“One must always remember that Israel is the only place in the world where Jews have, and will always have, the right and ability to defend themselves when attacked.” Ariel Sharon – February 21, 2000 (Jerusalem Post)
In those few words Ariel (Arik) Sharon summed up the entire philosophy that drove him all the days of his life. His mission, was the security of Israel, and it was such a single-minded purpose that it seems to have justified all possible means in his mind.
Whether flattening the homes of weeping Palestinians, or the houses of violently struggling Jewish settlers, Ariel Sharon never shrank from using force to do a job. Nor did he think twice about doing the job he thought needed to be done – even if it was exactly the opposite of the one his superiors sent him to do.
From the day he took up arms as a thirteen year-old boy, through to his leading Israel’s unexpected withdrawal from Gaza, from his controversial exploits as an army officer through to his surprise quitting of the ruling Likud party, Ariel Sharon has been every step of the way his own man.
He is perhaps the last of a generation of great Israeli leaders in the mold of Yitzhak Rabin and Moshe Dayan, leaders who have set their stamp on the face of the Middle East and – loved or hated – have earned a place in history.
Armed Childhood & Early Army Career
Born Ariel Scheinermann on February 27, 1928, Sharon grew up in a small farming community under Palestine’s stern British mandate rule, well aware of the Jewish dream for independence, the increasingly armed hostilities of local Arabs, and the rising tide of Hitler’s anti-Semitism abroad.
At thirteen he was helping guard the village fields, at fourteen he enlisted in the youth wing of the main Jewish underground militia, the Hagana. By the time Israel’s War of Independence broke out in 1948, Ariel Sharon – just twenty – was already a ’seasoned veteran’, and a commander in the newly formed Israel Defense Force.
After the war he was called on to create Israel’s first Special Operations force, Unit 101. Established to target Palestinian terrorists operating across Israel’s borders, Sharon led the elite Unit in a series of spectacular but morally questionable cross-border raids.
Drawing international condemnation for one such raid in which scores of civilians died, Ariel Sharon was summoned to appear before Israel’s then Prime Minister, the legendary David Ben Gurion – it was their first ever meeting. According to a later Sharon TV interview, Ben Gurion said, “… It doesn’t matter what the world says about Israel; …… The only thing that matters is that we can exist here on the land of our forefathers. And unless we show the Arabs that there is a high price to pay for murdering Jews, we won’t survive.”
This stamped the strategy for Sharon’s lifelong war with the Arabs.
His Personal Life – Love & Tragedy
Sharon married twice. Early in his army career, on leave on the family farm, he met and courted 16 year-old Margalith. “It was while I was irrigating in our orange grove one day that I looked up and noticed a girl cultivating the vegetable field next to our property…. I had never noticed this girl before, and it seemed to me that I had never in my life seen anyone so beautiful.” (Warrior, Pg 37)
The two soon married, and had a son, Gur. However, Margalith was killed in a car crash in 1962, and Gur died in 1967 – shot dead playing with his father’s rifle.
After Margalith’s death, Sharon married her younger sister, Lily. They had two sons, Omri and Gilead. Lily Sharon died in 2002 and is buried on a small hill near their Negev Desert home. His son, Omri, was recently given a 9 month prison sentence on charges of fraud and perjury. Many believe Sharon just turned a blind eye to acts that Omri undertook to save the failing finances of the family farm. Whatever the motive, it is claimed to be another act in Sharon’s lifelong disregard of the rules.
Fighting Man – Fighting with Friends and Foe
During the 1956 Sinai Campaign, Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan accused Sharon of using ’a subterfuge’ to win approval for a ’tragic’ and ’unnecessary’ operation which led to the deaths of 38 Israeli soldiers with 120 more injured. The late Major General (Ret.) and former President of Israel, Chaim Herzog, (talking about the Sinai Campaign) said, Sharon “was to be accused, in this and later campaigns, of insubordination and dishonesty… Few, if any, of his superior officers over the years had a good word to say for him as far as human relations and integrity were concerned, although none would deny his innate ability as a field soldier.”
Due to his part in the 1967 Six Day War, he rose to exalted heights as a National Hero in a victory that changed both the face and the map of the Middle East. He was then appointed Head of the Southern Command, and was responsible for crushing Palestinian resistance in the Gaza Strip. Even then, some claim that his tactics drove moderates into the extremist’s camp.
In 1972 he was passed over for the post of Chief of Staff by the Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan, and Sharon resigned from the army, but was soon recalled – this time for the 1973 Yom Kippur War. In command of an armored division, Sharon again found himself involved in arguments with his superiors and fellow commanders, as he led both a debacle in which 300 men were killed (the Chinese Farm) and the spectacular crossing of the Suez Canal which helped secure Israel’s eventual victory.
National Hero – International Demon
Sharon finally quit the army and journeyed into politics. He was elected to Parliament in December 1973, working his way up to become Minister of Agriculture in the government of Menachem Begin. It was there that he began his aggressive policy of supporting widespread Jewish settlement in Arab territories.
From there Sharon jumps to the post of Defense Minister, leading – many say deceiving – Begin and Israel into the Lebanon War. During the war he drives Yassir Arafat’s PLO into exile, and is involved in the Sabra and Shatilla massacres that cause international outrage and eventually costs Sharon his job.
The Road Back to Power
Sharon quietly remains in government, continuing to drive Jewish settlement in various ministerial posts, as he carried giant maps in the boot of his ministerial limousine bulldozing aside critics, plundering government budgets, and helping nationalist zealots seize barren West Bank hilltops as strategic assets in his unending war. He then became Foreign Minister, heading permanent status talks with the Palestinian Authority. Thus continuing his political head to head with Arafat.
Sharon’s fateful 2000 visit to the Temple Mount, has garnered claims that it triggered the violence that became the Intifada. This in turn helped Sharon be elected Prime Minister just months later to the cheers of ’Arik King of Israel’ from the crowds. The violence of the Intifada escalated through suicide bombers on the one side, helicopter gun-ships on the other.
Did The Leopard Change Its Spots?
It was sometime during these years that Sharon hatched his disengagement plan – the idea of a complete unilateral withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip. Sharon’s journey is complex– it’s no simple story of a hawk transformed into a peace-loving dove. And it is a story denounced both by his friends and by his enemies. Many Palestinians see it as a ploy. Hard-line Israeli’s see it as a sell-out of all the principles he claimed to follow. It became an almost surreal reality in August 2005 – ending Israel’s 38-year occupation of the Gaza Strip.
The final act of Sharon’s highly controversial life was to quit his Likud party and form a new, more centralist one. With ’Kadima’ immediately gaining widespread political and popular support and slated for a landslide victory in the upcoming elections, Ariel Sharon was riding high.
Then, suddenly in mid-December, 2005, the world watched with relief as Sharon was released from hospital after suffering a minor stroke. However, on January 4, 2006, he was rushed back to hospital following another, much more serious stroke that caused massive brain hemorrhage and extensive cerebral bleeding. Months later he is still in a coma, fighting as always; but this time for his life.
From an interview Arik Sharon gave four years ago in his Negev farm. “You have to understand one thing. I am 73 years old. I’ve seen everything. I’ve met the kings, the queens, the presidents; I’ve been around the world. I have one thing that I would like to do: to try to reach peace. It’s a complicated thing. But I believe that I’m one of the only ones who can do it …”