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.
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.