How we love the comforting myth of redemption. It’s the backbone of many a Hollywood script – the anti-hero turns hero, because, after all, he was only a lovable rogue, or because experience made him sadder and wiser.
So it is with Ariel Sharon, “the Bulldozer”, the “Butcher of Sabra and Shatila”, now redeemed in George W Bush’s words as “a man of peace and courage”. As he lay in his hospital bed he was feted, even by many on the left. They say he changed from an impulsive, brutal young soldier into a statesman. “When he became prime minister, he became pragmatic, more ready to make compromises, and also he felt the heavy responsibility of the future of Israel and the Jewish people on his shoulders. That’s why he changed,” said Nir Hefetz, whose biography of Sharon, The Shepherd, has recently been published.
But Hefetz understands why Sharon remains a hate figure among Palestinians. “He’s the symbol of the power of the Jewish state and the Jewish people, and that’s why they love to hate Ariel Sharon.”
Sharon’s supporters cite the withdrawal of Israeli settlers from Gaza as evidence that he was a man – maybe the only man – who could bring peace to the Middle East. As the father of the settler movement, he seemed to be turning against his own in order to bring peace. But Sharon’s close adviser Dov Weisglass made it clear months before the disengagement that his aim was to sacrifice 8,000 settlers in Gaza in order to save 190,000 in the West Bank, “to park conveniently in an interim situation that distances us as far as possible from political pressure . . . [so] part of the settlements would not be dealt with at all, and the rest would not be dealt with until the Palestinians turn into Finns”.
The plan is working. Sharon has been hailed as a hero by the majority of Israelis and international leaders, while Gaza descends into violence as the Palestinian Authority fails to control the frustrated, unemployed young men who live in the virtual prison the strip has become. Years ago, recognising how hard it would be to govern the overcrowded, desperately poor shanties and camps without an overall peace deal, a Palestinian politician reportedly asked: “If we have to have Gaza, what will the Israelis give us in return?” Sharon’s answer is now clear: “Nothing.”
“Sharon did not become all leftish or dovish or understanding that the Palestinians are suffering,” said Yossi Beilin, leader of the left-wing Yahad party (formed by the merger of his Shahar movement with the Meretz party). “He remains the same cynical Sharon who doesn’t believe in the other side. But he understood something he didn’t understand before, that if we wait too long then a Jewish minority might dominate a Palestinian majority and that would be the end of Zionism. This is why he decided at the end of his career to withdraw from Gaza.”
Beilin supported the move because it proved that it was possible to pull out settlers, something previous leaders had feared to try, but he added of Sharon: “Had he understood 39 years ago that it was a huge huge mistake to build settlements, we could have saved a lot of lives.”
In the Palestinian village of Qibya such discussions seem arcane. In October 1953 the 25-year-old Sharon led the Israeli 101 unit in a retaliatory raid after several Jewish families had been killed, allegedly by Palestinians from the Qibya area. The ruins of the houses the unit demolished remain, the stones crumbling and sprouting grass. The 69 Palestinians who were crushed inside are long-buried, but a few survivors remain. The official Israeli version of events is that Sharon did not realise that people remained inside when he ordered the houses destroyed.
Hamad Gheedan was only four and a half at the time, so his memories are sketchy. “I remember the fear, and how my father came and woke us up at night,” he said. “He carried us all on his shoulders, me and my brothers and sisters, and he hid us. The next day he took us to the hills.” Gheedan grew up to be a teacher, and in his spare time he gathered photographs and any documentation he could find about the killings in his village. Rain starts to fill the potholed streets as we stand on his roof so he can show me where the Israelis entered. Qibya, like other Palestinian villages, is a ramshackle place where children run in the streets and unemployed young men hang about with nothing to do.
“As a military leader, Sharon served the Israelis and I think that’s OK,” he says. “But when they say he’s a man of peace, I don’t agree. The massacre of Qibya will never be forgotten, and we won’t forget Sharon was responsible. In my opinion Sharon never really changed, it was just that he used different tactics. Sharon had a strategy, and his plan was to foment clashes among the Palestinians themselves.”
Qibya is festooned with green Hamas flags. In this village, Fatah, Yasser Arafat’s old faction, deemed “moderate” by western governments, is likely to be trounced by the radicals in this month’s elections.
If Gheedan is right about Sharon’s plan, it seems to be working. As we walk down the half-built staircase into his house he adds, quietly: “I wish we Palestinians had leaders as strong as Sharon.”
Many – Israelis and Palestinians alike – see the vast de facto border of concrete and barbed wire that Sharon erected as his monument. It was the Israeli left that first proposed “separation” as a way of stopping suicide bombings inside Israel, while allowing the Palestinians a state on the West Bank and in Gaza. Sharon seized the idea after initially opposing it, but designed the route of the wall to cut deep into Palestinian territory, annexing to Israel large settlement blocks. Graffiti scrawled on the grey concrete read “We want peace, Sharon” and “Bloody Sharon, go to hell”. Israelis point out that terror attacks inside Israel have decreased since the erection of the wall, but Palestinians do not feel “separated” because their daily lives have been so severely disrupted.
A complex network of roads, some for Israelis, some for Palestinians, punctuated by checkpoints, means that journeys between Palestinian towns which used to take 20 minutes now take several hours. The wall cuts families in half and ensures that the putative Palestine cannot have Jerusalem as its capital.
To many Palestinians, this is Sharon’s legacy. His vision was not “two states living side by side in peace”, as the fantasy Middle East future would have it, but a strong Jewish state dominating a weak, fragmented Palestinian statelet. “The Sharon model of Palestine would, in the end, be a historical abortion, a permanent cripple,” says the internet think-tank Stratfor – while adding that all two-state solutions would be doomed, because the land is too small and neither side would negotiate in good faith.
Sharon will be remembered for the 1982 invasion of Lebanon and the murders of Palestinian refugees at Sabra and Shatila, for which an Israeli inquiry declared him “indirectly responsible”. He will also be remembered for taking a walk on the disputed Temple Mount in 2000, a provocation to the Palestinians that many believe triggered the second intifada. “All his life, his ideology was to give maximum security to the Jews. He didn’t have ideology in the sense of religion, or something more deep,” says his biographer Hefetz.
In Qibya an old man walking up the hill to the mosque stopped for a chat. His face scored with lines, head swathed in a red- and-white-chequered keffiyeh, he looked about the same age as Sharon. He pointed to the heavens.
“It is God who judges the people,” he said. “I myself hope God will cure him, because if Sharon dies maybe other people will come here who are worse than him.”
Lindsey Hilsum is international editor for Channel 4 News