Ariel Sharon: A Life

Ariel Sharon: A Life


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400065875
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/03/2006
Pages: 512
Product dimensions: 6.55(w) x 9.50(h) x 1.61(d)

About the Author

Nir Hefez, a graduate of Tel Aviv University, is editor in chief of Yediot Tikshoret, a nationwide string of weekly newspapers, and a senior editor of the daily newspaper Yediot Aharonot. He has filled a wide range of posts in journalism, including editor in chief of the weekly Tel Aviv. He serves as a captain in the Israel Defense Forces reserves.

Gadi Bloom, a graduate of the Beit Zvi School of Stage and Cinematic Art, is the managing editor of Yediot Tikshoret. He has written a regular column for the weeklies Tel Aviv and Ha’ir, as well as numerous investigative features.

Read an Excerpt

Ariel Sharon

Chapter One

The Battle of Latrun

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was a numbingly dull orator. His tone was nasal and monotonous, he fumbled with his glasses as he spoke, and he always read from the page, his voice bobbing up and down like a distant boat in a soft sea. The hand gestures meant to inflect his words with emotion were frequently a beat late. History, from the lips of Sharon, needed to be listened to carefully, lest it slip by undetected.

On September 23, 2001, Sharon, seventy-three, obese yet agile, climbed onto the podium in the Latrun amphitheater and addressed a group of teachers. They grasped the historical significance of his speech. Sharon had just announced his agreement, in principle, to the founding of a Palestinian state west of the Jordan River, making him the first prime minister from the right-wing Likud Party to publicly concede the West Bank to the Palestinians. "Israel," Sharon said as the sun set behind him, "wants to give the Palestinians what no else ever has: the opportunity to establish a state of their own. No one-- not the Turks, nor the English, nor the Egyptians, nor the Jordanians-- has ever given them this chance before."

It was no coincidence that Ariel Sharon made this declaration at the tank corps' monument to the fallen, in Latrun. Sharon chose Latrun as the burial ground for an ideology that he had upheld for thirty years, agreeing, against thewishes of the Likud Central Committee and virtually his entire electoral base, to initiate the founding of a Palestinian state just a few hundred yards from the spot where he had nearly lost his life.

As he spoke, his mind wandered fifty-three years back in time, to one of the Israel Defense Forces' worst embarrassments--the Battle of Latrun. He recalled how he had lain flat on his back, half a mile from where he now stood in a starched shirt and tie, blood pouring out of his stomach, his will to live ebbing. Pictures from his past flashed through his mind: the bullet slicing his stomach; the armed Palestinian villagers pillaging and murdering his downed soldiers; the oppressive heat; the flies; the clouds of gnats that descended on his open wounds; the evacuation he barely survived.

That battle played a major role in shaping the ideology of a man who would become one of the world's most influential leaders. In the Battle of Latrun, Sharon emerged as an unflappable and fearless warrior. Over a lifetime of crises--military, political, and personal-- he would often recall the moment he was allowed to "rise from the dead" at Latrun. In his darkest moments he could always return there to draw the strength necessary to rise, Phoenix-like, from the ashes.

The Battle of Latrun began on the night of May 24, 1948, ten days after Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, declared the establishment of the State of Israel, drawing an all-out attack by seven neighboring nations. During the first days of war, the Jordanian Legion surrounded Jerusalem, cutting the city's hundred thousand Jewish residents off without food, water, medicine, or weapons. The Jordanian Arab Legion's 4th Battalion, bolstered by armed Palestinian fighting gangs, had taken control of the Arab city of Latrun, the nearby Trappist monastery, the Crusader fort Le Toron des Chevaliers, and the square stone building that had served the British as police headquarters during their mandate in Palestine. As in the Middle Ages, the Crusader fort dominated the western route to Jerusalem, completing the siege. On May 23, the Jordanians strengthened their forces, adding the 2nd Battalion to the troops already in place. The overpowering force kept Jerusalem beyond Jewish reach. Numerous convoys were destroyed as they rumbled up the first ridge on the way to the capital, nine miles west.

Ben-Gurion was determined to break the blockade. The military maneuver aimed at opening a corridor to Jerusalem was named "Operation Bin-Nun," after the biblical Joshua, the son of Nun, who led the Jews into Canaan and prevailed in a battle over the Amorites in the same region. The hastily assembled 7th Brigade--a unit that had been put together only a week before and consisted of untrained Holocaust survivors marched straight from the boats to the battlefield --was given the mission. Since many of them had rarely fired a weapon before, their brigade was reinforced by the 32nd

Infantry Battalion, a battle-hardened unit from the Alexandroni Brigade. The commander of Platoon 1, Company B, of the 32nd Battalion was Arik Scheinerman (later and better known to the world as Ariel Sharon), just twenty years old.

Scheinerman's arm was in a cast. He had broken it in a car accident a short time before, but had decided nonetheless to lead Platoon 1. His decision to participate in the battle may have been influenced by rumors floating through the ranks that the battle for Latrun would be won with ease. Men under the command of Chaim Weizmann, later the president of Israel, issued intelligence reports stating that Latrun was being held by several hundred armed but unorganized Palestinian villagers. But beyond the view of the Israeli troops, one thousand Bedouin soldiers from the Arab Legion, armed with mortars, artillery, armored vehicles, hundreds of heavy machine guns, and thousands of rifles, lay in wait. The intelligence failure would lead to one of the bloodiest battles of the War of Independence.

Toward evening on May 24, four companies, two from the 7th Brigade and two from the 32nd Battalion, organized their gear in the Hulda "Forest," a small patch of eucalyptus trees next to Kibbutz Hulda. Ya'akov Bugin, a young soldier from Kfar Pinnes who had been transferred to Arik's platoon a few days before the battle, remembers their morale-boosting trip to Hulda from their permanent base in Pardaisiya via the newly conquered Arab city of Jaffa. "Arik sat down on the bus and I remember looking at him admiringly," recalls Bugin, who had not yet even been introduced to his new commanding officer. "I was seventeen years old at the time, an age when I was looking for heroes and role models, and Arik definitely had a heroic look to him. His body was sturdy and healthy, his face was childlike; I remember sitting behind him on the bus and thinking, 'He reminds me of a Roman emperor.' "

The Israeli force's communications officer, Ted Arison, later the owner of Carnival Cruise Lines and the wealthiest Jew in the world, scurried through the troops looking for spare transceiver batteries. He was not alone in his search for vital gear. Many soldiers lacked canteens, uniforms, and boots. There were not enough rifles and ammunition to go around. The engineering and artillery corps were nowhere to be found. At the last minute, the operations chief of the IDF general staff, Yigal Allon, tried to persuade Ben-Gurion to delay the battle, telling him that the 7th Brigade was ill suited to the task of liberating Jerusalem. Ben-Gurion, fearing for the lives of the capital's Jewish citizens and dreading the possibility of the holy city's falling in its entirety, refused to delay for more than twenty-four hours.

Arik Scheinerman spent the hours leading up to the battle lying on his stomach in an olive grove, storing energy for what was sure to be a sleepless night. He was already an accomplished military leader, brave, conscientious, and sincere beyond his years, with a habit of collecting himself in solitude. He watched as the 7th Brigade's new recruits hopped off the backs of a convoy of trucks. Ram Oren, in his book Latrun, published a letter Arik Scheinerman wrote to his parents:

My platoon and I are lazing in an olive grove, passing the heat of the day, thinking pre-battle thoughts, blending with the water- smoothed stones and the earth, feeling part and parcel of the land: a rooted feeling, a feeling of a homeland, of belonging, of ownership. Suddenly a convoy of trucks stopped next to us and unloaded new, foreign-looking recruits. They looked slightly pale, and were wearing sleeveless sweaters, gray pants, and striped shirts. A stream of languages filled the air, names like Herschel and Yazek, Jan and Maitek were thrown around. They stuck out against the backdrop of olives, rocks, and yellowing grains. They'd come to us through blocked borders, from Europe's death camps. I watched them. Watched them strip, watched their white bodies. They tried to find fitting uniforms, and fought the straps on their battle jackets as their new commanders helped them get suited up. They did this in silence, as though they had made their peace with fate. Not one of them cried out: "Let us at least breathe the free air after the years of terrible suffering." It is as if they'd come to the conclusion that this is one final battle for the future of the Jewish people.

As Arik Scheinerman and his men filled canteens and magazines, the commanders of Operation Bin-Nun huddled together in a nearby cabin and reviewed their battle plans. The 32nd Battalion's two companies were to take the Trappist monastery, the Crusader fort, the British police building, the Arab village of Latrun, and the nearby Hill 315. The 72nd Battalion of the 7th Brigade was to take the fortified ridge to the east of the village. The two-pronged attack would ensure total control of the route to Jerusalem.

It was a simple plan in theory, but on the ground, problems began to multiply: The bus scheduled to take the soldiers to the drop-off point was late; a backup platoon of infantrymen and an artillery unit of 155mm guns were no-shows; the 32nd's battalion commander, hobbled by a chronic lack of sleep and food and general war-weariness, fainted on the spot. He was replaced by future chief of the general staff Chaim Laskov.

Ya'akov Bugin recalls:

As evening came they brought our company, Company B, together and told us that the goal of the mission was to take the French fort and the Arab village of Latrun and open the road to Jerusalem. Arik, the platoon commander, gave the briefing. He hung a map on one of the trees and revealed the details of the plan. By ten at night we were on the buses, but we just sat there for over three hours. We were wound tight with tension. Only at one in the morning did the order to move out toward Latrun come down. The entire time on the bus Arik sat in silence, in his own shell.

The fruitless hope that the artillery unit and the backup platoon would arrive were the cause of the delay. After the order to move out, the first bus in the convoy bungled the navigation and wasted more precious hours of darkness. The soldiers finally disembarked at two-thirty in the morning near an old British detention center, where leaders of the pre-state fighting units had been imprisoned. Asher Levi, Company B's commander, led his men in single file. A treacherous silence surrounded them. Higher up on the ridge, on top of the old fort, Jordanian lookouts kept their commanders well informed of all Israeli troop movements.

It was just before four in the morning. Black gave way to blue and then to a clear dawn just beyond the fortified hills of Latrun. Asher Levi told the commander of the lead platoon, Arik Scheinerman, that they were at the point where their paths diverged. Sharon led his thirty-six-man platoon down into a streambed and toward the hills of Latrun. Walking point, he could make out the houses of the Arab village and the shape of the fort and the monastery in the early morning light. The monks' vineyard was all that stood between his men and the monastery. At four-thirty they were given the order: Charge!

The moment is lodged in Ya'akov Bugin's mind:

All of a sudden, a lethal burst of fire was leveled at us. It was massive, planned, and orchestrated, and coming from different angles. The fire caught our platoon, which was first, on a vulnerable stretch. I remember bullets and shells flying through us like raindrops. The whole slope was like a firing range. Suddenly I was thrown to the ground. I felt dizziness, heat, chills, and a deafening ringing. I'd caught a bullet in the chin and I closed my eyes and waited for the end. To my good fortune a man named Rami, from [the town of] Magdiel, Arik's deputy, crawled to me under fire along with a medic. The two of them bandaged me, and then Rami dragged me down the hill, under a barrage of fire. I noticed that the rest of the company had retreated and taken cover behind the hill; only we, Arik's platoon, were caught on the exposed slope. We galloped down the hill. Arik found a little fold in the contours of the valley where we could hide from the ceaseless fire. Only later did we realize that it was a death trap.

Rami and I were heading toward the fold in the earth where Arik and the rest of the platoon had taken cover, but the Jordanians were lining us up like sitting ducks. A bullet hit Rami and killed him. I ran like a wild man, zigzagging across the slope as the Jordanians fired at me from all directions. I'd already dropped my rifle, so I ran with my hand on my jaw, keeping the bandage in place. A bullet slammed into my shoulder, in through the front and out the back. Another bullet charred the skin on my neck. As I ran, Arik kept calling to me from the fold in the valley. "Run!" he yelled. "Don't stop running!"

Somehow I made it to cover in the valley, where I learned that there were many more injured. From where I lay, next to the other injured soldiers, I watched Arik in action. His radio had been smashed and ruined by a bullet, so he had no way to communicate with the rest of the company. We were completely adrift. The Arabs were firing at us from the monastery and the surrounding hills, actually sniping right at our heads. Now and again another person would go down. We pressed ourselves into the valley walls, grabbing bushes and vines with our fingernails. It went on like that for hours. We consoled ourselves with the fact that the Jordanians couldn't storm into the valley with the rest of our company positioned behind a hill, returning fire.

As daylight came and the morning went on, the situation went from bad to worse. We couldn't lift our heads, and we had only four uninjured soldiers. Arik was one of them. Eventually the Arab soldiers started to try and sneak into the valley through the vineyards. Arik placed a lookout in that direction and each time they attempted to come in we opened fire. Since we were completely surrounded we didn't think there was any chance of retreat during the daylight hours. Our only hope was to wait until night and creep out under the cover of darkness. The midday heat was brutal and the sun beat down on us mercilessly. We had not eaten since the day before and the water in our canteens was long gone. Clouds of gnats descended on us, especially on the blood-soaked wounded.

Excerpted from Ariel Sharon
by Nir Hefez and Gadi Bloom Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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