I shall mourn Ariel Sharon's life, not his death

Sharon deliberately deceived his Cabinet. He devastated Beirut, leaving 300 dead in a day and looked on approvingly as fascist militias entered refugee camps to rape, murder and torture thousands of Palestinians

In February 1983, a judge-led Commission of Inquiry found Ariel Sharon, then the Israeli defence minister, “indirectly responsible” for the massacre and brutalisation of thousands of women, children and old men in two Palestinian refugee camps in southern Lebanon.

It was then that I heard my mother say, in a flat matter-of fact tone, that if Sharon ever became Prime Minister she would commit suicide. I was shocked, not just by what she said but that she said it at all.

My mother never showed any interest in politics and was certainly not a drama queen.  But there was something about the emerging horrors of the events in Sabra and Shatila which struck a terrible chord.

Born in Poland, she grew up in Cracow and left as a 21-year-old in 1935 to marry my father, who was already in Palestine, having fled Nazi Berlin two years earlier. She only learned the fate of her family in 1946 when she found that, with the exception of her brother Romek who survived by working for Schindler, her entire family had been wiped out by the Germans.

She hardly ever spoke of it, but the pain never went away. So when, 35 years after the creation of the Jewish state, she saw its own leaders allowing terrible atrocities to be carried out on helpless innocents, she cracked.

Back then, of course, it seemed an idle threat. The Kahan Commission found that Sharon had deliberately deceived the Cabinet the previous June. Calling it “Operation Peace for Galilee”, he sent Israeli tanks rumbling towards Beirut - well beyond the 20km he was authorised to go. He proceeded to devastate Beirut, including a seven-hour bombardment one day in August which left over 300 dead. He then encouraged Lebanon’s fascist Maronite militias to enter two refugee camps, Sabra and Shatila, and looked on approvingly as they raped, tortured and murdered thousands of Palestinian civilians who had nowhere to flee.

When the Kahan Commission condemned his complicity and demanded his resignation, he stormed into the Prime Minister’s office, shouting and bullying, which was his normal behaviour in the absence of television cameras. He called the Kahan findings “a mark of Cain on all of us for generations,” and adamantly refused to resign. Former Stern Gang leader Yitchak Shamir, who had taken over from Begin as PM, was cowed into allowing him to stay in his cabinet, where he bided his time.

In 2001 he was elected Prime Minister. There followed a wave of suicide bombings across Israel which were met by Sharon’s “reprisals” – a policy of disproportionate military revenge attacks not on the perpetrators themselves but on their families, villages and homes. Sharon would have known this was futile, as it had been his policy since 1953, when, following a lethal Palestinian assault on an Israeli kibbutz, he led his men into the West Bank town of Qibya in an operation at the end of which  69 civilians—mostly Palestinian women and children—lay dead. It didn’t end the Palestinian terror attacks: on the contrary, it fuelled them. But the promise of fire and brimstone “reprisals” always plays well with the electorate as Benyamin Netanyahu knows all too well.

I was in Israel in 2006, when Sharon suffered the stroke which put him into the coma from which he never woke, as I was earlier this month when his body began to give up on him and the media began a non-stop Sharon-fest of verbiage and nostalgia. But I cannot for the life of me understand those who insist on describing this consummate warrior as a “peacemaker”. The withdrawal from Gaza, which was itself brutal and unilateral, is widely thought to have been carried out to prevent his being indicted on various corruption charges he was being investigated for.

My mother died quietly in 1995. Sharon will be buried tomorrow, lessons of his failures all unlearnt and peace more elusive than ever.