During Anwar Sadat’s historic trip to Jerusalem in 1977, he met Ariel Sharon, the Israeli general credited by his countrymen as one of the heroes of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Sharon’s crossing of the Sinai and his encirclement of the Egyptian Third Army had turned the tables on Sadat’s forces, ensuring a victory that had once been uncertain. “I tried to catch you when you were on our side of the canal,” Sadat told Sharon. And now, replied Sharon, “you have the chance to catch me as a friend.”
Since Sharon’s death January 11, the Arab press has been full of articles on Sharon, none of which consider him a friend, nor even, as Sadat did, a worthy adversary whose military stratagems thwarted the Arabs time and again. The Arab press fixates instead on some of the worst controversies in Sharon’s career: his role as commander of Unit 101, which led a 1953 retaliatory raid on Qibya that took the lives of dozens of Palestinian civilians, and as the defense minister who engineered Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Sharon is seen, that is to say, as evil incarnate.
Sharon will serve as “fuel for the fires of hell,” Jihad al-Khazen wrote in the London-based pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat. Other assessments are similarly damning. The groundswell of Arab sentiment is so powerful that it has also colored the perspective of virtually every American and European journalist who has worked in the Middle East over the last three decades, even if they got their start long after Sharon fell into a coma in 2006. For the Western press corps as well as their Arab colleagues, Sharon is an object of loathing.
To be sure, even for many patriotic Israelis, Sharon is a problematic figure. Among other things, he’s alleged to have misled Prime Minister Menachem Begin about his real plans for the 1982 invasion of Lebanon and is accordingly held responsible for many of the problems of Israel’s most controversial conflict, the 18-year-long Lebanon war. And it’s here where the Israeli critique of Sharon, “the bulldozer,” inadvertently helps fuel the Arab demonization.
“The Butcher of Beirut,” as he’s frequently referred to in Arab circles, is held to be the mastermind of the massacre at Sabra and Shatila, a Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut, where, in September 1982, anywhere from 700 to more than 3,000 civilians were killed.
A statement last week by the leader of Lebanon’s Druze community, Walid Jumblatt, is typical. “Sharon was very similar to some leaders in the Arab world who mistreated their people, displaced them, and committed numerous massacres against them,” said Jumblatt. “It seems that ‘Sharonism’ is an Israeli policy that is being implemented in Israel and the Arab countries.” Jumblatt’s point is to connect Sharon to the Arab tyrants responsible for the recent bloody cataclysms in the Middle East, specifically Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. (A recent cartoon portraying Sharon handing a scythe to Assad makes the point more baldly.)
It is hardly surprising that Jumblatt dislikes Sharon, who invaded and occupied his country and, in doing so, targeted his allies and often took the side of his local rivals. But by describing a genealogy that begins with the Israeli leader and culminates in Assad’s killing machine, Jumblatt is offering an excuse for Arab pathology.
“It’s as if the Arabs can’t even own their violence,” says Tony Badran, a Beirut-born Middle East analyst and research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who lived through Lebanon’s civil war. “They portray their violence as somehow an imitation of, or as emanating from, a standard set by Sharon. This is a political culture that has produced, among others, the Assads, Sr. and Jr., Saddam Hussein, Omar Bashir, and Muammar Qaddafi. To make Sharon the avatar of Middle East butchery is absurd.”
Sharon in fact did not author the mass murder at Sabra and Shatila. It was the work of Elie Hobeika, leader of a Lebanese Christian militia allied with Israel who, according to every reliable source, including that of his bodyguard, ordered his men into the camps with instructions to kill even women and children. At worst, Sharon was negligent about the dangers of allowing Hobeika’s men to sweep the camp. Thus Ehud Yaari, a veteran Israeli journalist, told Al Jazeera for its “War of Lebanon” series that some Israeli officials feared that letting Hobeika and his men into the camp to root out Palestinian terrorists would endanger civilians and make Israel complicit in the potential bloodshed. However, the source of the Sabra and Shatila massacre is not to be found in Sharon’s approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict, but in the attitudes of the Arabs toward each other.