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Ariel Sharon dead at 85

Jan. 11, 2014 2:32 P.M. (Updated: Jan. 20, 2014 11:10 A.M.)
By: Alex Shams
BETHLEHEM (Ma'an) -- Former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon died Saturday after eight years in a coma, leaving behind a bloody and conflicted legacy in the land he called home.

Nicknamed "the Bulldozer," Sharon is remembered by Palestinians and many other Arabs for his involvement in and leadership over massacres in several countries and his role in repressing the Palestinian national movement over the course of decades.

Many Israelis, meanwhile, remember him as a strong but controversial statesman who led the country with an iron fist through uncertain times.

Sharon's iron fist sometimes proved too extreme even for the Israeli military. Throughout his career, Sharon was reprimanded for ruthlessness in dealing with Palestinian and other Arab civilians.

Although he was occasionally punished by superiors, he consistently managed to return to leadership positions in the Israeli armed forces.

A supporter of the Israeli settlement movement of Palestinian lands, Sharon presided over the unprecedented expansion of Jewish colonies in the territories occupied by Israel in 1967.

While many Israelis remember him for the domestically controversial decision to pull 8,500 settlers out of the Gaza Strip in 2005, Palestinians remember that he was a key architect of the movement that brought 500,000 Jewish colonists to settle the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.

In 2000, he toured the Al-Aqsa compound in East Jerusalem and set off a Palestinian national uprising.

There are few figures in the region today who inspires as much passion and anger as Sharon.

A troubled youth

Born in 1928 to Belarussian parents on a Jewish collective settlement in the British Mandate of Palestine, Sharon joined a Zionist militia in the 1940s to take part in the movement to create a Jewish state.

Sharon participated in military campaigns led by the Haganah, which famously devised Plan Dalet, a template for the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians from their homes in order to create a Jewish majority in what was to become Israel.

Following independence, Sharon joined the infamous Unit 101 of the Israeli armed forces, where he led covert cross-border operations against civilian and military targets in the Jordanian-occupied West Bank.

In October 1953, Sharon led a squad on a raid into the village of Qibya, blowing up houses and throwing grenades at random into residential neighborhoods. The raid, which would come to be called the Qibya Massacre, killed 69 civilians, two-thirds of them women and children, and provoked international outrage.

Sharon's military legacy in the years following were also mired in controversy, as his conduct in the Suez Canal war was seen by superiors as unnecessarily aggressive.

Following a major victory against Egyptian forces in 1967, however, Sharon was appointed head of the Southern Command for the Israeli military in 1969.

Sharon the politician

By the early 1970s, however, he fell into more trouble with superiors and was subsequently relieved of duty.

Sharon then moved into politics, and he became a major force behind the establishment of the right-wing Likud party. He was an early advocate of the movement that advocated Jewish colonization of the territories captured in 1967.

From the beginning of the settlement movement, he promoted efforts to take over Arab-owned lands and give them to Jews, with the intent of preventing Arabs who had fled from returning.

After success in the 1981 elections, Sharon was appointed minister of defense, a role that would earn him international notoriety as he presided over the bloody Israeli invasion of Lebanon.

The invasion, which came in response to PLO attacks from southern Lebanon onto Israeli territory, killed around 20,000 Lebanese and Palestinians, and was brutal even by the standards of the ongoing civil war.

In the most notorious episode of Sharon's career, he presided over and facilitated the massacre of around 3,500 unarmed Palestinian civilians in Sabra and Shatila in southern Beirut by Israeli-supported Lebanese Phalangist militias.

Israeli forces who controlled the area surrounded the camp and lit flares during the night to help militants navigate alleyways as they slaughtered residents.

The Kahan Commission, an Israeli government body set up to ascertain whether or not its armed forces bore responsibility for the massacre, charged in 1982 that Sharon indirectly bore "personal responsibility" for "ignoring the danger of bloodshed and revenge" and "not taking appropriate measures to prevent bloodshed."

The brutality of the invasion of Lebanon united previously divided Lebanese factions against Israel and led to the creation of the Lebanese political party and militant group Hezbollah, which would go on to challenge Israeli supremacy in the region.

Israeli forces eventually withdrew from most of Lebanon but occupied the south of the country until 2000, when they pulled out after years of Hezbollah-led resistance.

Settlements and Intifada

Due to public pressure in the wake of the massacre, Sharon lost his position as defense minister but remained in the Israeli cabinet, focusing primarily on the settlement movement and domestic issues in the 1980s and 1990s.

Sharon was a principle architect of the settlement movement, using his positions as minister of housing and national infrastructure among others to facilitate the construction of a vast apparatus of illegal settlements on occupied lands in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights in Syria.

In 1998, Sharon told a meeting of the right-wing Tzomet party that "Everybody has to move, run and grab as many hilltops as they can to enlarge the settlements because everything we take now will stay ours. ... Everything we don't grab will go to them."

In other posts, he worked to incorporate Jewish settlements into instruments of national planning, normalizing their status as integral parts of Israel despite their illegality under international law.

In September 2000, amid rising anger in the Palestinian territories over continuing settlement construction and the breakdown of peace talks, Sharon toured the Al-Aqsa compound in occupied East Jerusalem accompanied by 1,000 security forces.

The site is holy to both Muslims and Jews, and years of Israeli construction around the site -- including the demolition of a Palestinian neighborhood, the Maghrebi Quarter, in 1967 -- make it an important symbol for Palestinians.

The visit led to mass protests, while violent Israeli repressions of these protests fueled into widespread public anger at Israel's failure to abide by its responsibilities according to the peace talks and end the occupation.

The days that followed marked a major escalation of the Palestinian national resistance against Israel, and unleashed waves of fury and violence against both the Israeli military and civilians that became known as the Second Intifada.

He emerged as Israel's prime minister in February 2001 and would oversee the brutal response to the intifada that left thousands of Palestinians dead. At the same time, hundreds of Israelis died in the waves of Palestinian militant bombings that hit Israeli cities.

Sharon remained defiant despite the bloodshed. In March 2001, in response to a US-led fact-finding commission on the beginning of the violence, he told public radio that "Israel may have the right to put others on trial, but certainly no one has the right to put the Jewish people and the State of Israel on trial."

'The Butcher of Beirut'

Toward the end of his life, Sharon began to support limited pull-outs from the occupied territories.

In 2005, he campaigned for and later implemented a withdrawal of all settlements in the Gaza Strip as well as four in the West Bank, angering the settler movement and acquiring a reputation as a man of peace abroad.

But for the Palestinians, the last-minute act -- which Sharon himself argued was strategic, and not a peace offering -- did little to salvage the reputation of a man who was known popularly as the "Butcher of Beirut."

On Jan. 4, 2006, Sharon suffered a massive hemorrhagic stroke, putting him into a coma that would last more than eight years.

During that time, Israeli leaders have continued settlement expansion across the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The Gaza Strip, meanwhile, has been under Israeli siege since 2006. Israeli military control over its borders, trade, airspace, and water mean that it is an occupied territory by international standards.

Nearly 10 years after Sharon disappeared from public life, his legacy lives on. "The Bulldozer" has been more successful in laying the groundwork for Israeli occupation and control than he could have possibly imagined.
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