Ariel Sharon dies

By Marc Goldberg, January 10, 2014
Follow The JC on Twitter
Ariel Sharon - Getty Images

Ariel Sharon - Getty Images

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has died at the age of 85.

He had been in a coma for eight years following a stroke. His condition had deteriorated over the past week and he died of heart failure at the Sheba Medical Centre near Tel Aviv on Saturday afternoon.

It was another warrior - General Douglas MacArthur - who uttered the words "Old soldiers never die, they simply 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 him in death just as it was never far from him in life. 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. He 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 in enemy countries. He seemed to personify the aggressive might of the IDF.

He spearheaded the invasion of the Sinai Desert during the Six-Day War. In that conflict, he held the rank of general and commanded an armoured division. His tanks battered and then broke through 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 many around him were in a state of panic. 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, ensuring that the Egyptians would accept ceasefire terms. His successful crossing simply cannot be overstated.

But with all of the good that came from his military career there are 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 was a fighter who knew only one way, he ‘attacked’ the enemy. This attacking instinct led him to make mistakes that almost destroyed his career. As well as being the most famous unit in the annals of 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 of operating. The biggest stain on them was an operation in the Jordanian town of Qibya, where 69 civilians were killed by Sharon's forces. Although 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. However, it was to take off once again during the tenure of Yitzhak Rabin as Chief of Staff.

Sharon ended his military career as the commander of the Southern Region, a post that included command of Gaza. During his tenure 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, and 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 from his post as defence minister. He remained in the government as a Minister Without Portfolio.

Without a doubt the most important and resonant part of Sharon's political career were his later years. His insistence that the settlements in Gaza be dismantled and that the IDF withdraw stood in stark contrast to the newly minted defence minister yet to shed his military skin to take on the mantle of political power. Sharon's new found principles cost him the leadership of the party he helped form. Current Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu sent him packing, though not before he carried out the withdrawal from Gaza as planned. When ousted by Bibi from the party he helped create, he simply built himself a new party; Kadima. Although the party was formed around him, it managed to secure enough seats in the Knesset to form a government even after he was hit by a debilitating 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 the construction of this wall or 'Separation Barrier', terrorist incursions into Israel dropped significantly. In light of Sharon's withdrawal from Gaza, there was widespread talk that he was looking to unilaterally remove Israel from the West Bank too. 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.

He will be revered, respected and hated for many years to come. Perhaps no higher accolade can be uttered than to say that he helped shape a nation. Now fade away old soldier, we will miss you.

This article first appeared on Marc Goldberg's blog on the Times of Israel

Last updated: 11:07am, January 13 2014