The name Ariel Sharon typically evokes one of two reactions, depending on the audience: utter revulsion or devoted adoration. The spectres of the Sabra and Shatila massacres, as well as the policies enacted against the Palestinian people throughout his reign, hang heavy over his image in the eyes of his Arab neighbours.
In contrast, the years he devoted to the service of Israel, beginning as an idealistic youth militant and rising to the premiership of his nation, glow in the eyes of many Israelis. Ultimately, if he were to be judged according to his principles, it would be at least fair to say that he held steadfastly to them, as well as his belief in the right of the Jewish state of Israel to exist and protect itself, throughout his career. But who was Ariel Sharon? And how should history judge him?
Sharon embodied the Israeli expansionist creed to the core, fighting in every one of the five wars the nation fought in the decades after its inception in 1948. Once he had taken up the office of defence minister, a natural extension of this was the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, aimed at expelling the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) from the country.
But shortly after the PLO withdrew from Lebanon, Lebanese Christian militia were sent into the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, on the strength of claims by military intelligence that the camps contained a large concentration of Palestinian militia. As many as 3,500 civilians died in the massacre that ensued. Sharon maintained that he had no prior knowledge of the massacre, but was later forced to resign his position.
Later on, his own people poured scorn on him when he sought to create a legacy of peace, embarking on a course of unilateral withdrawal and eventual disengagement from Gaza, dispelling many hard-line settlers along the way.
But there was also the Sharon of Unit 101, the secret special forces group designed to carry out extra judicial attacks on enemy targets in the West Bank. The unit became notorious for its involvement in the Qibya raid of 1953, a massacre which drove the U.S. State Department to affirm publicly that previous violations of the 1949 Armistice Agreement had led it to suspend economic aid to Israel.
He became known as “The Butcher” to the Palestinians who suffered at the hands of groups bankrolled by his department, and was a driving force behind the continuation of Israeli settlement expansion. He was part of an Israeli government that continually defied international condemnation of the dispossession of the Palestinians of their land, most notably with a refusal to return to the borders that existed before the Six Day War in 1967, let alone those drawn up in 1948.
His tactics with regards to the building of settlement walls, and the withdrawal from Gaza, could be considered calculated moves, designed to further entrench Israeli land grabs that have perpetuated instability and turmoil in the region. As such, his commitment to peace could be questioned.
A mensch is defined in Yiddish as an individual of “integrity and honour”. As a soldier of Israel, Sharon is well deserving of such accolades, and will no doubt be remembered by the Israeli people for his commitment to the Jewish state. The world surrounding him outside Israel, however, paid a heavy price for his gaining that integrity and honour, and there are none who bore the cost so much as the Palestinian peoples, still without a peaceful state of their own in which to live.