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Ariel Sharon

Major General Ariel Sharon (אריאל שרון) (born September 27, 1928) is a longtime Israeli political and military leader, and has been the Prime Minister of Israel since February 17, 2001. He was born Ariel Shinerman, and for a time went by the nickname Arik.

Sharon is a controversial figure with many viewing him as a war hero while others see him as a war criminal.

Table of contents

Military Career

First years

Sharon was born in Kfar Malal in 1928. In 1942, at the age of 14, he joined the Haganah. At the creation of Israel (and Haganah's transformation into the Israeli Defence Force), Sharon was a platoon commander in the Alexandroni brigade. He was severely wounded in the Second Battle of Latrun, but healed from his injuries. In 1949 he was promoted to a company commander, and in 1951 to an intelligence officer. He then took leave to begin studies of history and Middle Eastern culture at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A year and a half later, he was asked to return to active service in the rank of major, as the head of the new Unit 101.

On its own right during the first five months, and as a part of a paratroop brigade for two more years, the unit completed a series of daring raids that helped restore Israeli citizen's morale and renew the Israeli deterrent image. However, the unit was also criticized for initially targeting civilians as well as the Arab armies, resulting in the widely-condemned Qibya operation in Autumn 1953, in which more than 60 Jordanian civilians were killed in an ambush to Arab Legion forces. Investigation showed that the order to maximize casualties was not given by Sharon, but by one of his superiors. Shortly afterwards, Unit 101 was merged into the 202nd Paratrooper Brigade (Sharon eventually becoming the latter's commander), which continued to attack military targets only, culminating with the attack on Kalkiliya Police in autumn 1956.

Mitle Incident

In the 1956 Suez War, Sharon commanded the 202nd Brigade, and responsible for taking over grounds east of the Mitle Pass and eventually taking over it. Having successfully carried out the first part of his mission (joining a battalion paratrooped near Mitle with the rest of the brigade moving on ground), Sharon deployed near the pass. Aircraft flying over the area reported no enemy forces were seen inside the Mitle Pass, and so did scouts sent to the area. Sharon, whose forces were initially heading east, away from the pass, reported to his superiors that he was increasingly concerned with the possibility of an enemy thrust through the pass, which could attack his brigade from the flank or the rear.

Sharon asked for permission to attack the pass several times; his requests were denied, but he was allowed to check its status so that if the pass was empty, he could receive permission to take it later. Sharon then sent a small scout force which was met with heavy fire and got stuck due to vehicle malfunction in the middle of the pass. Sharon ordered the rest of his troops to attack, in order to aid their comrades. A bloody battle ensued in which more than 40 Israeli soldiers were killed, but the pass was taken. Having suffered some criticism from his commanders, Sharon's conduct was furthermore attacked by several ex-subordinates several years after the events (in one of IDF's first major revelations to the press), who claimed that Sharon was bullying with the Egyptians and sent out the scouts in bad faith, meaning a battle to ensue. Deliberate or not, the attack was against military wisdom, as the Egyptian forces staying in the pass, would have probably withdrawn in a day or two (as B.H. Liddell Hart would have put it, the indirect strategy of blocking the enemy would be much more efficient that the frontal attack that Sharon chose).

Six-Day and Yom Kippur Wars

The incident postponed Sharon's growing in ranks for several years. In the meanwhile, he occupied the position of an infantry brigade commander and received a law degree from Tel Aviv University. When Yitzhak Rabin was chosen to be Chief of Staff in 1962, however, Sharon began again to rise rapidly in ranks, occupying the positions of Infantry School Commander and Head of Army Training Branch (receiving the rank of Major General). In the 1967 Six-Day War, Sharon commanded the most powerful armored division on the Sinai front, which successfully completed a vital breakthrough through the Kusseima-Abu-Ageila fortified area. In 1969, he was appointed the Head of IDF's Southern Command, a position which he held up to his retirement in August 1973. He almost immediately joined the right-wing Likud political party.

His military career was not over, however. At the start of the Yom Kippur War (October 6, 1973), Sharon was called back to duty and given a reserve armored division. His forces did not engage the Egyptian army immediately, and it was Sharon who helped to locate a breach between the Egyptian forces, which he then exploited to allow the creation of a bridge-head on October 16, then a bridge over the Suez Canal the following day. He violated the orders given to him by Head of Sothern Command by exploiting the success and cutting the Egyptian supply lines. This decision (and Sharon's controversial political position), though found justified by a military tribunal, led to tensions between him and the Head of Southern Command, causing his being relieved of duty in February 1974.

Political Career He was a member of the Knesset 1973-1974, and then from 1977-present. In 1975-1976, he served as the security adviser to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. He then served as Minister of Agriculture (1977-1981), and as Defense Minister (1981-1983) in Menachem Begin's Likud government.

During the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, while Ariel Sharon was Defense Minister, a massacre of several hundred Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut was carried out by the Phalanges, a Lebanese-Christian militia allied with Israel. The Kahan Committee investigating the events of Sabra and Shatilla, recommended in early 1983 the removal of Sharon from his post as Defense Minister for reasons of negligence, though not complicity in the planning of the massacre.

Some have disagreed with the conclusions of the report. In 1987, Time Magazine published a story implying Sharon's direct responsibility for the massacres; Sharon later won a libel case against them. In early 2001, relatives of the victims of the massacre began proceedings in Belgium to have Ariel Sharon indicted on war crimes charges.

Sharon was dismissed by the Prime Minister Begin; however he remained in the successive governments as a Minister without portfolio (1983-1984), Minister for Trade and Industry (1984-1990), and Minister for Housing Construction (1990-1992). In Benjamin Netanyahu's 1996-1999 government, he was Minister of National Infrastructure (1996-1998), and Foreign Minister (1998-1999). Upon the election of the Barak Labor government, he became leader of the Likud party. After the collapse of Barak's government, he was elected Prime Minister in February 2001.

Commentary on recent events and the evolution of the peace process

Palestinian position

According to Palestinians, Ariel Sharon has followed a military solutions based policy of no negotiations under fire. His reluctancy to engage in political negotiations while terrorist attacks are still carried out is seen as an impediment. Up until March 2002, Sharon has been asking for the cessation of violence for at least a week before negotiations begin. Numerous countries declared that they felt that Sharon's demand was too strict and unrealistic.

Palestinians also claim that the current policies followed by the Sharon government so far have failed to bring about such a prerequisite for peace. In particular, they claimed that the following measures have only created further difficulty in calming the situation down:

  • Assassinations of leaders of Palestinian groups (some of whom being labeled as terrorists is disputed)
  • Blockades of whole areas (including towns and villages)
  • Destruction of infrastucture belonging both to Palestinian Authority (including police and security buildings) and private civillians
  • Continued house demolitions
  • Israeli Army incursions into Palestinian territory
  • The confinement of Yasser Arafat in his headquarters that essentially amounts to a house arrest
  • Advocacy of settlement building in West Bank and Gaza strip

Palestinians claim that the al-Aqsa Intifada was started because of a visit made by Ariel Sharon and an escort of several hundred policemen marching in sites of Arab East Jerusalem sacred both to Muslims and Jews. Some commentators have even gone so far as to accuse him of purposely starting this event, to prevent the further continuation of peace talks. Others disagree.

Furthermore, Palestinians claim that Ariel Sharon really lacks a political agenda, as they regard him solely as a general and consider war operations the limit of his expertise. They consider occupation to be the real problem and deem peace impossible till its removal.

Palestinians doubt the existence of popular support to Sharon's actions. As examples, they bring groups such as Peace Now, which has been calling for a return to negotiations ever since the beginning of the recent clashes, and a letter signed by about 250 reserve soldiers (a minor percentage of the Israeli reserve force) that refused to serve in the territories because of the danger that this created for Palestinian civilians. However, polls published in the media, as well as the 140% call-up of reservists (as opposed to the 60% in regular periods) seem to indicate that the Israeli is quite supportive of the Israeli policies, as a whole.

Up to a thousand of Israeli reserve officers and retired officials of Israel's security agencies (some of whom occupied positions of imporance in the past) advocate a unilateral retreat from the territories that would allow for the creation of a Palestinian state. They claim furthermore that by withdrawing from these territories it will force the Palestinian leadership to resume its security responsibilities towards the Israeli population.

They claim further that even if the Palestinian Authority would not comply, the very introduction of a border would be beneficial to Israeli security. Others disagree, argumenting their claim by Israel's resulting inability to deal with mortar and missile attacks, already frequent in the conflict. Moreover, the movement's leaders are not without political agenda, meaning that some of their declarations may aim merely at achieving positive PR for themselves.

Israeli Position

Israelis feel that Ariel Sharon is often made the focus of Arab hatred in a way that does not correlate well with his real stance and position. In many cases, Arab media holds it that Sharon is a settler himself - whereas Sharon has never lived in a settlement (he is the owner of a house in East Jerusalem, which he fairly bought and now leases). The fact that the Arab immediately blamed Sharon for Sabra and Shatila massacre, whereas Elie Hobeika[?], the man who undisputedly carried it out, was never blamed anyhow is a clear indication of what Israelis see as Arab hipocricy towards Sharon and Israel in general.

In particular, it is often persumed by Arabs that all the hard-line elements in Israel's policy towards the Palestinians were introduced by Sharon. However, as Israelis hold, a deeper review of the Israeli politics disproves that assertion:

  • All Israeli governments since 1967 - including the one led by Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres - supported settlements, and Sharon is not unique in doing that.
  • Following the February 2001 elections won by Sharon, Sharon agreed to create a national unity government with the traditionally peace-oriented Labor party.
  • Labor representatives Shimon Peres and Binyamin Ben-Eliezer occupy two out of three positions (the third is Sharon) in the "confined cabinet" that the full cabinet often authorizes to decide on military questions. Thus, these Labor officials are as responsible for the Israeli military decision-making as Sharon.
  • Sharon has enjoyed an impressive level of popular support, with his actions aproved on most of the occasions above 60% (in February the figure fell by about 10%, but later recovered). Therefore the decisions made or influenced by him do not represent just himself or some settlers, but rather the majority of the Israeli public.
  • Several times during the hostilities, Sharon demonstrated what most Israelis see as flexibility - in particular, when he withdrew from his demand for seven days of quiet prior to negotiations in early March 2002, and when he's publicly declared he will not support his party's decision to disallow the creation of a Palestinian state. Several times he declared that he does not oppose the very concept of such a state, so far as Israel's requirements for security are met.

As Israelis hold, the recent polls indicate that Ariel Sharon enjoys a great degree of confidence and trust on behalf of the Israeli public. They indicate that most Israelis supports Sharon's policies, and consider them either adequate or even not extensive enough in the military sense. Israelis maintain, that their country has a pluralistic political tradition which allows for the functioning of the peace movements, but this does not necesserily mean that the Israeli public supports these peace movements.

Secondly, Ariel Sharon as well as many Israelis belive that terrorism is an absolute evil. From their point of view, the Palestinian leadership put itself into a subhuman level by deciding not to do anything to stop terrorism. Sharon has declared that he will not negotiate until they adopt an opposite direction. In addition, Sharon claimed that he does not object to the setting up of a Palestinian state, however some people feel that the Palestinian claims are illegitimated by their policy of violence and terrorism. Sharon claimed recently that he is not interested in the collapse of the Palestinian authority or in taking over Palestinian cities.

Finally, many Israelis feel that the recent conflict is a war, and that therefore the behavior of the Israeli side must be militaristic by definition. Many Israelis claim that the targeted killings are aimed mainly at people who have openly declared that they are engaged in terrorist activity, would not step down from it, and would not be taken to jail by the Palestinian Authority; thus, the only way to prevent them from carrying out acts of terrorism that they are planning would be to arrest them, or to kill them (the former is much more frequent).

Quotes:

"Everybody has to move; run and grab as many hilltops as they can to enlarge the settlements, because everything we take now will stay ours... Everything we don't grab will go to them." -Ariel Sharon, as Israeli Foreign Minister, addressing militants from the extreme right-wing Tsomet Party[?], Agence France Presse[?], November 1998[?].

See Terrorism against Arabs, Terrorism against Israel



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