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The Arab Myth of Ariel Sharon

He’s not the author of their woes.

Jan 27, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 19 • By LEE SMITH
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The campaign to make Sharon’s name synonymous with Sabra and Shatila was also fed by an actively hostile Western press corps and academia that typically sees Israel, if not as a unique source of evil, then as the disruptive foreign element in an otherwise stable Middle East. And Sharon certainly didn’t get any love from American policymakers at the time. Many in Reagan’s White House were outraged not only by the massacre, but also by Sharon’s entire Lebanon policy. Nor did it help Sharon that parts of an Israeli political class, while truly appalled at what happened at Sabra and Shatila, also saw it as an opportunity to attack him and Begin.

Still, Sharon fought back. “You are throwing oil on the fire,” he told the Knesset shortly after the massacre. If the Israeli defense minister was to be held responsible for the murders, the perpetrators would effectively be let off the hook, and Israelis collectively, the Jews, would be blamed. “You are throwing oil on the fire of anti-Semitism,” said Sharon. “A bonfire of blood libels.”

That Sharon’s argument was self-interested and possibly self-serving should not obscure the fact that he was right, at least in this respect. Israel, and its defense minister in particular, would be forever tagged with a crime they didn’t commit. There was no Arab commission established to investigate the massacre, and neither Hobeika nor any of his bloody lieutenants were ever brought to justice. Their names are all but forgotten.

But Israel was also right. As a democracy, it held Sharon to a higher standard of accountability. The Kahan Commission, or the Commission of Inquiry into the Events at the Refugee Camps in Beirut, found Sharon bore “personal responsibility” “for ignoring the danger of bloodshed and revenge.” It recommended that Sharon be removed from his position, which eventually led to his resignation.

The popular narrative of what happened at Sabra and Shatila is a result of how that vital internal Israeli criticism of Sharon’s failure was elided with the idea that Israel is broadly responsible for all the violence in the Middle East. The result is pernicious. It is not only diehard ideological opponents of Israel, whether Arab or Western, who continue to ignore the internal Lebanese dynamics that led to the massacre in the camps. Even well-meaning Westerners are quick to attach broad significance to Israeli failings while remaining effectively blind to the furies that beset Arab societies.

The ugly paradox is that by blaming Sharon and exculpating Hobeika, the actual perpetrators of the massacre, and Arabs more generally, are rendered less human—lacking agency, will, or morality. The dominant narrative, that is to say, is based on a grotesque assumption: Sharon is guilty because he should have known he was dealing with animals, and it was his responsibility to keep them on a tight leash.

 The repercussions of Sabra and Shatila were far-reaching and enduring. Among other things, they helped put an end to Israel’s idea of an alliance with regional minorities (Christians, Shia, etc.) who also confronted a Sunni Arab majority that despised them for their difference. Israeli leaders had long hoped for an accommodation with the Maronites of Lebanon, but after Sabra and Shatila came to see many of them as untrustworthy and as bloodthirsty as Israel’s traditional adversaries.


Perhaps even the seeds of Sharon’s policy of disengagement are to be found in Sabra and Shatila. He’s frequently criticized for not having secured concessions from the Palestinian Authority before withdrawing from Gaza. Perhaps Sharon thought there was no one to strike a deal with, or perhaps it simply didn’t matter to him. What was important was putting distance, a wall, any barrier, between his people and those who could not even take responsibility for the blood they traded in so easily. For surely Sharon understood what his standing among the Arabs signaled. Ariel Sharon to them was an animal spirit, a scapegoat and projection of a darkness that they are either unwilling or unable to identify and account for in themselves.

There is indeed a line running from Sabra and Shatila to Bashar al-Assad’s campaign of sectarian cleansing in Syria, but it doesn’t proceed from or go through Sharon. The same brutal Arab power struggle that led to Sabra and Shatila is also at work in the Syrian civil war. Perhaps at some point, the Arabs will see themselves as accountable for their own violence. In the meantime, we can at least demand the Western media and academia stop offering up excuses. 

Lee Smith is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.

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