Ariel Sharon’s death brings no closure for me. And I suspect that’s the case for many other veterans of the 1982 Lebanon War. For those of us who still bear the physical and emotional scars of that 'war of deceit' – aptly described as such by Ehud Ya’ari and the late Ze’ev Schiff in their definitive book on the subject – it is the only facet of that so-called multifaceted man that matters.
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It has been the bon ton in recent days to talk about those other facets of his personality – the 'caring man' who vowed never to leave wounded comrades in the battlefield and the compassionate 'grandfatherly figure' so concerned with the little details of others’ lives. I don’t buy it, however. For me, Sharon will always be the man who saw my peers and myself as nothing more than pawns in his megalomaniac military campaigns.
His death, unfortunately, has reawakened memories I ordinarily try to suppress and rarely share. When the Lebanon War broke out, I was a first-sergeant and a 'troop medic' - the de facto commander of a team consisting of eight medics and a doctor. Weeks beforehand it was clear to all those of serving in the military what was about to unfold. The attempted assassination at the time of Israel’s ambassador in London was merely an excuse for an invasion of Lebanon that was well planned. Although Sharon reassured the cabinet that the war would not extend beyond 40 kilometers from the border with Israel, the maps we had at our disposal clearly indicated otherwise. They showed that the plan was to penetrate much deeper. Much much deeper.
I was on leave that weekend of June 4, 1982, and have distinct recollections of the phone call to my parents’ home on Friday night ordering me to report to Herzliya, where a bus would be waiting to drive me up north. I remember passing through the fence into Lebanon and heading toward the junction above the Litani River, which we had been training for months to overtake. This was no spontaneous response to the rogue shelling of civilians; it was a well-planned assault on a neighboring country aimed at toppling its government and instituting a pro-Israeli puppet regime. We may not have been aware of all the details of the grand scheme, but we understood that we were the pawns put there to execute it.
Within hours of crossing the border, we suffered our first casualty. He was a young soldier who had the cruel fortune of being assigned to the mobile medical unit only two days before in order to lend a hand with communications. Despite the proximity of a physician and eight medics, he died instantly. I, too, was wounded in that shelling, though not severely. I remember bleeding and being transported to the hospital in Safed only to be returned to my unit within a few weeks, in accordance with army procedures at the time for handling victims of shell shock. My hospital discharge papers indicated that I had experienced trauma but that I was capable of coping on my own. Was I indeed?
By Rosh Hashanah, I had spent three months on Lebanese soil, during which time Israel’s ally Bashir Gemayel was appointed president. I was given leave for the holiday, but my leisure plans fell by the wayside when my father woke me that first morning, as I recall, with these words: “Bashir has been killed. I think you’ll need to go back.” Within hours I was hitchhiking to Nahariya, where I was able to cross the border and then rejoin my unit over the border in Sidon. Before long, an operations sergeant entered the room where we were all sprawled out watching a movie and announced: “Everybody, get on the armored personnel carriers. We’re off to Beirut.”
Not one of us was surprised. We had been studying aerial photos of northern Beirut since the first wave of the war back in June. We all knew what the objective was and that this was no spontaneous response to the untimely assassination of an ally who had been on the verge of signing a peace treaty with Israel. Yet again, we understood we were being used by Sharon as pawns in his grand scheme of deceit.
Many Israelis associate Rosh Hashanah of 1982 with the massacre in Sabra and Shatila. But for those of us fighting our way through the nearby streets of Beirut, for the young soldiers in my medical unit tending to 28 wounded men while bagging another three bodies, Beirut was about surviving. If there were still some innocents among us in June who bought into the official line, by September, there in Beirut, all innocence had been lost. We all knew that there was absolutely no military justification for the unprecedented decision to occupy an Arab capital - evidenced by the fact that we evacuated within 24 hours. And there was definitely no justification for the loss of young lives, and the mental and physical disabilities that were imposed on a generation.
Once in a while, something happens to trigger my memories of that time; Sharon’s death, for example.
Multifaceted as he may have been for many others, for me, there was only one Ariel Sharon – the general who dragged innocent young men to a war with no justifiable or achievable goals, senselessly sacrificing many along the way. For me that memory wipes out any other. That’s why I decided to pass on watching the funeral. As much as he did not care for me, I did not care for him.
Amit Schejter is an associate professor of communications at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and at Penn State University.