Skip to main content

Ariel Sharon's legacy is deeply disturbing

By Sarah Leah Whitson
updated 5:51 PM EST, Mon January 13, 2014
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
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 9:02 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:28 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT