Wednesday 29 January 2014’s Damien Kiberd Lashes Out at Ariel Sharon

Ariel Sharon, Sinai during the 1973 Yom Kippur war (GPO/REX).

The Irish news website,, featured a rather belated (January 26th 2014) article by journalist Damien Kiberd, entitled “Damien Kiberd: Why was Ariel Sharon’s funeral such a lonely affair?”. It reflected, with an undue harshness, upon the legacy of the former Israeli prime-minister.

In recent years has developed a reputation for publishing articles that criticise Israel in a particularly intense fashion. Unfortunately, Kiberd’s article follows in this tradition.

Kiberd is a well-known journalist, and the presenter of several topical radio discussion programmes. He is known for possessing Irish Republican sympathies, and for belonging to the ‘Irish National Congress’ lobby group. He is also a principal patron of ‘The Ireland Institute’, an organisation that has published numerous anti-Israeli screeds, and hosted a variety of anti-Israeli events, such as mini film festivals, and art exhibitions.

Armchair psychologism

Kiberd, feigning a sense of fair-minded academic distance from his subject, initially asks the reader:
“WAS ARIEL Sharon a psychopath and a war criminal? Or was he just a good soldier…”
However, Kiberd would soon throw in highly-descriptive terms, describing Sharon’s legacy as “blood-strained”, and concluding that: “His ‘post hoc’ efforts to explain himself rarely convinced.”

Kiberd portrays Sharon as a boorish almost simple-minded individual:
“Like all strongmen Sharon posed a problem for those who were more politically astute than he. He was quarrelsome, plain-speaking and given to righteous insubordination.”
It is difficult to accept that Ariel Sharon was not an especially astute politician. He succeeded in a highly competitive environment. He took risks that few other politicians would dream of, and yet he again triumphed politically. To draw a somewhat undeserved parallel with a corrupt Irish politician, Sharon would give Teflon-Bertie a run for his money, regardless of the stove upon which Bertie found himself.

Kiberd noted that Sharon was a sabra, the term for a Jewish person born in the region, particularly before Israel’s foundation. Sabras have a reputation for being forthright, which those unfamiliar with the culture can interpret as rudeness. Sharon could be described as a paragon of the sabra -, tough, uncompromising independent. Thus, Sharon’s bluntness should be understood within the context of a culture that was particularly forthright in its speech, and his “plain-speaking” may have even been an asset politically.

Kiberd on Qibya

Damien Kiberd leaves the reader in little doubt where he thinks blame ought to be placed, in relation to the deaths of civilians in the village of Qibya (or Kibya), during October 1953:
“Following a grenade attack which killed an Israeli mother and two children, Sharon led a reprisal raid on the Jordanian village of Qibya. Sharon’s unit planted explosives in 45 Arab homes, killing 70 civilians, mainly women and children. Lamely, he claimed shortly afterwards that he thought the houses were empty.”
Between 42 [source: Armistice Committee meeting, October 27th 1953] and 69 civilians were killed at Qibya, along with military personnel. Whether or not Ariel Sharon’s account of the killing of civilians in the village is correct, Kiberd fails to note that Jordan and Egypt were conducting an unofficial war against Israel at the time, and the reprisal against the village was due to it being a continued source of attacks against Israel.

Israel was unable to protect its borders, which had effectively become lawless, leading to the killing of close to a thousand Israeli’s between 1951 and 1955, due to Fedayeen attacks inside Israel’s border. These circumstances led to the commissioning of Sharon’s special forces unit, and eventual war with Egypt in 1956.

Routledge Atlas of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, Martin Gilbert, Eighth Edition, 2005, page 58.

It may seem difficult to believe Sharon’s account in the present political climate, where the protection of civilians is of far greater importance. However, if the intent was to commit a genocide in Qibya, Sharon’s force would have prevented the movement of approximately 1500 people fleeing the village at the onset of the attack. The charges to destroy approximately 41 of the village’s grandest buildings, were set with little time to spare searching for civilians. Smaller diversionary attacks were initiated in other areas of the West Bank, to deflect the attention of the Jordanian army. Finally, many of those in Sharon’s unit were not experienced soldiers, with the attack on Qibya merely being their second mission as a force. Whatever the truth of the events, Kiberd refuses to give Sharon’s account a hearing.

Kiberd also attacks Sharon on the 2005 evacuation of Jewish settlers in Gaza:
“Again and for the last time he employed the same crude ‘force majeure’ type logic as he used more than fifty years earlier during the attack at Qibya.”
Kiberd’s puzzling claim is likely to be an error in terminology. However, it is interesting to note that the phrase ‘force majeure’ is a legal term, referring to an act of God/nature, or an accident of a significant kind, beyond the capacity of one contractual party.

On Sabra and Shatila

Kiberd lays moral responsibility for the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre at Sharon’s feet:
“In 1982 following the slaughter of thousands of mainly Palestinian civilians in the refugee camps in Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon Sharon tried the old Ben-Gurion trick of shifting the blame. He said that it was the work of a vengeful Christian militia. Israel had no involvement. But a tribunal of inquiry established by Israel’s government accused Sharon of being “indirectly responsible”.
Kiberd clearly suggests Sharon was directly involved, or complicit, in the massacre. He states Sharon was pulling a “trick” of shifting blame onto a Phalangist Christian militia, as if it is untrue that such a group carried out the massacre! Tellingly, Kiberd uses the words “He [Sharon] said…”, which is oddly subjective phrasing. It reinforces Kiberd’s assertion that Sharon was indeed playing a “trick”, by inferring that the claim the militia carried out the massacre is in some way untrue. Moreover, Kiberd’s wording suggests Sharon’s version of the facts, regarding Phalangist involvement, is not corroborated.

Kiberd asserts, as a fact, that thousands of civilians were murdered at the camps. However, the death toll cannot be verified. It ranges from a few hundred (according to Lebanon) to several thousand. Most credible estimates are based on high hundreds to lower-thousand figures. Reuters state ‘hundreds’ died while the BBC claim it was “at least 800”.

Subsequently, Kiberd seems to accept that the Phalangists were instigators of the massacre:
“The Kahan commission said that the Defence minister had not shown the slightest consideration that by allowing the Falangist militia to have access to the camps he was inviting slaughter.”
Whilst the Kahan Commission did find that the risks of massacre were “neither discussed nor examined”, it is incorrect to suggest that the Commission indicated Sharon, as then Minister of Defence, shouldn’t have allowed the militia into the camp. The commission’s report stated:
“We have already said above that we do not assert that the decision to have the Phalangists enter the camps should under no circumstances ever have been made. It appears to us that no complaints could be addressed to the Defense Minister in this matter if such a decision had been taken after all the relevant considerations had been examined”
Thus, the Kahan Commission found that Sharon had failed to address the risks of this action, rather than state the act itself was unacceptably dangerous. Whilst the report harshly criticised Sharon, it did not go as far as to suggest his actions constituted an invitation of the Phalangists to commit a massacre.

The Commission also noted that there was good reason to allow the Phalangists enter the camp:
“The decision to have the Phalangists enter the camps was taken with the aim of preventing further losses in the war in Lebanon; to accede to the pressure of public opinion in Israel, which was angry that the Phalangists, who were reaping the fruits of the war, were taking no part in it; and to take advantage of the Phalangists’ professional service and their skills in identifying terrorists and in discovering arms caches.”
If Kiberd wishes to solely cite the Kahan Commission’s report, instead of obfuscation, it behoves him, as a responsible journalist, to point out that Sharon was found not to be complicit in the massacre.

With reference to Sabra and Shatila, Kiberd states that Sharon’s politicial career “was marked by rivers of blood.” That is an unduly colourful description when his own source, the Kahan Commission, noted:
“No intention existed on the part of any Israeli element to harm the non-combatant population in the camps.”

Casting a shadow on Sharon’s funeral

Damien Kiberd applies a somewhat absurd contrast, by making the rather fanciful comparison between the international circus surrounding Mandela’s death, and Sharon’s more sedate funeral service:
“The great and the good, who fought for front row seats at Mandela’s protracted funeral, decided a ‘no show’ was the wisest course of action.”
Whilst the turnout to Sharon’s funeral wasn’t substantial, it is stretching credulity to describe it as an embarrassment. The Western world was quite well represented. Even Egypt sent a low-level diplomat, a symbolic gesture, given Sharon’s role in their wars. The “no-shows” largely constituted Africa and South America, both regions having long been hostile to Israel at a diplomatic level. It is unlikely a significant number of diplomats from these territories would have turned up, regardless of the senior Israeli politician, except perhaps dovish types, being buried. The immense attention given to Mandela’s death is unlikely to be replicated for many years to come, an obvious point Kiberd is surely aware of.

Kiberd’s prejudice is all too evident when he engages in needless, rather conspiratorial, speculation:
“Biden and Blair may have swapped notes ahead of the ceremony. Rather than deal directly with Sharon’s blood-stained legacy both diffused the issue by employing metaphors borrowed from construction.”
Must former British prime minister, Tony Blair, and current US vice-president, Joe Biden, have necessarily agreed with Kiberd, to the extent that he sees conspiracy when they do not express their disapproval of Sharon, especially at a most unfitting time of his funeral service?
“Biden referred to Sharon as the “bulldozer”, his nickname in some quarters. Blair noted that he had left a “lot of debris in his wake”. In death, as in life, Sharon was not exactly the first name on anybody’s dance card.”
The sarcasm of Kiberd’s “dance card” remark clearly indicates that Sharon was in some way a boorish anti-social individual. Kiberd misleads the reader in the above quotes, by stripping away the context in which the terms were used by both Blair and Biden. It is widely reported that Sharon earned the name “bulldozer” due to the forceful way in which he negotiated, rather than for being supposedly unsociable, a point which “” also noted two-weeks before Kiberd’s article.

Moreover, Biden described his friendship with Sharon, which lasted several decades and felt “like a death in the family.”

To quote Blair’s remarks more fully:
“Once decided he was unflinching. He didn’t move, he charged. He could leave considerable debris in his wake.”
This is of course a reference to the dramatic about-turns in Sharon’s political career, which Kiberd twists into a reference concerning “Sharon’s blood-stained legacy”, making out that there was a near-conspiracy of silence by these guests at the former Israeli prime-minister’s funeral. He even finds it necessary to make an odd reference to Blair wearing a yarmulke at the funeral, as a sign of respect.

Did Kiberd ever consider that both Blair and Biden may have genuinely respected the Sharon, to have paid tribute without voicing subtle reservations? Why did Kiberd feel the need to misrepresent the tributes delivered by two friends at Sharon’s funeral, and to construct a further character assassination?

A conclusion

Damien Kiberd’s article contains a number of other errors of lesser consequence, for example he wrote:
“After the Gaza withdrawal in 2004 [note: the withdrawal from Gaza occurred in 2005] Sharon himself became the target of political extremists. One religious leader invoked an ancient curse that called upon the angel of death to kill him. Some weeks later his brain ceased to function.”
Whilst there was a number of verbal attacks on Sharon at this time, the curse to which Kiberd is most likely referring, for it was noted for citing the Angels of Death, occurred some six months before his stroke in January 2006. The other notorious curse against Sharon was delivered in March 2005. Kiberd wrote:
“Psychopath or a good soldier? The ‘no show’ of global leaders at his final goodbye nods to a life of contradictions.”
The above might suggest Sharon occasionally acted in a fashion that Kiberd would have found acceptable. However, Kiberd’s hatred for the subject of his article is also evident due to his criticism of Sharon’s evacuation of Gaza’s Jewish settlements! Does Kiberd support Jewish settlements? It is extremely unlikely but when it comes to Sharon, it’s a case of damned if he did, damned if he didn’t!

Kiberd clearly suggests, to the reader, that Ariel Sharon was a psychopath. His demonising article includes factual misrepresentations of the Kahan Commission’s report, with the likely intent of construing that Sharon was in fact responsible for the massacre at Sabra and Shatila, which he associates with the spilling of ‘blood’. Perhaps Kiberd should consider re-directing that ire at the actual architect of the massacre, one Elie Hobeika?

Mr. Kiberd asks “why Ariel Sharon’s funeral was such a lonely affair?” To a large extent, it is due to the lazy forwarding of half-truths by journalists not sufficiently motivated to read widely available reports, and, of course, those with a blatant anti-Israel agenda, peddling the prejudicial perspectives of propagandists.

Also published at Crethi Plethi.

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