Arial Sharon, who died two years ago, on January 11, 2014, symbolized Israel’s struggle with its military challenges since it was established.
He was a major general in the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) and played a role in each of Israel’s high-intensity wars since 1948. He was a junior officer in 1948-49, a brigade commander in 1956, a division commander in 1967 and 1973 and minister of defense in 1982. Although in 1982 he was not in active military service, his dominant position allowed him to conduct the operations in Lebanon as he was both the commander of IDF’s northern command and the chief of general staff.
Sharon represents the times when Israel fought Arab states, mostly Egypt, Syria and Jordan. Sharon fought on several fronts: in the Jordanian one in 1948, in the Egyptian one in 1956, 1967 and 1973 and in the Lebanese front against Syria in 1982.
He was known not only as a commander and a leader in the high intensity wars against Arab states but also for his role in Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians. He first made his name as the commander of Israel’s legendary “101” unit, which was created in 1953 as a role model for the fighting spirit of the IDF. This small commando outfit existed for only a few months and carried out several operations, some of them controversial, as Sharon was throughout his life.
Sharon continued to build his reputation by suppressing the Palestinian insurgency in the Gaza Strip in the early 1970s. The peak for Sharon was in the siege of Beirut in 1982. In that Lebanese capital, Yasser Arafat, the head of the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization), and his men were about to make their last stand after the IDF pushed them back from their bases in south Lebanon. Sharon, then the powerful minister of defense, avoided the final ground attack on the Palestinian military strongholds because of political and military constraints and instead bombed them.
In 1982 Arafat and his men were allowed to leave Beirut. About ten years later they arrived in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, as part of the creation of the PA (Palestinian Authority), following the Oslo accords. Israel kicked out Arafat from Lebanon in 1982 and accepted him in 1993 as a partner. The enemy of the past became an ally but then was once again a foe in the confrontation between Israel and the Palestinians from 2000 to 2005. During most of this period Sharon was the prime minister.
He found himself again against his nemesis, Arafat. At a certain point, after a series of Palestinian terrorist assaults, including suicide bombers, Israel launched a major offensive in the West Bank. This caused the Palestinians casualties and infrastructure damage and isolated Arafat in his headquarters but as in 1982 Sharon did not kill Arafat. Furthermore Sharon did not bring down the PA. He was aware of the ramifications of such a move. This was one example of the complexity of Israel’s wars in the past few decades.
In the 2000-2005 confrontation, Sharon and Israel did not face any more Arab militaries like in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s but rather guerrilla and terror organizations. Those kinds of Palestinian groups had existed since the 1950s, in different versions, but in recent decades Israel’s fight against them took center stage.
Sharon, like the state of Israel and the IDF, had to adjust to that reality. The wars against Arab states had their difficulties and complexities but were in some ways easier to handle since the foe was a conventional military, not elusive nonstate organizations. Israel was also used to wars that lasted mostly a few days or weeks, not years as with the Palestinians. Furthermore, in contrast to wars like in 1956 and 1967, the confrontations with the Palestinians, as in their uprising from 1987 to 1993 and from 2000 to 2005 did not end in a decisive victory for either side.
Sharon was known not only for his military actions but also for his political ones, which were focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In May 1994 Israel gave the PA 80 percent of the Gaza Strip yet left Israeli military posts and the settlements there. In 2005 Sharon ordered the evacuation of the rest of the Gaza Strip, including the removal of almost 8,000 settlers, sometimes by force.
As with his daring attacks into Arab territories during former wars, Sharon would also be remembered for his retreats not only from the Gaza Strip. Following the peace accord with Egypt, in the early 1980s Sharon completed Israel’s withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula, an area he had helped conquer in 1967 and protect in 1973. As a highly experienced military commander, Sharon assumed in the early 1980s and in 2005 that sometimes it’s as important to know when to give up land as when to attack.
All in all, the death of Sharon in 2014 reminds Israel of the changes in its national security environment, the background of the Arab turmoil like the civil war in Syria, and the lawlessness in Sinai. It means that Israel has been facing more nonstate organizations than Arab militaries.
Israel has to be flexible and smart enough to get past this stage of the conflict, which seems less dangerous than the era of high-intensity wars (1948-1982), but in the long run it could be one of Israel’s greatest challenges. This is because of the combination of ongoing military clashes and Israel’s need to consolidate its position and legitimacy.