Tuesday, 18 February 2014

From South Africa to Israel: The long-delayed death of Sharon

Following on from what I was writing about here in December, it's tempting to head this post 'from the sublime to the ridiculous'.  But the truth, as this blog sought to argue, is that Mandela was not altogether 'sublime', and Sharon was much too formidable and dangerous to be merely 'ridiculous'.  Nevertheless, the contrast was striking.

This blogpost is, unfortunately, well too late to offer anything properly dramatic on Sharon.  But it's worth noting again a few salient facts about him, most especially from the standpoint of the Palestinians.  That he was a bullish, aggressive, gifted soldier (wounded in combat at Latrun in combat with the Arab Legion in 1948, and the leader of the Israeli break-out and victory in the Sinai Peninsula that swung the October War of 1973) is not to be doubted.  That he was capable of some degree of political manoeuvre is also clear.   But we need - amidst the oracular waffle of writers like Denis Staunton at the Irish Times ('Sharon's authority and courage much needed now') and journals like The Economist  ('He may be missed') - to think Sharon 'from the standpoint of [his] victims', to adopt Edward Said's Lukacsian formulation, and to remember that he was never less than fully motivated by the doctrine of the 'iron wall' and its variants.

The idea of the 'iron wall' was propounded by the founding ideologue of the Israel Right, Ze'ev Jabotinsky, in the 1920s.    With steely clearsightedness, Jabotinsky cut through the liberal or 'socialist' Zionist hypocrisy which either ignored the presence of the Palestinians on the land, or talked vaguely about 'co-existence'. Jabotinsky made it clear that the Zionist project was one predicated on force and might: Israel would survive if it created an 'iron wall' of military power against which the Arabs would break, like so many waves, or which could shatter them.  Only if the Arabs became firmly convinced that they would never defeat Israel would the Zionist project attain stability and peace.  Avi Shlaim has argued for some time that this has been the core element of Israeli policy vis-a-vis the Arab world for all Israeli governments since 1948, whether those of the 'left' or the right.  This was Sharon's approach, right through his career.

It must be admitted that early in that career, Sharon was an army officer, and not making policy as such.  But, going back as far as his leadership of the notorious Qibya raid and massacre of 69 Palestinian civilians in 1953, we can see the lineaments of the 'iron wall' policy: Qibya was, after all what the British Empire used to call a 'punitive raid' - an overwhelming 'reaction' to a 'provocation' (Palestinian 'infiltration' - often only Palestinian peasant farmers trying to return to their lands from which they'd been cut off by partition in 1947-49) by mere 'natives'.  Even in the context of the IDF, Sharon was a controversial figure who sometimes disobeyed orders, as at Mitla Pass during the Suez War of 1956.  By the time the Likud had come to power in 1977, he was a politician similarly capable of deviousness and insubordination, and, as Defence Minister, he undersold the purposes of 'Operation Peace for Galilee' - the invasion of Lebanon in 1982 -  to his cabinet colleagues almost until IDF armoured columns had surrounded Beirut. 

The Israelis had long nursed a relationship with the most reactionary forces among Lebanon's Maronite population, and armed and equipped the Phalange gunmen whom Sharon allowed Elia Hobeika  to send into Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps in September 1982, to clean out 'terrorist nests'.  That this was allowed after the Palestinian forces had left Beirut for Tunis, and just after the assassination of the Phalange's leader, Bashir Gemayal, shows that Sharon was either culpably negligent or bent on facilitating the slaughter that then took place.  Meanwhile, as documented by Robert Fisk and Jonathan Randal, among others, the IDF sealed off the camps and fired flares into the night skies to illuminate the ferocious butchery underway.  Up to 3500 Palestinian and Lebanese civilians - mostly women and children and the elderly - were killed.

Peace protests in Israel, and the dismayed reaction amongst Israel's allies, were not enough initially to embarrass Sharon into resignation or Begin into firing him.  Eventually he stayed on in cabinet as a minister without portfolio.  Israel appointed the Kahan Commission to investigate the killings.  Meanwhile an international commission was assembled to investigate Israeli breaches of international law during the war.  It was chaired by Sean MacBride, and featured amongst its members Kader Asmal and Richard Falk.

The Kahan Commission found that the IDF bore indirect responsibility for the massacres, given that it held the area.  The killings were found to have been carried out by Phalangist units, but with the knowledge and approval of both Sharon and Begin.  It also found that Sharon bore direct responsibility for 'ignoring the danger of bloodshed and revenge [and] not taking appropriate measures to prevent bloodshed'. It recommended Sharon's dismissal as Defence Minister. The MacBride commission found that 'the government of Israel has committed acts of aggression contrary to international law', that the government of Israel had no valid reasons under international law for its invasion of Lebanon, and that the Israeli authorities or forces were directly or indirectly responsible for the massacres and killings.

In any normal democracy, this would have been the end of Sharon's career.  But, in spite of the protestations of its supporters, Israel is not a normal democracy, and Sharon stayed on in Likud.  Eventually he became Housing Minister in 1990.  This was when 'the Bulldozer' became the particular darling of the settlement movements.  In 1998, in the middle of the Oslo 'peace process', by which time he was Foreign Minister, he would address a meeting of the rightwing Tzomet party, in the following terms:

Everybody has to move, run and grab as many hilltops as they can to enlarge the settlements because everything we take now will stay ours ... everything we don't grab will go to them.

Sharon's nickname, 'the Bulldozer', of course illustrates what his supporters most liked about him: not only his massive personal bulk, his formidable presence on the Israeli political scene, but also his brutal toughness, and his willingness to endorse the programme of incremental conquest and ethnic cleansing that the settlement project in truth is.  Those journals, like the Irish Times and the Economist above, which like to see Sharon as a 'pragmatist' or as 'realistic' like to point to his dismantling of the Sinai settlements constructed during Israel's tenure of the peninsula between 1967 and 1982, and his 'disengagement' from the Gaza Strip, as evidence of his capacity for 'flexibility'.  However, these actions do not really weaken the argument for Sharon's ideological vigour and ruthlessness: the Sinai withdrawal - merely a belated compliance with Security Council Resolution 242 - was from territory that was of relatively minor strategic and ideological worth to Israel, and Gaza even more so.  Furthermore, the payoff for the Sinai withdrawal was a peace treaty with Israel's most populous and militarily formidable Arab rival, effectively removing the threat of a serious co-ordinated Arab offensive against Israel.  And the payoff for the unilateral and un-negotiated Gaza disengagement was the support of the Bush administration for Sharon's plans for the West Bank.  Further again, though Israeli settlers are gone from the Strip, it is still technically under occupation, as it has no sovereignty over sea or air, and does not control its own borders.  Nothing in these developments detracted from Sharon's project of 'politicide', to use the neologism coined by the late Israeli sociologist, Baruch Kimmerling.  Kimmerling's point was that while Sharon was not necessarily wedded to achieving a genocide of the Palestinians, he was most certainly committed to their politicide, by which Kimmerling meant the extirpation of the Palestinians as a political movement or as a collective political agent, the end of their rights as a national community, the separation of Palestinian subjects from any relation to the land of Palestine by right, the denial to them of 'permission to narrate' their national story.

The point of all of this is to show that Sharon, while capable of making tactical manoeuvres whether on the battlefield or in politics, must nevertheless be seen as he was: a ruthlessly tough colonial warrior, firmly convinced of his own rightness, of the ideology of the 'iron wall', of the need for as little compromise as possible, of the superiority of Jewish Israelis to Arab Palestinians in every respect, and casually indifferent to the sufferings of his victims.  The bottomless cynicism of Western pundits who declare that he'll be 'missed' needs to be recognised as itself a more polite and diplomatic version of the same crass arrogance and Eurocentrism.  Good riddance to him.

Avi Shlaim, emeritus professor at St Antony's College, Oxford, and one of the Israeli 'New Historians', wrote an honest estimation of Sharon for the Guardian

'Man of peace'? Ariel Sharon was the champion of violent solutions