Eight years after falling into a permanent vegetative state, former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon stopped breathing this morning at Sheba Medical Centre in Jerusalem. The former IDF general and politician, nicknamed "the Butcher of Beirut" for his role in the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacres of Palestinian civilians, was 85. He is survived by two sons, Omri and Gilad.
A testament to his gargantuan, and often terrifying, influence on Israel's history and course—and his broader impact on Middle Eastern geopolitics—newspapers, wire services, and the cable networks have already commenced an outpouring of obituaries and political assessments of Sharon's legacy. (They've had eight years to put them together, after all.) The New York Times obit, under the headline "A Fierce Defender of a Strong Israel," chronicles Sharon's iron-fisted military command throughout the 1960s and 70s, legendary in Israel, and his later life as a somewhat more moderate state minister:
An architect of Israeli settlements in the occupied lands, Mr. Sharon gained infamy for his harsh tactics against the Palestinians over whom Israel ruled. That reputation began to soften after his election as prime minister in 2001, when he first talked about the inevitability of Palestinian statehood.
Israeli settlers, who had seen him as their patron, considered him an enemy after he won re-election in 2003. In addition to withdrawing from Gaza and a small portion of the West Bank, he completed part of a 450-mile barrier along and through parts of the West Bank — a barrier he had originally opposed. It not only reduced infiltration by militants into Israel but also provided the outline of a border with a future Palestinian state, albeit one he envisioned as having limited sovereignty.
To many, Sharon's legacy will be defined forever by Sabra and Shatila, two refugee camps in which hundreds of civilians were slaughtered by
Israeli Lebanese paramilitaries sent in on Sharon's command during Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon. The massacres earned Sharon the nickname "the Butcher of Beirut," as CNN writes:
Many in the Arab world called Sharon "the Butcher of Beirut" after he oversaw Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon while serving as defense minister. [...]
During the Lebanon war in 1982, Sharon, a former army general then serving as Israeli defense minister, was held indirectly responsible by an Israeli inquiry in 1983 for the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. He was forced to resign.
(Mondoweiss has more on Sabra and Shatila and media coverage of Sharon.)
On The New Yorker's website, Israeli journalist Ari Shavit's lengthy examination of Sharon's evolving politics and legacy, written just before the 2006 stroke that killed Sharon and left him hospitalized as a vegetable, has been republished:
Sharon was the least messianic of all of Israel's Prime Ministers, much less so than Shimon Peres, for example, who spoke of a post-conflict "new Middle East," of warm comity and interdependent economies. It was Ehud Barak who, at Camp David, undermined the messianism of the left with his failure to entice Yasir Arafat and that of the right by ending the taboo on negotiating the fate of Jerusalem and the rise of a Palestinian state. But it was Sharon who brought to fruition a postmessianic politics. Under his governance, Israel was weaned of the hope for an ideal end. It even came to realize that there would be no absolute peace or victory. Fundamentally, Sharon was a man of process. If he has left a legacy, it is the need for time—lots of time—because there is no way to reach peace with one abrupt act.
Sharon himself has finally found peace. The country he left behind eight years ago has not.