Whitewashing a Bloodbath - The Media Remembers Sharon

by Tim Holmes

With the death of Ariel Sharon fresh in our minds now is an opportune moment to ask, how does the British press treat prominent political figures responsible for war crimes?

First published: 07 February, 2014 | Category: History, Media

With the death of former Israeli general and prime minister Ariel Sharon relatively fresh in our minds, now is an opportune moment to examine the way the British press treats prominent political figures responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The Guardian’s obituary labels him a 'menace' who embodied his region's 'dark side.' 'In a long list of villains, he was the central figure.' He 'presided over mayhem and mass murder'—'dehumanising the enemy' as terrorists, Nazis and crazed fundamentalists, his expansionist programme required the 'redrawing of borders and population transfers.' For 'civilian victims,' 'he was the chilling embodiment of the evil men can do.' Many 'are convinced' that the region 'would be a much better place today' had he 'died, been killed, or been ousted' earlier. The 'compulsive,' 'barefaced lying' of this 'malignant narcissist' extended to denying responsibility for a horrendous massacre, 'despite the mass of factual evidence accrued' and 'exhaustive investigations' conducted. A 'potent tumour' in the region’s 'body politic,' a 'peril' responsible for 'bloodbaths,' he 'left the United Nations and the European Union looking spineless and humiliated,' their 'peacekeeping credibility in tatters.'

The Independent’s obituary is similarly unflattering. It calls him a 'ruthlessly brutal' leader who, 'basing his appeal on narrow' national 'chauvinism', 'presided over the bloody disintegration' of neighbouring countries. He 'seemed to hold the fate' of his neighbours 'in his thrall.' His 'wars were also marked by an astonishing degree of brutality that left' his country 'an international pariah.' When confronted with these 'murderous' acts, he 'always shrugged and said he knew nothing. No one,' however, 'doubted that the brutal actions' of his state were 'authorised by its leader.' One horrific war against a neighbouring country 'finally enshrined his reputation as a man of blood.' His neighbours he had 'stripped of their autonomy.' He 'overran' a neighbouring republic, 'driving tens of thousands from their homes' and 'flattening' an entire town, and 'applied the same ruthless tactics' elsewhere: the 'carnage' was 'horrific.' Conquering 'an enormous amount of territory,' he revealed 'just how ruthless he could be.' He crushed uprisings 'with the ruthless brutality that had become his trademark,' destroying 'villages where the rebels were based' and 'expelling' residents; 'refugees streamed out,' 'bringing reports of murder, arson and robbery.' He was to 'end up a reviled and despised figure,' whose legacy will 'continue to haunt the region for generations.'

The more restrained BBC notes that under his command, towns were 'pounded into submission' amidst the 'horrors of conflict.' 'Whole populations were forced from their homes,' while 'for some the fate was far worse.' He 'dismissed' evidence of atrocities 'in characteristic terms'; yet his 'responsibility was clear.' Later, 'the architect of war' propagandistically 'reinvented himself as the Man of Peace' on behalf of 'the very people he had goaded' into violence. He 'may be remembered as a nationalist who brought disaster' to the region, or 'as a gambler, playing with people’s lives, and using conflict to cement his hold on power.' Few will mourn his passing, and many' in the region 'will breathe more easily.'

As you might have spotted, these are not in fact obituaries of Ariel Sharon but of former Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević, published in March 2006. What is striking is how closely every line echoes Sharon's criminal legacy. Examine the same outlets’ obituaries of Sharon, though, and you will notice a strange disjuncture. While Milošević’s name is blackened and his excuses dismissed, Sharon is painted a curious shade of grey—his excuses aired, his crimes downplayed, his motives scrubbed clean.

Thus the Guardian concludes that '[f]ew global figures were as compelling' as this 'remarkable blend of maverick and mainstay' who 'courted international controversy.' It reports that 'foes accused him of targeting civilians,' and a 'considerable number wanted him tried as a war criminal for allegedly abetting atrocities'—atrocities for which, in reality, the entire mainstream human rights community holds Sharon directly responsible. His massacres in Lebanon it terms 'excesses.' His massive, relentless, indiscriminate attacks on Palestinians it twice calls 'retaliations.' Sharon 'accepted' Bush’s 'roadmap' for peace, it reports, but Arafat 'spoilt the U.S. grand plan.' It even speculates that Sharon may late in life have become an 'elder statesman,' whose 'security toughness would provide cover for daring new peace plans.' And perhaps Milošević really had become a 'Man of Peace.'

In fact, as Israel’s pre-eminent historian Avi Shlaim points out, while the 'Palestinian Authority embraced the road map and started implementing it even before it was issued,' Sharon 'submitted 14 amendments designed to wreck it.' The path Sharon chose was 'not the one charted in the road map,' but

another road on which the main signposts are expanded settlements, a security wall that bites deep into Palestinian territory on the West Bank, and targeted assassinations of Palestinian leaders.

The Independent’s whitewashed obituary is even more extreme. Because he made no claim on 'both banks of the Jordan' (the West Bank and Kingdom of Jordan), it favourably contrasts Sharon with his 'right-wing predecessors' as the 'first Likud prime minister of Israel who was not reared on the muscular Zionism of Ze’ev Jabotinsky' (godfather of hard-line Zionist militancy). Having long limited his ambitions to the overthrow of the Jordanian government and ethnic cleansing of Palestine, Sharon was evidently a model of restraint.

Yet Shlaim is quite explicit: the 'roots of Sharon’s thinking about the Palestinians go back to Ze’ev Jabotinsky.' What the Independent calls Sharon’s unwavering belief in the 'duty to defend' Israel 'by force of arms' was in reality, Shlaim notes, a 'relentless war against the Palestinian people.' Sharon’s organised programme of mass murder in the 1950s—including a massacre even the pro-Israel press compared with Lidice—the Independent calls simply 'unconventional.' After Israel invaded and occupied Gaza in 1967, Sharon demolished thousands of homes and deported thousands of refugees; the Independent portrays this as a harsh but successful 'anti-terror' operation. Sharon’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which included a savage campaign of saturation bombing against Beirut, killed some 20,000 people; the Independent presents the attack as costly for Israel—because it 'left Israeli troops mired in guerrilla warfare in Lebanon for the next 18 years.'

Sharon’s worst massacre, moreover, is presented in shockingly extenuating terms.

An Israeli commission headed by Chief Justice Yitzhak Kahan condemned Sharon for not preventing the slaughter of up to 800 Palestinians by Israel’s Lebanese Christian allies in the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps. Israel had sent them in ostensibly to clean out residual pockets of fighters after the PLO’s evacuation from Beirut. ... Kahan pilloried Sharon for 'having disregarded the danger of acts of revenge and bloodshed'. ... Sabra and Chatila returned to haunt him 19 years later, when Belgium threatened to put him on trial for war crimes.

'Up to 800' was the Israeli army’s casualty figure; evidence based on International Committee of the Red Cross figures suggests 3,000-3,500 dead. The Kahan Report was a whitewash. Israeli forces did not fail to prevent a massacre: explicitly instructed not to intervene, they surrounded the camps at close quarters, prevented those inside from leaving, and provided illumination for their Lebanese allies as they butchered, raped and mutilated Palestinian civilians for days. Israeli commanders admitted knowing what the Phalangists intended, and relayed the militia’s reports to Israel’s military headquarters in Tel Aviv. When Israeli media raised concerns, Sharon rebuffed them. When U.S. officials did the same, he offered to carry out the killing himself. Belgium, far from threatening to prosecute Sharon, perverted the course of justice on his behalf. Under U.S. pressure, it changed the law, allowing him to escape charges brought by survivors of perhaps the most horrific massacre in Israeli history.

But it was all in a good cause. As housing minister, we are told that Sharon 'built homes for hundreds of thousands of immigrants.' That he also expanded illegal settlements at the fastest rate since Israel's occupation began is clearly not worth mentioning. For Sharon, the Independent claims, 'wanted to offer Israelis a safer, more prosperous future, a state of which they and their diaspora brethren could be proud.' Tragically the Palestinians were to frustrate this noble ambition, when 'Yasser Arafat launched the second intifada in September 2000'—an Israeli government claim discredited by the Mitchell Report. Whether Arafat was also the man behind the grassy knoll we are not told. Meanwhile, the event that really did spark the Intifada—Sharon’s 28 September 2000 visit to the Haram al-Sharif—the Independent calls simply 'ill-advised.' Apparently, escorting over 1,000 armed police round one of Islam’s holiest sites before declaring it a Jewish possession 'for all eternity'—in the middle of peace talks—was just some clumsy, naïve mistake.

Sharon took power in 2001. Following his predecessor Ehud Barak, he rejected the very serious Palestinian peace offer then on the table, declining to resume peace talks. Then, in 2002, he 'took the battle to the terrorists,' the Independent reports, 'killing and capturing hundreds of Palestinian fighters.' Unmentioned is the fact that the Arab League had just offered Israel a full and comprehensive peace if it complied with its international obligations. 'Sharon’s response,' Shlaim notes,

amounted to a declaration of war. … the IDF marched into the Palestinian part of West Bank and waged against its people a savage war which included the reoccupation of cities, the bombardment of refugee camps, the demolition of houses, attacks on medical facilities, the rounding up of hundreds of suspects, torture, and summary executions.

The paper casts Sharon’s role in all this as retaliatory and almost passive:

He scaled down anti-terrorist operations after Palestinian fighting groups signed a unilateral ceasefire in July 2003, but returned to the offensive after they continued to execute attacks. Palestinians criticised him for doing too little to ease the burden of occupation…

In fact Israel continued to kill Palestinian civilians throughout July (and August) 2003. As Jeroen Gunning points out in International Affairs, according to Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs,

the first operation by a Hamas activist … was carried out six weeks into the ceasefire, and followed a renewed Israeli campaign of targeted assassinations.

With the same devastating and indiscriminate assassinations Sharon had derailed ceasefires in November 2001, January 2002 and July 2002. Indeed a careful analysis of the violence between 2000 and 2008 found that 'it is overwhelmingly Israel that kills first after a pause in the conflict.'

In office, Sharon’s policies are cast as efforts to achieve peace and security. Thus, the paper tells us, he constructed 'a West Bank security fence.' It omits to mention that this 'fence' (in some areas a 6-8m high concrete wall) is in fact 'flanked by paved pathways, barbed-wire fences, and trenches' with an 'average width of … 60 meters,' whose principal achievement is to 'secure' hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and critical chunks of the West Bank on the 'Israeli' side. Meanwhile, Sharon's plan to redeploy the inhabitants of a few isolated settlements—every one of them a war crime—it inexplicably deems 'radical.' Is it 'radical' if, having taken over your house, I stop using the spare room?

Similar motifs litter the BBC’s obituary. Sharon’s unilateral policy 'was an attempt to … provide security for Israel.' We hear of 'his troops’ excesses.' The 1967 war was 'a pre-emptive strike on its Arab neighbours'—though Israeli officials admitted the facts 'do not prove that Nasser was really about to attack us. We must be honest with ourselves. We decided to attack him.' Sharon invaded Lebanon 'to push back Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) fighters who were based there'—not to overthrow the government, insert a Maronite puppet regime and enable the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, whatever historians may tell you. The Sabra and Shatila massacres were 'the most controversial moment of his career'. 'Controversial,' and perhaps even 'unconventional'? Again, only the Kahan whitewash (that Sharon 'fail[ed] to prevent the massacre' and 'disregarded the danger') is quoted—along with two entire paragraphs of Sharon’s excuses.

Sharon's objectives were noble, the BBC assures us, but difficult to obtain: 'He was elected, like so many of his predecessors, on a promise of peace and security for Israelis, but he struggled to achieve that illusive [sic] goal.' Like the Independent, it presents the West Bank wall—whose route, according to Israel's leading human rights organisation, is 'completely unrelated to the security of Israeli civilians' and aims at the 'de facto annexation of part of the West Bank'—as a security measure. Sharon died while 'seeking a peace deal with the Palestinians,' the BBC laments, and '[w]hat this would have achieved will now never be known.' Quite so—and Milošević might yet have claimed the Nobel Peace Prize. In fact, Sharon’s top aide called his 2005 redeployment from Gaza 'political formaldehyde,' designed to prevent a Palestinian state 'indefinitely,' while Sharon argued that it would allow Israel to annex desired territories in the West Bank. As he put it: 'My plan is difficult for the Palestinians, a fatal blow. There’s no Palestinian state in a unilateral move.'

To compare the media’s treatment of the West’s enemies with that of its allies—Milošević with Sharon—is a deeply unedifying task. For enemies, almost every crime, every motive, every detail is painted black as pitch. For allies, at almost every turn, crimes are downplayed, perpetrators excused, atrocities explained away. From a media widely believed to challenge and expose official propaganda, this is not a reassuring performance.

Tim Holmes is a writer and activist. He lives in mid-Wales, and tweets @timbird84

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