Skip to main content

Ariel Sharon's legacy is deeply disturbing

By Sarah Leah Whitson
January 13, 2014 -- Updated 2251 GMT (0651 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sarah Whitson: While eulogies praise Ariel Sharon, his legacy is actually disturbing
  • Whitson: Sharon's pro-settlement, virulently anti-Palestinian policies were harmful
  • She says he avoided prosecution for the killings of civilians in which he was implicated
  • Whitson: His death is a grim reminder that impunity for human rights abuses still occurs

Editor's note: Sarah Leah Whitson is director of the Human Rights Watch Middle East and North Africa Division. Follow her on Twitter: @SarahLeah1

(CNN) -- What is Ariel Sharon's legacy? The eulogies have focused on his decision to pull Israeli settlers out of Gaza in 2005 under the so-called "disengagement plan." U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon praised Sharon's "political courage and determination." U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Sharon "surprised many in his pursuit of peace."

The reality is that Sharon's withdrawal from Gaza portended no courage to change his pro-settlement, virulently anti-Palestinian policies.

Since the 1970s, when he planned and helped establish 64 West Bank settlements, Sharon had earned his moniker as "the father of the settlements." His evacuation of 21 settlements in Gaza and four in the West Bank seemed surprising, indeed. But the removal of settlers must be seen in the context that overall during Sharon's term as Israel's prime minister from 2001 to 2006, the number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, increased from roughly 388,000 to 461,000.

Sarah Leah Whitson
Sarah Leah Whitson

Sharon's legacy is deeply disturbing. He went to his grave without facing justice for terrible things he did. His death is a grim reminder that impunity for human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law has plagued Israel and the Palestinians for far too long.

It mattered little to Sharon that Israel's transfer of its civilians into Palestinian territories was—and is—a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions and a potential war crime. It mattered even less that the settlement regime and Israel's military rule in these areas subjects Palestinians to severe discrimination and a mountain of restrictions that makes life miserable.

Part and parcel of this settlement expansion plan was Sharon's construction of the Israeli separation barrier, which today stands as a monument to human rights violations. Sharon's government approved its construction in 2002, ostensibly to prevent Palestinian attacks that killed 640 Israeli civilians during his term. But the real motivation for the barrier, as countless studies have documented, was to build a wall around the Israeli settlements, deep into the West Bank, cutting off thousands of Palestinians from the rest of the West Bank.

Worse, he avoided prosecution for the killings of civilians in which he was implicated: a fact that deserves not eulogy, but infamy.

The controversial life of Ariel Sharon
Remembering Ariel Sharon

Ban and Kerry couldn't very well mention it, but history will remember Sharon for his role in the massacres of civilians by Lebanese militias in the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon in 1982. From September 16 to 18, the militias killed at least 700 people, and perhaps more than 2,000, including infants, children, pregnant women and the elderly, some of whose bodies were found to have been mutilated.

Sharon, as Israel's defense minister in 1982, had overall responsibility for the Israel Defense Forces, which controlled the area of the camps. According to a document prepared by his office, Sharon's instructions on September 15, the day before the massacres began, included: "For the operation in the camps the Phalangists should be sent in."

In February 1983, the Kahan Commission, Israel's official commission of inquiry investigating the events, found that Sharon bore "personal responsibility" for the massacre. There was a "serious consideration ... that the Phalangists were liable to commit atrocities," the commission reported, but "from (Sharon) himself, we know that this consideration did not concern him in the least." His "disregard of the danger of a massacre" was "impossible to justify," the commission found, and recommended his dismissal as defense minister.

Although he did resign as defense minister, in a glaring example of gross impunity for crimes against Palestinians, Sharon remained in the Israeli Cabinet as a minister without portfolio and later became prime minister, serving until his stroke in January 2006. Similarly, Elie Hobeika, the Phalangist leader the Kahan Commission named as responsible for directing the militias, also escaped prosecution and served as a Lebanese Cabinet minister until being killed by a car bomb in 2002.

The massacres constituted war crimes and crimes against humanity. Yet Israeli justice authorities did not conduct a criminal investigation to determine whether Sharon and other Israeli military officials bore criminal responsibility.

Israel also made sure that no one else could bring Sharon to justice, either. In 2001, survivors from Sabra and Shatila brought a case in Belgium requesting Sharon be prosecuted under Belgium's "universal jurisdiction" law. Political pressure from the United States and Israel -- it "was like nothing I have ever seen," said a colleague who closely followed the issue at the time -- led Belgium's parliament to amend the law in April 2003, and to repeal it in August. Belgium's highest court dropped the case against Sharon that September.

Many in Israel are now highlighting Sharon's record as a warrior and bold political leader. But it is worth pausing to consider his record as a man who brought devastation and destruction to the lives of thousands of Palestinians, without ever facing justice for his crimes, and whose policies undermined efforts to achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Sarah Leah Whitson.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2108 GMT (0508 HKT)
The NFL's new Player Conduct Policy was a missed chance to get serious about domestic violence, says Mel Robbins.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2233 GMT (0633 HKT)
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the CBO didn't provide an accurate picture of Obamacare's impact, so why rehire its boss?
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 0040 GMT (0840 HKT)
Russian aggression has made it clear Ukraine must rethink its security plans, says Olexander Motsyk, Ukrainian ambassador to the U.S.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 0046 GMT (0846 HKT)
The Senate committee report on torture has highlighted partisan divisions on CIA methods, says Will Marshall. Republicans and Democrats are to blame.
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1833 GMT (0233 HKT)
It would be dishonest to say that 2014 has been a good year for women. But that hasn't stopped some standing out, says Frida Ghitis.
ADVERTISEMENT