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Memories of Sharon's past revived

Sharon pledged to stand tough against the Palestinians  

LONDON, England -- Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon came to power following February's landslide election victory on a platform of "peace and security."

But his triumph was not warmly welcomed in the Arab world -- particularly among Palestinians -- for his role in the 1982 massacre in the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.

Sharon was forced to quit as defence minister after a state inquiry found him indirectly responsible for the massacre by Israel's Christian militia allies.

The man, known as The Bulldozer was born in British-ruled Palestine in 1928, helped establish the Likud party in 1973 and was elected to the Knesset, but the following year he resigned to become Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's special security adviser.

He took the reins of the party when Binyamin Netanyahu resigned as leader in May 1999.

Sharon sparked controversy during his vist last year to the al-Aqsa mosque compound in east Jerusalem -- a site holy to Muslims and Jews -- which was accompanied by Palestinian protests which soon turned violent.

To his right-wing supporters, Sharon is a war hero who will stand tough to protect Israeli interests against hostile Arab neighbours.

As Israel steps up its military action against Palestinian targets his administration says it is only responding to attacks on Israeli territory and its people.

Despite the rhetoric -- and strong words from Arab leaders condemning the Israeli action -- some analysts say the hawkish leader has no intention of igniting a Middle East war.

However, Israel's attack on a Syrian position in Lebanon on Monday has revived memories of Sharon's past.

Since taking office from Ehud Barak in March, the 73-year-old former general has stepped up security operations.

Buoyed by the biggest electoral victory in Israeli history and having formed a broad coalition, Sharon aimed to drive home to Arabs, who rejected Barak's peace moves, that there was a new sheriff in town, analysts said.

Mark Heller, from Israel's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, said: "I think he is responding to his reading of the public mood in Israel.

"There are more and more people saying they are fed up with being a punch bag. I don't think he is looking for a bigger battle."

At the beginning of April, helicopter missile strikes were ordered on Palestinian military targets in Gaza after a child as wounded in a Palestinian mortar bomb attack on a Jewish settlement.

In other operations later in the month, Israeli helicopter gunships attacked Palestinian security positions near Jabalya refugee camp in Gaza while the Israeli army launched daytime missiles strike on Palestinian security.

Israel said the operations were in response to Palestinian bomb attacks.

Sharon also said that concessions made by the outgoing Barak government during negotiations with the Palestinians were off the table.

This was emphasized when the Israeli Housing Ministry announced plans to expand two Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which are illegal under international law, sparking angry responses from the Palestinians, the U.S. and the U.N..

But air, land and sea strikes against Gaza on April 17 sparked fears of an all-out confrontation between Israel and the Palestinians.

Sharon ordered the assault one day after Israel launched its first bombing raid on a Syrian army position in Lebanon for five years, killing three soldiers.

By attacking a Syrian target, rather than Hezbollah, Sharon was acting on his belief that those who hold the real power in Lebanon -- in his eyes, Syria -- should be held responsible for guerrilla attacks, Israeli officials said.

But Sharon's spokesman, Raanan Gissin, said: "We are trying to bring back stability and restore calm to that area. We have no intention of enlarging this conflict."

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Israel's Prime Minister's Office
The Knesset
Palestinian National Authority

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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