Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, a polarizing figure, died Saturday at age 85 after eight years in a coma. Hailed as a hero by much of Israel's political establishment, Sharon is perhaps best known internationally for two things: encouraging and abetting the massacre of an estimated 2,000 Palestinian refugees in the Sabra neighborhood and adjoining Shatila refugee camp in Lebanon in 1982, and unilaterally pulling Israel out of occupied Palestinian Gaza in 2005.
Sharon's long career as an officer in Israel's armed forces was characterized by strong-arm policies and brutality against Palestinians and other Arab people, earning him the nickname "The Bulldozer" or "Butcher" among Palestinians. It included, in reprisal for a grenade attack that killed an Israeli woman and her two children, a massacre of 69 civilians, mostly women and children, in the West Bank (then under Jordanian control) town of Qibya in 1953. In Egypt during the 1963 Sinai war, one of his officers later charged, Sharon was responsible for the slaughter of 49 Egyptian quarry workers who were prisoners of war.
In 1982, during Israel's invasion of Lebanon, Sharon, at the time the Israeli defense minister, inflamed the already toxic situation by ordering the occupation of Beirut. He then had Israeli forces surround and seal off Sabra and Shatila, and gave a green light to far-right Lebanese Phalangist forces to enter and carry out the massacre. Journalist Max Blumenthal provides more details here. The horrifying events are portrayed in a powerful award-winning 2008 Israeli film, "Waltz with Bashir."
In 1983 an Israeli investigating commission concluded that Sharon "bears personal responsibility" for the Sabra and Shatila massacre. Although Sharon rejected this, he eventually resigned as defense minister, only to return to even greater power eight years later, in 2001, when he was elected prime minister.
In 2000, as leader of Israel's rightist Likud Party, Sharon staged a highly provocative action, going with hundreds of Israeli security officers into Palestinian East Jerusalem to Al-Aqsa/Temple Mount, considered one of Islam's holiest sites. His inflammatory visit helped trigger the second Palestinian intifada (uprising).
Over his decades in high positions, Sharon was a key architect of the settler movement that has made a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict much more difficult. In a generally favorable assessment of Sharon's legacy, Alon Ben-Meir, an Israeli history professor at New York University, writes that Sharon "openly advocated grabbing every inch of Palestinian land to realize the Jews' historic right" to "reside in their ancient homeland."
Sharon's unilateral pullout from Gaza in 2005, bypassing any negotiations with the Palestinians, surprised many. It was praised by some peace advocates and assailed by settler activists, but it was condemned by others for undermining the Palestinian Authority and the peace process itself. His action is seen by some as having led to the split in the Palestinian movement and the Hamas takeover in Gaza. Sharon's own senior adviser Dov Weisglass was blunt about the aim, saying in 2004, "The significance of the disengagement plan is the freezing of the peace process." It was intended to ensure that peace issues "will not be dealt with until the Palestinians turn into Finns," he said.
Ironically, however, the pullout and dismantlement of Israeli settlements in Gaza set a precedent, showing that it is possible for Israel to remove settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories.
Some commentators believe Sharon late in life began to recognize the futility of military action and the need to negotiate with the Palestinians. In 2005 he broke with the rightist Likud Party, which he founded, and formed the more centrist Kadima. In Israel the current far-right Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is being compared unfavorably to Sharon, who is praised by some for acknowledging today's realities and showing courage in the face of extremist settler opposition.
It is a reflection of how far to the right Israeli politics has moved that Sharon, widely condemned - even in his own country - as a war criminal, now is seen by some as a moderate.
Nevertheless, as a Palestinian Ma'an News Agency commentary notes, "Sharon is remembered by Palestinians and many other Arabs for his involvement in and leadership over massacres in several countries and his role in repressing the Palestinian national movement over the course of decades."
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