Collective amnesia seems the order of the day as Ariel Sharon's health takes a serious turn for the worse, writes Ramzy Baroud*
The mainstream media's lionising of the fatally ill Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon could only be compared to that of great men and women of past years. The hundreds of endearing commentaries, venerating news reports and glorifying television programmes -- massively sprung in the wake of his unexpected stroke on Wednesday, 4 January -- makes it doubtless that only a legacy like that of Mother Teresa can match Sharon's "towering" stature, "larger than life" persona and selfless "sacrifices" for peace.
The bashful attempts by some to balance the media's gross misrepresentations of Sharon went largely unheard. The man's direct, and indirect, involvement in tormenting the Palestinian people for 50 long years seemed completely irrelevant. Sharon's disregard for civilian lives since his early years as a fighter for the Jewish underground terrorist organisation the Haganah (1948-49), and his role as commander of an infamous army unit responsible for several massacres (most remembered is the brutal murder of 69 defenceless villagers in Qibya in 1953) seemed an extraneous nuisance.
Also to be dropped from the narrative was the list of relentless war crimes which took place throughout the 1950s and 1960s (during Israel's wars with Egypt), late 1970s (during Sharon's bloody reign in Gaza), the 1980s (his contemptible war and massacres in Lebanon) and most recently with the advent of the second Palestinian uprising in September 2000; one that he provoked and antagonised through his misguided policy of assassinations and a reckless, confrontational visit to the site of Jerusalem's most holy Islamic shrine. Since his election to serve as Israel's prime minister in 2001, Sharon supplemented his notorious resume with the liquidation of several thousand Palestinian lives.
Some US newspapers admitted, although reluctantly, that Palestinians indeed "perceive" Sharon as a war criminal who has wrought untold hurt and misery. But as always, war crimes committed against Palestinians are never the same as those committed against others, especially when the perpetrator is Israel. Palestinian suffering lacks, somehow, universality (unlike Israeli victims of Palestinian suicide bombings), thus it can easily be brushed aside, without a shred of guilt and without much remorse.
Despite a history dotted with numberless massacres, never once has an Israeli leader or official seen his day in an international court. To the contrary, the vilest of Israel's war criminals have been darlings of Western governments and have been influential players in US foreign policy. Only by comparing this to how Palestinian terrorism, even legitimate resistance, is perceived can one begin to appreciate the treachery of it all.
Wary of being viewed as hate-mongers, most Arab media and intellectuals have desperately attempted to balance the sense of vindication felt in the streets of their own countries that the "Butcher of Beirut" was too ill to order any more "targeted killings" or military onslaughts. A former Egyptian diplomat told BBC World that Sharon was capable of delivering peace. He used the opportunity to wish Sharon's most prominent political ally, Shimon Peres, a "long and happy life". Other intellectuals explained the Arab street reaction as something to be expected from over-emotional "ordinary people", not the middle and upper classes. Arab elitism is always bare-faced.
Meanwhile, the US media's pandering carried on: "Replacing the irreplaceable", read the headline of one St Petersburg Times article, quoting an ill-advised conclusion that most people, including Palestinians, "are probably not feeling good [about Sharon's illness] because even those who didn't like him at all are now sure he's the only person who can lead Israel to peace and security."
One may never know who is responsible for disseminating such utter falsehoods, recycled by hundreds of newspapers all around the world. A BBC News correspondent in Jerusalem took his viewers in a live broadcast to an Israeli café. "People here can finally relax" he said, thanks to Ariel Sharon's success in reining in suicide bombers.
The man's gruesome violations of human rights were celebrated as milestones for a great statesman. Even Arabs were careful not to upset the consensus. Despite the fact that the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat can hardly be compared to Sharon's "towering" war crimes records, the man was ridiculed and shunned until the last moment of his life. US officials could hardly hide their glee that the master- terrorist, the "irrelevant" yet major hurdle to peace, was now gone. Time has already proven them wrong.
Sharon -- the "man of peace" according to President Bush -- seems to have decidedly earned a place in history simply for relocating several thousand illegal Jewish settlers from occupied Gaza to the occupied West Bank. Though Sharon has repeatedly asserted that his decision to disengage from Gaza has more to do with Israel's strategic and demographic needs than peace, very few took notice. Though the number of illegal settlers in the West Bank has since increased by more than four per cent, this mattered little.
But when all is said and done, Sharon the person will also matter little. His age and faltering health were doomed to sideline him sooner or later. What will have greater bearing than his life or death is his detrimental legacy, one that he has already passed on; one that glorifies unhindered violence and extremism to achieve political ends. Those who wish to fill Sharon's shoes will likely strive to prove as violent and cruel as he was. Sharon once said, Palestinians "must be hit hard" and "must be beaten" before they should be permitted to talk peace with Israel -- peace according to Israeli terms, not international law. Most of Sharon's possible successors are also strong believers in such a philosophy, which is unlikely to fade away with the fading of individuals, Sharon or any other.
* The writer is a Palestinian-American journalist.