Man of many wars

Ariel Sharon cast an indelible imprint on the annals of the Israel Defense Forces.

Former Chief of Staff Haim Bar-Lev consults with Maj. Gen. Ariel Sharon during the Yom Kippur War, 1973 (photo credit: YOSSI GREENBERG / GPO)
Former Chief of Staff Haim Bar-Lev consults with Maj. Gen. Ariel Sharon during the Yom Kippur War, 1973
(photo credit: YOSSI GREENBERG / GPO)

ISRAEL HAS had its exceptional heroes. Meir Har-Zion, a member of the Israel Defense Forces’ famous commando force, Unit 101, formed by Ariel Sharon, is said to be one of the country’s greatest fighters; Ehud Barak is the country’s most decorated soldier; and Moshe Dayan is considered, abroad in particular, the most renowned Israeli military man.

When it comes to Ariel Sharon, one can find all of these essentials in one. He was a bold warrior and a cunning officer, a sophisticated commander and an intelligent leader. During his long military career, he showed flashes of strategic genius, marred occasionally by tactical failures, a tendency for adventurism and recklessness. Above all, he was a “Warrior,” the title he selected for his autobiography, and wanted to be remembered as such.
Often, as in the case of reprisal operations in the 1950s against Jordan and Egypt as well as the First Lebanon War of 1982, Israel got entangled in unnecessary adventurism, which led to many casualties and increased tensions with its neighbors. Prime minister David BenGurion called Sharon “a liar.” Dayan saw him as disobedient. Begin saw in him the qualities of the great commander of Israel, Judah Maccabee, of 2,000 years ago. His soldiers adored him.
In 1945, at age 17, Ariel Scheinerman joined the Hagana, and later served in the 1948 War of Independence as a platoon commander in the Alexandroni Brigade. In one battle, he was wounded in the stomach and left bleeding on the ground. His life was saved thanks to another soldier, Yitzhak Moda’i, later a fellow member of the Likud and finance minister.
Moda’i dragged Sharon to safety and since then a deep friendship developed between the two.
The battle greatly influenced Sharon’s perception of the military and political world.
“I swore there that I would never permit IDF soldiers to be abandoned wounded on the battlefield or in captivity,” he told me when he was prime minister in 2004.
In the summer of 1953, Sharon was asked to set up a special commando unit that would penetrate deep into enemy territory.
The decision came against the backdrop of infiltrations of terrorists from Jordan and the Gaza Strip into Israel and the repeated failures by IDF units to stop them.
Thus came into being Unit 101 – the first Israeli commando unit. Unit 101 made many cross-border incursions into Jordanian territory, laid ambushes, and carried out reprisal and revenge operations following the murder of Jews.
The unit operated for just five months. Even at the height of its activities, it had no more than 50 soldiers and commanders. Its impact on the army was enormous. Lasting myths and legacies evolved around the unit and have shaped and set the tone and values of the IDF.
The traditions of “after me,” determination, fighting spirit, and never surrender adopted by the entire IDF originated in Sharon’s unit.
The famous (or infamous) operation for which the unit is known best, and which accelerated the decision to dismantle it, took place in October 1953. Ben-Gurion ordered a swift and harsh reprisal against the West Bank village of Qibya in response to the murder of a mother and her two children. The perpetrators were from Qibya. The operation’s mission was to destroy 45 houses in the village. But the operation, under the command of Sharon, went wrong and between 42 to 69 men, women and children were killed during the course of the house demolitions.
The indiscriminate killings shocked the world. The UN and many countries condemned Israel and Ben-Gurion was forced to lie when he claimed that the operation was not carried out by the IDF, but by angry civilians who took the law into their own hands.
THE OPERATION and other acts of reprisal conducted by the IDF sparked a heated debate in Israel over the ethical and moral implications of such actions, as well as their military and political wisdom. The operation also helped to label Sharon as a ruthless warrior, without scruples. Sharon’s explanation that he did not know that residents were hiding in the houses that were blown up was not believed by any in the IDF high command and the political echelon.
In January 1954, chief of staff Dayan ordered the disbandment of Unit 101 and merged it with the Paratrooper Battalion.
Sharon was appointed commander of the battalion and later of the brigade. During the Sinai Campaign in 1956 – an Israeli, British and French secret collusion – the brigade was parachuted into the Sinai near the Mitla Pass.
Its orders were to dig itself in there. Sharon had different plans. He dispatched a patrol deep into the pass. The patrol was ambushed by Egyptian forces. A fierce battle ensued and 38 of Sharon’s soldiers were killed.
For years, the army nurtured a legacy of presenting the battle as heroic. And indeed, individual paratroopers demonstrated immense courage under heavy fire. Yet years later, Dayan accused Sharon of overstepping his authority and hinted that he had disobeyed his order.
The battle and its tragic results haunted Sharon for years and tarnished his image. In 1957, he was put “on hold” and went to study at the British Army Staff College in Camberley, after which he studied law. Ben-Gurion wrote in his diary, “An original thinker. Had he got rid of his habit not to tell the truth, he could have been a role-model military commander.”
Later, Ben-Gurion changed his mind, and it was evident that his admiration for Sharon as a military commander had not diminished.
Ben-Gurion continued to follow Sharon’s career and told Yitzhak Rabin, then deputy chief of staff, “Watch Arik.” Indeed, Rabin watched him. Following his appointment to the post of chief of staff in 1964, Rabin took Sharon out of the cold and in February 1967 promoted him to the rank of major general.
The two developed a friendship and appreciation for each other; and during his first term as prime minister (1974-77), Rabin appointed Sharon as his adviser on terrorism. Subsequently, however, political and ideological differences overshadowed their relationship.
In the weeks preceding the 1967 Six Day War, Sharon showed dissatisfaction with the indecision of the political leadership led by prime minister and defense minister Levi Eshkol and chief of staff Rabin, who did not order the IDF to launch a pre-emptive strike against threatening Egyptian military concentrations in Sinai. Along with other senior officers, Sharon attended various meetings that were later dubbed the “revolt of the generals” – demands by some generals that the government order the IDF to go into battle.
When the order was eventually given, Sharon led his division using innovative tactics to overwhelm Egyptian strongholds.
His tactics were taught not only to senior IDF commanders but also in courses in military schools overseas. After the Six Day War, Sharon was one of the architects of the IDF’s decision to move bases to the West Bank. Later, these bases turned into civilian settlements; and thus Sharon pioneered the colonization of the area and cemented the occupation.
Two years later, in 1970, he was appointed head of the IDF’s Southern Command. His first and most important task, with which he continued to be identified, was the battle against Palestinian terrorism in the Gaza Strip.

He turned the Shaked reconnaissance unit into a commando force. His tough low-intensity warfare tactics proved themselves. In 1972, Palestinian terror organizations suffered a severe blow and terrorism was eliminated almost completely. About 200 terrorists were killed in clashes with the IDF and another 2,000 were arrested in joint operations with the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet).

Palestinian civilians paid a heavy price.
Houses of terrorists and their assistants were destroyed. Under Sharon’s orders 1,600 families (over 10,000 people) were expelled from the Gaza Strip to El Arish in the Sinai. Sharon’s actions reinforced his image as mission-driven and no holds barred. The term “bulldozer” stuck to him and followed him into the political arena too.
SHARON HOPED to become the IDF chief of staff; and when his hopes were dashed, he retired in disappointment and anger in the summer of 1973. Shmuel Gonen succeeded him on the southern front. After the October 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Gonen was found responsible for the failures in the war – among others, poor preparation for battle and lack of emergency supplies – some asked whether this had not been the responsibility of Sharon, who left the Southern Command just a few months earlier.
With the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War, Sharon received an emergency appointment as commander of an armored division. On the second day of the bloody battles, Sharon favored a night counterattack to block the Egyptian army that had crossed the Suez Canal into Sinai. Instead, a decision was made to attack during the day and Avraham Adan was tasked with the mission. The attack, which also included Sharon’s division, failed.
Sharon’s greatest military achievement, with which he is identified, was his success in battling his division across the Suez Canal and cutting off the Egyptian Second Army’s supply lines. The operation, achieved with heavy casualties, allowed the IDF to change the deadlocked course of the war.
Sharon had been accompanied during the battles by a group of admirers and journalists who were in his command vehicle. Sharon was seen for days with a white bandage on his forehead covering a minor injury. This contributed to his popularity and he was termed “Arik, King of Israel.” The joke of those days, or perhaps not even a joke, was told of Sharon that on the battlefield, already thinking about the day after, about a place in politics, he told his soldier-admirers, “Don’t salute me – vote for me.”
After the war, he went into politics and, i n 1977, when the Likud established the first right-wing government led by Menachem Begin, Sharon was appointed minister of agriculture and used his position to establish more settlements in Gaza and the West Bank. After the elections in 1981, he was able to fulfill an old dream. He who had not managed to achieve his dream of becoming chief of staff was appointed defense minister.
Aided and abetted by chief of staff Rafael Eitan and Mossad officials, with the approval of prime minister Begin, Sharon conceived a plan to invade Lebanon to push back the PLO terrorist forces from the border of Israel by “40 kilometers.” Instead , however, the Israeli forces advanced all the way to Beirut. For the first time, the IDF conquered an Arab capital and dragged the Syrian army into battle as well.

Following the massacre of some 800 Palestinian men, women and children in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in September 1982 by Christian Phalange militias who entered the camps under the auspices of the IDF, an investigative commission found Sharon responsible for ignoring warnings not to trust the Christian Phalange forces. The Kahan Commission determined that Sharon was not fit to serve as minister of defense. Under pressure from public protests initiated by the Israeli left, which branded him a murderer, Sharon was forced to resign. He later accused Begin of betraying him.

Journalists, researchers and associates of Begin subsequently argued that Sharon had deceived the prime minister about his true plans for war and had entangled Israel in the Lebanese quagmire. The entanglement lasted 18 years and resulted in the deaths of 1,000 IDF soldiers. Sharon fought at every opportunity for his reputation to be rehabilitated, including a libel suit against the US magazine, Time, and argued that all his actions had won government approval.
When he was forced to resign from the Defense Ministry in early 1983, his close associate and journalist Uri Dan coined the famous saying: “Those who did not want Sharon as chief of staff got him as defense minister. Those who did not want him as defense minister will get him as prime minister.”