During the 1982 Lebanon War, while Ariel Sharon was Defense minister, the Sabra and Shatila massacre took place. The Kahan Commission investigating these massacres said that he bears personal responsibility and recommended in early 1983 the removal of Sharon from his post as Defense minister. (Photo: UNRWA)
After reading a number of tentative eulogies for now brain-damaged Ariel Sharon in the mainstream US press, one wishes that more sound-bites and column space could be devoted to those who bore the brunt of “the Bulldozer’s” morally troubling and legally insupportable policies and decisions.
Could we not hear from the bereaved parents of the Israeli soldiers that Sharon led into Lebanon in 1982 in a reckless war that caused more Israeli casualties and provoked sharper social debates than any Israeli military action up until then? Perhaps we should give attention not only to Ariel Sharon’s idyllic ranch, steely determination, and pride as a warrior, but also to the most aggrieved victims of violent acts committed under his Command Responsibility: the victims of the Sabra and Shatila massacre of 16-18 September 1982.
One cannot help wondering, in light of media focus on the campaign for the upcoming Israeli elections: What ever happened to the Israeli public that reacted with appropriate moral horror to news of the massacre in 1982 by staging the largest demonstrations Israel had ever seen? No Arab country witnessed such public outrage over the massacre; Lebanon’s shattered government refused to investigate it seriously.
Is it possible that the Israel of 1982 had more integrity than the Israel of today? Average Israelis’ humane and outraged reaction to the massacre 23 years ago paved the way for the 1983 Kahan Commission’s (non-legally binding) investigation, which concluded that Ariel Sharon should never again hold public office. His return as Prime Minister in 2001 reveals Israel’s political cynicism, deterioration, and corruption. Palestinian intransigence does not explain Sharon’s political resurrection as well as does the complete impunity that Israel has enjoyed for war crimes over the last two decades, particularly since the Al-Qaida attacks of 2001, a watershed event that enabled Israeli and US discourses about “wars on terror” to dovetail seamlessly.
The fact that many Israelis, including professed “Leftists,” now view Sharon’s unilateral disengagement plan and the formation of the new Kadima centrist party as the salvation of the “demographically threatened” Jewish state speaks volumes about the tragic destruction of true, enduring and powerful Jewish values:
“You shall do justice, and only justice.”
“To save one life is to save the entire world.”
Even some of the most compassionate and eloquent Israeli journalists and essayists (one of whom spoke admiringly of Sharon at a conference here in Spain during the very week of the 23rd anniversary of the massacres), were gushing about how Sharon had finally seen the light and become a “progressive” just like them, as evidenced by the Gaza disengagement, a dramatic event depicted as the crowning achievement of Sharon’s golden years.
Perhaps another metallic metaphor would be more accurate, however, as gold does not tarnish, and history will show how very tarnished Sharon’s reputation — and the Israeli public’s blind acceptance of his crimes as necessary evils — really are. The visions of the Kadima Party, which Sharon created, do not include a West Bank disengagement, nor will they entertain the possibility of dismantling the ugly “Separation Barrier,” or Apartheid Wall, that Israel is building in clear violation of International Humanitarian Law, as the International Court of Justice at The Hague clarified in its dramatic July 2004 Advisory Ruling. To the contrary: Kadima has no qualms about violating the Fourth Geneva Convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and continuing to dispossess and kill more Palestinians.
Although the mostly US-born and -financed colonists are finally out of Gaza, the Israeli Air Force is still very much engaged above its crowded cities and refugee camps. The IDF recently shot dead, in cold blood, a young girl in Gaza. Few in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) are losing sleep over this war crime, though, as they justify such cruelties on the grounds that 9 year-olds might be suicide bombers. What is one small life compared to Israel’s state-building and land-grabbing project, or to the unhealed wounds of the Holocaust, which have become the centerpiece of contemporary Israeli worship and the justification for self-righteous policymaking and military arrogance?
Even a profoundly ideologically impaired observer (of which there are too many in politics and media today) should have realized that given past precedents, Sharon’s “new” plan was merely a repackaged version of his life-long project: to demonstrate that Palestinians are blood-thirsty, irrational killers representing a reincarnation of European anti-Semitism in Arab garb. Therefore, there is not, and nor can there ever be, any true “partner” for peace. Israelis need never compromise, listen, reflect or work towards a genuine reconciliation based on justice and universal notions of rights and equality.
The Palestinians, we are to assume, have sacrificed their very right to human rights by resisting the theft of their land, the expulsion of their people, the longest refugee crisis in modern history, and the crushing effects of a suffocating and frequently callous occupation as well as sadistic and often lethal forms of torture.
Loud warnings and outcries about the recent Palestinian legislative election results, which have put Hamas in the political driver’s seat, were preceded by silence or muted warnings about Israel’s legal intransigence and gratuitous cruelty in the Occupied Territories. Far too few leaders or opinion makers dared to raise their voices during the last decade as Israel’s military, political and intelligence establishments under Sharon’s administration were busy killing, jailing, or corrupting (via control over Palestinian Authority finances and external aid) any possible Palestinian leaders who might have emerged.
Arafat was an ideal and highly unphotogenic whipping boy, whom the Israeli and US press demonized all out of proportion to his actual role in history. His successor, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), just could not play his role effectively, whether as leader of the Palestinians or as a terrifying bete noir for Israelis.
The internal logic of Zionism, like all forms of nationalism, requires an opposite, and enemy. If a threat is lacking, it must be created, or imminent threats must be encouraged or blown out of proportion, in order to justify the whole project.
Not enough scholars, journalists, or diplomats have dared question the pious discourses intoned by Israeli officials and their uncritical American backers about Israeli security having priority over Palestinians’ basic rights. Few public figures have been brave enough to challenge the numbing repetition of Israel’s mantra: Its very existence is threatened by essentially evil people. It is no great feat to demonize suicide bombers, i.e., ideologically deranged and psychologically desperate young men and women who, like their parents, have endured a crushing occupation that the US and EU continue to ignore – and worse, to fund.
Appropriately, virtually all journalists, politicians, diplomats, and scholars have spoken out strongly against the atrocity of suicide bombings, which are inexcusable violations of international law. We do not, alas, hear much about Israel’s nuclear arsenal, spy satellites, state-of-the-art weaponry, surveillance capacities, revisionist historians’ writings, or the IDF’s sysematic and grave violations of international humanitarian law, not to mention the obscenely immense sums the US Congress earmarks annually to sustain this unsustainable situation. There may be little money for New Orleans, but there are always funds available for The Wall.
Ten days ago, I was nauseated upon receiving my copy of The New Yorker to see that Ari Shavit, a journalist who wrote a powerful essay in the The New York Times in 1996 decrying the IDF’s massacre of 106 innocent civilians sheltering at a UNIFIL compound in south Lebanon (“How Easily We Killed Them”), had penned the lead article depicting Sharon as a mythic warrior and an earthy, pragmatic grandfather figure who had mellowed in his final years.
Maybe morally compromised Israeli intellectuals such as Shavit and Benny Morris, as well as media sell-outs like Thomas Friedman (who wrote one of the most powerful and damning accounts of Sabra and Shatila massacre two days after it was “discovered”), can deny history and blithely rewrite Sharon’s biography. No one who endured the IDF’s brutal aerial assaults and cruel siege of Beirut in the summer of 1982, however, will buy this treacle. Nor should any of us, if we wish to remain conscious of and conscientious about the shared world in which we live.
Unlike events in Las Vegas, what happens in the Middle East does not stay in the Middle East. The horrors of 1982 did not, in the end, express some unique historical or culture essence or barbaric mentalities peculiar to the protracted Arab-Israeli conflict. Rather, these atrocities constituted alarming harbingers of a world without laws: our world in 2006. Impunity for the atrocities of 1982, like impunity anywhere else in the region or farther afield, ultimately threatens everyone of us directly or indirectly.
Impunity thrives in silence and in darkness. It feeds on lies, myths, and rationalizations. Impunity debases language with twisted rationalizations while mocking moral conscience by posing distracting questions or making specious comparisons.
To root out impunity, we must give voice to truth as clearly as we can: By the time of his massive stroke, Ariel Sharon had not mellowed, but rather, had simply built cleverly upon his predecessors’ discovery that Israel could flagrantly violate international law and bypass UN Security Council resolutions by appearing to be rational, moderate and interested in peace. The Oslo Accords had already demonstrated that Israel could accrue incredible political benefits through the ruse of law, rather than the rule of law.
The law meant little to Ariel Sharon. Overwhelming force was his métier. By all objective criteria, he was an unrepentant war criminal and a racist who ultimately did his country more harm than good.
Sadly and frighteningly for us all, objective criteria are no longer desired or welcomed by the mainstream media in the US or in Israel. Nor are facts appreciated in Lebanon, which shamefully amnestied all war criminals — both those who aided Sharon and those who opposed his brutal “Operation Peace for Galilee” — thus necessitating the Sabra and Shatila massacre survivors’ doomed search for justice in Brussels, rather than on the blood-soaked soil where their loved ones are buried.
The Kahan Commission declared in 1983 that Ariel Sharon bore “personal responsibility” for the massacre — just one of the many war crimes he authored in his long career. This, not soft-focus interviews with and reminiscences of the “Bulldozer,” is Ariel Sharon’s, and by extension, Israel’s, sad legacy.
Suspended between life and death in the liminal zone of a permanent coma, Sharon cannot undo, acknowledge, or apologize for all the blood he shed. All conscious (and conscientious) Israelis still have, however, an opportunity to make amends, affirm justice, and redeem the heart of Judaism, rather than to don the brash armor of self-righteous warriors oppressing a people who have nothing left but their threadbare dignity.
Increasing sectors of the pubic in the United States and Europe are beginning to have doubts about prevailing Israeli discourses. Divestment campaigns and boycotts should alert Israelis not to the ghosts of anti-Semitism, but rather, to the fact that Israel has systematiclly carried out illegal and immoral practices for decades. Military assaults, occupation, suicide bombings, and a chilling disregard for international human rights principles have not borne any fruit for the children of Abraham.
Maybe it is time to give law a chance. If Israelis wish to remain the inheritors of Judaism’s rich legacy based on the damand forjustice, rather than become increasingly shrill and unconvincing defenders of the worst excesses of Zionism, they should speak up now, before the Israeli elections next month.
Laurie King-Irani is a co-founder of the Electronic Intifada and former North American coordinator of International Coalition for the Victims of Sabra and Shatila. She is currently based in Spain.