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International Socialist Review Issue 17, April-May 2001

Ariel Sharon: War Criminal

By Hadas Thier

JUST DAYS after he was sworn in as prime minister of Israel, Ariel Sharon tightened the Israeli grip on Ramallah, a community of 60,000 people. The Israeli military sealed off the town with trenches and barricades. Hundreds of Palestinian protesters faced live ammunition, tear gas, and rubber-coated bullets. The blockade on Ramallah kept food shipments out of shops and teachers out of schools, and it left nurses and doctors unable to reach hospitals. A New York Times reporter talked to one man who had been waiting for hours to take his infant out of Ramallah to a doctor. "This is difficult, difficult, extremely difficult," said one Palestinian taxi driver. "It will lead to an explosion. People will do anything to feed their children."1 Sharon's election means a declaration of war.

In September 2000, in what is widely accepted as the provocation that set off the new Palestinian Intifada, Ariel Sharon descended on the Muslim holy site al-Haram al-Sharif during prayer services. More than a thousand armed police flanked him. Palestinian frustration with a stalled peace process was already mounting, but Sharon's storming of al-Haram al-Sharif represented the last straw.

Sharon, nicknamed "The Bulldozer" for his preference for clearing Palestinians off their land, has one of the most extensive and brutal records of war crimes, spanning more than 50 years. To Palestinians, Sharon represents massacres at refugee camps, bulldozed homes, and a complete disregard for the rights and lives of Arabs in the region.

While the Bush administration calls for the heads of Iraq's Saddam Hussein and Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic, it has promised "rock solid" support for Sharon. And, instead of reporting on Sharon's bloody history, the mainstream media has conducted a whitewashing campaign that tries to portray Sharon as a legitimate politician. The New York Times assured us that "in private, the combative rightist is known as a charming raconteur and a gentleman farmer with a love of classical music."2 Another Times article explains: "Despite a professional history that makes him a reviled figure in the Arab world, Mr. Sharon repeats often that he has never offended the Palestinians in his personal meetings with them. This is an important point for him, that he deals respectfully with 'the other.'"3

Some in the Israeli press are even more delusional. Ha'aretz columnist Doron Rosenblum pondered, "Perhaps the elderly Sharon, who is making no promises, will leave a garden behind him? It's always good to have hope."4 And, Israeli "dove" Shimon Peres assured us that the new prime minister does not "wish to see the country covered with blood."5 The Nobel Peace Prize winner Peres joined the war criminal's cabinet as foreign minister.

But no one is more convinced of his peaceful intentions than Ariel Sharon himself. In an effort to remake his image, he is talking about peace and watching his words more carefully today. However, some might recall his advice for dealing with demonstrators in the West Bank: "Cut off their testicles."6 Sharon's base of popular support among the most right-wing and racist elements in Israeli society expresses his strategy in a more uncensored form than Sharon would be able to say himself. "Death to the Arabs" and "The only good Arab is a dead Arab" are their favorite chants.

During the pre-state days of Israel, Sharon joined the Haganah, the underground military organization formed by the Labor wing of the Zionist movement. In 1953, he was given command of the infamous Unit 101, whose mission was to lead "retaliatory" strikes against Arab terrorism. In reality, these missions took the form of indiscriminate violence aimed at civilians, not at direct sources of terrorism.

Unit 101's first documented assault took place in August 1953, on the El-Bureij refugee camp, south of Gaza. The reasoning given for the attack was "retaliatory," despite no evidence of provocation.7 An Israeli historian reported 50 refugees killed. United Nations commander Major General Vagn Bennike described the scene: "[B]ombs were thrown through the windows of huts in which the refugees were sleeping and, as they fled, they were attacked by small arms and automatic weapons."8

In October 1953, Unit 101 descended on the Jordanian village of Qibya. This time the "reprisal" was for the killing of a mother and two children in an Israeli village. Jordan condemned the murders and offered to help in the investigation. No connection between the murders and Qibya was suspected. Nevertheless, Unit 101 showed no mercy on the people of Qibya. They blew up 45 houses, a school, and a mosque, and they killed 69 civilians, including dozens of women and children.

The United Nations (UN) military observers who arrived two hours after Sharon's commandos had left the scene reported:

Bullet-riddled bodies near the doorways and multiple bullet hits on the doors of the demolished houses indicated that the inhabitants had been forced to remain inside until their homes were blown up over them.... Witnesses were uniform in describing their experience as a night of horror, during which Israeli soldiers moved about in their village blowing up buildings, firing into doorways and windows with automatic weapons and throwing hand grenades.9

Time reported that Sharon's soldiers shot "every man, woman and child they could find. The cries of the dying could be heard amidst the explosions."10

In his autobiography, Warrior, Sharon makes the outrageous claim that he was not aware that people were in the houses they were blowing up. "But," says the warrior, "while civilian deaths were a tragedy, the Qibya raid was also a turning point.... [I]t was now clear that Israeli forces were again capable of finding and hitting targets far behind enemy lines. What this means to army morale can hardly be exaggerated.... [W]ith Qibya a new sense of confidence began to take root."11 He also describes a meeting with Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, who told Sharon the raid on Qibya would "make it possible for us to live here."12

The actions of Unit 101 were part of Israel's overall strategy to provoke armed conflict along the borders of UN-partitioned Palestine. The strategy had two goals. One was aimed at the Palestinian population directly: to instill terror, further disperse the refugees, and destroy emerging political and military structures (particularly targeted was Yassir Arafat's Fatah, later the core group in the Palestine Liberation Organization [PLO].) The second was directed toward the surrounding Arab countries: to force the Arab states into confrontations in order to further expand Israel's territory.13

The Israeli military handpicked Sharon for this role because he had a reputation as a "loose cannon." He talked a great deal about his insubordination to his superiors. How much this was actually the case is debatable, but it certainly made it easier for the government to distance themselves from his actions. When Unit 101 was disbanded, it was not because the experiment had failed; rather, it was to further integrate the model into the rest of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF.)

Sharon was a major player in the IDF throughout all of Israel's wars. In the 1956 Suez War, he led the initial attack through the Sinai Desert, capturing the Mitla Pass. The overall casualties of the war: 2,000 on the Egyptian side and nearly 1,000 civilians in Port Said, as compared to 160 or so Israelis. During the 1967 Six Day War, in which Israel captured the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Sinai Desert, and the Golan Heights, Sharon commanded brigades that seized Umm-Kateif, blasting an opening into the Sinai. The overall casualties of that war: 759 Israelis and as many as 30,000 Arabs. Refugees from Syria, the West Bank, and the Sinai numbered more than 300,000.14

After the 1967 war, Israel succeeded in furthering the territorial goals of a "Greater Israel," but not without resistance. The highest level of Palestinian organization against the occupation was in Gaza. As the head of the IDF's southern command, Sharon was charged with the task of "pacifying" the Gaza Strip. Phil Reeves wrote in The Independent:

[T]he old men still remember it well. Especially the old men on Wreckage Street.... The street acquired its name after an unusually prolonged visit from Mr. Sharon's soldiers. Their orders were to bulldoze hundreds of homes to carve a wide, straight street....

"They came at night and began marking the houses they wanted to demolish with red paint," said Ibrahim Ghanim, 70, a retired laborer. "In the morning they came back, and ordered everyone to leave. I remember all the soldiers shouting at people, 'Yalla, yalla, yalla, yalla!'

"They threw everyone's belongings into the street. Then Sharon brought in bulldozers and started flattening the street. He did the whole lot, almost in one day. And the soldiers would beat people, can you imagine? Soldiers with guns, beating little kids?"

Reeves continues:

In August 1971 alone, troops under Mr. Sharon's command destroyed some 2,000 homes in the Gaza Strip, uprooting 16,000 people for the second time in their lives.

Hundreds of young Palestinian men were arrested and deported to Jordan and Lebanon. Six hundred relatives of suspected guerrillas were exiled to Sinai. In the second half of 1971, 104 guerrillas were assassinated.15

In 1977, a newly formed right-wing Likud party, led by Menachem Begin, won the national elections. Begin and Yitzhak Shamir were the leaders of the pre-state terrorist armies Irgun and Lehi, which carried out massacres of civilians at Deir Yassin and other Arab villages.16

The Likud government set to work on furthering the clampdown on Palestinian resistance and continuing the drive to settle the occupied territories. The previous Labor-led government had already increased spending on "security" to 11 percent of the gross national product. Zionist historian Howard Sachar pegged military spending at 14 percent or more.17 Ariel Sharon, serving as minister of agriculture, was put in charge of settlement policy.

The government and the World Zionist Organization created a commission to devise plans to "incorporate Judea and Samaria" (the Israeli right's Biblical label for the West Bank) into Israel. The commission's purpose flouted international law and numerous UN resolutions. Sharon was put in charge of finding a way to confiscate Palestinian land for Israeli use. Sharon's solution? To redefine private property and state land. Between 1980 and 1981, Israeli authorities surveyed land titles in the area. Families that had not completed the proper paperwork were denied rights to their homes, despite having lived on there for generations. By 1981, Sharon had acquired 31 percent of land area in the West Bank. Forty new settlements were built, tripling the Jewish population to 18,000.

Settlers were given a high level of autonomy on legal, economic, and military aspects. They had their own councils and tax systems, and IDF Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan authorized each town to accept responsibility for its own defense. Settlers were able to transfer from their army units to the settlements, creating militias with an "extensive array of government issue weaponry."18

Horror stories of the settlers' brutality abound. Noam Chomsky writes of one Israeli soldier's account:

A soldier reports that 30 12-13-year-old boys were lined up facing a wall with their hands up for five hours in Hebron one very cold night, kicked if they moved. He justified the punishment because they are not "all innocent lambs as they look now, with their hands up and their eyes asking pity... They burn and they throw stones and participate in demonstrations, and they are not less harmful than their parents."19

Murders of Palestinians by settlers were recorded, but not punished.20 In fact, soldiers were given instructions to "harass the West Bank population in general, not just those involved in anti-Israeli demonstrations." Threats by soldiers involved in the Peace Now movement prompted one investigation that found Sharon "urged Israeli soldiers to beat Arab schoolchildren in the West Bank."21

Begin promoted Sharon to defense minister in 1981, giving him the platform to enact his grand visions for Israel in the region. They included "Operation Peace for Galilee" to crush the PLO, as well as the Syrian presence in Lebanon, and "Operation Big Pines" to set up a "responsible" government in Lebanon. Sharon planned to hand Lebanon's government to Bashir Gemayal's Phalange, a fascist political-military mafia composed of members of the Maronite Christian sect. The "responsible" government would represent a small minority answerable to Israel in an overwhelmingly Muslim country.22

With plans for Operations Peace in Galilee and Big Pines laid out, and with approval from U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig obtained, Israel looked for an excuse to invade Lebanon. The instigating act was the attempted assassination of the Israeli ambassador to Britain--never mind that his attackers were from the Abu Nidal-led Palestine National Liberation Movement, which organized in opposition to the PLO. Begin declared, "They're all PLO,"23 and the following day the Israeli air force launched a massive bombardment, killing at least 45 Palestinians and Lebanese (210 according to Lebanese police) and wounding 150 to 200. The PLO shelled settlements in northern Israel that wounded eight.

Israeli forces then launched into a full-scale war with 80,000 troops, 1,240 tanks, 1,520 armored personnel carriers, and heavy air bombardments with napalm. Sharon told officers that Palestinian neighborhoods in Beirut should be "utterly destroyed," even though they contained some 85,000 civilians.24 The American Red Cross counted 10,000 deaths and 100,000 homeless by the sixth day of the attack. Thousands of these deaths occurred at Palestinian refugee camps and Shi'ite Lebanese villages. For more than three months, Sharon led the IDF, working with the Phalangists, in slaughtering 30,000 to 40,000 Lebanese and Palestinians, with 100,000 seriously wounded and half a million homeless.25

The IDF and its allies demolished and bulldozed Palestinian camps. The children's hospital in the Sabra refugee camp and the Gaza Hospital near the camps were attacked. When a New York Times reporter asked an IDF official why houses where women and children lived were bulldozed, the answer was simply, "They're all terrorists."26

By far the most barbaric episodes of the war occurred at its end. Israel, armed to the teeth by Western powers, had easily crushed the PLO in Lebanon. But Bashir Gemayal wasn't as grateful to Israel as Begin had hoped. On September 14, Gemayal died in a huge explosion in his headquarters. Speculation fingered a more pro-Israeli Phalange faction, who may have assassinated Gemayal with Israel's help. Nevertheless, Gemayal's supporters looked for revenge against the Palestinians. Sharon insisted that the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps harbored 2,000 to 3,000 "terrorists," and he and Eitan met with Phalange leaders on September 15 to discuss a plan. Israel forces would enter West Beirut under the pretext of preventing Christian reprisals (but really to attack Muslim militias), and the Phalange would enter the camps to search for "terrorists." Sharon himself gave the order to allow the Phalange into the camps.

Israeli forces surrounded the camps as the Phalange, with Israeli equipment, killed every man, woman, and child they could find. On September 17, two days into the slaughter, IDF officers met with Phalangist officers. The officers "knew that Phalangists would be in the camps (again) all night and that they were using bulldozers (to dispose of corpses); they also knew about the flight of panic-stricken civilians."27 About 3,000 Palestinian civilians were butchered in three days. Two Israeli reporters gave the following description:

In addition to the wholesale slaughter of families, the Phalangists indulged in such sadistic horrors as hanging live grenades around their victims' necks. In one particularly vicious act of barbarity, an infant was trampled to death by a man wearing spiked shoes. The entire Phalangist action in Sabra and Shatilla seemed to be directed against civilians....

We have had many accounts of women raped, pregnant women, their fetuses cut out afterward, women with hands chopped off, earrings pulled.28

The Kahan Commission, an official Israeli board of inquiry into Israeli complicity in the massacre, found Sharon "indirectly responsible" for the massacre and urged his resignation. Even though the testimony produced in the 1983 commission report would lead any reasonable person to conclude that Sharon and Eitan directly collaborated in the massacre, the Commission still sought to whitewash Sharon's role. No "responsibility should be imputed to the Defense Minister [i.e., Sharon] for not ordering the removal of the Phalangists from the camps when the first reports reached him about the acts of killing being committed." Assessing this cowardly excuse, Noam Chomsky wrote: "One might ask...whether the IDF would have taken a similarly casual attitude, with the support of the distinguished Commission, had it learned that PLO terrorists were killing hundreds of Jews ."29 Sharon took the Kahan Commission's advice to resign as defense minister. However, instead of disgrace and banishment from government, he took a position as "minister without portfolio."

Today, Sharon lives in Israel without ever having been brought to justice for the atrocities he has committed. The Israeli public, the American government, and the mainstream media want to paper over his past. On the eve of Sharon's election as prime minister, journalist Robert Fisk--one of the first journalists to enter Sabra and Shatilla after the massacre--wrote:

Yes, those of us who got into Sabra and Shatilla before the murderers left have our memories. The flies racing between the reeking bodies and our faces, between dried blood and reporter's notebook, the hands of watches still ticking on dead wrists. I clambered up a rampart of earth--an abandoned bulldozer stood guiltily nearby - only to find, once I was atop the mound, that it swayed beneath me. And I looked down to find faces, elbows, mouths, a woman's legs protruding through the soil. I had to hold on to these body parts to climb down the other side. Then there was the pretty girl, her head surrounded by a halo of clothes pegs, her blood still running from a hole in her back. We had burst into the yard of her home, desperate to avoid the Israeli-uniformed militiamen who still roamed the camp; coming in by back door, we had found her body as the murderers left by the front door....

And so today, in this fetid, awful place, where Lebanese Muslim militiamen were--three years later--to kill hundreds more Palestinians in a war which produced no official inquiries, where scarcely 20 percent of the survivors still live, where brown mud and rubbish now covers the mass grave of 600 of the 1982 victims, the Palestinians wait to see if their tormentor will hold the highest office in the state of Israel.30

With a bona fide war criminal leading Israel today, some might be tempted to look favorably on the Labor governments that pursued the "peace process" with Palestinians. Yet this would be wrong. Not only are leading Labor politicians from previous "pro-peace" administrations sitting in Sharon's cabinet, but they and their Labor forebears have plenty of Palestinian blood on their hands. As frightening as Sharon's record may be, it is perfectly in sync with the rest of Israeli history and Zionist ideology. This is why the New York Times can speak of Sharon and Peres as "two old friends" who disagree more on "tone and attitude" than on content.31

The only true justice for Palestinians will come with an end to Israel's terrorist state.


Hadas Thier is a member of the International Socialist Organization in New York

1 Joel Greenberg, "Sharon blockades a Palestinian center in the West Bank," New York Times, March 13, 2001.

2 William A. Orme Jr., "Warrior who confounds--Ariel Sharon," New York Times, profile, February 7, 2001.

3 Deborah Sontag, "They agree on one thing: Barak was all wrong," New York Times, March 9, 2001.

4 Doron Rosenblum, "Hope Never Hurts," Ha'aretz, March 7, 2001.

5 Sontag, "They agree on one thing."

6 Noam Chomsky, The Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel and the Palestinians (Cambridge, Massachusetts: South End Press, 1999), p. 144.

7 Baylis Thomas, How Israel Was Won: A Concise History of the Arab-Israeli Conflict (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 1999), p. 107.

8 Uri Milshtein, cited in Chomsky, p. 384.

9 E.H. Hutchison, cited in Chomsky, p. 383.

10 James Ron, "Is Sharon a war criminal?" Chicago Tribune, February 8, 2001.

11 Ariel Sharon, Warrior: The Autobiography of Ariel Sharon (New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1989), p. 88.

12 Sharon, p. 98.

13 This strategy included but was by no means limited to the actions of Unit 101. By early 1995, between 2,700 and 5,000 refugees (mostly unarmed civilians) had been blown up by Israeli mines or shot. Chapter 10 of Thomas' How Israel Was Won provides a good accounting of Israel's border actions between 1948 and 1955.

14 Thomas, pp. 127-84.

15 Phil Reeves, "Sharon's return puts Wreckage Street in fear," The Independent, January 21, 2001.

16 On April 9, 1948, the Irgun and Lehi slaughtered 254 men, women, and children in Deir Yassin. Some villagers were taken by truck for a victory parade in Jerusalem and then returned and shot against a wall. This event terrorized other Palestinians and convinced them to flee for their lives.

17 Howard Sachar, A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996), p. 637.

18 Sachar, p. 869.

19 Quoted in Chomsky, p. 125.

20 Howard Sachar's book goes into some of these accounts on pp. 894-96.

21 From the Jerusalem Post, December 12 and 24, 1982, cited in Chomsky, pp. 128-29.

22 The Phalange was an interesting bedfellow for Israel. Founded by Pierre Gemayal (Bashir's father), it was an openly fascist militia. Phalange literally means fascist, and Gemayal modeled the group accordingly. In 1936, he visited Berlin and met with Hitler. The relationship with Israel originated under the previous Labor administration. Rabin met with Gemayal and both Labor and Likud governments armed the Phalange over the years.

23 Thomas, p. 222.

24 Ron, "Is Sharon a War Criminal?"

25 Thomas, pp. 222-29.

26 Chomsky, p. 217.

27 Ze'ev Schiff and Ehud Ya'ari, Israel's Lebanon War, Ina Friedman, ed. and trans. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984), p. 113.

28 Schiff and Ya'ari, pp. 118-19.

29 Chomsky, pp. 405-06.

30 Robert Fisk, "The legacy of Ariel Sharon," The Independent, February 6, 2001.

31 Sontag, "They agree on one thing."

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