Dimi Reider writes: A general, politician, statesman, and to many a notorious war criminal, Ariel Sharon was known to combine dogged personal ambition with strategic acumen and ruthlessness, which together shaped one of the most controversial and remarkable careers in Israeli political history. Born in the community of Kfar Malal in 1928, Sharon joined the Haganah in the mid 1940s, and first saw action in the run-up to the 1948 War, when his unit staged raids against Arab villages around Kfar Malal. He was seriously wounded in the battle of Latrun and temporarily left the army in 1949 to study at the Hebrew University. By personal order of David Ben-Gurion, however, Sharon was recalled to military service and asked to head the newly established Unit 101.
The unit was created specifically for the purpose of retaliatory raids against Palestinian refugee guerrillas who operated across the Jordanian and Egyptian borders. As often as not, the attacks were against civilian targets, including refugee camps and villages in the Egyptian-occupied Gaza Strip and Jordanian-occupied West Bank. One such raid, on the village of Qibya in 1953, culminated in a massacre of 69 civilians who were gunned down as they tried to escape their homes or were buried under the rubble of detonated buildings. The public outcry was so severe that Ben-Gurion initially lied to the Israeli public, claiming the act was a spontaneous act of revenge by Jewish civilians retaliating for the death of a Jewish woman in the town of Yahud several days earlier. Internally, however, Unit 101 was highly praised and its experience and tactics were judged successful enough to make the unit the core of the new Paratroopers Battalion, of which Sharon, not yet 30 years old, took command as lieutenant-colonel.
In the Sinai War of 1956, Sharon led his brigade in a disastrous assault on Sinai’s Mitla pass, losing 38 men and earning allegations of impatience and aggression – allegations that would accompany him the rest of his career. He would eventually be put back on the path to promotion, however, reaching the post of major-general in 1967. Sharon played a key role in the ground offensive on the Egyptian front in the Six Day War, and is generally credited with once more breaking through the Egyptian lines during the Yom Kippur War in 1973, separating two Egyptian armies from each other and creating a crucial turning point in the war (both assaults were seen as brilliant acts of tank warfare and were taught in military academias decades later). After returning from the front, Sharon retired from the IDF for the last time and turned to politics, flirting with the center-left before joining the newly-formed Likud.
As agriculture minister in Menachem Begin’s first government, Sharon played a key role in the government’s open endorsement of settling the Occupied Palestinian Territories with Israeli citizens. Although under his patronage the number of Israeli settlers in the territories more than doubled, his most lasting legacy was the revival of the Ottoman laws regarding “mawat” land – land that was not worked for a number of years, was declared “dead” and then given to the state. The move paved the highway for settlement construction and land expropriation in the West Bank from 1979 to this day.
As defense minster in the second Begin government, Sharon became the architect of the First Lebanon War, including (as later investigations established) consistently lying about the scope of the operations to Begin, who favored a much more limited approach. Sharon was found by the Kahan Commission to be indirectly responsible for the Sabra and Shatila Massacre of over 3,000 Palestinian refugees by Israel’s Lebanese allies, the Phalanges, and was made to resign – although he remained in the cabinet as minister without portfolio. Attempts to bring him to trial in international courts over the massacre went to no avail. [Continue reading…]