Analysis: A gargantuan figure — but his role in Sabra and Shatila diminished him

The massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camp on the outskirts of Beirut in September 1982 remain the darkest stain on Ariel Sharon’s reputation.

Hundreds and possibly thousands of Palestinians were murdered by Lebanese Christian Phalangists while the Israeli army stood by.

Sharon always claimed that he did not know the depth of hatred felt by the Phalangists, essentially a fascist militia. He said he could not have foreseen the brutality. The report carried out by the Kahan Commission into the events found otherwise. “Mr Sharon was found responsible for ignoring the danger of bloodshed and revenge when he approved the entry of the Phalange into the camps, as well as not taking appropriate measures to prevent bloodshed.”

I remember interviewing a Palestinian man in Beirut over a decade later who had lost two sons in the massacre. They simply left home one morning, he explained, and never returned. All those years later he still didn’t know exactly what had happened to them. When I met him, he was scraping a living selling bottles of Coke, but the flame of his life had been extinguished in 1982. He had no doubt who was to blame. In the days that followed he saw Sharon on the TV and shouted: “Why do you hate me? What have I ever done to you?”

Was Sharon to blame for this man’s grief? Did he simply discount his people’s suffering, as some in the Arab world suspected?

I do not think Sharon hated the Palestinians or the Arab people. Tom Segev’s book on 1967 reports him saying: “I do not hate Arabs, but I certainly feel strongly about our historic right to Palestine, and this of course intensifies my attitude to the Arabs. But that attitude is not, under any circumstances, hatred.”

Sharon played such a pivotal role in Israel’s history that it doesn’t make sense to represent him as a hero or a villain. He is beyond those categories, more like some gargantuan potentate from the ancient world than a figure from modern history.

But his role at Sabra and Shatila diminished him. What he did there was miserable and small. Neither he nor the Israeli army were active participants in the murder. But that is not the point. In his role as defence minister he allowed his forces to stand by while the slaughter took place, in most accounts facilitating it by blocking the exits to the camps. In this way he not only failed in his duty to intervene to stop the bloodshed, he implicated Israeli troops in that failure. There is much in his life of which Ariel Sharon will have felt proud, but surely not this.

Last updated: 12:15pm, January 16 2014