What determines ‘bulldozer’ Ariel Sharon’s legacy?

The late Israeli former PM will go down in history for his divisive involvement in conflicts in the Arab world

Eman El-Shenawi

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Ariel Sharon, the former Israeli general and prime minister who was in a coma for eight years after he had a stroke at the height of his power, died on Saturday aged 85, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said.

The man once named the “Lion of God” had cheated death in his coma years, suffering a massive stroke and a cerebral hemorrhage in 2006 that medics say would have killed a weaker man.

In the coma ever since, Sharon, also dubbed “the bulldozer,” faced imminent death, hospital sources said on Sunday, as his vital organs began to fail.

The world is now turning the spotlight on him again, remembering his controversial career that stretched back more than half a century.

A divisive commander

How he is viewed in the Arab world will leave blood-stained smears on his legacy, and for Israel’s Arab neighbors, each country can mark individual milestones of his reign.

“I’d like Ariel Sharon to be remembered as an aggressive militarist and Arab-hater who often exceeded his orders,” Joel Beinin, a U.S.-based professor of Middle East history, told Al Arabiya News.

Sharon was a major general by the start of the Six-Day War in 1967, which ended with Israel’s capture of the Sinai Peninsula, the

Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.

“As commander of the southern front after the 1967 war, he brutally suppressed Palestinian resistance in the Gaza Strip, bulldozing pathways through refugee camps to make way for armored personnel carriers and the like to patrol,” Beinin said.

In 1971, Sharon led a campaign to crush Palestinian resistance in the Gaza Strip after he rose through the ranks of the army.

He will be remembered by Egyptians “for disobeying orders and heading for Cairo after Israelis crossed the [Suez] Canal in 1973,” Roger Owen, British historian and professor of Middle East history at Harvard University, told Al Arabiya News.

At the time, Sharon’s troops had broken the Arab advance and encircled Egyptian forces in the Sinai. Israeli tanks crossed into the Suez Canal’s western border and reached within 101 kilometers of Cairo.

Following the shelling of northern Israel by Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization in southern Lebanon, Sharon masterminded Israel’s invasion of its northern neighbor in 1982.

He sent the Israeli army all the way to Beirut, without explicitly informing Prime Minister Menachem Begin. The move ended in the expulsion of the PLO from Lebanon.

While this stopped the PLO using Lebanon to launch attacks against Israel, it led to a massacre of hundreds of Palestinians by Lebanese Christian militiamen in two Beirut refugee camps, Sabra and Shatila.

For Palestinians and Lebanese, Israel’s involvement in the Sabra and Shatila massacres of 1982, which forced Sharon to resign as defense minister, remains one of the watershed moments of his legacy.

In 1983, the Israeli Kahan Commission, appointed to investigate the incident, found that Israeli military personnel, aware that a massacre was in progress, failed to take serious steps to stop it.

“His role as a mastermind of the Sabra and Shatila massacre of hundreds of Palestinian refugees in Beirut in 1982 will never be forgotten or forgiven, and will forever blight his international image,” David Ottaway, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, and formerly a Middle East correspondent for the Washington Post, told Al Arabiya News.

Back in the spotlight

Still, Sharon remained an important political figure within Israel, and as housing minister in the early 1990s he presided over “the biggest building drive in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza since Israel occupied the territories in 1967,” the BBC reports.

Sharon went on to become leader of the Likud party in opposition after current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s defeat in the 1999 general election.

Sharon in 2000 made a provocative visit as foreign minister to the Temple Mount in East Jerusalem, igniting outrage among Muslims that quickly escalated into the second intifada (uprising).

“In the Arab world and among Palestinians, he’ll never be forgotten for his callous attitude toward dispossessed Palestinians and his hard-line, uncompromising attitude in peace talks,” said Ottaway.

Jump to 2002, the year after Sharon took the helm as prime minister after a landslide electoral victory over Ehud Barak, and Israel had begun the construction of a barrier in the West Bank. His election pledge was to achieve “security and true peace.”

However, he continued the rapid expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Shock turnaround

After hostility at home grew due to a string of attacks by Palestinian militants in Israel, Sharon withdrew from the Gaza Strip and four settlements in the northern West Bank.

As opposition mounted within Likud to the Gaza pullout, Sharon dissolved parliament and left the party in Nov. 2005 along with many allies to form Kadima.

“Certainly his departure from Likud, and when he concluded that Israel’s future security and its character as a Jewish state rests on a Jewish majority, represent significant milestones,” Alon Ben-Meir, an expert on the history of peace negotiations between Israel and Arab states, told Al Arabiya News.

“This was a stark departure from his earlier positions as the father of the settlement movement and his then-ambitions to incorporate much of the West Bank into Israel proper,” Ben-Meir added.

The unilateral withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip was a shock turnaround from a long-time supporter of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories.

“Although many Arabs, especially in the countries that surround Israel [Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan], feared him, many have come to respect him, especially since he became comatose, realizing that had he remained in power, he might’ve been able to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict equitably,” Ben-Meir said.

Sharon was reported to be in high spirits when he left Likud, and was expected to return as prime minister in fresh elections.

However, in Dec. 2005 he was incapacitated by his first stroke, and was put on blood-thinners before experiencing a severe brain hemorrhage on Jan. 4, 2006, from which he never regained consciousness.

“He lies in bed, looking like the lord of the manor, sleeping tranquilly. Large, strong, self-assured,” Gilad Sharon wrote of his father - former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon - in his biography two years ago.

“Given the current right-wing atmosphere in Israel, he’ll more likely be remembered as someone whose personal military and political career mirrored that of the nation, beginning in the Labor Zionist militia… an early brutalizer of the Palestinians under occupation in the early 1970s, and a key figure in establishing Likud after 1973,” said Beinin.