Words by Jacob Atkins
Last December, I was channel-surfing at a friend’s house in an Israeli kibbutz when I caught the final few minutes of Waltz with Bashir. The Israeli film follows one man who has mentally blocked his involvement in the 1982 Lebanon War as a solider in the Israel Defence Forces. In the final, hypnotic scene, he suddenly remembers standing by—on orders—as Christian phalangists entered the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. We now know that the Phalangists massacred between 700 and 800 Palestinians (possibly more) over the course of three days. The final moments of the film, which is otherwise entirely animated, are made up of real footage from the aftermath of the slaughter. A baby girl’s still face rests among the rubble. Between the ruined homes, old women and young men lie facedown like fallen dominoes. Sitting there on the couch, I recalled that the man who permitted the Israeli soldiers to allow the Phlangists entry was then-Defence Minister Ariel Sharon.
A few weeks later in Jerusalem, my phone buzzed with a news alert: “Ariel Sharon, former Prime Minister of Israel, has died.”
Sharon was cut down in his prime. He went into a coma in January 2006, just a few months after he had successfully, if traumatically, evicted 8000 Israeli settlers and the soldiers guarding them from the Gaza Strip. This event is now considered symbolic of his transformation from hawk to dove. Despite its consequences—namely, the periodical wars Israel fights with Hamas—it is this decision that has defined the physical legacy Sharon left for Israel.
The left warmed up to him, while on the right there was widespread disillusionment with the man who used to be their standard bearer. Many began to loathe him.
Dr Ariel Zellman from the Hebrew University believes that Sharon was pushing at an open door as he gathered national support for the disengagement. “The question became this debate between ‘do we have security by controlling the territory, or do we have more security by removing these people that are seen as irritants, that become targets who decrease our security?’”
Zellman nominates another of Sharon’s arguments that fell on fertile ground in the Israeli mainstream: demography. The fear that if Israel did not start gingerly extricating itself from the Palestinian territories it occupied, it would over time lose the Jewish majority that is its raison d’etre. According to biographer David Landau, the last official meeting Sharon had, prior to his hemorrhagic stroke, was with a demographer on the subject of finding ways to make non-ultra-Orthodox Israelis procreate more enthusiastically.
Personally, I had always imagined Sharon as a warm man—a stereotypically elderly Israeli. The type that holds court at an ancient hummuserie with his old Army mates, or sits at the front of the bus and chats with the driver. I’d also read that—like Nelson Mandela—he was partial to gossiping. Mossi Raz, a left-wing lawmaker during the start of Sharon’s premiership, told me “he was a very funny person, he used to tell lots of jokes”.
How does that square with the Sharon of Lebanon, who the Palestinians called ‘The Butcher’? The jolly grandpa that Human Rights Watch considered a war criminal?
“Some people can be loving family people and still be horrible persons. That’s not the story with Ariel Sharon,” TV and radio commentator Tammi Moled-Hayo explains. “The story with him is very, very deep racism. There is one Ariel Sharon for Jews and Jews who agreed with him, and a second for everyone else. If you were not a Jew you were less than a person, and that was the way he acted,”
But the left in Israel has quite a forgiving streak when it comes to Sharon, and not just because he ended up co-opting their policy of upping sticks from Gaza. At the end of the 2006, when Sharon was virtually incapacitated, veteran peacenik Yoel Marcus penned a column in Ha’aretz, yearningly titled ‘We Miss You, Sharon’. “He was the man who roused this country from its dreams and delusions, and paved the way for a Palestinian state,” he wrote.
“In his way, he did whatever he thought was needed for the good of Israel. That’s why when you talk to the left we have a soft spot for him, because we believe his motives were the right ones,” Moled-Hayo says.
The times had changed from the first Lebanon War, when there was a song that went: “land, airplane, please land and take us to the sky”. Mossi Raz says soldiers angry with the war used to sing: “Land, please land and take us to Lebanon, we’re going to fight for Sharon and come back dead”.