 11 after eight years in a coma, most Western politicians and media, if they were critical at all, called him "controversial" or "divisive, mainly referring to Israeli public opinion. Nevertheless they treated the occasion with great solemnity and respect. It was like "a death in the family", U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden lamented at the memorial ceremony in Tel Aviv, notable for the empty seats and hilltops that the public failed to fill.

What Israeli and Western statesmen felt should be considered most memorable and unifying about Sharon was his qualities as a "warrior"—his "courage" and his "North Star", as Biden put it, his commitment to the Zionist cause. This reveals much of what the Palestinian people are up against. There is no controversy about the facts. Sharon built an identity as a butcher on a mass scale. There are no two conflicting sides to his story, just two different sides in the real world, divided by whether or not the Palestinian people should be crushed.

Sharon's military career started with the Naqba, the armed expulsion of Palestinians from their homes that marked the establishment of Israel in 1948. Later, as a rapidly rising young officer, he founded and commanded the Israeli Army's Unit 101. Its mission was to carry out reprisal raids against villages outside of what was then Israel, punishing civilians for harbouring "infiltrators"—Palestinian fighters, smugglers and often unarmed people trying to get back home. In 1953, he lead an assault against a village called Qibya.

The village was guarded by a dozen or less armed men. Sharon's unit, with hundreds of soldiers, blocked off the village on all sides, fired mortars and rockets and then went in. They killed 69 people. More than half (The New York Times, January 13, 2014) of the dead and perhaps as many as two-thirds were women and children. Many died in their homes, which soldiers shot up and then demolished without checking to see who was inside. The attackers suffered only one slightly wounded soldier. This is the "battle" that brought Sharon to prominence as Israel's signature "warrior", to quote the title of his autobiography.

Sharon was a cold-blooded strategist, however, not just a monster, and he understood the political aims of his war. "The orders were utterly clear: Qibya was to become an example for everyone," wrote Israeli historian Benny Morris in Israel's Border Wars. That was Sharon's creed as a soldier: to make a special point of killing not just fighters but civilians in order to demonstrate Israeli power and ruthlessness, to terrorize the Palestinian people into submission. The UN condemned the massacre but Sharon was promoted to help reorganize and shape the Israeli army. Unit 101 was disbanded, but it became a model for the tactics and spirit of the Israeli armed forces.

Real courage in the pursuit of justice lay with Israel's enemies. After those years Sharon himself was not directly involved in fighting Palestinian fedayeen, who won some important tactical victories against overwhelming odds, for instance the celebrated battle of Karameh in 1968. Sharon's most famous campaign was when he led the invasion of Egypt in 1973. In the city of Suez, factory workers and other people, armed and hastily organized by nationalist army officers and leftists in the Popular Resistance Committees, came out to stop the Israeli army from taking the city. Armed mainly with rifles and RPGs, they destroyed tanks, surrounded the invaders and captured many professional soldiers, helping to halt the Israeli push towards Cairo. Although Israel eventually came out on top in this war, it destroyed the myth of Zionist invincibility.

In 1982, Sharon repeated Qibya on an even more massive scale. With U.S. backing, he launched and led an invasion of Lebanon. The pretext was that Israel was protecting its own security by clearing Palestinian fighters along the border. Then the Israeli armed forces moved far north into Beirut, where they forced the Palestine Liberation Organization leadership and thousands of its fighters to leave the country by ship. The American government, supposedly acting as a mediator, guaranteed the safety of the Palestinian civilians left behind.

The U.S. and Israel hoped they could run the country through an alliance with the Christian-based Phalangist party, whose head Bashir Gamayel was set to become the country's president. Bashir had agreed to let Israel take over southern Lebanon, which they did. But then he was assassinated.

The day Bashir was killed, Sharon met with the family, one of the most powerful clans in Lebanon, supposedly to offer his condolences. According to Time magazine, "Sharon reportedly told the Gemayels that the Israeli army would be moving into West Beirut and that he expected the Christian forces to go into the Palestinian refugee camps. Sharon also reportedly discussed with the Geymayels the need for the Phalangists to take revenge for the assassination of Bashir, but the details of the conversation are not known." (Time, February 21, 1983) The Israeli government blamed the PLO for the assassination, even though they knew that was not true.

The Israeli army surrounded the adjacent Palestinian refugee camps known as Sabra and Shatila. They prevented anyone from leaving, but let Phalangist militiamen move in. Israeli flares lit the night sky. The Phalangist leader of the operation, Elie Hobeika, and the Israeli field commander on the scene, Brigadier General Amos Yanon, were stationed together on an overlooking rooftop.

An Israeli lieutenant later told a Knesset (Israeli parliament) commission that an hour after the Phalangist militia entered the camp's narrow streets, an officer in the camp radioed for instructions about what to do with the women and children. Hobeika answered, "This is the last time you're going to ask me a question like that. You know exactly what to do." The Israeli general was aware of this exchange (see When twenty years later, a Belgian court prepared to try Sharon, Yanon and Hobeika for the massacre, the Phalangist said that in his own defence he would testify that the Israelis knew and approved of everything. He was killed by a car bomb and the case was dismissed at the U.S.'s insistence.

There is also evidence that the Israeli army itself killed many Palestinians, even after the massacre had ended in the camp. Only about 600 bodies were found in Sabra and Shatila, while almost 2,000 people are known to have disappeared and the actual toll may have been higher. British journalist Robert Fisk, who arrived on the scene shortly after the Phalangists left, wrote that the Israelis brought "probably well over a thousand" Palestinian men and boys to the nearby sports stadium. When he returned, they were gone, and their families couldn't find them. After discussions with witnesses, he concluded that the Israelis killed the prisoners and buried them in secret graves. (Robert Fisk, The Independent, reprinted by Counterpunch, November 28, 2001)

The basic facts about Sabra and Shatila came out in the report of the commission established by the Israeli parliament after an unprecedented public outcry in Israel in the days following the massacre. Yet the Kahan commission came to the conclusion that the massacre was the work of the Phalangists alone, while Sharon and other officers were guilty of failing to prevent it. That commission held that Sharon bore "personal responsibility", and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin was "indirectly responsible" for not looking into Sharon's negligence.

That was both a mere slap on the hand and a cover-up. While Sharon certainly did bear personal responsibility, the massacre was not due to his negligence or indifference—or even his personal criminality. It was committed as part of overall Israeli policy toward the Palestinians and its neighbours, policies that led to three invasions of Lebanon and continuing horrors against the Palestinians. These are the natural result of Zionism itself—logical solutions to the problem of establishing and safeguarding a Jewish state based on the racist fantasy of a mystically-defined Jewish people worldwide somehow gathered into a single nation and endowed with a genetic birthright to land already peopled for thousands of years.

As a consequence, Sharon was forced to resign as Defence Minister, but Begin kept him on in the cabinet. Begin is said to have told Sharon, "You are young. You still have much to do." He remained a pillar of Israel's political establishment as well as its leading general, and went on to continue his work as prime minister until a stroke left him all but dead in 2006. His "personal responsibility" was approved by Israel's ruling class as a whole and a large part of the electorate. There was never any danger that he would end up facing an international trial for his crimes. The U.S. did not let that happen.

Sharon used the various cabinet posts he occupied to win himself the name of the father of the Jewish settlement movement. The Israeli government financed and protected Jewish "settlers" who helped themselves to land still occupied and farmed by Palestinians in the West Bank. In 1998 he told them to "run and grab as many hilltops as they can, because everything we take will be ours." (Reuters, January 12, 2014) These settlements are armed outposts of the Zionist state in what remains of Palestinian territories.

But what most made Sharon "controversial", especially in Israel today, is that he supposedly turned against the settlement movement. In 2005 he sent Israeli troops to evacuate Jewish families who refused to leave Gaza, which Israel invaded and took over in 1967.

The evacuation move sparked an ideological crisis in a movement that until then thought itself entitled to whatever it wanted because of what it considered God's promise. Some families are still enraged about losing their highly subsidized farms and businesses in Gaza. Perhaps they resent having been wiling Zionist cannon fodder. But the evacuation did not represent a departure from the goals behind state support for the settler movement.

It enabled the Israeli state to consolidate its military situation, so that its troops would no longer be tied down defending a few hundred families. The displaced settlers were supposed to be sent to fatten up more viable Jewish towns in the West Bank.

Even more important was the political purpose of what Sharon called "disengagement". For Sharon this was a change of tactics, not change of heart. Tony Blair, who famously lied to the British public to garner acceptance for the invasion of Iraq and was rewarded by becoming the envoy for the Quartet, a body established by the U.S.,UK, EU, UN and Russia to oversee the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, shamelessly told the truth at Ariel Sharon's memorial. Blair said he wanted to correct the widely-accepted misconception that Sharon "changed from man of war to a man of peace. He never changed. His strategic objective never wavered. The state of Israel... had to be preserved for future generations. When that meant fighting, he fought. When that meant making peace, he sought peace with the same iron determination."

But what was this talk of "peace" if not another attempt to crush the Palestinians by other means? Sharon conducted the evacuation of Gaza unilaterally in order to weaken and not strengthen the PLO's authority. He considered it a matter of principle never to negotiate with Palestinians. He had refused to shake hands with PLO chairman Yasser Arafat when Arafat signed on to the U.S. plan for a "two-state solution", and kept Arafat a prisoner in his home until the day he died under circumstances that have never been made clear.

If Sharon had come to believe in the necessity of a "two-state solution," as the U.S. had by then—and because of his subsequent stroke no one can know exactly what he had in mind or what he would have done later—the plan was (and still is) to make a "Palestinian" state that would amount to nothing more than a big detention centre. The same vision connected Israel's construction of a wall around the West Bank, which began under Sharon, and his policy of "disengagement" that meant that instead of occupying Gaza, Israel would fence it in and pick off its inhabitants from the air whenever considered necessary.

Whether or not a Palestinian "mini-state" is ever allowed to emerge, what Sharon tried to further, and the U.S. still values, is the "peace process". This "process" only goes one way—against Palestinians. The number of West Bank settlers swelled by a third during the years Sharon spent in a coma, with no end in sight. Further, it is based on an illusion: the U.S. is no more likely to protect the Palestinians in the future than it did at Sabra and Shatila. Very importantly, it provides political cover for reactionary Arab regimes allied with Washington, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

But it also causes some ideological friction for some Israelis who object to interference with what they consider God's plan. They hate even pretending to consider Palestinians as worthy of rights. To the degree that there are real contradictions between Israel and the U.S., it is because that while the U.S. cannot do without the Jewish state, a reliable outpost in an increasingly volatile region, the U.S. is also concerned with the regional stability that Israel often endangers. For the U.S. and the EU, Sharon's memorial—where they hailed this mass murderer as a "man of peace"—was an occasion to gently nudge the Israeli government toward the revival of the "peace process".

This was unwelcome for many Israelis. Only a few thousand came to his funeral. Many hated Sharon. Some of them were embarrassed by his naked, joyful brutality, even though they cannot imagine an acceptable alternative to the Jewish state. Others, especially the so-called national religious movement, considered him a traitor. As much as they clash, both currents operate within the limits of the interests of the larger settler state. That's why a sober-minded, secular Zionist like Sharon championed crazed Jewish religious fanatics when that served Israel's goals.

The concept of a multi-national, non-religious state once championed by the PLO has been blasted off today's political landscape, in no small part due to Sharon and the policies he represented. He did his part—under the wing of the U.S., of course—to create the conditions, at times deliberately, in which Islamic fundamentalism is thrusting itself to the forefront of the struggle against Zionism.

At the memorial for Sharon, the present Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said, "Your memory will be part of this nation forever." That's true: Sharon's criminal deeds were totally consistent with the criminality of the Zionist project, and will always be synonymous with Israel and the imperialist powers it serves.


A World to Win News Service is put out by A World to Win magazine, a political and theoretical review inspired by the formation of the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement, the embryonic center of the world's Marxist-Leninist-Maoist parties and organizations.


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