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Sharon, Ariel (1928–)

Sharon, Ariel
(1928–)

Ariel Sharon (Ariel Sheinerman) an Israeli general and politician best known for his harsh measures against Palestinians in Lebanon, the West Bank, and Gaza Strip; his disregard for authority; and his dedication to ensuring future Israeli control of the Occupied Territories through civilian settlement. Sharon spent the first half of his career in the military and the second half as a politician, heading a number of government ministries before serving as Israel's prime minister between 2001 and 2006. During his final years in government service, Sharon's policies underwent dramatic changes that led him to unilaterally withdraw Israeli forces and civilian settlements from the Gaza Strip, arousing genuine surprise in supporters and critics alike. Sharon's career ended in early 2006, when he suffered a debilitating stroke that left him comatose and dependent on life support systems. Without a doubt, Sharon was one of the most prominent and controversial political figures in Israeli history.

PERSONAL HISTORY

Sharon was born on 27 February 1928 in the Jewish settlement of Kfar Malal in mandatory Palestine. His parents, Shmuel and Deborah Sheinerman, immigrated to Palestine from Russia after World War I, settled in Kfar Malal, and established a family farmstead. Sharon went to Ge'ula High School in Tel Aviv.

Sharon's youth was deeply affected by intense disputes between his parents and other members of his settlement. It also was shaped by his involvement from the young age of fourteen in the Hagana—the semi-legal military organization of the organized Zionist community in Palestine—which worked to defend Kfar Malal from nearby Arab villages. This was the beginning of a thirty-year military career during which he would rise to the rank of major general.

BIOGRAPHICAL HIGHLIGHTS

Name: Ariel Sharon (Ariel Sheinerman)

Birth: 27 February 1928, Kfar Malal, Palestine

Family: First wife, Margalit (d. 1962); second wife, Lily (d. 2000); three sons, Gur, Omri, and Gilad

Nationality: Israeli

Education: Primary school and high school in Tel-Aviv; Hebrew University of Jerusalem; British Army's Staff College at Camberley

PERSONAL CHRONOLOGY:

  • 1942: Enlists in the Hagana
  • 1948: Company Commander; Battalion Intelligence Officer, Israel Defense Forces
  • 1950: Commander, Golani Reconnaissance Company
  • 1951: Intelligence Officer, IDF Central Command
  • 1952: Intelligence Officer, IDF Northern Command
  • 1953: Commanding Officer, Unit 101
  • 1954: Commanding Officer, 890th Paratroopers Brigade
  • 1956: Commanding Officer, 202nd Paratroopers Brigade
  • 1958: Commanding Officer, IDF Infantry School
  • 1964: Head of IDF Northern Command Staff
  • 1966: General, Head of IDF Training Department
  • 1967: Commanding Officer, Armored Division
  • 1970: Commanding Officer, Southern Command
  • 1973: Resigns from IDF and establishes Likud; Armored Division Commander
  • 1975: Anti-Terrorism Advisor to the Prime Minister
  • 1977: Minister of Agriculture
  • 1981: Defense Minister
  • 1983: Minister without Portfolio
  • 1984: Minister of Commerce and Industry
  • 1996: Minister of National Infrastructures
  • 1999: Foreign Minister; Likud Chair
  • 2001–2006: Prime Minister
  • 2005: Founder and Chair of the Kadima party

In 1947 he became a member of the British-sponsored police force that served in Jewish settlements. At twenty, he served in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War as a platoon commander in the new Israeli army's Alexandroni Brigade and was badly injured in the battle with the Jordanian army for Latrun. After recovering, Sharon served as a battalion intelligence officer and took part in the battle against Egyptian forces for the Faluja pocket in the northern Negev desert. In 1949 Sharon became a company commander and subsequently took command of the reconnaissance company of the Golani Brigade. In 1952 Sharon was appointed as intelligence officer of the Israel Defense Force (IDF) Central Command, and in 1952 he occupied the same position in the Northern Command. He then took a leave of absence and began BA studies in history and Middle East studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

In 1953, Sharon was called back to active duty to establish Unit 101, a new commando force aimed at carrying out retaliatory raids in response to Palestinian infiltration attacks across Israel's armistice lines with Jordan and the Egyptian-held Gaza Strip. Unit 101 was known for operations that often involved destroying large numbers of homes and exacting civilian casualties in localities believed to be points of origin for cross-border attacks. Under Sharon's command, Unit 101 carried out a number of operations deemed successful by Israeli military commanders. Although the unit's total number of operations was not high, many believe they instilled important principles of warfare in the IDF as a whole. Chief of General Staff (C.G.S.) Moshe Dayan, however, regarded these operations as a significant threat to the moral fiber of the IDF. In October 1953, a retaliatory attack on the West Bank village of Kibya resulted in sixty-nine local casualties, including many women and children. In January 1954 Unit 101 was dismantled after operating for only four and a half months and integrated into an IDF paratroop battalion under Sharon's command.

In 1956 Sharon was placed in command of the 202nd Paratroopers Brigade, with which he fought against Egyptian forces in the 1956 Arab-Israeli War. His brigade took part in the intense fighting over the Mitla pass near the al-Hitan Valley in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. Thirty-eight soldiers under his command died in the battle. Sharon was severely criticized on charges that the battle was unnecessary and against orders and that he himself had not led his men into battle. As a result Sharon traveled to Britain to study at the British army's Staff College at Camberley, and his advancement in the Israeli military temporarily halted.

Sharon studied law at the Hebrew University between 1958 and 1962, and he also was appointed as the Commanding Officer of the IDF Infantry School. When Rabin became C.G.S. in 1964, Sharon was appointed head of the Northern Command Staff. Two years later he was appointed head of the IDF Training Department, and in this capacity he was promoted to major general.

Sharon fought in the 1967 War as an armored (tank) division commander, earning widespread distinction for his command in the battle of Abu Agayla against the Egyptian defenses at Umm Katif. This battle is still studied in military schools around the world. After the war, Sharon resumed his position as head of the Training Department, and in this capacity he transferred IDF training bases to the Israeli-occupied West Bank. In 1970, he was appointed head of the Southern Command, assuming primary command of IDF forces in the last months of the Israeli-Egyptian War of Attrition. He leveled harsh criticism against the policies of C.G.S. Haim Bar-Lev in this context, creating tense relations with his colleagues in the General Staff. Toward the end of the hostilities in August 1970 and throughout 1971, Sharon was charged with destroying remaining pockets of Palestinian terrorism and resistance in the Gaza Strip, which Israel had occupied in 1967. During the same period he expelled the bedouin population from the northern part of the Israeli-occupied Sinai desert, and the C.G.S censured Sharon for this act.

In June 1973 Sharon retired from the military, ending three decades of military service and beginning his long political career. He now set his eyes on winning a Knesset (parliament) seat in the upcoming elections as part of the Liberal Party slate, and he worked between June and October 1973 to establish the coordinated alliance of right-wing factions known as the Likud. With the outbreak of the 1973 War, Sharon returned to active military duty as an armored division commander. True to character, he quickly reached disagreements with his superiors and crossed the Suez Canal against orders—an operation which his supporters viewed as the turning point of the war in Israel's favor.

In the post-war Knesset elections of December 1973, Sharon was elected on the Likud Party slate. Between 1975 and 1976, he served as anti-terrorism advisor to Prime Minister and Labor Party Chairman yitzhak rabin. Despite his advisory position, he nonetheless encouraged and provided support for the radical messianic settlers of Gush Emunim in their bids to establish renegade settlements in parts of the West Bank. According to government policy and the policy of Rabin himself, such settlements were not sanctioned. In the 1977 Knesset elections, Sharon established and headed a party slate called Shlomtziyon that won only two seats. After the elections, Sharon merged the short-lived party with Likud, and was appointed minister of agriculture under Likud leader and Prime Minister Menachem Begin. From his position within the government, Sharon spearheaded efforts to expand Jewish settlement throughout the territories occupied in the 1967 War in order to perpetuate Israeli control.

When Ezer Weitzman resigned as defense minister in 1980 amid growing tensions within the Begin government surrounding Israeli policies toward the peace process, Sharon aspired to replace him. Begin, however, refused to offer Sharon the post due to what he regarded as Sharon's anti-democratic tendencies. After the Knesset elections of 1981, however, Begin appointed Sharon as defense minister. In this capacity, Sharon instigated an Israeli invasion of Lebanon premised on destroying militant Palestinian bases of operation in Lebanon and stopping cross-border attacks. The invasion, officially named "Operation Oranim" and publicly referred to by Israeli authorities as "Operation Peace for the Galilee," began on 6 June 1982.

The real motivation behind the Israeli invasion was Sharon's policy of attempting to seize control of Lebanon. Cooperating with the country's Maronite Christian bloc, Sharon desired to install a government that would sign a peace treaty with Israel. Sharon was involved in every phase of the invasion. According to his critics, he undertook some decisive actions without informing Prime Minister Begin or acquiring government authorization. The operation evolved into the Lebanon War and resulted in a long-term Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon lasting until May 2000, when Prime Minister Ehud Barak withdrew all Israeli forces from the country.

Sharon's wartime involvement in the 1982 massacres of civilians at Sabra and Shatila, two Palestinian refugee camps on the outskirts of Beirut, were widely denounced both within Israel and throughout the international community. In September 1982 after the assassination of Lebanese Maronite Christian president-elect Bashir Gemayyel, Christian Phalange militia forces massacred residents of the two camps as retribution. The Kahan Commission, established by the Israeli government to investigate Israel's role in the incident, found Sharon responsible for ignoring the possibility that Phalange forces might carry out a massacre as retribution, for facilitating their entrance into the camps, and for failing to take precautionary measures. In accordance with the commission's recommendation that Sharon should be prohibited from serving as defense minister, Begin removed Sharon from his post in 1983, but kept him on as minister without portfolio.

Sharon served as minister of industry and commerce in the national unity government established after the 1984 elections, but resigned from this position in 1990 in protest of the government's decision to hold elections in the Occupied Territories. After the government's fall in March 1990, the Likud leader, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, appointed Sharon minister of building and housing. In this capacity Sharon greatly intensified Israeli construction projects in the Occupied Territories. Leading up to the 1992 Knesset elections, Sharon competed for the Likud leadership, but placed third behind Shamir and David Levy. Although Likud's fall from power in 1992 sparked Shamir's resignation as party chief, Sharon refrained from running against Binyamin Netanyahu in the internal elections that followed. When Likud returned to power in 1996, Prime Minister Netanyahu at first excluded Sharon from his government, but for political reasons subsequently established a national infrastructures ministry especially for him. In Netanyahu's government, Sharon was a member of the political-security cabinet and eventually served as foreign minister. When Netanyahu resigned from party leader after Likud's 1999 electoral defeat, Sharon was chosen to lead the party.

As Israeli-Palestinian tensions mounted surrounding the lack of progress toward a final status agreement for the West Bank and Gaza Strip in September 2000, Sharon paid a high profile visit to the Temple Mount (in Arabic, al-Haram al-Sharif). In Jerusalem's Old City, it is the location of the sacred Al-Aqsa mosque and a hotly contested holy site between Muslims and Jews. As Sharon had been warned, his visit had tremendous ramifications—sparking a wave of violent protests among Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and within Israel. Some view Sharon's visit as the opening shot of the al-Aqsa Intifada, the second popular Palestinian uprising against Israel. Other analysts regard Sharon's visit not as the cause of the violence, but rather as simply providing a pretext for Palestinians to renew their inevitable, violent struggle against Israel. In the Knesset elections of February 2001, in the midst of an armed Palestinian rebellion in the Occupied Territories and a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings within Israel, hawkish Sharon easily defeated incumbent Labor prime minister Ehud Barak and quickly established a national unity government.

In March 2002 after a Passover-eve terrorist attack at the Park Hotel in the Israeli coastal city of Netanya, Sharon ordered the IDF to commence "Operation Defensive Shield," aimed at extinguishing the uprising with one swift military blow. In addition to renewing full-scale war against the Palestinians, Sharon also reversed some of the achievements of the Oslo Accords by redeploying Israeli forces in large West Bank towns. Troops conquered Ramallah and placed Arafat's compound under siege. During the conquest of Jenin, the city's Palestinian refugee camp was destroyed, sparking accusations of another massacre similar to Sabra and Shatila. An international commission of inquiry, however, cleared Sharon and the IDF of these charges, but nonetheless concluded that the conquest had been carried out with excessive force. Operation Defensive Shield increased Sharon's popularity in Israel. Among segments of the public, it also revived the negative image that he acquired in the aftermath of Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982.

In January 2003 Sharon consolidated his power with a sweeping electoral victory. Eleven months later, three years after the outbreak of the al-Aqsa Intifada and one and a half years after "Operation Defensive Shield," Sharon surprised the Israeli public—particularly the settlement movement—by launching a campaign for unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. He subsequently announced that the withdrawal would include evacuation of all Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip, as well as a number of settlements in the northern West Bank. Despite many difficulties and a rebellion brewing within his own party, Sharon succeeded in maintaining government stability long enough to execute the plan successfully. The withdrawal, referred to by government sources as "disengagement," resulted in high tensions and deep divisions within Likud, the ruling party, and vocal opposition from the far right. After Labor's resignation from the government in November 2005 and the announcement of new elections, Sharon dropped another political bombshell, announcing his resignation from Likud and his establishment of a new party, Kadima.

One month later, Sharon was hospitalized for a mild stroke and on 4 January 2006, days after returning to his prime minister duties, he suffered a second, debilitating stroke. His duties were transferred to Vice Prime Minister ehud olmert, who was elected prime minister in the March 2006 elections. After one hundred days in a coma, Sharon was classified as permanently incapacitated, marking the official end of his term and his career.

INFLUENCES AND CONTRIBUTIONS

Given the controversial nature of his actions and personality, it is important to emphasize that in many ways Sharon was typical of the middle generation of the pre-state Zionist Jewish community in Palestine. His parents' generation built the Zionist enterprise through settlement, agriculture, education, political and military organization, and work in other realms. The next generation—Sharon's generation—assumed the task of preserving their parents' enterprise that was under constant existential threat from its perspective. Sharon's youth revolved around this theme.

In contrast to their parents, Sharon and his generation did not understand "defense" in tactical terms. From the Palestinian Arab Revolt of 1936–1939 onward, they abandoned their parents' "defensive ethos" and adopted a new "offensive" one. Their use of the term "defense" reflected a worldview of a Zionist enterprise constantly threatened by its Arab surroundings. Their use of the term "defense" was not just semantic; it reflected their conviction that, even when unleashing the first blow, the Jews in Palestine and subsequently Israel were responding to external attacks and not initiating them.

This worldview shaped Sharon's approach throughout his career as a military officer and politician. For this reason Sharon was a symbolic product of the pre-state and early-state social and political consensus. Sharon's uniqueness stemmed from several factors—his overriding personal ambition and audacity; his ability to proceed on the edge of truth, loyalty and discipline; and his ruthless yet captivating personality.

EXPLORING

In August 2005, Israel unilaterally withdrew all military forces and civilian settlements from the Gaza Strip. This move, termed by Israeli government officials as the "Disengagement Plan," included the evacuation of 8,000 Israeli settlers from eighteen settlements in Gush Katif and a number of isolated settlements in the midst of large Palestinian population centers. Preparation and implementation of the plan presented Israeli society with serious challenges. In the clearest manner since 1967, tensions between Israeli democratic governance and its dedication to the ideological imperative of "The Whole Land of Israel" were placed on the table and put to a practical test. In this context, the critical question was how the Israeli democratic system would function if Israel were to declare sovereignty over the Occupied Territories. In such a situation, it is doubtful that the state would function as a democracy.

Although nationalist-religious settlers tended to see themselves as pioneers of future Israeli sovereignty over the territories, it became clear that most Israelis were fed up with the settlers' arrogant and violent behavior, illegal actions, antidemocratic tactics, and strategies. The determination with which the IDF and the Israeli police force carried out the withdrawal was widely but quietly supported by the Israeli left, center, and moderate right. The Disengagement Plan did not decrease violence between Palestinians and Israeli forces and civilians. This would require Israeli-Palestinian joint actions and not unilateral moves. Nonetheless, Sharon's government established a precedent for the future. Until 2005 Israel's 1982 evacuation of the Yamit settlements, for the sake of Israeli-Egyptian peace, appeared as a single, uncharacteristic episode in Israeli history. After the Israeli disengagement of 2005, however, withdrawal from the Occupied Territories and the evacuation of civilian settlements—in certain circumstances—appear to have become legitimate Israeli policy options.

THE WORLD'S PERSPECTIVE

Sharon's name became well known around the world for his controversial methods of battling Palestinian resistance and ensuring permanent Israeli control of the Occupied Territories. When Sharon was elected prime minister in 2001, it was the first time he had full responsibility for navigating Israel through the Arab-Israeli conflict.

At first he began negotiating this new challenge in his customary fashion—with tactical skill and no strategy. He conformed to President Bush's vision of a Palestinian state and accepted the American "Road Map," ignoring principles of the scheme that might be unfavorable to Israeli interests. He did this based on his confidence that the Palestinians would never fulfill their part in the deal. In this context, however, Sharon also began considering what steps Israel could take unilaterally to improve its situation without Palestinian consent.

To Sharon, deadlock with the Palestinians was a threat. An agreed-upon solution with the Palestinians was impossible in his eyes because he was convinced that they sought neither compromise nor co-existence but rather justice. And as he understood it, their idea of justice—particularly their insistence on the right of return of Palestinian refugees to their former homes in Israel—was incompatible with the continuing existence of Israel as a Jewish state. But Sharon was also becoming aware of Israel's waning international legitimacy and the radicalization of parts of the Israeli left, the growing importance of Europe, and the fatigue of once-active sectors within Israeli society. Above all, as a true activist, he was incapable of sitting idly by and watching developments from the sidelines, especially as prime minister. He had to do something to reshape Israel, if not the entire Middle East, as he had tried to do twenty-five years earlier in Lebanon. In this context, he came up with the disengagement plan.

LEGACY

Despite the severe criticism of Sharon's military service, his image as a warrior remains etched in Israeli memory. It was precisely his controversial wartime actions—such as the Israeli reprisal operations of the mid-1950s, the battle for Mitla in 1956, and the crossing of the Suez Canal in 1973—that bolstered his reputation not only among his supporters, but throughout the Israeli public.

Until late 2003, Sharon was best known domestically and internationally for his staunch and effective support for broad Jewish settlement in the Occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip and permanent Israeli control of the Occupied Territories. He regarded both territories as essential for Israel's existence and non-negotiable security imperatives. For Sharon, settlements and settlers were tools for achieving this goal and obstructing future territorial compromise.

Sharon's political alliance with the settlers was upset twice. The first time was when Sharon, as defense minister, implemented the evacuation of Israeli settlements in the Yamit district of the Sinai desert in 1982 as part of an Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. The second time was the disengagement plan of 2005. Until Gaza disengagement, Sharon was the settlers' most effective, influential, and consistent ally within the Israeli political system. Sharon regarded settlers primarily as "soldiers" fulfilling a mission, and this helps explains his ability to completely abandon them the moment the mission changed both in 1982 and 2005.

THE 'DISENGAGEMENT PLAN' HOLDS MANY ADVANTAGES FOR THE STATE OF ISRAEL

I am the only Mapainik in this government. I am not talking here so that I can record my voice in a protocol. Consider it carefully. Because once this is approved, I am going to do it.

   DURING AN ISRAELI CABINET MEETING, REGARDING HIS PLAN FOR ISRAELI SETTLEMENT IN THE OCCUPIED TERRITORIES, 1977. QUOTED IN SHARON, ARIEL, AND DAVID CHANOFF. WARRIOR—THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF ARIEL SHARON. NEW YORK: SIMON AND SCHUSTER, 2001.

These are people who I have known for many years, some of the best we have. They are people who built exemplary settlements. These attacks, this incitement is uncalled for. Ultimately, they will do damage. They will not prevent, through force, the government from implementing its decision. This issue is painful for me as well. But as Prime Minister, I am responsible not only for the feelings of these people, but first and foremost for the success of the people. The 'disengagement plan' holds many advantages for the state of Israel.

    ON THE SETTLERS, AFTER A LARGE DEMONSTRATION OF ANTI-DISENGAGEMENT PROTESTERS, SEPTEMBER 2004.

As with many prominent Israeli political figures, Sharon's legacy is understood very differently within Israel. Many of Israel's Left remember him as the cruel figure responsible for intensifying the oppression of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, for hoodwinking the Israeli government and Israeli society in an irresponsible war in Lebanon that dragged on for decades, and for building the Israeli settlements that would later constitute one of the greatest obstacles to Israeli-Palestinian peace and long-term stability in the region. Many in Israel's Right remember him as a dedicated and insightful activist and leader who worked to ensure Israeli security and the future of the Jewish state. Sharon's legacy, however, has been complicated by his policy reversals of the last years of his career. Sharon's true intentions for making these policy changes remain shrouded in uncertainty.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Miller, Anita, Jordan Miller, and Sigalit Zetouni. Sharon: Israel's Warrior Politician. Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers & Olive Publishing, 2002.

Morris, Benny. Israel's Border Wars, 1949–1956. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.

Schiff, Ze'ev, and Ehud Ya'ari. Israel's Lebanon War. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984.

Sharon, Ariel, and David Chanoff. Warrior—The Autobiography of Ariel Sharon. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001.

                                               Motti Golani

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