Ariel the Unlucky

David Gilmour

  • Warrior: The Autobiography of Ariel Sharon by Ariel Sharon and David Chanoff
    Macdonald, 571 pp, £14.95, October 1989, ISBN 0 356 17960 5
  • The Slopes of Lebanon by Amos Oz, translated by Maurie Goldberg-Bartura
    Chatto, 246 pp, £13.95, January 1990, ISBN 0 7011 3444 5
  • From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas Friedman
    Collins, 541 pp, £15.00, March 1990, ISBN 0 00 215096 4
  • Pity the nation: Lebanon at War by Robert Fisk
    Deutsch, 622 pp, £17.95, February 1990, ISBN 0 233 98516 6

1982 was a critical time for the authors of all four of these books. It was the year of Ariel Sharon’s most sanguinary foreign venture, which ended in massacre, failure, and a measure of disgrace. For the Israeli novelist Amos Oz, it was the year ‘the Land of Israel’ died in Lebanon, while for him personally it aroused feelings of alienation, the sense of being an exile in his own land. For Thomas Friedman, a Jewish American journalist, the refugee camp atrocities produced ‘something of a personal crisis’ and tore away ‘every illusion’ he had ‘ever held about the Jewish state’. And for Robert Fisk, who no longer had illusions about that or anything else, it was a year in which he escaped death a score of times and lived to produce some of the most memorable journalism of the decade.

Sharon’s book is a surprise, for it contains little about the real man. His ghost writer has produced a sort of Anti-Sharon, an almost reasonable politician, an image presumably intended for the ignorant, the credulous, and the press offices of Israeli embassies. You will find nothing here of the bombastic general who boasted that Israel could ‘conquer in one week the area from Khartoum to Baghdad and Algeria’. Nothing of the political brawler who last month denounced Shamir (of all people) for being soft on ‘terrorism’. Nothing of the man who reminded even ConorCruise O’Brien (whose 1982 articles were so pro-Israeli that the Army distributed them to journalists) of ‘the swaggering Goering’. The only close similarity between the two Sharons is their inveterate mendacity. It is unlikely that the new image will convert many people – certainly not in Israel, where Sharon is widely blamed for the Lebanese disaster. Two of the country’s most distinguished military writers, Ze’ev Schiff and Ehud Ya’ari, have declared: ‘Born of the ambition of one wilful, reckless man, Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon was anchored in delusion, propelled by deceit, and bound to end in calamity.’ The deceit is sustained throughout this book by manipulation of figures and misrepresentation of facts. Usually this is done simply by multiplying several times the number of casualties inflicted by the PLO and dividing, by an equally high figure, the number of Arab civilian deaths caused by Israeli forces. But sometimes, when even this arithmetic would leave a much higher number of Arab dead, he dispenses with figures and merely equates two quite disproportionate attacks.

This is Sharon’s account of events following the attempted assassination of the Israeli Ambassador to London in July 1982.

At midday the [Israeli] Cabinet approved the air strikes unanimously. Shortly afterwards the attacks were driven home against two military targets in the Beirut suburbs and nine others in the south. By 5.30 that afternoon, PLO artillery shells and rockets began to fall on the Galilee towns and villages. The terrorists had unambiguously declared their decision [to break the ceasefire].

Put like that, it all sounds quite reasonable, two roughly equivalent military responses probably causing roughly similar numbers of casualties. In fact, the bombing of the ‘two military targets in the Beirut suburbs’ caused the deaths of 210 civilians, including 60 dug from the ruins of a Palestinian children’s hospital. As for the PLO’s artillery barrage on the ‘Galilee towns and villages’, Oz records that most of the shells fell ‘somewhere between the villages... Only one person was wounded and almost no damage was done.’ So much for Sharon’s claims of Israeli ‘self-restraint’ and the PLO’s ‘intolerable provocation’.

During the invasion itself, Sharon asserts that Israel took ‘the greatest precautionary efforts’ to avoid civilian casualties. I have never understood why Israeli officials lied about this when there were so many people on the ground – journalists, diplomats, Red Cross workers – who could see that this was not true. Fourteen thousand people were killed and twenty thousand wounded in the first fortnight of the war – as one might expect when cities are sprayed with cluster bombs and phosphorus shells, or when suction bombs are dropped on residential areas so that whole blocks of flats collapse inwards. Yet Israel continued to deny what the rest of the world could witness on its television screens. Sharon even makes the incredible claim that during the entire siege of the Lebanese capital ‘only forty of the almost 24,000 buildings in Beirut proper had been hit, each one of them precisely identified as a PLO base or as places where the PLO Chief Yasser Arafat was likely to be.’ Who does he think he’s fooling? Was Arafat likely to be skulking in Beirut’s synagogue, which Israel hit on 4 August, along with the Prime Minister’s office, the Central Bank, the ministries of information and tourism, the offices of Newsweek and UPI, as well as various schools and hospitals? Fisk, who witnessed the bombardment, remarks that it could not be called ‘indiscriminate’ because Israel had ‘targeted every civilian area, every institution, in West Beirut’. All impartial sources expose Sharon’s nonsense. The Canadian Ambassador and his staff surveyed 55 damaged areas of Beirut and found that none were military targets. Counting the places hit by the Israelis, the Sunday Times mentioned five UN buildings, 134 embassies or diplomatic residences, six hospitals or clinics, one mental institution, the Central Bank, five hotels and ‘innumerable private homes’. Philip Habib, who was Reagan’s special envoy to the Middle East at the time, witnessed the destruction of Beirut and telephoned its architect to remonstrate. As he later related to Fisk, Sharon

said it wasn’t true. That damned man said to me on the phone that what I saw wasn’t happening. So I held the telephone out of the window so he could hear the explosions. Then he said to me: ‘What kind of conversation is this when you hold a telephone out of a window?’

It is worth looking at Sharon’s version of the event which led to his resignation as defence minister. On 15 September 1982, in contravention of its agreement with the US, the Israeli Army entered West Beirut. Although the PLO guerrillas had been evacuated from the city, Sharon claims that 2500 ‘terrorists’ were still in the refugee camps and had to be ‘mopped up’. So his officers brought Phalangist militiamen to Sabra and Shatila and let them loose inside. As it happens, the Phalangists found thousands of civilians, instead of gunmen, and spent two days massacring them. Israeli officers guarding the camp knew what was going on from an early stage but did nothing to hinder their allies: on the contrary, they even provided them with flares to carry on at night and with bulldozers to bury some of the dead. Sharon does his usual division sum with the casualties – even pretending his figure is the same as the Red Cross estimate – but the most interesting sentences of his account are those dealing with the Phalangists. He had not had ‘any real anxiety that they would act improperly’, he tells us. ‘The events that occurred that night’ could not have been anticipated. As the Phalangists had committed a series of atrocities over the previous seven years, most notoriously in the Tal Zaatar refugee camp in 1976, Mr Sharon is inviting his readers to judge him a liar or an idiot.

The invasion and the massacre prompted a good deal of agonising among Israeli intellectuals tormented by the collapse of Zionism’s moral integrity. Amos Oz is typical of those disillusioned liberal writers who believe that everything went wrong in Israel after Mr Begin came to power in 1977. Before then, there had of course been problems, but it had been possible to believe in the Zionist dream and to be inspired to assist in its fulfilment. The Army had been imbued from the beginning with a chivalrous ethos known as ‘purity of arms’: it did not invade other countries except in self-defence, it did what it could to avoid civilian casualties. Then along came Begin who ruined everything. In The Slopes of Lebanon Oz argues that he sent the Army, ‘for the first time since we achieved independence, to fight, not for our survival, not to repel an attack, not to save Israel, but in order to obtain “advantages” and “gains”... Until now [1982] we have gone out to kill and be killed only when our very existence was at stake.’

The Oz thesis reveals a curious view of history: how can he claim that the country’s existence was at stake in 1956 when Israel colluded with Britain and France and grabbed Sinai from the Egyptians? It also involves acceptance of the ‘purity of arms’ claim, which, as the Israeli politician Uri Avneri admits, was a myth from the beginning. There was little chivalrous about the atrocities of Lydda, Duwayma, Saliha, Eilabun or Safsaf (all in 1948), or of Qibya (1953), or of Kafr Qasem (1956). You can only believe in the ‘purity of arms’ ethos if you accept the Sharon version of events and ignore the work of Israel’s best modern historians, such as Avi Shlaim and Benny Morris. Qibya was a disgusting incident which reminded the pro-Zionist New York Post of Lidice, but in Sharon’s autobiography it becomes almost an unlucky misunderstanding. One night in 1953 he took his commando unit into Jordan, killed a dozen members of the Arab home guard, and blew up the buildings of the ‘deserted’ village of Qibya. The next day, when he heard on the wireless that he had killed more than sixty civilians, he ‘couldn’t believe his ears’. Then slowly he realised what must have happened. The Arabs had been hiding in their houses, ‘keeping quiet when the paratroopers went in to check and yell out a warning’, and had been unfortunately blown up by the Israelis. It sounds like a bit of bad luck on both sides until you read the reports of the UN military observers who arrived two hours after the commandos had left: ‘Bullet-riddled bodies near the doorways and multiple bullet hits on the doors of the demolished houses indicated that the inhabitants had been forced to remain inside until their homes were blown up over them.’

Thomas Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem comes to Britain with Seymour Hersh’s advice that ‘if you’re going to read one book on the Middle East, this is it’ – a somewhat provocative endorsement, especially for a book published at the same time as Robert Fisk’s Pity the nation. Friedman is a good journalist, readable and informative, but neither as a reporter nor a writer, nor as a historian, is he in the same league as the Times’s, now the Independent’s, correspondent in Beirut. Fisk has a remarkable eye for depicting people and landscape. There is nothing slick about his writing of the wadis of the Arquoub, of the bodies of Iranian boy soldiers outside Basra, of ‘the snow shawling its way across the window’ in Cracow. His description of Bashir Gemayel’s dead, humourless eyes as ‘doll’s eyes’ is striking and true. By contrast, Friedman writes like other journalists: someone staggers around like a zombie, Amin Gemayel is ‘Kennedyesque’, Lebanese girls are ‘Cleopatra-eyed’. He likes to sum up situations with a paradox or a clever remark – ‘Beirut was all crime and no punishment’ – or an analogy about poker and the Wild West. His historical grasp is also weaker than Fisk’s. Complicated events are simplified and reduced to easy formulae. Friedman talks of a Christian Lebanon and a Muslim Lebanon but it was never as simple as that. Fisk rightly sees the historical problems as a dispute between Arab nationalism, supported by many Orthodox Christians as well as Muslims, and pro-Western Libanisme, backed mainly by Maronites and Greek Catholics.

Fisk takes great trouble to try and understand the obsessions of the participants in the Lebanese and Arab-Israeli tragedies. He examines the history, the pseudo-history and the myths that combine to create sectarian mentalities. He links contemporary events and behaviour to distant memories, and studies the influence of the Holocaust on Israeli attitudes. He goes to the old Palestinian refugees with their Turkish title deeds, the keys of the homes they have not seen since 1948, and their memories of a lost pastoral landscape. To them Palestine has less connection with the modern world than with the picturesque towns engraved by David Roberts in the 19th century. Old men still talk about their orange groves and their old stone houses in Jaffa, remembering every tree and every stone, and one doesn’t have the heart to tell them that the houses have been bulldozed and the orchards have become a suburb of Tel Aviv. Old myths linger on beside young ones that are created every year with each new conflict and each new ‘martyrdom’.

Fisk’s technique as a reporter is simple. If there is a fight going on, he drives straight into it; if there’s an air raid, he rushes to the devastated area even though he knows the aeroplanes are coming back. He has a couple of cracks about journalists who rarely left the bar of the Commodore Hotel, but there is no vanity, no boasting of the courage it takes to be one of the last Western journalists in Beirut. Bombs and artillery shells just miss him, kidnappers just fail to grab him, but still he stays, earnestly trying to understand what is happening and why. And in rare periods of quiet he is in his car driving for hours along ruined roads to some painful and chastening interview: with an old man who lost all his family in the Holocaust, with an old woman who lost hers for Palestine. Once he tracks down an Israeli pilot to find out what it felt like to bomb an apartment building in Beirut knowing there would be hundreds of civilian casualties.

He writes with compassion and justified anger, equally sympathetic to all victims, evenhanded in his criticism of all aggressors. He refuses to divide the armies and militias into ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ – ‘in Lebanon they are all bad’ – and so he is criticised by everyone. The Iraqis tried to have him removed from the Middle East because he had written about their appalling regime. The Syrians tried to get rid of him because he wrote about the Hama massacre and was alleged to have shown ‘contempt for Arabs in general’. The Israelis went even further: after failing to persuade the editor of the Times to withdraw Fisk from Beirut, the Ambassador complained that his reports had been fabricated. The Times, Israeli supporters asserted, had become a ‘new Arab secret weapon’.

Fisk’s determined even-handedness makes him intolerant of the double standards of colleagues and politicians. Both he and Friedman write of the Israeli attempt to dehumanise the Palestinians by referring to them collectively as ‘terrorists’. According to Friedman, many Israelis have equated the words ‘Palestinian’ and ‘terrorist’ for so long they no longer distinguish between Palestinian fighters and Palestinian civilians: thus many of them were not outraged by the Sabra and Shatila massacres because they saw the victims as ‘terrorists’ – as ‘terrorist nurses’, for example, working in ‘terrorist hospitals’. In his autobiography Sharon repeatedly refers to the Palestinians as terrorists. Begin found the word a bit restrictive and used to vary it with ‘evil weed’, ‘cancer’, ‘two-legged animals’ and, according to Sharon, menavulim, a word meaning ‘malevolent criminals’. In her diary Anne Frank wrote of the German plan to ‘cleanse’ Utrecht of Jews ‘as if the Jews were cockroaches’ – a description applied to the Palestinians by the Israeli Chief of Staff General Eitan. It is easier to kill people if you think of them as animals, just as it is easier to kill animals if you think of them as vermin. ‘Terrorists’ do not deserve to live, and if they do not deserve to live then they do not have a right to return to their homeland.

Pity the nation is a book you finish with conflicting feelings of relief, exhaustion, shame and admiration. You feel that Fisk has taken you on a journey to the furthest boundaries of human cruelty and degradation. He has shown you what this 15-year war is really like and why people are still fighting it. Journalists are rarely accorded the title ‘great war correspondent’ until they are dead, and sometimes only then because they were killed in the field. Fisk, alive and still reporting from Beirut, deserves the title now.