RAMALLAH, West Bank — Ariel Sharon’s death Saturday elicited a wide range of responses from Palestinians, but sadness wasn’t one: Some cheered and distributed sweets while others prayed for divine punishment for the former Israeli leader or recalled his central role in some of the bloodiest episodes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Palestinians widely loathed Sharon as the mastermind of crushing military offensives against them in Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza and as the architect of Israel’s biggest settlement campaign on lands they want for a state.
The intensity of those feelings appears to have faded a bit because Sharon left the public stage eight year ago, when he suffered a debilitating stroke and slipped into a coma. Sharon died Saturday afternoon at a Tel Aviv hospital.
The news traveled quickly in the Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps in Lebanon’s capital of Beirut, where Israeli-allied forces systematically slaughtered hundreds of Palestinians in September 1982, three months after Sharon engineered the invasion of Israel’s northern neighbor.
Sharon was later fired as defense minister over the massacre, with Israeli investigators rejecting his contention at the time that he didn’t know the attack was coming.
“Sharon is dead!” a 63-year-old Palestinian woman in Sabra said, pointing to a text message from her daughter. “May God torture him,” said the woman who only gave her first name, Samia. “We should celebrate. We should be firing in the air.”
In the Gaza refugee camp of Khan Younis, a few dozen supporters of two militant groups, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees, gathered in the main street, chanting: “Sharon, go to hell.” Some burned Sharon pictures or stepped on them, while others distributed sweets to motorists and passers-by.
In the 1950s, he led a commando unit that carried out reprisals for Arab attacks. In 1953, after the slaying of an Israeli woman and her two children, Sharon’s troops blew up more than 40 houses in Qibya, a West Bank village then ruled by Jordan, killing 69 Arabs, most or all of them civilians.
After his dismissal as defense minister, he gradually rehabilitated himself politically. By the early 1990s, as housing minister in a right-wing government, he oversaw a massive settlement drive in the West Bank.
As opposition leader in September 2000, Sharon visited a contested Jewish-Muslim holy site in Jerusalem, setting off Palestinian protests that quickly escalated into an armed uprising.
Less than a year later, he was elected prime minister. In 2002, after a string of Palestinian shooting and bombing attacks, he reoccupied the West Bank towns that had been handed to Palestinian self-rule in previous interim peace deals.
Sharon also placed his longtime nemesis, then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, under virtual house arrest in the West Bank town of Ramallah.
A close Arafat aide at the time, then-intelligence chief Tawfik Tirawi, said Saturday that Sharon’s death was proof that the Palestinians will prevail.