Ariel Sharon is largely being eulogized in Israel and likely being remembered by the Israeli public as a brave, dynamic figure, but also a controversial one. Many, especially on the right, still find it hard to fathom how the “father of settlements” could have carried out the unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2005.
In May 2003, after endorsing George W. Bush’s roadmap for peace in the Knesset, prime minister Sharon shocked his cabinet members by bluntly stating that “holding three and a half million Palestinians under occupation is, in my opinion, a terrible thing, both for Israel and the Palestinians.”
“You may dislike the word,” he added, “but what is happening is an occupation.”
That facet of Sharon’s biography — the complexity of his political orientation, the shifts, what his supporters would call the pragmatism — has been glaringly absent from the Arab coverage of his death this weekend. While Western leaders have highlighted his late-life shift toward dramatic peacemaking goals, the Arab response to his death has been almost wall-to-wall castigation — his image indelibly shaped by his military career and the first half of his political life.
“Sharon ‘the butcher’ dies,” read the headline of London-based daily Al-Hayat on Sunday.
A-Sharq Al-Awsat, a Saudi newspaper, outlined the dichotomy:
Israeli leaders described Sharon, known as ‘the bulldozer,’ as a brave and strong man who changed the region through his victories in various wars, while Palestinians described him as a murderous criminal and butcher.
But that newspaper’s savvy highlighting of the fact that there were such different aspects to Sharon was the exceptional drop in the ocean of non-nuanced Arab media criticism. Arabs remain largely mesmerized by Sharon and his audacity. His memory is linked most closely with the 1982 massacres in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila outside Beirut, carried out by Christian militias whom Sharon, an Israeli commission of inquiry found, should have acted to thwart. And that’s what has dominated coverage of his death.
“Sharon’s name is linked in memory to all the wars which erupted between the Arabs and Israel, from 1948 until 1982. He was the primary man responsible for a number of massacres against Palestinians such as Qibia in 1953, Sabra and Shatila in 1982 and Jenin in 2002. He also set off the Second Intifada [by visiting the Temple Mount] in 2000,” read an article on Sharon in Palestinian daily Al-Quds Sunday.
Al-Jazeera’s summary of Sharon’s life did note the withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 — but through the voice of his opponents, as a ploy to distract public opinion from corruption charges leveled against him. The Qatar-based news channel largely focused on Sharon’s military history, though also mentioning his vociferous opposition to the Oslo peace process in 1993.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as of Sunday afternoon remained conspicuously silent on the death of Sharon, the Israeli leader responsible for isolating his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, in his presidential compound in Ramallah. Jibril Rajoub, a Fatah official and ex-security official, greeted news of Sharon’s death immediately on Saturday by squarely blaming Sharon for killing Arafat, dubbing him “a criminal against the Palestinian people.”
As Palestinians in the Gaza Strip handed out sweets upon hearing of Sharon’s death, a Hamas spokesman, Sami Abu Zuhri, went so far as to ascribe religious significance to the event.
“Sharon’s death after eight years of coma is a verse of God and a lesson to all oppressors,” wrote Abu Zuhri on his Facebook page Saturday. “We are more confident in God’s victory following the death of these oppressors.”
But one anonymous sarcastic comment on Al-Arabiya’s website used Sharon’s death to issue a sad remark on the current state of the Arab world.
“After witnessing the crimes of the generals in Algeria; the human rights violations in Egypt; the massacres of Bashar [Assad] and the Alawites and Persians in Lebanon and Syria; I regard Sharon as no more than a small pitiful lamb. God have mercy on Ariel Sharon and may he rest in heaven.”