My new aide-de-camp, Joshua Miller, reminded me the other day that Ariel Sharon is still alive. Go figure. The man's certainly a fighter, a fact that can be seen in this not entirely-perspicacious profile of him from 2001. Not entirely-perspicacious, because I didn't imagine at the time that Sharon was capable of absorbing the demographic realities that eventually led him to order the withdrawals from Gaza. Joshua, who is very energetic, reread Sharon's autobiography, Warrior, and dug out these interesting and tragic observations:
When I did look at Gaza, with whatever distracted attention I could spare [from the War of Attrition], the complexity of the problem overwhelmed me. There were so many people there, so many ways for the terrorists to hide in those dense groves or melt into the population, so many targets for them to hit. I couldn't begin to get a handle on it.
When Sharon was assigned by Moshe Dayan to rid Gaza of all terrorists, he began by spending two months walking through the refugee camps and the orange groves of Gaza, he wrote.
I'd get up in the morning, pack a lunch and a canteen of water, take my chief of intelligence and chief of operations, and head off to that day's sector. I did it methodically, walking every square yard of each camp and each grove.
Sharon spent seven months in Gaza and, according to him, the operation was hugely successful, leading to the death or capture of just about all of the PLO terrorists in the Strip.
When government members came to examine his work, he told them that the only effective way to control the area was to build settlements.
Standing with the cabinet members on a high hill of dunes, I pointed out exactly what I thought we needed. If in the future we wanted in any way to control this area, we would need to establish a Jewish presence now. Otherwise we would have no motivation to be there during difficult times later on.
But beyond settlements, Sharon also had a plan for Gaza's residents:
Currently the district is packed with towns, refugee camps, and orange groves...but Gaza does not have to be squalid and overcrowded. With a comprehensive program of planning, rehabilitation, and building it could be transformed into a modern urban residential area. ... Remaking Gaza would be a humanitarian achievement of the first order. The consequences such a project would have for peace in the region can hardly be exaggerated.
Below is a story from the Nov. 14, 1978, New York Times, which reports on a key moment in Israel's fateful, and fatal, encounter with Gaza: