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Reflecting on the life and legacy of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon

January 11, 2014 at 12:00 AM EST
Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon died Saturday. He was 85 years old and had been in a coma since 2006. NewsHour's Margaret Warner reflects on the legacy of a man whose career spanned the entirety of Israel’s 65-year history.
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MARGARET WARNER: He was one of the nation’s most controversial figures: a ferocious military strategist and hard-nose politician, whose life and career spanned Israel’s entire sixty-five year history.

At just twenty Ariel Sharon shone as a platoon commander during Israel’s 1948 war of independence, launched his meteoric, but at times contentious military career. In the years after independence he earned the enmity of Palestinians and Arabs, by leading a special army commando unit, Unit 101, in sometimes brutal reprisal attacks against Palestinian resistance fighters and civilians.

In 1953, Unit 101 responded to the killing of the three Israeli civilians with a revenge attack on the West Bank town, Kibya, leaving 69 Palestinians dead, including many women and children. “Kibya was to be a lesson,” he wrote years later in his autobiography. “I was to inflict as many causalities as I could on the Arab home guard. I was to blow up every major building in the town.”

His tough, at times defiant, streak showed during the 1956 Suez War, when against orders he sent his forces across the Mitla Pass in the Sinai Peninsula. Egyptian soldiers ambushed and killed dozens of his Israeli troops, forcing them to retreat. But in the 1967 Six-Day War Sharon was hailed as a hero when, as commander of a powerful armored division in Sinai, he captured the entire peninsula from the Egyptian army. It played an important part of the decisive victory that left Israel in control of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights, and Sinai. Sharon was once again lauded for his role as a brigadier general in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when he responded to Egypt and Syria’s’ surprise attack with a counter attack that cut off the Egyptian Army in Sinai. It marked a turning point in the war.

After retiring from the army, Sharon plunged into more than three decades in politics, as a leading figure in right-wing Israeli parties. As a legislator, a prime minister’s aide, and head of different cabinet ministries, Sharon promoted a hard line on security issues. Above all, he championed the establishment of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. Following a rationale, he would later describe as, “Everything we take now will stay ours. Everything we don’t grab will go to them.”

His most controversial cabinet tenure came as a defense minister, beginning in 1981. The following year, after the shelling of northern Israel by the Palestinian Liberation Organization in Lebanon, Sharon unleashed an invasion of Israel’s northern neighbor. The PLO was driven from Lebanon, but thousands of Israelis and Palestinians died; many hundreds of Palestinians slaughtered during a massacre at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps by Lebanese Christian militia men. An investigative commission later found the Israeli military indirectly responsible and faulted Sharon personally for not taking appropriate measures to prevent bloodshed. He was dismissed from the defense ministry.

But Sharon went onto other cabinet posts, including the critical housing minister’s job in the early ’90s, overseeing a rapid expansion of the Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. He opposed the 1993 Oslo peace accords, and in 1998 he declared; “Israel is against having Palestinian state, and the government – as a matter of fact all of the government, is against having a Palestinian state here, because of the dangers.”

In 1999, Sharon was elected the leader of the rightist Likud party. A year later, during his campaign for prime minister, he made a provocative visit to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, home to the holiest site to Jews and the third-most-revered by Muslims. Shortly afterwards the second Palestinian uprising or intifada, began. Later, in New York, Sharon defended the Temple Mount visit: “The Temple Mount is the holiest place of the Jewish people. I hope I’ll be doing that in the future as well, no restrictions. We live in a free country. Everyone can go in the sovereign area of Israel everywhere.” Sharon had won that election, defeating Ehud Barak to become prime minister in the spring of 2001.

ARIEL SHARON: “I, Ariel Sharon, swear as prime minister to be honest and uphold the rules of the state of Israel.” (translation)

MARGARET WARNER:  Reacting to an upsurge in suicide bombings by Palestinians against Israel, he launches the building of the controversial security barrier to separate the two. But, in 2005, in a surprise turnaround, Sharon announced a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, dismantling Israeli settlements and forcing their inhabitants to leave. The move infuriated many of his conservative constituency, and later that year he quit Likud to form a new centrist Kadima Party.

Sharon was widely expected to win another term as prime minister, but two strokes, a mild one in December 2005 and a second massive brain hemorrhage two weeks later put an abrupt end to his political life. Since then, Sharon remained in a coma at a long-term care facility near Tel Aviv. Over the years his family has reported occasional eye and finger movement, but the lifelong warrior never fully regained consciousness. At his death, Ariel Sharon was 85 years old.