Ariel Sharon: A brutal military man, astute politician and defender of his country

Ariel Sharon has died aged 85 after being in a coma for eight years Photo: Reuters

Jewish law says the dead have to be buried within a day. In Ariel Sharon’s case, that law will be suspended. He is a leader Israel wants to honour, and a state funeral takes time to organise.

Sharon was born twenty years before the state of Israel, and his life was dedicated to its protection. He started doing that with a knife in his teeth and a grenade on his belt as a paramilitary in Israel’s war for independence in 1948.

He was a paratrooper in the Suez conflict eight years later, and in 1967 he rewrote the rules of military strategy in Israel’s astounding victory in the six-day war.

Then, in 1973, when Israel was taken by surprise by assaults from Egypt and Syria, he left his farm to join his reserve armoured division, and led the decisive manoeuvre, saving his homeland from invasion.

Major General Ariel Sharon meets with Israeli army field commanders in 1967. Credit: Reuters

So Sharon was a quite brilliant military man, but he was brutal too.

In the 1950s, as the commander of the special forces ‘Unit 101’, he took merciless revenge on Palestinian villages for guerrilla attacks on Israel. An eye for an eye might have been his guiding principle then, but it was for turning a blind eye that he became internationally notorious.

By 1982, Sharon was Israel’s defence minister, and he oversaw the invasion of Lebanon in the same year.The aim was to root out the fighters of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation.

During the conflict, Israel’s allies, Lebanese Christian militiamen, murdered hundreds of Palestinians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Chatila.

Sharon stood accused of doing nothing to stop the slaughter, even of facilitating it. The following year he was removed from office after an Israeli commission of inquiry found him ‘indirectly responsible’ for the killings.

Major General in the Reserves Ariel Sharon rides in a jeep in 1973. Credit: Reuters

Sharon made his political comeback by continuing to confront the Palestinians.

A photocall on holy ground in Jerusalem sparked an uprising in the West Bank, occupied territory in which Sharon loudly encouraged Jews to settle.

But as prime minister, he became convinced that Israel could not be kept safe by the sword alone.

In 2003, he announced that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza could not go on forever. “It is bad for us and bad for them”, he said.

Ariel Sharon overlooks a part of the controversial Israeli barrier in 2005. Credit: Reuters

And so the old soldier began to give up the land he personally had fought so hard to win.

His withdrawal of soldiers and settlers from Gaza and parts of the West Bank turned him from hero to villain in the minds of some Israelis.

But by fair means or foul, Sharon’s life was dedicated to defending Israel. In death he is a colossus, striding through the pages of Israel’s history.

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