The death of Ariel Sharon may have been long presaged — first by the brain damage that left him in a coma for eight years, and in the final week by bulletins from the Tel Aviv area hospital where he finally succumbed on Saturday afternoon. But he did not go quietly.
Reactions to his passing summoned the extraordinary extremes of perception that marked Sharon’s long and very public life. He was hailed as a military hero by Israeli leaders, who in the first hours after his passing poured out gratitude for the role he played in keeping them safe — including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who called Sharon “first and foremost a brave warrior and a great general,” and “one of the greatest commanders the Israel Defense Force has seen.”
But others remembered him as the man at the other end of the gun. “I feel like stepping out of the car right this second, and dancing in the street. I feel like ululating,”says Amal Al-Raa’i 46, a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon, after hearing the news of his death. Al-Raa’i witnessed the massacres of hundreds of fellow refugees at the Sabra and Shatila camp in 1982 by Christian militiamen allied to Israel. Sharon commanded the troops that stood by as the killings took place, which led to his removal as minister of defense. “But we were hoping he would suffer much more than that before his last breath because he made us suffer,” Al-Raa’i adds. “May God punish him for his sins.”
And so it went. The man known as “The Bulldozer” in Israel was “The Butcher” among its enemies.
Israeli minister of justice Tzipi Livni, who formed the Kadima party with Sharon and served as his minister of justice, spoke of her love for “Arik,” the nickname by which Sharon was long known among Israelis. “In that large body of his beat a Jewish soul that cared for the Jewish people around the world,” Livni said in a statement. “He became the large father of a large nation. A father that gave his son a sense of security.”
Added Ehud Olmert, who succeeded him as prime minister when Sharon was felled by a series of strokes, “He stood at the front of the firing line where Israel’s fate was determined all his life. Arik’s life was fascinating, exceptional, unique, soaked with bravery, human warmth, vision, and leadership at the critical moments when Israel needed these traits.”
Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch called it “a shame that Sharon has gone to his grave without facing justice for his role in Sabra and Shatila and other abuses. His passing is another grim reminder that years of virtual impunity for rights abuses have done nothing to bring Israeli-Palestinian peace any closer.”
The White House issued a statement that underscored once again Washington’s commitment to Israel’s security, but otherwise was marked by respectful restraint. “As Israel says goodbye to Prime Minister Sharon, we join with the Israeli people in honoring his commitment to his country,” President Obama said.
But Former President George W. Bush, called him “a warrior for the ages.” And Netanyahu’s encomium nodded to both the glory and the controversy embedded in Sharon’s military career. After listing the four wars in which Sharon commanded troops, including Israel’s 1948 war for independence, Netanyahu noted that, “in between, he founded Unit 101 and promoted the concept of taking the initiative and payback in the war against terror that became part and parcel of Israeli policy.” Unit 101 was a commando unit created to carry out retribution for Palestinian attacks; the unit was responsible for what some historians call the Qibya massacre, where 42 Palestinians were killed in October 1953 in what is today the West Bank.
As prime minister, from 2001 until he was stricken in 2006, Sharon confounded expectations, unilaterally withdrawing Jewish settlers and troops from the Gaza Strip and laying plans, according to former aides, to draw a boundary with the West Bank. “If Sharon wouldn’t have died, we could have had peace with the Palestinians by now,” said Haim Ramon, a former lawmaker who helped Sharon found the center-right Kadima party, following the uproar in Likud that followed the Gaza move. “He wanted to create a Palestinian state,” Ramon told Israel Radio, “and if there’s anyone who could make peace with the Palestinians it’s Sharon.”
The assertion will be debated by historians, as well as policy experts who have studied the Palestinian-Israeli conflict for generations. But in the immediate aftermath of Sharon’s death, nuanced appraisals appeared overwhelmed by the polarization that had followed much of his life. On Twitter, the contrasts cascaded and caromed down the feed an hour after his death was made official:
“Regarding Ariel Sharon, one should always speak good of the dead. He’s dead. Good.”
“Sharon, Israel loves you.”
“Ariel Sharon went to hell finally.”
“Not enough people understand how significant Sharon was for the revival and defense of the state of Israel.”
Sharon’s coffin will be on display at the Knesset on Sunday, where members of the public will be able to pay their respects. On Monday an official funeral ceremony is also expected to take place at the Knesset. Burial will be Monday afternoon in a private ceremony on Sharon’s ranch bordering the Negev Desert.
Hania Mourtada contributed from Beirut and Yonit Farago from Tel Aviv.