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7-08-02: News Abroad

It’s Time for Sharon to Go

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has reoccupied the West Bank in response to terrorist attacks from Palestinian radicals, putting the entire population under a grueling curfew. In April, Human Rights Watch accused the Israeli army of extensive violations of international law during its campaigns in Jenin and Ramallah. Sharon is no stranger to such controversies. He was first accused of being a war criminal after his 1982 invasion of Lebanon twenty years ago this summer, during which the Israeli army allowed its far-right Christian allies to massacre Palestinian civilians. Sharon and his iron fist policies have contributed significantly to the Middle East quagmire.

It is hard to remember now, but in 1982 there was no Shiite terrorism in southern Lebanon. The Lebanese Civil War had wound down and the economy was beginning to recover. Despite occasional minor skirmishes, the Palestine Liberation Organization in that country posed no real threat to Israel. It and its leftist and Muslim allies had been badly defeated by Syrian intervention in the 1976 Civil War.

Lebanon was a colonial creation of the French, who designed it with a slight Christian majority. Over time the Muslims had more children, and many Christians emigrated, leading by the 1980s to a Muslim majority and a plurality of dirt-poor Shiites. Lebanese political institutions, however, still gave Christians more power and patronage. Christians and Muslims increasingly disagreed about the Palestinian refugees and their descendants, who had originally fled or been expelled in 1948. They had been organized in the 1970s by the PLO for guerilla strikes at Israel. Rightwing Christians had feared the PLO was becoming a state within a state.

In neighboring Israel, the hawkish Ariel Sharon was appointed minister of defense by Likud Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Sharon developed a plan to march to Beirut, destroy the PLO, which was then based there, and to put the far rightwing Christian Phalangist party firmly into power in Lebanon. Israel could then annex and settle the West Bank and Gaza, occupied since 1967, and could replace a Syrian-dominated, fractured Lebanon with a strong ally.

Sharon launched his invasion on June 6, 1982 without any obvious casus belli, and by the 11th, Israeli forces had reached Beirut. During the succeeding two months, the Israeli army subjected the Lebanese capital to heavy, sometimes indiscriminate bombardment. They deprived the inhabitants of water and electricity. Sharon’s aim of destroying the PLO was frustrated when some 15,000 Palestinian fighters and Syrian troops put up a surprising fight. By 21 August, PLO chief Yasser Arafat as well as the Syrian troops had agreed to leave the city. The leader of the Phalangist party-militia, Bashir Gemayel, was elected president on 23 August.

An apparent victory turned bitter for Sharon. The Israeli invasion is conservatively estimated to have killed nearly 18,000 persons, half of them innocent civilians, and to have destroyed a fourth of all the homes in the capital. The Israeli public turned against the war. U.S. President Ronald Reagan, appalled by what he termed a “holocaust” at Beirut, called for Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza. Right-wing strong man Bashir Gemayel was assassinated in September. The Phalangists resented being ordered around by Sharon and Begin, and were alarmed at the apparent Israeli intent to deprive Beirut of sovereignty over southern Lebanon.

The Shiites, who initially had welcomed the Israelis because of their own competition with Palestinian refugees for local resources, were dismayed when the Israelis overstayed their welcome. In response, some formed terrorist organizations. A brief American intervention ended when hundreds of marines were killed by a Shiite suicide bomber. Lebanon fell back into intermittent civil war until 1989. The Israelis were finally pushed out of the south in 2000, in part by the new weapon of suicide bombings pioneered by the Shiite Hizbullah, a party and a tactic that did not exist when Sharon planned his invasion.

Among the mysteries of September 11 is why an engineer from a secular middle class family in Lebanon, Ziad Jarrah, would have hated the United States so much as to hijack United Airlines flight 93. Jarrah was eight years old when he lived through the brutal invasion of his country by America’s ally, Ariel Sharon. Despite his promises, Sharon’s iron fist and reckless disregard for innocent life have yielded no end to violence. If past experience is any guide he is busily creating further hatred and bitterness that will haunt the future of the Mideast and the United States. Yasser Arafat is not the only old warhorse in the region who should resign from office so that a settlement can be reached.

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