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Few kind words for dying sharon in arab world { January 5 2006 }

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January 5, 2006
Few Kind Words for Sharon in the Arab World

CAIRO, Jan. 5 - To the Arab world at large, the image of Ariel Sharon is fixed permanently as the "Butcher of Beirut," and the basic sentiment today at the prospect of his dying was that it would be a shame if he passed away peacefully in bed.

Officials took a more nuanced view, however, noting that Mr. Sharon's status as a war hero in Israel gave him the credibility to take significant steps, including last year's withdrawal from Gaza and the dismantling of settlements. Any likely successors are seen as political midgets lacking either the clout or, in some cases, even the volition to push through any kind of peace plan.

"There is no doubt that Sharon had taken decisions that would have been very difficult for any other Israeli prime minister to take," said Egypt's former ambassador to Israel, Mohamed Bassiouny. Although Mr. Sharon was the architect of Israel's settlement policy, it was he who decided to dismantle some 25 of them, including the small but ideologically fervent outposts in the Gaza Strip that had been a roadblock to peace prospects during Israel's 38-year occupation.

"The disappearance of Sharon from the political scene will have a negative effect on progress in the coming period of time," Mr. Bassiouny added. "It was said that he is the only one capable of achieving peace."

Reactions among ordinary Arabs were rather less subtle, particularly among the Palestinians mired in Lebanon's refugee camps where Mr. Sharon had been accused of fomenting a massacre in the wake of the 1982 invasion he orchestrated.

"I have always wished to live to see the day that Sharon was dying," said a 60-year-old Lebanese woman, who told the Reuters news agency that she had survived the Sabra and Shatila camp killings. "But I wished he would be killed by a fighter's bullet, not die in his bed," Um Ali Mikdad added. The idea that anyone who came after Sharon might somehow be different was also largely lost on the Arab public, which generally sees all Israeli leaders as against their interests.

"Sharon is a war criminal and he should be tried while he's alive," said Saad Eddin Mohamed El-Marakby, a 44-year-old businessman interviewed on a Cairo street. "I don't want him to die, I want him to live, paralyzed and suffering."

Other Egyptians said it would make no difference if he lived or died, because he had fostered a whole generation of new extremists just like him.

Officials in the more militant Palestinian camp were also elated that their longtime nemesis might finally be neutralized. Press reports from the Syrian capital of Damascus quoted Ahmed Jibril, the leader of one such faction, as saying, "We say it frankly that God is great and is able to exact revenge on this butcher. We thank God for this gift he presented to us on this new year."

Most Middle Eastern governments made no official comment. But the Islamic Republic of Iran, where a new administration has made a habit of berating Israel, showed no restraint in anticipating Mr. Sharon's demise.

"Hopefully, the news that the criminal of Sabra and Shatila has joined his ancestors is final," the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was quoted as saying by I.S.N.A., the semi-official student news agency.

All Arabs - whether Egyptians or Palestinians, Lebanese or Jordanians - put Mr. Sharon at the top of the list of Israeli military leaders who treated them with both violence and contempt. They pointed out that the bloody Palestinian uprising that effectively derailed the tattered Oslo peace process of the early 1990's erupted after Mr. Sharon inspected Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem in Sept. 2000.

When Mr. Sharon was campaigning for prime minister in early 2001, even news stories about the election sometimes gave the Likud candidate the title "the butcher" - as in "Ariel Sharon, the butcher, said today that...." Columnists routinely enumerated the long list of bloody attacks he is accused of leading, while few conversations about him ended without mentioning them.

A typical list published in Egypt's semi-official Al-Ahram newspaper included a 1953 attack on a village called Qubiya, near Jerusalem, in which 69 Palestinians died, as well as the charge that he ordered Egyptian prisoners of war executed near Mutla ridge in Sinai in 1956. The most notorious accusation concerned the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila after Israeli troops under his command occupied Beirut in 1982.

The Israeli inquiry determined that although Lebanese militiamen did the actually killing, Mr. Sharon bore indirect responsibility. The Arab world has never made such a distinction. One typical political cartoon showed Mr. Sharon wearing a civilian suit festooned with battle ribbons, including a severed hand marked "Shatila" and a severed foot marked "Sabra."

In a region where so many attempts to achieve a settlement between the Arabs and the Israelis have failed, however, there was some sense that perhaps Mr. Sharon had come to recognize that some sort of accommodation had to be made.

"Sharon was a strong and charismatic leader who steered the politics toward the right and extremism," Hanan Ashrawi, the Palestinian legislator and prominent negotiator, said on Al-Arabiya satellite television. Like most of the main satellite channels it was reporting Sharon's stroke as a straight news story.

"Now it is clear that Israel needs a leadership that proceeds strongly toward peace, or else the extremist right will hijack the situation," Ms. Ashrawi said.

Many did not like his unilateral manner of making decisions - like withdrawing from Gaza or erecting a wall around the West Bank that many suspect will ultimately become a border. But he was seen as creating some momentum toward a solution.

"If it had happened earlier, I would have been happy, but in recent times he formed a new party with new ideas that promoted a two-state solution," said Sayyed Hamad, a 40-year-old Egyptian construction engineer. "It was a chance to see things get better. So despite our hatred for Sharon, he should have continued."

Copyright 2006
The New York Times Company

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