Sunday, January 12, 2014

Sharon and me

In the summer of 1970 I sat among fifteen high school pupils in the basement of an old house in downtown Tel Aviv and listened with horror to a soldier in uniform who had just returned from the Gaza Strip. He told of terrible things, of people being beaten up in the middle of the street, of bulldozers destroying homes and entire neighborhoods in the refugee camps, of executions without trial and bodies thrown into wells. The boy next to me burst out "It’s not true! Our army does not do such things!" The soldier replied "It's all true. I saw it. I myself participated and now I can’t sleep at night”.

Then the boy who had invited us to this secret meeting, who was two years older than me and himself faced imminent conscription, said "The military censorship prohibits publication of what you've heard here, what is going on in Gaza. But we will reveal to the people of Israel what is being concealed from them".  There was a creaking old stencil machine, and we printed some three thousand leaflets and went into the streets and distributed leaflets in the mailboxes of Tel Aviv, constantly looking behind our shoulders. And the leaflets specified the name of the military commander who had ordered the acts of repression in Gaza: Ariel “Arik” Sharon , General in Command South..  

In January 1978 we were still in a bit of euphoria in the aftermath of the visit of President Anwar Sadat of Egypt and his peace speech in the Knesset. Suddenly, there was a highly discordant note with the news of Agriculture Minister Ariel Sharon intensively creating accomplished facts in North Sinai, the so-called “Flying Towers Campaign”. In the evening the phone rang and I got a message from then quite new Peace Now movement. There was an emergency demonstration scheduled for next day, calling upon Prime Minister Menachem Begin  to “Fire immediately Sharon The Provocateur”.  

In the middle of 1981 the papers published, not quite prominently, the news that Begin was about to appoint Sharon to the Defense Ministry, left vacant since Ezer Weizman resigned over the lack of progress in peace negotiations. I called to activists of several groups that we should hold a big demonstration and cry out as loud as we could. But it was a moment of fatigue and ebbing energies in the Israeli peace camp and no one took up the challenge. Anyway, most likely Begin would have appointed him, even if we had demonstrated.

In April 1982 three Israelis were killed in an ambush shooting at the Bois de Boulogne near Paris. As we later learned, Israeli Air Force pilots were immediately called up and were sitting in the cockpits, ready to take off by order of Defense Minister Sharon to carry out a retaliatory bombing of the PLO headquarters in Beirut. And then the French police stated that the people killed had apparently been drug dealers killed by a rival gang, and the Israeli Air Force canceled its red alert. On that week we had in the Tel Aviv branch of the Shelli Party a historian from Tel Aviv University who told about the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 and how the peoples of Europe were swept up with war enthusiasm and only a courageous few like Jean Jaures in France and Rosa Luxemburg in Germany dared to confront the nationalist tide. It was then that we, the young people sitting there all swore that when Sharon would launch his war in Lebanon, we would oppose it from the first day, the very first minute – as we did, in June.

September 1982 we spent three tense days, with no clear information on  what was happening in West Beirut since Israeli troops moved in. And then the clear information did come and it was much worse than the most terrible rumors.  From the world media came the photos of massacre, hundreds of bodies lying in the streets of the Sabra and Shatila Refugee Camps. Within two hours it was agreed in phone consultations to hold a protest at the corner of Ben Gurion Boulevard and Dizengoff Street. The police must have been wiretapping, they were ready there with large forces. Anyone who arrived and picked up a sign was immediately seized and dragged into the waiting giant paddy wagons with wire mesh windows. Dozens were crowded and pressed inside and we were drumming on the metal sides and kicking them and crying out as loud as we could "Sharon - murderer! Sharon - murderer! Sha-ron - mur-de-rer!”. But a few days later there were hundreds of thousands who cried out.

In February 1983 we sat for a whole night around candles in the Tel Aviv square than called Kings of Israel, which would later become the Rabin Square. We were mourning Emil Grunzweig, killed by a grenade thrown at the demonstrators who had demanded implementation of the Kahan Commission's report - which called for the dismissal of Ariel Sharon. We were very tired and exhausted when the radio told that indeed, Sharon did resign at the end of a tense Cabinet meeting. "Finally we are rid of him it " said the activist who was sitting next to me. "That I would say only at his funeral”, said another “and even then it would be better to put a heavy stone on his grave, just in case.”

In 1986 I did a month of military reserve duty in the Negev, one of my last sojourns in the army before departing its ranks and slamming the door. One night I spent four hours on guard duty and my mate was a staunch fan of Sharon . - "Just give Arik the helm, he will make order in this country in no time". - "He will make order? He had the helm for a year and see what a mess  he made in Lebanon, how the army is sinking in the swamp." - "That's because you leftists stabbed him in the back!" - " The country is very lucky to have gotten rid of him before he had a chance to really push us into the abyss." For one moment I feared that the Sharon admirer would turn his gun on me, but eventually he went on with the verbal confrontation. Nothing like a heated political debate to let two soldiers easily get through hours of boring guard duty.  

And then there were quite a few years when Ariel Sharon receded to the background. To be sure, he was always holding one ministry or another and whichever it was he was using its funds and resources to support and extend the settlements, but he was no longer so prominent. The next generation of activists, those who became involved during the Oslo years, barely noticed him - the man whom they really loved to hate was Bibi Netanyahu. But Sharon was always there. He bided his time and never gave up his ambitions and plans. And his opportunity finally came.  

On an afternoon in late October 2000, the phone rang and it was a Palestinian, an old friend from Hebron, and his voice was barely recognizable. "Did you hear it? Dozens killed on Temple Mount, the mosques full of blood, all because of that bastard Sharon, his visit there, his provoking. The bastard, the bastard! How many more will die because of this?" And a lot were killed in subsequent years, Israelis and Palestinians, in the macabre dance of blood which started on that day.

In January 2001, in the midst of a fateful elections campaign, I was in a bus and out of the window I saw Ehud Barak banners which had collapsed and fell on the pavement. Immediately I got off and raised up the signs and fastened them with a piece of rope I found – even though I was full of anger and bitterness at  Ehud Barak who had promised peace and brought us bloodshed. Because Barak’s rival in that race was Ariel Sharon. A week and a half later, on elections night which ended with the very expected results, a group of activists were sharing nightmare scenarios about what we could expect, and there was one who urged all of us to leave the country before it became too late.

In September 2003 the radio gave news of yet another terrible suicide bombing, followed by the report that Prime Minister Sharon was cutting short his visit to the United States and returning to Israel, and that he had summoned members of the Inner Cabinet to meet with him in the guest room at Ben Gurion Airport in order to “take an urgent resolution which could not wait". Well informed sources told of Sharon's intention to send an elite unit to break into the  besieged Presidential Compound in Ramallah and capture or kill PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat. In the Gush Shalom office, through hectic telephoning twenty activists were mobilized within an hour to go immediately to Ramallah. Among the twenty were Uri and Rachel Avnery We managed to get through the army checkpoints, telling the soldiers rather far-fetched stories, and got to the Compound and from there phoned the media to make it known that Israeli citizens were staying right next to Arafat’s room. We spent a tense sleepless night in conversation with Arafat’s young bodyguards, in a mixture of Hebrew and Arabic and English, listening for any suspicious sounds. The night passed and dawn came, and the morning news of the Voice of Israel Radio recounted that the Cabinet had decided not to take any special measures due to "fear of political entanglement".

In February 2004 I was on a family visit in the Netherlands, and looking through Israeli news websites I found reports of the surprising statement by Prime Minister Sharon of his intention to unilaterally evacuate the Gaza Strip settlements, and the confused reactions of commentators.

After that we spent a confused year and a half between the declaration of Sharon’s intent and its actual implementation on the ground, a constant dilemma on how should Israeli peace seekers react. It was clear to us that Sharon felt the need to take such a step because of the momentum gained by the Geneva Initiative, which was pushing for a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace, and because of the letter of the pilots who refused to bomb Palestinian cities as well as the objectors from the elite Sayeret Matkal commandos. From his viewpoint , as a man who had commanded  armies and sent soldiers to die in battle, he was ready to sacrifice the settlements in the Gaza Strip in order to deflect the pressures and get a free hand to continue expanding settlements in the West Bank . He did all he could to make the evacuation of 7,000 settlers from the Gaza Strip into a  difficult, long-drawn and traumatic event, so as to make the evacuation of hundreds of thousands from the West Bank seem an absolute impossibility.

Knowing all of that - and still, faced with the choice between Sharon succeeding in implementing the "Gaza disengagement " and the possibility of the settlers thwarting the plan and the settlements in Gaza remaining intact, I found myself walking in a lukewarm Peace Now demonstration called to support the Disengagement and support Sharon. And there were many occasions on that year when I stood at roadsides and junctions to distribute to drivers the pro-Disengagement Blue Ribbons, to counter the settlers’ Orange Ribbons.

At the end of 2005 Sharon split the Likud and founded the Kadima Party which was intended to achieve "The Big Bang of Israeli politics". In the evening I sat with friends and heard TV  commentators praise Sharon’s brilliant move and predict that Kadima led by Sharon would win the 2006 elections and garner forty or even fifty seats and that Sharon would bestride the political system like a colossus for many years to come. We were far from happy at the prospect. Would Sharon have managed to actually bring about all that, and how would he have used his power? Would he have become the Israeli de Gaulle? We will never know.

Just before those 2006 elections , in the middle of a quiet evening sorting out messy bookshelves, the telephone rang and a friend asked "Have you heard what's going on with Sharon?" In a single evening the man who was King of Israel, who ruled our destinies and moved us all as pawns on the chessboard, was betrayed by a small artery in his brain and became a vegetable, a living dead being immured in a hospital room. All at once there was no longer any point to a political debate about this man. Only a humanitarian problem remained, the nagging question about what Sharon would have said had he known what was going to happen to him.  Would he have not firmly ordered – more firmly than any order he had given in his life – that the instruments be disconnected and that these miserable last eight years be cut out of his life?  

And now the most clearly anticipated event happened, and the state funeral will be held grandly, and six generals will carry the coffin, and all dignitaries will pull out the obituary which was prepared and written a long time ago, and those who most despised Sharon in life will heap on him the most praise. And on this day one can give some thought to the three sons to whom Ariel Sharon was a beloved father, who over the last eight years were sitting at his bedside, hoping against hope that he would still wake up and return to them. Now they can bury him and get on with their lives.

From dust thou came, and unto dust thou shalt return