Ariel Sharon’s Unit 101 legacy

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is dead after spending the past 8 years in a coma. I’m not going to write a long obituary here, because for one thing I’m supremely bad at writing obituaries, for another thing there are about a billion of them all over the web that you can go check out, and for a third thing there’s that whole “don’t speak ill of the dead” idea to consider. But while most retrospectives of Sharon’s life are focused on his political career, specifically his role in the 1970s and 80s as an architect of the Israeli settlements policy (which he would later dismantle, at least in Gaza) or his term as Prime Minister, with Operation Defensive Shield, the building and the decision to withdraw from Gaza (which has predictably morphed over time into evidence of Sharon’s sudden commitment to peace, when in fact it was explicitly meant to stall the peace process and destabilize the Palestinian Authority). But while we’re talking about Sharon’s “unfulfilled vision” for Israel, or lionizing him as “the Ruthless Warrior Who Could Have Made Peace” (an essay that actually contains the sentence “If Mr. Sharon had not had a stroke in 2006, which led, ultimately, to his death on Saturday, he would most likely have reached a peace agreement with the Palestinians,” because no newspaper columnist ever lost his job by writing absurd farce and calling it an “op-ed”), or whatever the hell this is:

I want to remember Sharon the soldier, specifically Sharon the soldier who led an Israeli special forces unit whose job was to kill Palestinian civilians in retaliation for Palestinian attacks against Israel.

Unit 101 was formed in August 1953 and disbanded in January 1954, meaning it took the Israeli government about 6 months to realize that massacring refugees wasn’t the best way to show the world that their fight against the Palestinians was just. The Israelis were understandably getting sick of cross-border raids by Arab paramilitaries, but the IDF was in a lull, no longer the impressive fighting force that had won the 1948 war but not yet the military powerhouse that would steamroll the Arab forces in 1967’s Six-Day War. So Israeli PM David Ben-Gurion ordered the formation of a commando unit to be commanded by a young Israeli major named Ariel Sharon. According to Sharon, Ben-Gurion told him that “the Palestinians must learn that they will pay a high price for Israeli lives,” and there was really no mistaking his meaning. This was a unit that was tasked with carrying out retributive attacks, not to degrade the Palestinians’ ability to launch more attacks in Israel but to exact revenge for the attacks that did occur. It was “counter-terrorism” in the sense of countering terrorism with more terrorism.

It didn’t take Unit 101 long to get itself into the game, as about a month into its mission it infiltrated Gaza and killed about 20 Palestinians in an attack that was widely condemned as “mass murder.” In October, an Israeli woman in Yehud was killed, along with her two children, in an attack that was thought to have come from the West Bank village of Qibya. Unit 101 was ostensibly charged with going into Qibya and killing or capturing the Yehud attackers, but Ben-Gurion seems to have been just as interested in making a statement that further attacks were going to cost the Palestinians (Sharon wrote in his journal that “Qibya was to be an example for everyone”). The tactics that Sharon’s men used to “go after the Yehud attackers,” then, involved things like “throwing hand grenades into houses where people were sleeping,” “indiscriminately firing machine guns into crowds of fleeing people,” and “forcing fleeing Palestinians to take refuge inside buildings, firing on those buildings to make sure that nobody could get out, and then blowing the buildings up,” which is why we now refer to this incident as the Qibya Massacre. Sixty-nine Palestinians were killed, around two-thirds of them women and children, and 45 buildings were destroyed including Qibya’s water-pumping station and its school.

International reaction was the usual combination of swift and toothless, as the US State Department and the UN Security Council both condemned the attack (the fact that the US was willing to criticize Israeli military action and allow the UNSC to do the same reflects the fact that our relationship with Israel was still in its feeling-out period). Ben-Gurion openly admitted that the attack was carried out by the IDF and dared the international community to do anything about it, which of course it didn’t, but the Israeli government did prohibit Unit 101 from targeting civilians in the future. The unit was disbanded a few months later, partly because of the Qibya black eye but also because the Israeli leadership wanted to take its members and seed them throughout the IDF in order to improve the whole force, and of course it was made clear that Unit 101’s work had been a smashing success. Sharon was promoted, naturally, and placed in charge of a newly expanded special forces unit that actually engaged in military activities more complicated than “toss grenades into houses full of sleeping villagers.”

Human Rights Watch marked Sharon’s passing with this lead paragraph:

Ariel Sharon died without facing justice for his role in the massacres of hundreds and perhaps thousands of civilians by Lebanese militias in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps in Lebanon in 1982. The killings constituted war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Sabra and Shatilla were heinous massacres and Sharon justly should have been prosecuted for his part in orchestrating them, but Qibya was pretty awful too, and we shouldn’t lose sight of it.

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3 thoughts on “Ariel Sharon’s Unit 101 legacy

  1. I would just like to draw attention to the fact that I am not speaking ill of the dead. I will not awaken old evils from their ancient slumbers, unlike those kids in the Sam Raimi film. That is all for today.

  2. I’ve always felt that like the tango it should take two men to make one peace. When Yitzhak Rabin a former Israeli Prime Minister pushed for peace, suicide bombers refused to stop bombing. As for not speaking ill of the dead, I have always believed that the only reason for that should be because the dead cannot defend themselves.

    1. Blaming Oslo’s failure on “suicide bombers” is much too simplistic. For one thing, Israeli settlers perpetrated quite a bit of violence themselves, like the Hebron Massacre in 1994 that actually sparked the renewed violence that led to the Second Intifada. Also, let’s not forget that Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing Israeli, not by the Palestinians.

      But the real bottom line is that Oslo was a flawed process from the start. It allowed Israeli settlement activity to continue, which is a big part of the reason why Oslo failed not only as a peace deal in its own time, but also why it can’t be used as a template for a new deal today. It created a fundamentally flawed Palestinian government that never really controlled the territory it was supposed to control, and so it was never able to establish any kind of governance or a functioning economy, which opened the door for Hamas to win elections in Gaza and split the Palestinians in two.

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