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Born on February 27, 1928, in the British Mandate of Palestine, Israeli leader Ariel Sharon’s long and controversial military and political career embodies the tension between pragmatism and idealism inherent in modern nationalist movements. Oscillating between extremist Jewish ethno-nationalism and pragmatic secular Zionism, Sharon’s leadership has triggered strong and contradictory responses. It provokes hate and revulsion among the many who see him as a dogmatic and reckless bully and a war criminal. Others view Sharon with great appreciation as a brilliant strategist and pragmatic statesman who took courageous steps toward making peace with Egypt and ending the Israeli occupation in Gaza.
Sharon joined the Israeli Haganah, an underground paramilitary organization, at age fourteen. In the 1948 Arab-Israeli War he served as a platoon commander and was severely wounded in the Battle of Latrun against the Jordanian Legion. In 1953 Sharon commanded a special commando unit (“101”), which carried out retaliatory military raids against Palestinian infiltrators from refugee camps who harassed the new border settlements, trying to reappropriate property or kill Israelis. Because of the political impact of Unit 101’s controversial operations, which targeted both civilians and Arab soldiers, Sharon obtained direct access to Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion (1886–1973) and to Army Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan (1915–1981).
Throughout his career, Sharon exploited his privileged position to undertake military operations, often despite the objections of his direct superiors. In the 1956 Suez War, Sharon led a controversial operation to conquer the Mitla Pass against orders. In the 1967 Six-Day War, Sharon distinguished himself as a strategist commanding the most powerful armored division on the Sinai front.
Sharon resigned from the army in June 1972 and was instrumental in creating the right-wing Likud Party. In October 1973 he was recalled to service following the Yom Kippur War. Commanding a reserve armored division, Sharon located a breach between the Egyptian forces, which he then used to capture a bridgehead and lead a crossing of the Suez Canal. Sharon again violated his orders by exploiting this success to cut off and encircle the Egyptian Third Army. Because of this move, which was regarded as the turning point of the war, Sharon is considered by many in Israel as a war hero who saved Israel from defeat.
After Likud won the 1977 elections, Sharon became the minister of agriculture. In all his subsequent ministerial posts—defense (1981–1983), industry and commerce (1984–1990), construction and housing (1990–1992), infrastructure (1996–1998), and foreign affairs (1998– 1999)—Sharon found ways to support and encourage the settlement activities in the occupied territories to prevent the possibility of returning them. Yet, during the peace negotiations with Egypt, he persuaded the Likud government to remove the settlements in Sinai.
As minister of defense, Sharon was the architect of the 1982 Lebanon War, bringing about the destruction of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) infrastructure in Lebanon. What started as a limited operation developed under Sharon’s command into a full-scale war with controversial military operations and far-reaching political goals, many of which were never approved by the Israeli cabinet. Sharon was forced to resign as defense minister after a government commission found him indirectly responsible for the Sabra and Shatila massacres, in which hundreds of Palestinian civilians in refugee camps were killed by Lebanese Christian-Maronite militias.
In 2000, shortly after the breakdown of the Camp David peace negotiations, Sharon visited the Al-Aqsa Mosque (Temple Mount) in Jerusalem. His visit was followed by a bloody Palestinian uprising (the Al-Aqsa Intifada), marking the end to the Oslo peace process and the fall of Ehud Barak’s left-wing government.
In February 2001 Sharon was elected prime minister of Israel. With Palestinian violence escalating, Sharon ordered in 2002 the reoccupation of West Bank towns and the building of a controversial security fence between Israel and the occupied territories. Sharon later accepted, however, the internationally supported “road map” to peace in 2003, and in 2005 he withdrew the Israeli Army and settlers from the Gaza Strip, citing security issues. This move was opposed by many in Likud and forced Sharon into a coalition with the Labor Party. He eventually formed a new centrist party, Kadima, and declared a new election. In January 2006, just two months before the election, Sharon suffered a stroke that left him hospitalized in a coma. Kadima was temporarily leaderless until Ehud Olmert took over the party and won narrowly in the ensuing elections.
- Kimmerling, Baruch. 2003. Politicide: Ariel Sharon’s Wars Against the Palestinians. London and New York: Verso.
- Miller, Anita, Jordan Miller, and Sigalit Zetouni. 2002. Sharon: Israel’s Warrior-Politician. Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers and Olive Publishing.
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