Global Policy Forum

Ariel Sharon's Eulogists Ignore the Blood on His Hands


By Scott Burchill *

January 11, 2006

Presentism - overemphasising the significance of current events and denying historical perspectives - reached epidemic proportions after September 11, 2001, as Western governments scrambled to deny that Islamists acted out of any sense of legitimate grievance. According to Prime Minister John Howard, the West was targeted by extremists "because of who we are, not because of what we have done". There is no cause for self-examination because our enemies are driven by a "detestation of Western values".

Alternative explanations such as the CIA's "blowback" thesis, which argued that the US is reaping the unintended consequences of earlier interventions in the Middle East and Central Asia, were dismissed as condoning terrorism. There were no root causes of Islamist terror nor any need to consider the consequences of Washington's support for brutal and corrupt dictatorships in the Gulf, let alone its financial and military support for Israel's occupation of Palestinian land.

According to Howard: "Convoluted argument[s] about the alleged dispossession or prolonged disputes in other parts of the world" constituted "obscene rationalisations that the apologists for terrorists have engaged in". Thus, Palestinian terrorism could be condemned without mentioning its cause: the Israeli occupation. If the dispossession of Palestinians in 1948 and 1967 can be reduced to a mere allegation by Australia's Prime Minister, it's no surprise that historical events are also being effaced from Ariel Sharon's political obituaries.

Current orthodoxy paints Sharon as a "warrior statesman" who courageously returned the Gaza Strip to the Palestinians and was preparing to make further "painful and generous concessions" on the West Bank before being cut down by a stroke. Dubbed "a man of peace" by President George W. Bush, it is said Sharon moved from the hard Right to the political centre, creating a new political party that, after winning elections scheduled for March, would oversee a peace settlement that delivered a Palestinian state.

None of this is even remotely true.

A cursory examination reveals Sharon to be more an unindicted war criminal than a peacemaker. His bloody record has been extensively documented by British journalist David Hirst, Israeli sociologist Baruch Kimmerling, and several others. However, rather than being placed in the dock at the International Criminal Court, Sharon is now receiving effusive praise from Western elites for his commitment to peace.

In August 1953 Sharon led an assault on the El-Bureig refugee camp south of Gaza, killing up to 20 unarmed civilians. Two months later his paratroopers attacked the Jordanian village of Qibya, massacring 69 people, including defenceless women and children. At the time these crimes were called reprisals, an outrageous pretext no longer given credence by historians. As defence minister, Sharon planned and led Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982, which killed 18,000 people and laid Beirut and much of the south of the country to waste. He was also found to be "indirectly responsible" for the September massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, which resulted in the slaughter of more than 2000 Palestinians. These horrendous crimes proved to be only a temporary hiccup in Sharon's political career.

His provocative visit to East Jerusalem's Temple Mount in September 2000, accompanied by more than 200 fully armed security guards, triggered the al-Aqsa intifada, with its ensuing horrors, including suicide bombers and targeted assassinations. Is this the behaviour of a "man of peace"? Sharon's unilateral "disengagement" from Gaza was a pragmatic response to demographic realities rather than the product of high political principle. The Jewish settlements there were too expensive to protect.

Suggestions that he also planned to hand back most of the West Bank, enabling the Palestinians to construct a viable contiguous state, are simply fanciful. If anything, the withdrawal from Gaza bought Sharon time to accelerate the building of settlements in the West Bank, effectively dividing Palestinians into separated cantons virtually cut off from whatever speck of East Jerusalem is to be left to them. Jerusalem is the centre of their political, commercial and cultural life.

It is sometimes argued that political leaders closely associated with a particular ideology gravitate towards a more pragmatic posture late in their term in order to build a legacy before they depart the political stage. Realism, it is said, always trumps ideology. The impeccable right-wing credentials of presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, for example, were said to have given both men greater room to reach strategic accommodations with the Soviets. The same argument is now being deployed to explain Sharon's transition from hawk and father of the settlements movement to dove and peacemaker. He was mugged by reality. It's an attractive theory, but in this case a fallacious one. No amount of latent hagiography and presentism can disguise such a consistently violent historical record.

About the Author: Scott Burchill is a senior lecturer in international relations at Deakin University in Melbourne.

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