Ariel Sharon, the Butcher of Beirut turned peacemaker, dies at the age of 85

Published in The Mail on Sunday (January 12th, 2014)

Ariel Sharon, the Israeli general and former prime minister who proved such a controversial figure across the Middle East for more than five decades, died yesterday. He was 85.

Nicknamed ‘The Bulldozer’ for his tenacious approach to war and politics, Sharon suffered a serious stroke in 2006 and remained in a coma until his death.

Many Israelis will mourn one of their nation’s founding fathers, who fought in all their wars and held almost every top political post. But millions more will remember him as the Butcher of Beirut, infamously allowing the slaughter of refugees in Lebanon.

Perhaps the only point of agreement is that he was one of the central characters in the turbulent drama of the Middle East.

Ariel Sharon was born in 1928 to middle-class parents who had emigrated from Russia, and he grew up near Tel Aviv.

He joined the underground Jewish army aged 14. Six years later, he fought in the 1948 war of independence, where he was wounded, then made his name in the new Israeli Defence Forces.

David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding prime minister, admired Sharon and asked him to establish an elite commando unit. Within months, Unit 101 had earned Israel its first condemnation by the United Nations after a raid on a Jordanian town that left 69 people dead.

But Sharon recovered from the furore and went on to play key roles in Israel’s subsequent wars.  In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, he defied orders to take 5,000 men through Egyptian lines, a daring move that changed the course of the conflict and cemented his heroic status among Israelis.

Upon entering politics, Sharon was renowned as a hawk, supporting the creation of Jewish settlements in occupied territories.

In 1982, came the moment that made him such a hate figure across the Arab world when, as defence minister, he ordered Israeli troops into Lebanon. It ended with them besieging Beirut and standing by as Lebanese militia massacred thousands in refugee camps.

Sharon denied responsibility, but he was sacked as defence minister and condemned by an inquiry.

Unexpectedly, he bounced back to become leader of the right-wing party Likud, and was elected premier in 2001 on a promise of peace and security after his provocative visit to a Jerusalem mosque helped spark a Palestinian uprising.

Yet suddenly – worried by Arab population growth and American political weakness – this 20st tough-guy started talking about the inevitability of a Palestinian state. He formed a centrist party and set about dismantling Jewish settlements, earning the enmity of his most fervent supporters.

Who knows what he might have achieved had he not been struck down by successive strokes on the brink of winning a crucial election? For, as so often in history, who better to make peace than a hardliner forged in war?

Instead came eight years of fighting death with the same fierce determination that he showed throughout his life.

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