Ariel Sharon has died. This article on the life and times of Israel’s former prime minister — whose career was abruptly cut short, to the shock of all concerned, by a stroke eight years ago — was written by Yossi Melman for the website of the Israel-based private television news service in English, French, and Arabic: i24News.
Meir Har-Zion, a member of the famous 101 commando unit formed by Ariel Sharon, was said to be the greatest soldier ever to fight for Israel. Ehud Barak is reputed to be the most decorated soldier of the Israeli army. Moshe Dayan is considered, especially abroad, to be the most renowned soldier.
In Sharon, all these essentials were rolled into one. He was a bold warrior and a cunning officer, a sophisticated commander and an intelligent leader. During his long military career he showed flashes of strategic genius occasionally marred by tactical failures and a tendency for adventurism and negligence – as happened in the 1982 First Lebanon War, which resulted in many casualties.
His soldiers adored him, but David Ben-Gurion (Israel’s first prime minister) called him “a liar.” Dayan saw him as disobedient. Prime Minister Menachem Begin saw in him the great commander of ancient Israel, Judah Maccabee.
In 1945, at the age of 17, Ariel Scheinermann joined the Haganah and in the War of Independence he served as a platoon commander. In the famous battle for Latrun on the road to Jerusalem he was wounded in the stomach and was abandoned, bleeding on the ground. His life was saved by Yitzhak Moda’i – in later years Sharon’s colleague in the Likud and a finance minister – who dragged him to safety.
The battle greatly influenced Sharon’s perception of the military and political world. “I swore at the time that I would never permit IDF soldiers to be abandoned wounded on the battlefield or in captivity,” he told me when he was prime minister in 2004.
In the summer of 1953 Sharon was asked to set up a special unit that would be able to penetrate deep into enemy territory. The decision came against the backdrop of infiltrations of “fedayeen” Arab guerrillas from Jordan and the Gaza Strip into Israel.
Thus came into being Unit 101 – the first Israeli commando unit. Unit 101 made many violent cross-border incursions into Jordanian territory, laid ambushes and carried out reprisal operations following the murder of Jews.
The unit operated for only five months. Even at the height of its activities, it had no more than 50 soldiers and commanders. Nonetheless, its impact on the army was enormous. Thanks to the reprisal raids carried out by Unit 101, myths evolved around the unit that still shape the values of fighting spirit and dedication to mission that are credited to Sharon.
The famous (or infamous) operation for which it is best known, and which accelerated the decision to dismantle the unit, took place in October 1953. Prime Minister and Defense Minister Ben-Gurion ordered the army to exact harsh and painful retribution against the village of Qibya in the West Bank, in response to the murder of an Israeli mother and her two children by residents of the village.
The goal was to blow up and destroy 45 houses in the village. But the operation, under the command of Sharon, got out of control: the explosions killed between 42 to 69 men, women and children. The indiscriminate killings shocked the world. The United Nations and many countries condemned Israel, and Ben-Gurion had to lie when he claimed that the operation was not carried out by the military but by angry civilians who had taken matters into their own hands.
The Qibya incident, as well as other reprisals, sparked a heated debate in Israel on morality and military and political wisdom. The operation also earned Sharon the image of a relentless and ruthless warrior. Investigators of the affair found that he did not know that residents were hiding in the houses that were blown up, but many in the top brass did not believe his account.
In January 1954, Unit 101 was dissolved and merged with the 890 paratroopers battalion. Sharon was appointed commander of the new regiment, and retaliations in Jordan and Gaza continued.
During the Sinai Campaign in 1956, the brigade was dropped near Mitla Pass in the Sinai. Its orders were to dig in there, but Sharon wanted to send a patrol into the depths of the pass. Eventually approval was given. The Israeli force was ambushed by Egyptians, and 42 of Sharon’s soldiers were killed.
For years the army nurtured a legacy of presenting the battle as heroic. And indeed, paratroopers demonstrated immense courage under heavy fire. Yet years later Dayan accused Sharon of overstepping his authority and hinted that he violated an order.
In 2000, Israeli historian Professor Motti Golani wrote that the controversy surrounding the battle resulted from a disruption of contact between the chief of staff and the commanders in the field.
The battle and its harsh results dealt a harsh blow to Sharon’s image. In 1957, he went to study at the British Army Staff College in Camberley. At the time Ben-Gurion wrote about Sharon in his diary: “A brilliant and original thinker. Were he to overcome his addiction to lying in his reports, he could make a great military leader.”
Ben-Gurion continued to be interested in Sharon as a major talent and told then deputy chief of staff Yitzhak Rabin to “watch Arik.” Indeed, Rabin watched. Having been appointed military chief of staff in 1964, he took Sharon out of the freezer, promoted him, and in February 1967, gave him the rank of major general.
The two developed a friendship and appreciation for each other. During his first term as prime minister (1974-77′), Rabin appointed Sharon his adviser on terrorism, but ideological controversy would later strain their friendship.
During Rabin’s second term as prime minister, Sharon attacked him furiously for the Oslo agreements he signed with the Palestinians and for negotiating with PLO chief Yasser Arafat. Sharon (along with Benjamin Netanyahu and other leaders) was even present at a famous rally of the right-wing in Jerusalem where posters portrayed Rabin in a Nazi SS uniform. This was shortly before a rightwing Jewish Israeli murdered Prime Minister Rabin, in 2005.
In the weeks preceding the 1967 Six Day War, Sharon showed dissatisfaction with the indecision of the political leadership of Prime Minister and Defense Minister Levi Eshkol and Chief of Staff Rabin, who did not order the IDF to attack the Arab armies massed along Israel’s borders. Along with other senior officers, he attended various meetings which were later called the “revolt of the generals” –where participants demanded that the government order the IDF to go into battle.
When the order was eventually given, Sharon led his division to conquer Egyptian military outposts. His innovative tactics were later taught not only to senior IDF commanders, but also at military schools overseas.
Two years later he was appointed head of the Southern Command. His primary task, with which he continued to be identified, was the fight against Palestinian terrorism in the Gaza Strip.
He turned the Shaked reconnaissance unit, also known as Unit 424, into a commando unit. Low-intensity guerrilla tactics, combined with brutality, did the job.
In 1972, Palestinian terror organizations suffered a severe blow and terrorism was nearly completely eliminated. About 200 people were killed in clashes with the IDF and another 2,000 were arrested in joint operations with the Shin Bet security agency. Palestinian civilians paid a heavy price. Houses of terrorists and their associates were destroyed. Under Sharon’s orders, 1,600 families (over 10,000 people) were exiled from the Gaza Strip to Al Arish in the Sinai.
Sharon’s actions reinforced his image as goal-driven and uninhibited, earning him the description of a “bulldozer,” which stuck to him throughout his political career.
Sharon hoped to become chief of staff, and when he didn’t receive the appointment in August 1973, he retired. His successor in the Southern Command was Shmuel “Gorodish” Gonen. After the Yom Kippur War, when Gorodish was found responsible for the failures in the war — poor preparation for battle command and lack of equipment and emergency supplies — some asked whether it was not the fault of Sharon, who had resigned just three months earlier.
With the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War in October, Sharon received an emergency appointment as commander of an armored division. From the second day of the bloody battles, Sharon favored a nocturnal counterattack to choke the Egyptian army that had crossed the canal to Sinai. Instead it was decided to attack during the day under the command of General Avraham Adan. The attack, which also included Sharon’s division, failed.
Still, the general had a group of avid fans — confidants and journalists — who hung out in his command post and shared Sharon’s hedonistic tastes for good food and juicy gossip.
Sharon’s greatest achievement, the one with which he is still identified, was crossing the Suez Canal during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The operation, achieved with heavy casualties, allowed the IDF to establish a bridgehead into Egypt and push back the enemy. Public admiration for him intensified, earning him another moniker -= “Arik, King of Israel.”
The fact that he walked around for days with a white bandage on his forehead, the result of a slight injury, also contributed to his popularity. All the while, though, he was thinking ahead to a political career. The joke that went around in those days portrayed Sharon telling his soldiers, “Don’t salute me – Vote for me.”
And indeed, after the war he went into politics and in 1976 founded his own party, Shlomtzion.
Sharon ran in the 1977 elections, failed and rushed to join forces with the Likud, which won a majority of seats in the Knesset. Likud leader Menachem Begin founded the first right-wing government in Israel, and Sharon was appointed Minister of Agriculture. He used his position to establish more settlements in Gaza.
After the elections in 1981 he was able to fulfill an old dream: He who had failed to become the IDF’s chief of staff was appointed defense minister.
Initiated by Sharon, along with Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan and Mossad officials, and with the approval of Prime Minister Begin, Israel conceived a plan to invade Lebanon in order to push back the PLO from Israel’s border by 40 kilometers. But instead of a limited war, Israel rolled all the way to Beirut. For the first time the IDF conquered an Arab capital, thus creating a provocation in order to draw the Syrian army into battle.
Following the massacre in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila by Lebanon’s Christian Phalangists, who entered the camps despite the fact that they were surrounded by Israeli troops, an investigative commission found Sharon responsible for ignoring warnings not to rely on the Phalangists. The commission also determined that Sharon was not fit to serve as defense minister. Under pressure from public protests initiated by the Israeli Left, he was forced to resign. Sharon accused Begin of betraying him.
Later journalists, researchers, and associates of Begin argued that Sharon had deceived the prime minister about his plans — intending all along to launch a sweeping operation and not just a limited one — and had led Israel into a Lebanese quagmire.
The entanglement lasted 18 years and resulted in the deaths of 1,000 soldiers. Sharon defended his reputation at every opportunity, including filing a libel suit against Time magazine, a court case in which he argued that his actions had been sanctioned by Begin’s government.
When he was forced to resign from the defense ministry in early 1983, his close associate and journalist Uri Dan coined the famous saying that “those who did not want Sharon as chief of staff, got him as defense minister. Those who did not want him as defense minister, will get him as prime minister.”
The prophecy was fulfilled.