Israeli honour guards carry the coffin of former prime minister Ariel Sharon in to the Knesset (the Israeli Parliament) in Jerusalem at the end of the day on January 12, 2014
Israeli honour guards carry the coffin of former prime minister Ariel Sharon in to the Knesset (the Israeli Parliament) in Jerusalem at the end of the day on January 12, 2014 © Menahem Kahana - AFP
Israeli honour guards carry the coffin of former prime minister Ariel Sharon in to the Knesset (the Israeli Parliament) in Jerusalem at the end of the day on January 12, 2014
Michael Blum, AFP
Last updated: January 13, 2014

For settlers, Sharon's legacy tarred by Gaza pullout

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For Jewish settlers, Ariel Sharon, who spent much of his life building up the settlements, will only be remembered for one thing: the bitterly-contested withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

The former premier, who died on Saturday after spending eight years in a coma, was once the darling of Israel's rightwing nationalists, but the love affair ended in tears in 2005 after the burly white-haired leader evacuated all troops and more than 8,000 Jewish settlers from Gaza.

They have never forgiven him.

"Ariel Sharon was the greatest of Israel's military leaders... who was behind the establishment of dozens of towns and settlements throughout the entire Land of Israel," said settler spokesman Dani Dayan, referring to Israel and the territories it seized in the 1967 Six-Day War.

"But I prefer to leave on one side the memories of the terrible mistake that was the pullout from Gaza," he said, refusing to speak of the events of 2005 and after.

Benny Katsover, one of the pioneers of the settlement movement who was once very close to Sharon, took a similar view.

"We had a long and fascinating journey with him in the struggle to set up settlement in Samaria," he said, using the biblical term for the northern West Bank.

"But the wound of the disengagement (from Gaza) continues to bleed."

Even as far back as the 1970s, Sharon was hailed as the patron of the settlement movement through his support of the national-religious Gush Emunim movement whose goal was to increase Israeli presence in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem.

Over the years, as agriculture minister, defence minister and housing minister, Sharon used his various cabinet roles to advance the settlements.

In 1998, just after the signing of the Wye River agreement under which Israel agreed to withdraw from 13 percent of the West Bank, Sharon, then foreign minister, called on the settlers to "run and grab as many hilltops as possible" to keep the land from falling into Palestinian hands.

But the man who famously declared that "the fate of (the Gaza settlement of) Netzarim is the fate of Tel Aviv" later executed a stunning U-turn, by announcing in late 2003 that he was planning to withdraw all troops and settlers from the Palestinian enclave, ending 38 years of occupation.

The disengagement from Gaza marked a watershed in Sharon's relationship with his former rightwing allies, transforming their hero into a sworn enemy.

Such was the anger that a group of some 20 extremists reportedly even held a "pulsa denura" ceremony to put an ancient death curse on Sharon, imploring God to strike him down.

'Crimes against the Jewish people'

"History will not forget his crimes against the Jewish people," said settler veteran and former Sharon adviser Yaakov Katz.

Emily Amrusi, a journalist and former spokeswoman for the Gaza settlers, agreed.

"It is hard to forgive him," she told Channel 2 television on Sunday.

"It's hard to see his merits when what he left behind is ruins and a split nation."

Orit Struck, an MP with the far-right nationalist Jewish Home party, a bastion of support for the settlers, raised eyebrows on Saturday when she wrote a post on Facebook thanking God for Sharon's collapse in January 2006 which removed him from public life.

"Sharon was one of the Land of Israel's greatest builders, and its greatest destroyer," she wrote.

"One cannot but thank God for taking Sharon from public life before he brought upon West Bank settlers... the disaster he inflicted upon the settlers of Gaza."

Worse still was the reaction of Yehuda Glick, from the extreme rightwing fringe, who compared his feelings with that of "a girl who was raped and heard the rapist died. Would anyone ask her to remember the rapist's good deeds in his life".

"That's exactly how I feel, and the wound still bleeds every day," he wrote on Facebook.

In one religious seminary of former settlers now located in southern Israel, some of the students could not hide their joy over Sharon's death, posting a sign at the entrance reading: "Hearty congratulations to Ariel Sharon on the occasion of his passing away."

The ministry of internal security has opened an inquiry.

But not all of the Gaza evacuees took such a bitter tone.

"Along with the rest of the Jewish people, I am sharing the sorrow of Sharon's family over passing of Arik, a Jewish hero, who defended the people and the land most of his life," said Zevulun Kalfa who is now an MP with Jewish Home.

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