It was another warrior who uttered the words “Old soldiers never die; they just fade away.”
And so it is for a father of Israel. A man who minced neither his words nor his actions. He is loved, he is hated, he is revered. Death will not change the range of emotions and opinions held on this son of Israel. He will be remembered as a man who saved Israel when she needed him most, more than once.
A warrior, a lawyer, a politician, a farmer, there were many sides to this great man. Controversy will never be far from his memory just as it was never far from him when he walked among us.
This man fused ideology with pragmatism, military might with political instinct. There will never be another like him.
Ariel Sharon was a man whose military career created the ethos of the Israel Defence Forces and laid the backbone for her extraordinary Special Forces. Ariel Sharon went from being a platoon commander during Israel’s War of Independence to creating Unit 101, the IDF’s first Special forces unit from scratch. He was only 23 at the time and already held the rank of Major. He moved on to command the fledgling Paratroopers during their heyday as the tip of the IDF spear, tasked with launching punitive operations into neighbouring enemy countries. He seemed to personify the aggressive might of the IDF.
He spearheaded the invasion of the Sinai Desert during the 6 Day War. During that conflict he held the rank of general and commanded an armoured division. His tanks battered and then broke the Egyptian army as it raced to the Suez Canal. During the Yom Kippur War, after having retired from active military service, Sharon served as a reserve commander of an armoured division and showed his mettle at a time when his country needed him the most. While all was at crisis point it was Ariel ‘Arik’ Sharon who forced a crossing of the Suez Canal and surrounded the Egyptian 3rd Army forcing the Egyptians to accept ceasefire terms. In strategic terms his successful crossing simply cannot be overstated.
But within all of the good in his military career lie scars that haunt both him and the State of Israel. It is the way of all successful generals that their greatest strength is also their greatest weakness. Sharon was an aggressive general in the mould of a general Patton or Napoleon. He attacked the enemy.
This attacking instinct led him to make mistakes that almost destroyed his career. As well as being the most famous and successful unit in IDF history, Unit 101 was also the bloodiest. The shockingly high body count resulting from their operations led to the unit being folded into the Paratroopers after a mere year and a half. The biggest stain on 101 was an operation in the Jordanian town of Qibya where 69 civilians were killed by Sharon’s forces. Though the battle at the Mitla Pass has been included in the annals of IDF history it was a battle that need not have been fought. The fight was as bloody as it was unnecessary. His military career stalled because of it. Though it was to take off once again during the tenure of Yitzhak Rabin as Chief of Staff.
Something particularly worth hi-lighting when considering his later disengagement from Gaza is that Sharon ended his military career as the commander of the Southern Region. During this period he successfully put down an uprising in Gaza using his particular talent for low intensity conflict.
As a soldier Sharon didn’t hold back from a fight, as a politician he was exactly the same. A key player in the formation of the Likud Party Sharon strongly supported the settlement of the West Bank. As Defence Minister he received widespread blame for the 1982 campaign into Beirut that saw the IDF remain in a security zone stretching the breadth of Lebanon for almost 20 years. The political fallout resulting from the massacre of Palestinians by Christian Phalange forces allied to Israel in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps eventually lead to him resigning his post as Defence minister. He remained in the government as a Minister Without Portfolio.
For this blogger, without a doubt the most important and resonant part of Sharon’s political career was in his later years. His insistence that the settlements in Gaza be dismantled and that the IDF withdraw stand in stark contrast to the newly minted Defence minister. In 1982 he had yet to shed his military skin and take on the mantle of political power. Sharon’s new found principles cost him the leadership of the party he helped form, Bibi Netanyahu sent him packing though not before he carried out the withdrawal from Gaza as planned. When ousted by Bibi as head of the Likud he pulled a typically Sharon move in outflanking the party he helped create by taking enough big shots with him from the Likud and the Left to build himself a new party; Kadima. Though the party was formed around his personality it still managed to secure enough seats in the Knesset to form a government after he was hit by a stroke.
There is a big wall snaking its way through the West Bank which more or less follows the 1967 borders of Israel. In the wake of this wall or ‘Separation Barrier’ being built successful terrorist incursions into Israel dropped significantly. In light of the fact that Sharon forced through the withdrawal from Gaza there was widespread talk that he was looking to unilaterally remove Israel from the West Bank also. I guess we’ll never know if this was his true intent.
The remarkable transformation of Ariel Sharon from being the man who invaded Beirut and the Defence Minister who backed settlement of the West Bank to the Prime Minister who championed unilateral disengagement and oversaw the removal of the Israeli presence in Gaza is awe inspiring. He showed Israelis a vision of a new world and gave them the confidence to believe that he could create it for them. Perhaps he could have.
He spent his whole life fighting people. From Egyptians to Lebanese to Palestinians to members of his own political party. Sharon was unmoved by any form of resistance to him, be it on the battlefield or in the political arena. He lit up Israel with the fire that came from within his soul, and the country that was both burned by the power of that fire and basked in its warmth will forever be a little darker for that light first fading and now being extinguished forever. We can no longer take comfort from the presence of the old warrior.
He will be revered, respected and hated for many years to come. Perhaps no higher accolade can be uttered than to say he helped shape this nation. Though I sense he would prefer to be remembered in perpetuity for his courage, for always doing what he felt was right.
Now fade away old soldier, we will miss you.