Israel’s newly elected Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, knows a thing or two about power. The white-haired old warrior had been languishing on the political margins and was widely assumed to be drifting into welcome retirement on his 400-hectare ranch, said to be the largest private agricultural land-holding in the country. But then Benjamin Netanyahu was trounced at the polls by Labour’s Ehud Barak in 1999. When Netanyahu resigned, the wily former general was appointed transitional leader of the right-wing Likud Party and quickly saw a chance to make his mark.
The peace talks between Israel and the PLO had stalled and the question of who would control Jerusalem was one of the big stumbling blocks. What better time for the pugnacious brawler to announce a visit to Islam’s third-holiest site, the Haram al-Sharif in old Jerusalem? – a site which is also one of Judaism’s most sacred spots, the Temple Mount.
The move was deliberate and well orchestrated – and Sharon got exactly what he wanted. Palestinian anger exploded at the deliberate provocation and the intifada was reborn: hundreds died as Arab demonstrators clashed with Israeli soldiers in the months that followed. Then, in the subsequent elections the Israeli electorate, confused and frightened by the Palestinian protests, returned the 72-year-old Sharon to power in a sweeping victory.
For the bellicose Prime Minister this was further proof of his fundamental credo: when in doubt, escalate. Sharon has always been a firm believer in upping the ante. ‘In the muddle resulting from an increase in violence, he will always come out the winner,’ writes Israeli political scientist Avishai Margalit. He knows ‘how to create a situation in which people turn to him because he is self-confident and he knows what he wants’.
The short, husky Sharon has been a presence in Israeli politics since he joined the Haganah, a Jewish self-defence force, at the age of 14. From there he moved to the armed forces, eventually leading an Israeli commando attack on the West Bank village of Qibya, just east of Tel Aviv, in October 1953. Sharon’s unit blew up 45 homes and massacred 69 people, more than half of them women and children according to a later UN Security Council report. Undaunted, the plucky Sharon then went for broke in the 1956 Sinai War – ignoring direct orders, he sent his paratroopers into an Egyptian ambush, resulting in the death of 38 Israeli soldiers.
That temporarily derailed his military career until the 1967 Six Day War against Egypt when he engineered a stunning victory in the Sinai and became an instant war hero. After that, as leader of Israel’s Southern Command in the early 1970s, he systematically wiped out Palestinian guerrilla cells in the Gaza Strip, bulldozing hundreds of homes in the process. That was followed by further military success in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and then another spate of Arab home-wrecking in the late 1970s. As Minister of Agriculture in the Likud Government from 1977 to 81 the ebullient Sharon zealously promoted Jewish settlement in the West Bank and Gaza, building so many roads to encourage settlers that he was nicknamed the ‘bulldozer’.
But the blackest stain on Sharon’s record and the one that confirms his status as a war criminal in the eyes of the Arab world and beyond is the mass murder of Palestinian refugees outside Beirut in 1982. As Defence Minister in Menachem Begin’s Government Sharon was determined to wipe out the PLO in neighbouring Lebanon. The solution? Provoke a border conflict, then bomb the place and send in troops.
The Israeli army was assisted by the Lebanese Christian Phalangist militia which had been armed by Israel since the beginning of Lebanon’s civil war in 1975. Israeli soldiers surrounded the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps outside the city. Sharon then personally sent in the Phalange to flush out suspected PLO fighters. A three-day massacre followed in which 2,000 refugees were murdered, including women, children, the elderly and hundreds of men in their twenties and thirties. Sharon would henceforth be known by Arabs and Palestinians as ‘the butcher’.
An official Israeli commission of inquiry found the defence minister guilty of ‘blunders’ and held him and others directly responsible for the slaughter. Sharon was forced to resign his defence brief but continued to serve as a minister in all the Likud governments of the 1980s and 1990s.
Though he was not a frontline player he still ventured forth occasionally to spell out his hardline approach to Palestinian statehood and the peace process: no concessions and more force. During the recent election campaign he elaborated on his belief that Israel needs to take the offensive, hinting at the use of selective assassination of key Palestinian officials. The no-nonsense fighter is in his element. And he has now got the political power to make his point.