Pedagogy of the Oppressed: Noam Chomsky, Howard Gardner, and Bruno della Chiesa Askwith Forum
Wednesday, May 1, the Askwith Forum commemorated the 45th anniversary
of the publication of Paolo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” with a
discussion about the book’s impact and relevance to education today.
In a hotel lobby on the Turkish side of the Syrian border, Yasser Barish showed photographs of his bombed family home in Saraqeb, Idlib province. One room was still standing – the room Yasser happened to resting in on September 15th 2012 when the plane dropped its bomb. The other rooms were entirely obliterated – ground level rubble was all that remained. Yasser’s mother, grandmother, sister and brother were killed.
Saraqeb is a much fought over strategic crossroads, invaded wholescale by Assad’s army in August 2011 and March 2012. Since November 2012, the regime has had no presence in the town (though its artillery batteries remain in range). At first the Local Coordination Committee provided government, but through the spring of 2013, the al-Qa’ida-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) gradually increased its presence in the town.
Yasser told me how they took over Saraqeb. At first only ten representatives came, and they brought with them large amounts of medicine and food. They were humble and generous, and warmed the local people’s hearts. They also brought money, with which they recruited ammunition-starved and hungry local fighters. Then reinforcements arrived – “Libyans, Algerians, a lot of Iraqis, some Afghans and Turks, one white Belgian and one white American” – enough to frighten thieves into good behaviour, which at first increased the organisation’s popularity. But in May 2013 they whipped two men in a public square for an infringement of Islamic family law. In June they took absolute control, forbade drinking and smoking, and made prayer compulsory.
Yasser is part of an independent team which publishes magazines for adults and children – a sign of autonomous revolutionary success in terribly difficult circumstances. The slogan “I have the right to express my opinion” graces the cover of Zeitoun wa Zeitouna, the children’s magazine. Since the culling of his family, Yasser doesn’t care if he lives or dies. But so long as he’s here, he’s dedicated himself to improving local lives – teaching children how to read and encouraging them to tell stories and draw pictures. (The local schools, of course, are closed, and most of the teachers killed or fled.)
But even these simple aims are difficult to achieve, even in the regime’s absence. ISIS closed one printing press (a second ran at a secret location), and arrested and beat Yasser for ‘taking photographs of women’ (the ‘women’ in question were girls under the age of thirteen participating in one of his workshops). In July 2013 he witnessed ISIS attacking Saraqeb’s media centre and its abduction of a Polish journalist.
ISIS should by no means be considered part of the revolutionary opposition. It has fought Free Army divisions as well as Kurdish groups, assassinated Free Army and more moderate Islamist commanders, and abducted revolutionary activists. It serves the regime’s agenda by terrifying minority groups, deterring journalists, and influencing the calculations of men like former American ambassador to Syria Ryan C. Crocker who writes (from a deficit of both information and principle, and with stunning short-sightedness): “We need to come to terms with a future that includes Assad – and consider that as bad as he is, there is something worse.” Indeed, many Syrians are convinced that ISIS is an Assad creation, or even a collaborative work of Assad and the great powers. Why else, they ask, does Turkey, a NATO member, make it so easy for foreign militants to cross the border? Why has the regime bombed the schools and marketplaces of Raqqa (a city in the north east held by ISIS for half a year), but not the well-known ISIS headquarters?
Apparently Ryan Crocker’s assumptions are shared by the British airport police. On the first stage of my trip to the Turkish-Syrian border, I was stopped at Edinburgh airport and examined under Schedule Seven of the UK’s Terrorism Act (2000). I was led to an interview room and asked which of the sides in Syria I supported. I explained that there are by now at least three sides, and I perhaps gave a fuller reply than expected. The question as posed seemed to demand an either/ or response: either the regime or the jihad. I suspect the safe and simple option for a Briton with a Muslim surname heading for the border areas is to say that they support the regime – that is, the side which rapes and tortures children on a vast scale, which bombards residential zones with barrel bombs, scud missiles and sarin gas. That way they’ll tick the ‘no further threat’ box.
But while the West writes off Syria as a security problem, the Syrian revolution is getting its house in order. In early January a long-brewing counterstrike wiped out the mini-states set up by ISIS along much of the Turkish border, strategic positions from which it controlled the passage of men and weapons. The attack responded to anti-ISIS demonstrations all across the north, and was led by the Mujahideen Army and the Syrian Revolutionary Front – groups associated with the Free Army. But many of the anti-ISIS fighters are also Islamists, also fighting for a shareea state, from both Jabhat an-Nusra, (also al-Qa’ida affiliated but more intelligent and disciplined in its dealings with the people) and, more importantly, the Islamic Front.
This alliance of seven leading Islamist factions was cobbled together over the autumn, and so far seems much more disciplined, certainly better armed, than the Free Army ever was. Its eclipsing of the secular Free Army happened not despite Western policy (as much journalism insists, misleadingly describing the Free Army as ‘Western-backed’) but because of it. The vanishing of Obama’s ‘red line’ and his handing the Syria file over to Putin after the mass Sarin gas attacks of August 21st catalysed the Islamist realignment, and probably a burst of Saudi largesse.
Samer, a pro-Front medical worker injured when the regime bombed a field hospital in the Damascus suburbs, stressed the practical importance of Islamist unification: “These are the best, most organised fighters. They aren’t expecting anything from the West. If they work as one, they can defeat the regime.” November’s progress in the eastern Ghouta and the strong defence against Assad and Hizbullah’s offensive in the Qalamoun region may be early proof of this.
Many democratic revolutionaries support the Front because they see it as the force most likely to roll back Assad’s war machine and because they hope its success will undermine more extreme groups – but their support is expressed through gritted teeth. They note that the Islamic Front’s most prominent leaders were released from the regime’s Seidnaya prison in the early days of the revolution, at the same time that secular activists were being hunted down and killed, and point out that ‘Islam’ is not a slogan which minority groups – large sections of which must be won to the anti-Assad cause if Syria is to remain one country – can stand behind. Ahrar al-Sham, the largest organisation in the Front, was implicated by Human Rights Watch in the slaughter in Lattakia province last August – so far the only documented large-scale massacre of Alawi civilians. The organisation denies involvement. Islamic Front leader Zahran Alloush has promised protection to minorities (which implies no automatic equality of citizenship) while also vowing to cleanse Damascus of Shia influence. Furthermore, the Islamic Front says that it is fighting not for democracy but for a shareea state, and therefore rejects popular sovereignty as expressed through democratic elections.
This was put to a man called Qutaiba (like Samer he fears for his family in regime-controlled areas, and doesn’t want his surname used), who is close to several of the Front’s leaders – that it’s for the people, not an armed group, to decide the nature of future government. Qutaiba responded with the medieval concept of ahl al-hal wal-aqd, or ‘those who loose and bind’, as a substitute for democracy – an assembly of clerics and businessmen who would elect and guide a caliph. This sounds a little like British democracy in the nineteenth century – perhaps an advance on Assadist totalitarianism but not a model likely to long satisfy the working classes politicised by the revolutionary process.
“But will they force it on the people?” asked Qutaiba in reply. “These are sons of the people, not dictators. They have laid out how they think the future should be. They haven’t said they’ll impose it by arms.”
Many find hope in the fact that the footsoldiers of the Islamist brigades are often not motivated by ideology but by the need for discipline and weapons, even food – which the Islamists can supply far better than the Free Army. At first sight, it is bewildering that Ahrar ash-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra liberated two churches in Raqqa from ISIS and removed the black flags that had been posted from their spires. According to local activist Abu Maya, “God willing, the churches will be restored and used again by Christians in Raqqa.” But this is explained by the fact that Jabhat al-Nusra in Raqqa is manned by ex-Free Army fighters.
Something else to consider is this: just as ‘Islamic state’ connotes repression in Western ears, to many Arab ears it sounds like ‘justice’, ‘decency’, ‘the rule of law’. It means something better than what they lived with under Assad. The concrete definition of what the state would mean in practice is a matter of fierce dispute which can only be resolved by elections.
By now everbody knows that the world isn’t coming to save Syria, that Syria must save itself. The present stage of this process involves finishing ISIS as well as confronting the regime. After that, either the people in at least most regime-controlled areas will welcome the revolutionary militias, or the revolutionary militias will fail to make meaningful progess. Most people in regime controlled areas are terrified of ISIS, not just minorities (who comprise a third of the population anyway) but also very many Sunni Arabs, including working class ones. The presence of Islamist extremists makes it strategically impossible to defeat Assad, as illustrated recently when Deir Attiyeh was briefly liberated. ISIS arrived with the liberating forces and mistreated Christians. As a result, many people there (Muslims too) were actually pleased when the regime retook the city.
Once ISIS has gone, liberated Syria must continue to arrange its affairs. The Islamic factions (and everyone else, but in particular Jabhat an-Nusra and Ahrar ash-Sham) must continue to increase their discipline so no abuses against minorities or dissenters occur. The Islamic Front must also be publically persuaded to democratise its programme. As a major player, it is entitled to call for a shareea state, but it must clarify that it is the Syrian people who will decide on the nature of their future state in democratic elections/ referenda – not a group of men armed with weapons and a great deal of conviction. Because Syria has been there before.
The Syrian revolution rose first against Assad and now against ISIS. There is every reason to believe that it will continue confronting tyrants. All should take note.
Can the actions of a few people trying to live self-sufficiently in the woods truly make the world a better place?
Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/ParkerK
January 13, 2014 |
In spring 2003, Peter Janes decided to do something most people only dream of — that is, if they think about it at all. He left behind an academic education and the urban life that went with it to move to a small island off British Columbia’s coast. Appalled at what he saw as industrial humankind’s destruction of the natural world, Janes figured the most honest response was to build an alternative system: by producing his own food, building his own house and generating his own power.
“I wanted to physically make the world a better place,” Janes said. With his family’s help, he bought 40 acres of forested land on Denman Island. It came with two trailers. Janes and a girlfriend he’s no longer with moved into one, and promptly sold the other — “a big, ugly, white vinyl doublewide,” he said. They planted a vegetable garden and got some chickens. Self-sufficiency “was definitely an ideal,” Janes explained, “but we were doing everything we could” to achieve it.
That ideal has since become an influential driver of North American culture. It’s in “The 100-Mile Diet.” The rise of agritourism. The urban gardens of Vancouver, Detroit, Brooklyn and Mexico City. Bill McKibben bestsellers like “Deep Economy” and “Eaarth.” The Global Village Construction Set. Modern Farmer magazine. Resurging farmers’ markets. The Degrowth movement — a “shift away from our current industrial society,” as adherents put it — across North America and Europe.
For Janes, it now presents a philosophical dilemma. After 10 years striving to build a self-sustaining farm on Denman Island, he’s struggling with questions that probe his life’s meaning. Assuming he could cut all ties to the industrial system — and that’s “a very tall order,” he realizes — would it be worth the immense time and energy he must continue expending for the next five, 10, 50 years? Can the actions of a few people in the woods, he wonders, truly make the world a better place?
Janes’ green awakening isn’t traceable to a single moment. There was no Exxon Valdez-type catastrophe that shook him out of his urban stupor. He recalls a growing dissatisfaction with the insular academia of the University of Victoria, where he took anthropology and environmental studies. And he recalls a gnawing sense, as articulated by writers like Wendell Berry, who he was reading at the time, that few things sacred can survive an industrialized society bent on conquering the natural world.
Around this time, Janes embarked on a “crazy walk,” he said, from Cape Scott on Vancouver Island’s north tip, to Victoria, 500 kilometres southeast. He hung out with lots of activists, and began to notice disconnects between their comfortable lives — “drinking black tea with white sugar,” for example — and the ecological injustices they railed against. “That was a big catalyst for me,” he said, “that it doesn’t make sense to be upset about all this stuff but then be supporting it.”
Janes dreamed of an education center in the woods. Blending farming, spirituality and outdoors skills, it would give people the tools to live less destructively. Arriving on Denman Island in 2003, though, he got sidetracked learning his own new skills. Slaughtering animals was one of them. “I’m a bit of a bull, a hard-headed person,” he said. Yet he recalls feeling “pretty emotional” shooting his first sheep. Its carcass bled onto a feed pile, and other sheep munched obliviously on the bloody grain.
That first year some university friends stayed over the summer. Even with their help, Janes was learning that true self-sufficiency would be much harder than he’d thought. Going off the electrical grid was prohibitively expensive, the farm itself produced almost no income and he needed money to buy food and tools. So he took menial labour jobs when he could, trying not to enter the winter too burdened with debt.
History is full of hard-headed idealists like Janes. In 5th century B.C., an Athenian named Diogenes renounced his possessions to live in blissful squalor (and later befriended Alexander the Great). “One of the first back-to-basics freaks in recorded history,” claims one account. More recently, during the 1960s and ’70s, up to 100,000 Americans fled to Canada, some of whom started communes in B.C.’s wilderness. Kurt Vonnegut’s son, Mark, lost his mind at one northwest of Vancouver.
Janes is unsure he could handle the social stress of communal living. “That comes with all its own problems,” he said. But family to him is important. Janes met Magdalene Joly, his partner of nearly six years, in a friend’s backyard. Joly had dropped out of music school and was spending lots of time on Denman, drawn to a sense of place she found lacking in cities. She was also drawn to Janes, his self-reliant ideals and stubborn efforts to achieve them. “He can basically do anything,” she said.
Not long after, she moved onto his farm with her son Raphael. Joly, a trained herbalist and nutritionist, brought a formidable skill set. She baked steaming loaves of bread and made herbal medicines and teas. What her family didn’t use they sold in local markets and cafés. In a western culture obsessed with mobility she loved the challenge of staying put, of keeping animals alive, the taste of freshly picked kale. “The nature of society’s problems lies in being alienated from the land,” she said.
Where Janes’ hard-headedness could verge on cynicism, Joly strove to be earnest and optimistic. “We sort of balance each other out,” she said. Slowly money came in. Janes sold fruit and nut tree seedlings he’d propagated at his Tree Eater Nursery, and crafted “pointed hoes” and other tools on a homemade forge. Joly planted a huge garden, and this year launched a community supported agriculture program, delivering to eight local families weekly boxes of fresh produce and homemade specialties like nettle pesto.
Yet it sometimes seemed the further they fled the industrial system, the more tied to it they felt. Years of hard work accumulated, and still Janes and Joly’s lifestyle wasn’t possible without store-bought staples like rice and flour, diesel for their pick-up truck, and BC Hydro’s power. “There were a lot of people who came [to B.C.] in the ’70s and tried to do all the same stuff as us,” Janes said. “Then they all got older and stopped.” He went on: “I don’t want that to happen, but who knows.”
There was little sign of Janes and Joly stopping soon during a recent winter morning on their farm. “Uh oh, the geese have escaped,” Janes said, taking pursuit as ’80s rock wafted from a distant stereo and chickens squawked nearby. An almost finished two-storey wood house — whose beams Janes had logged, milled and assembled — stood stark against the forest clearing’s fog. Joly squished through some mud to pick kale that tasted especially sweet and nutty. “Frost does wonders for it,” she said.
Still, they wondered what it all added up to. “I wish we had 10 more generations to heal our planet’s wounds,” Joly said. “But I sometimes worry that we really don’t, and then I start to feel like, ‘What am I doing living on this little island?'” Some days the answer seems clearer. After a Scandinavian man emailed recently about buying one of Janes’ homemade tools, Joly’s nine-year-old son Raphael told her how inspired it made him feel. “I can see that we’ve made a really positive imprint,” she said.
A new generation is also finding inspiration in the do-it-yourself ideals of local farming. Last July, Vancouver opened North America’s largest urban orchard, one of 446 community garden plots built across the city in 2013. “On some campuses,” the New Yorker reported, “a junior year spent weeding an asparagus bed has become as popular as studying abroad.” It’s because “there’s a deep drive in humans to create their own existence,” self-sufficiency guru Marcin Jakubowksi told the magazine.
Janes wouldn’t disagree. It’s just that after 10 years, he’s unsure what wider good his own deep drive has served. “I now know by direct experience how hard it is to shift away from the momentum that our society has,” he said. But in the process he and Joly have created their own existence to a degree most people could only dream of. “What does success look like to you?” Joly asked him. “How do you know when you’ve reached that point?” Janes paused, then quipped: “I’m already onto the next thing by then.”
Geoff Dembicki is an Alberta-born journalist who reports on energy and climate change. Dembicki’s work has appeared in The Tyee, Toronto Star, Salon.com and Walrus Magazine.
New legislation dropping on Monday will free the Obama administration to send money to Cairo after last year’s military coup put a freeze on the cash.
Congress is preparing to allow the Obama administration to give more than $1 billion dollars to the Egyptian government and military, despite the fact the generals perpetrated a coup last summer and are suppressing opposition ahead of a nation-wide constitutional referendum.The House and Senate are set to unveil a year-long spending bill that will loosen restrictions on U.S. aid to Egypt and negate the law that prevents the U.S. from funding a foreign military that has conducted a coup against a democratically elected government. The Obama administration has been lobbying Congress for permission to give the aid to the Egyptian government. Several senior senators had been working to make sure that aid was conditioned on the Egyptian government pursing a path toward democracy and respect for the rule of law.
But now, with the Egyptians speeding toward a Constitutional referendum that will cement the rule of the military-led regime and with the Egyptian government’s crackdown on the opposition ongoing, most of those conditions could be lifted by Congress or waived by the Obama administration.
For experts and congressional officials who have followed the Obama administration’s clumsy and often incoherent policy on Egypt, the potential easing of restrictions on aid represents only the latest unfortunate twist in a failed effort to preserve U.S. influence in the Arab world’s most populous country.
“When the omnibus bill is passed, there’s going to be legislation in it that in effect is going to give the administration a waiver from the coup provisions and allow them to restore aid to Egypt,” said Michele Dunne, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Ever since the Egyptian military ousted and jailed ex-president Mohamed Morsi last July and began its campaign of arresting opposition leaders and protesters, the Obama administration and Congress have been withholding most of the $1.5 billion in annual aid the U.S. gives Egypt, most of which goes directly to the country’s army.
“I think there’s a sense of giving up on Egypt [inside of the Obama administration], on the Hill as well,” said Dunne. “There’s a sense that ‘Oh well they tried a democratic transition, it didn’t work, but we don’t want to cut ourselves off from Egypt as a security ally, so let’s just forget about the whole democracy and human rights thing except for giving it some lip service from time to time.’”
Congress is set to unveil the omnibus spending bill for the remainder of fiscal year 2014 Monday afternoon. The Daily Beast obtained the text of the section that deals with U.S. aid to Egypt. It states that the president must certify that Egypt is “sustaining the strategic relationship with the United States,” and “meeting its obligations under the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty.”
Following that certification, Congress would allow Obama to give the Egyptian government $250 million in economic support. Also, Obama could give the Egyptian military $1.3 billion in two installments: $975 million after Egypt holds its constitutional referendum and $576.8 million after presidential and parliamentary elections.
Secretary of State John Kerry would have to certify “that a newly elected Government of Egypt is taking steps to govern democratically and implement economic reforms,” according to the text of the legislation. Kerry would also have to submit a comprehensive, multi-year strategic review of military assistance to Egypt and report back to Congress on the trials of former Egyptian leaders such as Morsi.
Egypt’s constitution referendum will be held January 14-15 amid charges of widespread voter suppression and intimidation by the Egyptian government security forces. Human Rights Watch detailed those abuses Monday, which included arrested the leaders of the political organizations who are campaigning against the ratification of the constitution.
“There’s no doubt that the referendum will pass because the people who are opposed to it won’t vote. For the first time since 2011 there is really questions about whether this is a free and fair vote,” said Nathan Brown, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “It already seems criminal to challenge a constitution that hasn’t passed yet. This is a degree of shamelessness and a degree of accountability that really is a return to the pre-2011 era.”
Experts also point out that the new legislative language would override the existing law that prevents the U.S. from funding any military that has perpetrated a coup. Although the Obama administration decided not to say whether it believed Morsi’s overthrow was a coup, they have quietly followed the law and lobbied key congressional offices for legislative relief that would allow them to resume to flow of aid to Egypt.
Key lawmakers, including Patrick Leahy and Lindsey Graham, heads of the Senate Appropriations State and Foreign Ops Subcommittee, had been the loudest critics of the administration’s effort to ignore the anti-coup law and continue giving billions to the Egyptian government and military. Last August, Graham and John McCain traveled to Cairo and publicly declared the takeover was a coup.
But both senators appear to have backed off their position that the aid to Egypt should be halted or at least heavily conditioned. Leahy’s office declined to comment and Graham’s office did not respond to several requests for comment.
“In six months, the appropriators went from railing about human rights and democracy to giving the military a blank check to continue its return to Mubarak-era policies. They are essentially endorsing a failed administration policy that many of them initially agitated against, with little to no public discussion,” said one senior GOP senate aide.
The language was negotiated behind closed doors between appropriators and leadership, without the consultation of key senators on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which had just approved an Egypt aid bill with extensive restrictions in December by a vote of 16-1.
Several congressional aides said the administration had been quietly working with key House and Senate offices on the new language. Elements of the pro-Israel lobby have also been on Capitol Hill lobbying for a resumption of U.S. aid to Egypt.
There has been long-standing tension over Egypt aid between the White House and the State Department, with the State Department leaning more towards support of the military-led Egyptian government. On a November trip to Egypt, Kerry defied National Security Advisor Susan Rice’s orders to publicly raise U.S. objections to the trial of Morsi, who stands accused of murder and other serious charges.
In October, the administration announced a partial suspension of Egypt aid and said it would not deliver planes, tanks, and missiles to the Egyptian military pending actual progress in the areas of democracy, human rights, and respect for the rule of law.
“They are in many ways saying the right things,” one senior administration official said in October. “It’s important to us to see those things actually happen.”
But now the administration seems to be backing off their insistence that the aid flow be linked to positive progress in Egypt, rather than just any kind of progress to a new government system. Experts see that as a return to the failed U.S. policies that guided U.S. interactions with Egyptian dictators for several decades.
“Frankly I don’t think there’s been that progress and it wouldn’t be realistic to claim so. On the aid front, the administration is adhering to the old status quo and wants to make sure the funds can go through uninterrupted while the situation in Egypt is deteriorating,” said Stephen McInerney, executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy. “The administration seems to be turning a blind eye towards a lot of things that are going on in Egypt and that is part of how we got to where we are now.”
Take a good long look at this man photographed by the Watan Syria team as they distributed blankets to internally displaced people in Deir al Zor, Syria. This is what a broken man looks like. He has nothing except the time left before he dies. It doesn’t matter what his name is, or what his story is. He’s a man who was born in the wrong part of the world and with the wrong type of passport. Because that’s how it is. People like him are not allowed to change their own condition, to ask for freedom or dignity. They have to crouch down beneath military boots and the “big picture”, or freeze and starve to death quietly in bare hovels.
In a bloody career that spanned decades, he destroyed entire cities and presided over the killing of countless civilians. Max Blumenthal
January 11, 2014
A central player in Israeli affairs since the state’s inception, Ariel Sharon molded history according to his own stark vision. He won consent for his plans through ruthlessness and guile, and resorted to force when he could not find any. An accused war criminal who presided over the killing of thousands of civilians, his foes referred to him as “The Bulldozer.” To those who revered him as a strong-armed protector and patron saint of the settlements, he was “The King of Israel.” In a life acted out in three parts, Sharon destroyed entire cities, wasted countless lives and sabotaged careers to shape the reality on the ground.
The first act of Sharon’s career began after the 1948 war that established Israel at the expense of 750,000 Palestinians who were driven away in a campaign of mass expulsion. Badly wounded in the battle of Latrun, where the Israeli army suffered a bitter defeat at the hands of the Royal Jordanian Army, Sharon momentarily retired from army life. He looked back in anger at the failure to take Latrun, a strategic swath of land containing three Palestinian towns seemingly obstructing the new Jewish state’s demographic continuity. Spineless politicians and feckless commanders had tied the hands of Israel’s troops, he claimed, leaving the Jewish state exposed from within. Sharon yearned to finish 1948—to complete the expulsion project he viewed as deficient.
In 1953, Sharon was plucked out of retirement by Prime Minister David Ben Gurion and appointed the head of a secret commando unit tasked with carrying out brutal acts of reprisal and sabotage. Following a lethal Palestinian assault on an Israeli kibbutz, Sharon led his men into the West Bank town of Qibya with orders from Ben Gurion’s Central Command to “carry out destruction and cause maximum damage.” By the time they were done, sixty-nine civilians—mostly Palestinian women and children—lay dead.
In the years after that scandal, Sharon carried out bloody raids on Egyptian and Syrian territory that inflamed relations with Israel’s neighbors and led them to seek urgent military assistance from the Soviet Union. In the 1956 Sinai Campaign, Sharon was accused by one of his commanders, Arye Biro, of overseeing the massacre of forty-nine Egyptian quarry workers who had been taken prisoner and had no role in the fighting (official censorship kept the details from the public for decades). In the 1967 Six Day War, Sharon ran up the body count on encircled Egyptian tank units, converting unprecedented kill ratios into national fame. With the Gaza Strip now under Israeli control, Sharon orchestrated the razing of Palestinian citrus orchards to make way for Jewish colonization.
During the 1973 war, Sharon waged his own parallel war for personal glory. Determined to be the first Israeli commander to cross the Suez Canal, he sent his soldiers rushing into the teeth of the Egyptian army without sufficient artillery or air support. Scores of his men died in the blind thrust while entire brigades were left exposed. But Sharon salvaged his quest for fame when his tank brigades encircled the Egyptian Third Army. After the battle, photos of the general standing proudly in the Egyptian desert, bandaged from a superficial wound and surrounded by soldiers hailing him as “The King of Israel,” circulated in the Israeli and international media. The high-flying political career he had sought was now guaranteed. In short order, Sharon helped found the Likud Party, opening the second act of his storied career.
Though set on a rightward political trajectory, Sharon owed his fortunes to the icons of Labor Zionism. His original patron, Ben Gurion, and the younger warrior-politician Moshe Dayan, constantly shuffled him up the ranks of the military hierarchy, despite a clear pattern of scandalously insubordinate behavior. His first cabinet-level post was an abbreviated stint in the 1970s government of Yitzhak Rabin, the quintessential Laborite, who imagined Sharon leading a reorganization of the army following the disaster of the 1973 war. But it was in the Likud-led 1977 coalition of Menachem Begin that Sharon was finally able to translate his influence into history-altering policies.
Appointed minister of agriculture, Sharon exploited his seemingly insignificant position to bring the messianic project of Greater Israel to fruition. With unbridled vigor, he expanded the settlement enterprise across the West Bank, boasting that he personally established sixty-four settlements during his first four years in government. He revealed his strategy in a private chat with Winston Churchill’s grandson: “We’ll make a pastrami sandwich out of them. We’ll insert a strip of Jewish settlements in between the Palestinians, and then another strip of Jewish settlements right across the West Bank, so that in twenty-five years’ time, neither the United Nations nor the United States, nobody, will be able to tear it apart.”
Having established himself as the visionary behind the settlements, Sharon set his sights on the Ministry of Defense, actively intimidating Begin to fulfill his ambition. When Begin finally capitulated before Sharon’s bullying, he declared only half-jokingly that Sharon might have staged a military coup if he hadn’t been offered his desired sinecure.
Sharon entered the Defense Ministry consumed with dreams of an Israeli-friendly Christian puppet government in Beirut—the bulwark of a regional Israeli empire. Clamoring for an invasion of Lebanon, Sharon withheld his true intentions from everyone except perhaps Begin, claiming he merely aimed to drive the PLO out of southern Lebanon, where it had staged periodic raids on Israeli territory. When Begin green-lighted Operation Peace for Galilee in June 1982, Sharon sent Israeli tanks rumbling towards Beirut without the approval of the rest of the cabinet, whom Sharon had deliberately deceived. Many of them were outraged, but it was too late to turn back.
Against fierce Palestinian resistance, one of the Middle East’s most vital and cosmopolitan cities was laid to ruin. Sharon’s forces flattened West Beirut with indiscriminate shelling, leaving streets strewn with unburied corpses. With each passing day, disease and famine spread at epidemic levels. In August, the day after the Israeli cabinet accepted US special envoy Philip Habib’s proposal for the evacuation of the PLO, Sharon’s forces bombarded Beirut for seven hours straight, leaving 300 dead, most of them civilians. The Israeli sociologist Baruch Kimmerling wrote that the raid “resembled the attack on Dresden by the Allies toward the end of World War II.” Sharon even requested an additional paratrooper brigade to obliterate the PLO forces besieged in the city, earning a rare rebuke from Begin, who worried that his defense minister would completely destroy Habib’s efforts to resolve the crisis.
PLO forces withdrew from Lebanon, according to Habib’s guidelines, but the worst was yet to come. Sharon had stymied a proposal for the introduction of multinational peacekeepers capable of preventing reprisals against the defenseless Palestinian refugees who had been left behind. Thus the stage was set for the most heinous massacre of the war. Following the assassination of Bashir Gemayel, the Christian warlord who was supposed to serve as Sharon’s handpicked puppet president, Israeli forces helped usher Christian Phalangist militias into the Palestinian camps of Sabra and Shatila, then surrounded by the Israeli military, providing them with intelligence and operational support. Sharon and many of his officers were well aware of the Phalangists’ intention to murder as many women and children as they could. After days of slaughter, as many as 2,000 civilians were dead, with countless others raped and brutalized.
In February 1983, Israel’s Kahan Commission found Sharon “indirectly responsible” for the massacre, urging his dismissal as defense minister. With the Israeli body count was piling up in Lebanon, city squares in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem were thronged with outraged mothers and a growing movement of service refuseniks. The antiwar demonstrations shook the confidence of the army’s high command. At the prime minister’s office, Sharon berated Begin and his ministers, warning them, “If we adopt this [Kahan] report, all our ill-wishers and naysayers will that what happened in the camp was genocide.” Calling the findings “a mark of Cain on all of us for generations,” Sharon adamantly refused to step down.
During the meeting, a right-wing Jewish terrorist lobbed a live grenade into a crowd of antiwar protesters right outside the prime minister’s office, killing the teacher and antiwar activist Emil Grunzweig. The incident was Sharon’s coup de grâce, prompting his resignation. Though he remained in government as a minister without portfolio, his dreams of serving as prime minister appeared to be dashed.
Sharon’s fear of prosecution did not end with his resignation. In July 2001, a Belgian court opened an inquiry into the Sabra and Shatila massacre when a group of survivors filed a complaint under the country’s “universal jurisdiction” guidelines. Elie Hobeika, the Phalangist commander directly responsible for the killings, was assassinated months later, after informing Belgian politicians that he would testify against Sharon. “Israel doesn’t want witnesses against it in this historic case in Belgium which will certainly convict Ariel Sharon,” the Lebanese Minister of Displaced People Marwan Hamadeh remarked at the time, echoing widespread speculation about Sharon’s involvement. In September 2003, with Belgian relations with Israel at an all-time low, the Belgian court threw out the case, citing Sharon’s diplomatic immunity.
By this time, Sharon had resuscitated his political career in dramatic fashion. On September 28, 2000, following the collapse of peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority at Camp David that summer, Sharon toured the Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem, site of the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, accompanied by 1,000 armed police and security agents. It was a provocative stunt, staged to inflame rising tensions in the occupied territories. As expected, the appearance sparked widespread Palestinian rioting the next day, which was met with a draconian Israeli crackdown—Israeli forces fired 1.3 million bullets at mostly unarmed demonstrators in October 2000 alone—fueling what became known as the Al Aqsa Intifada. The following year Sharon was elected prime minister and Palestinian suicide bombings were battering the cafes and nightclubs of Tel Aviv and West Jerusalem. Channeling the mood of Israel’s “peace camp,” which had called for Sharon’s ouster during the invasion of Lebanon, the liberal newspaper Haaretz demanded “a war about the morning’s coffee and croissant.”
The beleaguered peace camp was shocked at the intifada, but also cynically misled by Sharon’s predecessor as prime minister, Ehud Barak, who declared after the collapse of the Camp David negotiations that there was “no Palestinian partner” for peace. Sapped of confidence, they became quiescent while the mainstream united behind Sharon, their vengeful protector. With a free hand to deploy tanks and combat jets against Palestinian population centers, Sharon oversaw a campaign of carefully calculated brutality, culminating, in 2002, in the comprehensive demolition of the Jenin refugee camp. Baruch Kimmerling termed Sharon’s strategy “politicide,” a “gradual but systematic attempt to cause [Palestine’s] annihilation as an independent political and social entity.” As in the beginning, Sharon’s unspoken goal was to finish the war of 1948.
While Israeli bulldozers trundled across Gaza and the West Bank, Sharon announced his intention to “make separation across the land.” Though initially resistant to the idea, he resolved to fulfill a plan first introduced in the 1990’s under Yitzhak Rabin: the construction of a vast wall that would drive a nail into the coffin of the Palestinian national movement. Cutting into the West Bank and Jordan Valley, the wall would effectively annex 80 percent of settlements into Israel proper, consolidating the country’s Jewish demographic majority while relegating Palestinians to a permanent regime of ghettoized exclusion.
Next, Sharon planned to pull Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip, setting the stage for a high-tech siege of that occupied coastal territory. Unlike in the past, Sharon sold his plans to the public with carefully calibrated, subtle rhetorical touches. Stunned by a new movement of mass refusal—a group of former and active Israeli air force pilots had issued a letter declaring their refusal to participate in operations in occupied territory—and by the furious opposition of the settlement movement to his plan, Sharon uncharacteristically proclaimed that the occupation was a “bad thing for Israel.” Next, he bolted from Likud, cobbling together a random assortment of politicians including his former aide, the telegenic, PR-friendly Tzipi Livni, to drive the separation plan forward under the banner of Kadima.
Sharon’s maneuvers earned him the political space he needed to fulfill his goals. Haaretz, the voice of Israeli liberalism, supported the vast separation wall as a “revolutionary” step towards two states. Endorsing the withdrawal of settlers from Gaza, The New York Times editorial board declared that Sharon “should be cheered.” Back in Tel Aviv, the anti-settlement group Peace Now and the Labor Party organized a mass demonstration in support of the Gaza disengagement plan. Winning liberals to his side was Sharon’s final political coup, and probably his most consequential.
The true goal of Sharon’s separation regime was never to end the occupation but to reinforce it under new parameters that would prevent the collapse of Israel’s international image. A top aide to Sharon, Dov Weissglass, revealed the real logic behind Sharon’s plans: “The disengagement [from Gaza] is actually formaldehyde. It supplies the amount of formaldehyde that is necessary so there will not be a political process with the Palestinians.” Another close adviser, Arnon Sofer, was even more frank:
…when 2.5 million people live in a closed-off Gaza, it’s going to be a human catastrophe. Those people will become even bigger animals than they are today, with the aid of an insane fundamentalist Islam. The pressure at the border will be awful. It’s going to be a terrible war. So, if we want to remain alive, we will have to kill and kill and kill. All day, every day.
Eight years after Sharon slipped into a coma, the real implications of separation stand exposed. Gaza suffers under a joint Israeli-Egyptian siege, while Israel shrugs off any responsibility for its inhabitants. Though Israel controls the entrances, exits, airspace and coast of Gaza, and effectively regulates the caloric intake of each resident of the coastal territory, the occupation is over as far as its government is concerned. Israeli settlements are firmly entrenched in the West Bank and encircle East Jerusalem, reducing Palestinian areas to the “pastrami sandwich” of non-contiguous bantustans that Sharon had originally envisioned. With the peace process effectively embalmed in political “formaldehyde,” right-wing elements have achieved unfettered dominance over the Jewish state’s key institutions. Typical of the new generation of Israeli rightists is Sharon’s corruption-stained son, Gilad, who has called Palestinian society a “predator,” an “animal” and “stabbers of babies.”
Now that Sharon’s unilateral vision appears to have been consolidated, Israel’s government must perpetually manage an occupation it has no intention of ending. It has no clear strategy to achieve international legitimacy and no endgame. Its direct line to Washington has become a life-support system for the status quo. Like Sharon, who spent his last years in a comatose state without any hope of regaining consciousness, Israel is only buying time.
January 11, 2014