The whitewashing of the late Ariel Sharon’s blood-stained legacy was both predictable – and predicted. But that doesn’t make it any less forgivable or tolerable.
Listen to Carl Bildt, the Swedish foreign minister: “Ariel Sharon was a great leader of Israel. A brilliant military commander, but also a wise statesman seeing the necessity of peace.”
Or US senator and former Republican presidential candidate John McCain: “Few statesmen have made sacrifices that were as difficult, and were prepared to make more painful sacrifices still, for the sake of peace and the security for their nation.”
Then there’s our own prime minister David Cameron, who said that Sharon “took brave and controversial decisions in pursuit of peace”.
It was left to the Independent’s veteran Middle East watcher, Robert Fisk, to point out the hypocrisy and cant:
“Cursed in life as a killer by quite a few Israeli soldiers as well as by the Arab world – which has proved pretty efficient at slaughtering its own people these past few years – Sharon was respected in his eight years of near-death.. and he will, be assured, receive the funeral of a hero and a peacemaker. Thus do we remake history. How speedily did toady journalists in Washington and New York patch up this brutal man’s image.”
As the Jerusalem Fund’s Yousef Munayyer tweeted yesterday: “That Sharon was responsible for wanton destruction and mass civilian casualties [isn’t] a ‘Palestinian perspective’ but objective fact.”
Here are just five numbers, five “objective facts”, that suggest Ariel Sharon was responsible for war crimes.
On the evening of 14 October 1953, a commando unit of the Israel Defence Force (IDF) called Unit 101, under the command of a 25-year-old Ariel Sharon, raided the village ofQibya, in the then Jordanian-controlled West Bank. Their attack involved mortars, grenades and shooting; the majority of the victims were civilians.
Sixty-nine Palestinians were killed that night, two-thirds of whom were women and children. Fifty homes were demolished by the Israeli commandos. Sharon later wrote in his diary that he had received orders to inflict heavy damage on the Arab forces in the village: “The orders were utterly clear: Qibya was to be an example for everyone.”
As the UN observers on the ground documented: “Witnesses [in Qibya] were uniform in describing their experience as a night of horror, during which Israel soldiers moved about in their village blowing up buildings, firing into doorways and windows with automatic weapons and throwing hand grenades.”
The late premier’s defenders have tried to argue that Sharon was unaware of the civilians inside these homes. This is nonsense. Again, according to the UN observers, “bullet-riddled bodies near the doorways and multiple bullet hits on the doors of the demolished houses indicated that the inhabitants had been forced to remain inside until their homes were blown up over them”.
In 1995, the Los Angeles Times reported that retired Israeli brigadier, Arye Biro, had confessed that he and his paratroops had killed 49 unarmed Egyptian prisoners of war, in cold blood, during the 1956 Sinai campaign. The paratroops’ brigade commander? General Ariel Sharon.
“There were exactly 49,” Biro said, according to the LA Times. “We tied their hands and made them go down to the quarry. They were startled, broken and shattered… As for the question who exactly shot or didn’t shoot the workers at the quarry, why is it important? Between us, the main thing is that they shot.”
The US paper said Israeli journalists had “tried to publish accounts of the killings for decades but [were] prohibited by government censors”. Sharon never offered – and was never asked to offer – an explanation or defence for these killings before he passed away on Saturday.
Sabra and Shatila. These are the words that should lead off any serious obituary of the former Israeli PM and general. On 18 September 1982, hundreds, if not thousands of Palestinians, in the Lebanese refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila were slaughtered by the Phalangists, a Lebanese Christian militia who had been ushered into the camps with Sharon’s consent, blessing and approval. (Sharon, then the Israeli defence minister, had earlier engineered an invasion of southern Lebanon to try and topple the Lebanese government and install a pro-Israeli Maronite Christian regime.)
In 1983, a formal Israeli commission of inquiry, chaired by president of the supreme Court, Yitzhak Kahan, found Sharon bore “personal responsibility” for the Sabra and Shatila killings; “for ignoring the danger of bloodshed and revenge” and “not taking appropriate measures to prevent bloodshed”. “It is impossible to justify the Minister of Defense’s disregard of the danger of a massacre,” declared the Kahan commission.
And it was, undeniably, a massacre. As Al Ahram reported in 2001, “the count of victims varies between Israel’s estimate of 700 to that of independent sources, who say the death toll was as high as 3,500. The exact figure, however, will never be determined.”
Or remembered, it seems. Shamefully, on Sunday morning, the BBC’s lead news package on the former Israeli prime minister’s death didn’t deign to mention Sabra or Shatila or the damning verdict of the Kahane commission.
According to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, at least 240 Palestinians were killed by the IDF between March and May 2002, as part of ‘Operation Defensive Shield’ – Sharon’s massive military invasion of the West Bank and aerial bombardment of Palestinian towns and cities.
This death toll includes the 22 civilians who, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), lost their lives in the much-disputed ‘Battle of Jenin’: “Among the civilian deaths were those of Kamal Zgheir, a fifty-seven-year-old wheelchair-bound man who was shot and run over by a tank on a major road outside the camp on April 10, even though he had a white flag attached to his wheelchair; fifty-eight year old Mariam Wishahi, killed by a missile in her home on April 6 just hours after her unarmed son was shot in the street; Jamal Fayid, a thirty-seven-year old paralyzed man who was crushed in the rubble of his home on April 7 despite his family’s pleas to be allowed to remove him..”
While HRW refused to validate Palestinian claims of a ‘massacre’ at Jenin, or anywhere else, it did determine that “Israeli forces committed serious violations of international humanitarian law, some amounting prima facie to war crimes”. Amnesty International accused Sharon’s IDF of behaving as if “the main aim was to punish all Palestinians”.
Or as the Israeli sociologist Baruch Kimmerling famously described Sharon’s 2002 strategy: “politicide… [a] gradual but systematic attempt to cause [Palestine’s] annihilation as an independent political and social entity”.
Sharon has been lauded by the obituarists for his unilateral withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza in 2005, and the dismantlement of the illegal settlements in the strip. Yet, during his five-year premiership between 2001 and 2006, as Human Rights Watch notes, “the number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights, increased from roughly 388,000 to 461,000” – that is, 73,000. According to Munayyer, Sharon “presided over the single most significant period of Israeli settlement expansion… since the [Menachem] Begin era”.
HRW reminds us that “the transfer by an occupying power of its civilians into an occupied territory is a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions, and a potential war crime”. Such pesky international conventions never bothered Sharon – “Everyone there should move, should run, should grab more hills, expand the territory,” he said, as foreign minister in 1998, referring to the Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank. “Everything that’s grabbed will be in our hands; everything that we don’t grab will be in their hands.”
“It’s a shame that Sharon has gone to his grave without facing justice for his role in Sabra and Shatila and other abuses,” says HRW’s Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson.
I agree – but it is even bigger shame that sections of the media, allied with our leading politicians, seem bent on glossing over those abuses.