Ariel Sharon (1928-2014) had slipped into a coma in 2006, as if too embarrassed by his misdeeds to face the world for his remaining eight years. A veteran of the Haganah, one of the Jewish paramilitary battalions that helped seize Palestine for Israel, Sharon became one of Israel’s best known generals and then, later, one of its most powerful politicians. Allegations of atrocities had followed Sharon from 1953 to his grave — including the more serious charge of war crimes. Protected by the United States and the Europeans, Sharon never had to face these charges in any international court.
“It’s a shame that Sharon has gone to his grave without facing justice for his role in Sabra and Shatila and other abuses,” said Human Rights Watch’s Sarah Leah Whitson, referring particularly to the Beirut massacre, in which fourteen hundred defenceless Palestinians and Lebanese civilians were killed in 1982. “His passing,” Whitson said, “is another grim reminder that years of virtual impunity for rights abuses have done nothing to bring Israeli-Palestinian peace any closer.”
Sharon’s death was greeted with the typical pabulum — statements about him as a man of peace, and as a great statesman. What was routinely ignored was his history as a harsh military leader and the architect of the current, failed policy pursued by the Israeli government to garrison their state, grind the Palestinians till they flee the occupied territories and secure the region for a narrow vision of a Jewish state. Words like “controversial” and the theme that Sharon had had a “change of heart” to become a “man of peace” in his later years were used to paper over Sharon’s atrocious record. In Palestine and Lebanon, two places most brutally assaulted by Sharon, words of anger, not sadness, could be heard at Sharon’s death — graffiti in Ramallah promised that Palestinians would “never forget” what Sharon had done, while in Beirut older Palestinians honoured the names of their dead relatives and friends that evening.
Ruthless, with impunity
Sharon’s record opened in 1953, when his Unit 101 went into the Palestinian town of Qibya, detonated forty five civilian buildings (including schools) and killed almost seventy civilians (half of them women and children). In his aptly titled memoir, Warrior, Sharon reflected that “Qibya was to be a lesson.” His ruthlessness was to send a message that “Jewish blood could no longer be shed.” The line from Qibya to the Palestinian camps of Sabra and Shatila in Beirut is not long. In 1982, Sharon would oversee the massacre at those camps for which Israel’s Kahan Commission found him “personally responsible” — the killing, according to Human Rights Watch, of “infants, children, pregnant women, and the elderly, some of whose bodies were found to have been mutilated”. When the victims’ families eventually brought a case in the Belgian courts against Sharon, political pressure resulted in that country’s parliament amending its laws to invalidate the case. Sharon was untouchable.
A profitable annexation
A U.N. fact-finding committee report from January 2013 described the end point of Sharon’s plan to commandeer as much of the West Bank as possible (the retreat from Gaza being a feint to distract from this more profitable annexation). “The settlements are established and advanced through a system of total segregation between the settlers and the rest of the population living in the Occupied Palestinian Territory,” the report showed. “This system of segregation is supported and facilitated by strict military and law enforcement control to the detriment of the rights of the Palestinian people.” Settlements, as much as Sabra and Shatila, are Ariel “the bulldozer” Sharon’s legacy.
Sharon and India
In 2003, Sharon became the first Israeli Prime Minister to visit India. He had been invited by the BJP-led government to cement the newfound ties between India and Israel. At that time, The Hindu wrote, “New Delhi has sent out wrong signals by playing host to Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at this particular juncture… Even if it was possible to set aside [Sharon’s] appalling personal history, his apparent distaste for a just and permanent settlement with the Palestinians cannot be ignored. Even moderate constituencies in Arab countries are convinced that Mr. Sharon was largely responsible for scuttling the Oslo process. The policies Israel has implemented under his stewardship have aggravated the violent confrontation with the Palestinians.” Nonetheless, the Bharatiya Janata Party and later the Congress endorsed Israeli policy by its new attachment to Tel Aviv. India quickly became the largest importer of Israeli arms, unwittingly helping the Israeli economy in its principal task — to pursue the occupation of the Palestinians.
Not all of India embraced its leaders’ camaraderie with Sharon. “Katil Sharon se yaari, sharam karo Atal Bihari [shame on you, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, for befriending the murderous Sharon],” and similar slogans echoed across the country at Sharon’s death, despite the warm condolence message crafted by the Prime Minister’s Office. India’s government, which once led the Non-Aligned world to defend the rights of the Palestinians, is now reticent to be critical of Israel and allows itself to celebrate the life of a man whose day in court was postponed because of his Western allies.
The writer is the Edward Said Chair at the American University of Beirut. This article first appeared in The Hindu, one of India’s leading dailies.