The Sharon Doctrine

The Mixed Legacy of an Israeli Unilateralist

Ariel Sharon in Israel in 2006 (Courtesy Reuters)

For most Arabs, no Israeli in history is more synonymous with violence and Israeli expansionism than Ariel Sharon. His name quickly conjures the worst massacres, deepest pro-settlement fanaticism, and most extreme nationalistic provocations in the Palestinian bill of particulars against Israel. Less readily appreciated by most Arabs is the complexity of Sharon's legacy and the important lessons, both positive and negative, his final policies suggest for peace.

For most of his life, Sharon was the epitome of what has been called "gun Zionism": the notion that Jewish Israelis have a kill-or-be-killed relationship with the Arabs, and above all the Palestinians, surrounding them. He spent most of his professional life armed, first as a teenager in the Jewish underground under the British mandate in 1942, and then as a Haganah fighter in the so-called "Battle for Jerusalem" in the fall of 1948. Sharon quickly earned a reputation as a maverick best suited for missions that required ruthlessness -- before long, he was placed in charge of Israel's early "special operations" Unit 101.

This group eventually specialized in tit-for-tat raids with Palestinian guerrilla groups, which often resulted in civilian deaths on both sides. The most notorious of these was the Qibya massacre in 1953 when troops under Sharon's command attacked a West Bank village and killed 69 Palestinians, two thirds of whom were women and children. Sharon later wrote that he had believed that the civilians had already fled the village when their homes were destroyed, although contemporaneous documents cast doubt on that account. Sharon told his troops the purpose of the attack was "maximal killing and damage to property," and reports from both the Israeli military and UN observers are consistent with a deliberate effort to kill civilians as opposed to Sharon's version.

In Israel's conventional wars with Arab armies, Sharon was generally regarded as an effective, but unpredictable and undisciplined, commander. But the Israeli public was quick to lionize his performance in the 1973 war, during which he was credited with creative maneuvers that defeated Egypt's Second and Third Armies on the crucial southern front. National fame led to a political career, and in 1981, Sharon became Israeli Minister of Defense.

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