Ariel Sharon: legacy of division

It is tantalising to speculate that the illness of a man who had spent so much of his life at war may have robbed the region of its greatest chance for peace

For Palestinians living in the West Bank, Ariel Sharon's legacy is clear. They can see it from their windows: the monument of grey, graffitoed slabs topped with barbed wire and dotted with watchtowers that make up parts of the West Bank separation barrier. This aggressive line of control, which when complete will extend 700km, is the prime physical reminder of the life of a divisive leader whose affiliations and policies shifted dramatically but who could claim to have influenced the shape of Israel more than anyone except David Ben-Gurion.

Mr Sharon's biography is rich in symbolism: for his fifth birthday, his father gave him a dagger. (He gave him a violin the following year, but by all accounts young Ariel did not much take to it.) The weapon was prescient for the boy who became the embodiment of the Israeli soldier-hero and called his autobiography Warrior. In 1948, aged just 20, he fought alongside his godfather, Ben-Gurion, in the war for independence; in 1967 he won a tactically complex victory during the six-day war; and in 1973 he brought about what many regard as the turning point in the Yom Kippur war by leading his unit across the Suez canal.

Mr Sharon was adored by his troops, but a reputation for brutality was never far behind. In 1982, serving as defence minister, he allowed Christian Phalangists into the Palestinian camps of Sabra and Shatila, where they massacred more than 700 men, women and children. An Israeli government inquiry concluded that Mr Sharon bore personal responsibility for the incident. But it was Mr Sharon's promotion of settlements that would produce the most vitriolic reaction against him in the wider world. He was an early enthusiast for building Jewish homes in occupied territory and, for almost three decades, from the mid-1970s, he used a number of cabinet roles to push more than 100 developments into the West Bank and Gaza.

There is a twist in the tail of Mr Sharon's political career, which came during his final period as prime minister. Like much in his life, the circumstances of his election in 2001 are controversial: in September 2000 he made a deeply provocative visit to the holy Temple Mount or Haram al-Sharif with 1,000 police officers, sparking a riot that coincided with the start of the second intifada. In the climate of spiralling violence that followed, Israelis turned to the strongman of Suez, who was elected prime minister the following February. It was during this term that Mr Sharon took the substantial leap of moving to a strategy of "disengagement", unilaterally withdrawing troops from the Gaza strip and bulldozing Israeli settlements there. The Israeli right, including members of the Likud party he had helped found, were furious. Soon after, Mr Sharon left the party and set up the more centrist Kadima.

The stroke that felled him in January 2006 left his newfound policy to crumble, and created one of the enduring mysteries of recent Middle Eastern politics. At the end of his life, was the great war leader determined to secure peace by withdrawing from the West Bank? In the optimist's view, the point of Mr Sharon creating Kadima was to make the second, much more difficult, withdrawal. Pessimists say the Gaza pullout was a ruse to hold on to the West Bank, or that it traumatised Israeli politics so deeply that even he would not have had the capital to bulldoze Jewish homes there. All we know for sure is that in the subsequent eight years in which Mr Sharon lay in a coma, the settlements only grew.

It is tantalising to speculate that the illness of a man who had spent so much of his life at war may have robbed the region of its greatest chance for peace, but in the end Mr Sharon must be judged on what he did, rather than what he did not do. There may be nostalgia for his decisiveness and strength, and we may applaud the withdrawal from Gaza, but we cannot cheer his role in creating the settlements, or his long-held belief that the fight against "terror" can be waged only with bullets and bombs.



The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Ariel Sharon obituary

Israel's prime minister and wartime general who bestrode his country's history for more than 50 years

Lawrence Joffe

11, Jan, 2014 @1:57 PM

Article image
'Man of peace'? Ariel Sharon was the champion of violent solutions | Avi Shlaim

Avi Shlaim: Sharon's legacy is the empowerment of some of the worst elements in Israel's dysfunctional politics

Avi Shlaim

13, Jan, 2014 @8:00 AM

Iain Hollingshead: Whatever happened to Ariel Sharon?
Iain Hollingshead: Israel's prime minister, Ehud Olmert, made his first visit to Washington this week while his predecessor and mentor, Ariel Sharon, still lay in a coma in Jerusalem.

Iain Hollingshead

26, May, 2006 @11:03 PM

Ariel Sharon on Yasser Arafat
The Israeli prime minister's view of the Palestinian leader, in his own words.

31, Jan, 2002 @3:54 PM

Sharon: war hero and practical peacemaker | @guardianletters
Letters: He was no saint, but he was the only politician in the Middle East who successfully managed to reduce conflict by two separate practical initiatives

16, Jan, 2014 @9:00 PM

Article image
Ariel Sharon divides opinion as sharply in death as he did in life

Debate over the record and legacy of 'the bulldozer', polarised between war hero or war criminal, has intensified since his death

Harriet Sherwood in Jerusalem

12, Jan, 2014 @7:09 PM

Article image
Ariel Sharon's final mission might well have been peace | Jonathan Freedland

Jonathan Freedland: As one of Israel's founders he had the credibility to give up occupied territory – and even to face the demons of 1948

Jonathan Freedland

03, Jan, 2014 @8:00 PM

Article image
Ariel Sharon: a warrior blamed for massacres and praised for peacemaking
Man who fought bravely for Israel's survival but failed to prevent Lebanese militiamen from killing Palestinians dies aged 85

Peter Beaumont

11, Jan, 2014 @10:30 PM

Article image
Ariel Sharon's death prompts celebrations in Palestine
Residents of refugee camps among those calling occasion of former Israeli prime minister's death 'a holy day'

Harriet Sherwood in Jerusalem, Hazem Balousha in Gaza City and Sufian Taha in Ramallah

12, Jan, 2014 @7:43 PM

Leader: Palestine - the danger of division
Leader: To expect that Mr Abbas will return from Sharm el-Sheikh when the summit ends later this week with a stack of concessions from Israel that might increase his standing among Palestinians is to be unduly optimistic.


25, Jun, 2007 @11:07 PM