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Robert Fisk on ARIEL SHARON: Responsible for one of the most shocking war crimes of the 20th century
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Israel's Prime Minister was a ruthless military commander responsible for one of the most shocking war crimes of the 20th century, argues Robert Fisk. President George Bush acclaims Ariel Sharon as 'a man of peace', yet the blood that was shed at Sabra and Chatila remains a stain on the conscience of the Zionist nation. As Sharon lies stricken in his hospital bed, his political career over, how will history judge him?
By Robert Fisk
01/06/05 ""The Independent"" -- -- I shook hands with him once, a brisk, no-nonsense soldier's grip from Sharon as he finished a review of the vicious Phalangist militiamen who stood in the barracks square at Karantina in Beirut. Who would have thought, I asked myself then, that this same bunch of murderers - the men who butchered their way through the Palestinian Sabra and Chatila refugee camps only a few weeks earlier - had their origins in the Nazi Olympics of 1936. That's when old Pierre Gemayel - still alive and standing stiffly to attention for Sharon - watched the "order" of Nazi Germany and proposed to bring some of this "order" to Lebanon. That's what Gemayel told me himself. Did Sharon not understand this. Of course, he must have done.
Back on 18 September that same year, Loren Jenkins of The Washington Post and Karsten Tveit of Norwegian television and I had clambered over the piled corpses of Chatila - of raped and eviscerated women and their husbands and children and brothers - and Jenkins, knowing that the Isrealis had sat around the camps for two nights watching this filth, shrieked "Sharon!" in anger and rage. He was right. Sharon it was who sent the Phalange into the camps on the night of 16 September - to hunt for "terrorists", so he claimed at the time.
The subsequent Israeli Kahan commission of enquiry into this atrocity provided absolute proof that Israeli soldiers saw the massacre taking place. The evidence of a Lieutenant Avi Grabovsky was crucial. He was an Israeli deputy tank commander and reported what he saw to his higher command. "Don't interfere," the senior officer said. Ever afterwards, Israeli embassies around the world would claim that the commission held Sharon only indirectly responsible for the massacre. It was untrue. The last page of the official Israeli report held Sharon "personally responsible". It was years later that the Israeli-trained Phalangist commander, Elie Hobeika, now working for the Syrians, agreed to turn state's evidence against Sharon - now the Israeli Prime Minister - at a Brussels court. The day after the Israeli attorney general declared Sharon's defence a "state" matter, Hobeika was killed by a massive car bomb in east Beirut. Israel denied responsibility. US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld traveled to Brussels and quietly threatened to withdraw Nato headquarters from Belgium if the country maintained its laws to punish war criminals from foreign nations. Within months, George W Bush had declared Sharon "a man of peace". It was all over.
In the end, Sharon got away with it, even when it was proved that he had, the night before the Phalangists attacked the civilians of the camp, publicly blamed the Palestinians for the murder of their leader, President-elect Bashir Gemayel. Sharon told these ruthless men that the Palestinians had killed their beloved "chief". Then he sent them in among the civilian sheep - and claimed later he could never have imagined what they would do in Chatila. Only years later was it proved that hundreds of Palestinians who survived the original massacre were interrogated by the Israelis and then handed back to the murderers to be slaughtered over the coming weeks.
So it is as a war criminal that Sharon will be known forever in the Arab world, through much of the Western world, in fact - save, of course, for the craven men in the White House and the State Department and the Blair Cabinet - as well as many leftist Israelis. Sabra and Chatila was a crime against humanity. Its dead counted more than half the fatalities of the World Trade Centre attacks of 2001. But the man who was responsible was a "man of peace". It was he who claimed that the preposterous Yasser Arafat was a Palestinian bin Laden. He it was who as Israeli foreign minister opposed Nato's war in Kosovo, inveighing against "Islamic terror" in Kosovo. "The moment that Israel expresses support...it's likely to be the next victim. Imagine that one day Arabs in Galilee demand that the region in which they live be recognised as an autonomous area, connected to the Palestinian Authority..." Ah yes, Sharon as an ally of another war criminal, Slobodan Milosevic. There must be no Albanian state in Kosovo.
Ever since he was elected in 2001 - and especially since his withdrawal of settlements from the rubbish tip of Gaza last year, a step which would, according to his spokesman, turn any plans for a Palestinian state in the West Bank into "formaldehyde" - his supporters have tried to turn Sharon into a pragmatist, another Charles de Gaulle. His new party was supposed to be proof of this. But in reality, Sharon had more in common with the putchist generals of Algeria.
He voted against the peace treaty with Egypt in 1979. He voted against a withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 1985. He opposed Israel's participation in the Madrid peace conference in 1991. He opposed the Knesset plenum vote on the Oslo agreement in 1993. He abstained on a vote for peace with Jordan in 1994. He voted against the Hebron agreement in 1997. He condemned the manner of Israel's retreat from Lebanon in 2000. By 2002, he had built 34 new Jewish colonies on Palestinian land.
And he was a man of peace.
There was a story told to me by one of the men investigating Sharon's responsibility for the Sabra and Chatila massacre, and the story is that the then Israeli defence minister, before he sent his Phalangist allies into the camps, announced that it was Palestinian "terrorists" who had murdered their newly assassinated leader, President-elect Gemayel. Sharon was to say later that he never dreamed the Phalange would massacre the Palestinians.
But how could he say that if he claimed earlier that the Palestinians killed the leader of the Phalange? In reality, no Palestinians were involved in Gemayel's death. It might seem odd in this new war to be dwelling about that earlier atrocity. I am fascinated by the language. Murderers, terrorists. That's what Sharon said then, and it's what he says now. Did he really make that statement in 1982? I begin to work the phone from Jerusalem, calling up Associated Press bureaus that might still have their files from 19 years ago. He would have made that speech - if indeed he used those words - some time on 15 September 1982.
One Sunday afternoon, my phone rings in Jerusalem. It's from an Israeli I met in Jaffa Street after the Sbarro bombing. An American Jewish woman had been screaming abuse at me - foreign journalists are being insulted by both sides with ever more violent language - and this man suddenly intervenes to protect me. He's smiling and cheerful and we exchange phone numbers. Now on the phone, he says he's taking the El-Al night flight to New York with his wife. Would I like to drop by for tea?
He turns out to have a luxurious apartment next to the King David Hotel and I notice, when I read his name on the outside security buzzer, that he's a rabbi. He's angry because a neighbour has just let down a friend's car tyres in the underground parking lot and he's saying how he felt like smashing the windows of the neighbour's car. His wife, bringing me tea and feeding me cookies, says that her husband - again, he should remain anonymous - gets angry very quickly. There's a kind of gentleness about them both - how easy it is to spot couples who are still in love - that is appealing. But when the rabbi starts to talk about the Palestinians, his voice begins to echo through the apartment. He says several times that Sharon is a good friend of his, a fine man, who's been to visit him in his New York office.
What we should do is go into those vermin pits and take out the terrorists and murderers. Vermin pits, yes I said, vermin, animals. I tell you what we should do. If one stone is lobbed from a refugee camp, we should bring the bulldozers and tear down the first 20 houses close to the road. If there's another stone, another 20 ones. They'd soon learn not to throw stones. Look, I tell you this. Stones are lethal. If you throw a stone at me, I'll shoot you. I have the right to shoot you.
Now the rabbi is a generous man. He's been in Israel to donate a vastly important and, I have no doubt, vastly expensive medical centre to the country. He is well-read. And I liked the fact that - unlike too many Israelis and Palestinians who put on a "we-only-want-peace" routine to hide more savage thoughts - he at least spoke his mind. But this is getting out of hand.
Why should I throw a stone at the rabbi? He shouts again. "If you throw a stone at me, I will shoot you." But if you throw a stone at me, I say, I won't shoot you. Because I have the right not to shoot you. He frowns. "Then I'd say you're out of your mind."
I am driving home when it suddenly hits me. The Old and New Testaments have just collided. The rabbi's dad taught him about an eye for an eye - or 20 homes for a stone - whereas Bill Fisk taught me about turning the other cheek. Judaism is bumping against Christianity. So is it any surprise that Judaism and Islam are crashing into each other? For despite all the talk of Christians and Jews being "people of the Book", Muslims are beginning to express ever harsher views of Jews. The sickening Hamas references to Jews as "the sons of pigs and monkeys" are echoed by Israelis who talk of Palestinians as cockroaches or "vermin", who tell you - as the rabbi told me - that Islam is a warrior religion, a religion that does not value human life. And I recall several times a Jewish settler who told me back in 1993 - in Gaza, just before the Oslo accords were signed - that "we do not recognise their Koran as a valid document."
I call up Eva Stern in New York. Her talent for going through archives convinces me she can find out what Sharon said before the Sabra and Chatila massacre. I give her the date that is going through my head: 15 September 1982. She comes back on the line the same night. "Turn your fax on," Eva says. "You're going to want to read this." The paper starts to crinkle out of the machine. An AP report of 15 September 1982. "Defence Minister Ariel Sharon, in a statement, tied the killing [of the Phalangist leader Gemayel] to the PLO, saying: "It symbolises the terrorist murderousness of the PLO terrorist organisations and their supporters."
(CONTINUES) [link to www.informationclearinghouse.info]
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