If it wasn't for a brief encounter with Ariel Sharon, I may never have become a Palestine solidarity activist.
It was towards the end of 2001. I was among a number of reporters accompanying a European Union "peace mission" to the Middle East. On a Sunday afternoon, we waited for Sharon, then Israel's prime minister, to give a press conference in Jerusalem's King David Hotel.
When Sharon eventually appeared, I was struck by how venomous he was. My memory has -- naturally enough -- faded a little in the interim. But I'm fairly sure that there was a smirk on his face as he spoke of how Palestinians sometimes blew themselves up.
The gist of his lengthy monologue was that all resistance to the Israeli occupation amounted to "terrorism." He seemed to be rejoicing in Palestinian suffering.
At the time, I wasn't properly informed about how the West mollycoddled Israel. In my naivety, I was impressed that EU leaders did not appear intimidated by Sharon.
There was some tension between Israel and Belgium, which held the Union's rotating presidency. Sharon was being sued in Brussels for his role in the Sabra and Shatila massacre that took place in Lebanon in 1982 (when he was Israel's defense minister).
Quizzed by Israeli journalists, Belgium's then prime minister Guy Verhofstadt insisted that his country was a democracy, where the justice system was free from political interference. The following day -- during a turbulent flight on the Belgian government jet -- Verhofstadt briefed us about how Sharon had called him to a meeting that Sunday evening. To break the ice, Verhofstadt had joked with Sharon about how prison conditions in Belgium were improving.
It was only later that I realized that Verhofstadt was a really a pushover. Although a public prosecutor had accepted that the case against Sharon could go ahead, Verhofstadt's government intervened in 2003 to scuttle the proceedings.
The "universal jurisdiction" law under which the case was taken was watered down at Israel's behest. So much for Belgian "democracy."
Of course, I can't claim to understand how Sharon's mind worked from having once been in the same room as him. But I have studied his record in reasonable depth more recently. And I feel that I have learned enough to know that the articles now proliferating in the media about Sharon coveting peace are a travesty.
In a blog post for The Jerusalem Post, Eric Yoffie argued that Sharon was "the ultimate realist" as prime minister. "In order to assure Israel’s future as a Jewish state, he dismantled Jewish settlements and ended the occupation of 1.3 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip," Yoffie added.
Only the first part of that sentence reflects the truth. Sharon did indeed strive to preserve Israel as a state where Jews have more rights than everyone else living there; the correct term for that system is "apartheid."
Yet withdrawing Israeli settlers from Gaza in 2005 was not tantamount to ending the occupation there. Israel still controls Gaza's air and sea borders. The "disengagement" paved the way for a siege and attacks on Gaza that have been enthusiastically supported by Sharon's protégés such as Tzipi Livni.
Similar lies are being repeated elsewhere. Associated Press has reported that Sharon "directed a unilateral withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip, ending 38 years of military control of the territory."
In The Guardian, Jonathan Freedland writes that Sharon was "acknowledging the truth that lay buried beneath the soil" through his "intriguing habit" of referring to places in present-day Israel with their original Arab names. According to Freedland, Sharon's "final mission" could have been to close the wounds left by the Nakba, the forced displacement of Palestinians ahead of Israel's foundation in 1948.
Speculating about what Sharon might have done had a stroke not ended his political career in 2006 is, in my view, pointless. And besides, nobody has yet produced credible evidence that he was on the cusp of delivering justice to the Palestinians.
What can be said with certainty is that he displayed immense cruelty both as a soldier and as a politician.
For a guide to just how cruel he was, I'd recommend Baruch Kimmerling's book Politicide. It recalls that when Sharon was a military general, he launched a brutal operation in Gaza in August 1970. Thousands of homes were demolished and swathes of citrus groves were destroyed; orders were given to kill -- without trial -- any Palestinian suspected of involvement in resistance.
Sharon's penchant for war crimes continued during his stint as prime minister. Operation Defensive Shield involved the destruction of schools, universities, clinics, mosques and churches in the occupied West Bank during 2002. An estimated 4,000 people were left homeless because of the sustained shelling of Jenin refugee camp.
Sharon kept on exulting in the loss of life. Eight Palestinian children and nine other adults were killed in a bomb attack on the leading Hamas member Salah Shehadeh in 2002. Sharon praised the operation as "one of our greatest successes."
To those who still think that Sharon really was readying himself for a historic compromise, I say two words: "the wall." It was he who approved the construction of that monstrosity which was explicitly designed to strengthen Israel's grip on the West Bank.
I don't believe in taking pleasure from anyone's pain or ill-health, even when the person in question is a mass-murder like Ariel Sharon. So I have no plans to celebrate his death, whenever it comes. Like many others, I'll be too busy working to destroy the wretched system of apartheid that he helped to build.
•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 9 January 2014.
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