Ariel Sharon: Breaking Bad, The Lost Episode

David Landau's just published biography of Ariel Sharon, Arik, will yield still more reflections on Sharon's remarkable career. The eulogies to his courage and single-mindedness will no doubt continue, as will recognition of his evolving, patriotic cold-bloodedness. What he did he did for his family, presumably. Men provide. (The climax, alas, is yet to be written.)

One episode, lost but for the stubborn conscience of Professor Clinton Bailey, has just come to light, however, and it feels like something quintessential.

Bailey, Itzik to his friends, is a self-made man. He left Buffalo, New York for Israel in the late 1950s (after traveling to Norway, and serving in the US Navy) because he thought--like most Zionists of the time--that Jews had to remake themselves as progressive, muscular Hebrews to survive the modern world. Then, as Israel began modernizing, he went native.

He was teaching in Sde Boker in the Negev and became fascinated with the Bedouin. Since then, he's published four books about Bedouin oral culture and reflected on ways nomadic life shaped Biblical concepts of deity and law. He's also made the fate of the Bedouin in Israel his life's work and political passion.

Now, there is much more to say about how, and whether, Israel in its current political architecture can absorb its 200,000 Bedouin citizens (currently, its population doubles every 15 years). Bailey knows this subject more intimately than perhaps any other Israeli. But Bailey's story about Sharon, familiar to his circle, and now front page news, has to do with a little training exercise Sharon organized in 1972, which led to the (then) unreported deaths of many innocent Bedouin, among them children.

Sharon was planning, Haaretz's Anshel Pfeffer now reports, a military maneuver: a practice canal crossing (which turned out to be of use the following year). It began in the southern Negev and proceeded deep into Sinai and its center, the crossing of an artificial lake near Abu Agheila, created by opening the Rueifa Dam. To clear the territory for the exercise, Sharon summarily expelled 3000 people.

"Bailey was making his first steps in researching the Bedouin tribes of the Negev and Sinai," Pfeffer continues; "He heard of the expulsion at the end of February 1972 when he met a sheikh of the Tarabin tribe in El-Arish. The sheikh told him of a large group of his kinsmen who had been expelled from their lands near Abu Agheila and had been forced to walk dozens of kilometers and relocate south of the Jabel Khalal mountain":

I went out there with my jeep and met them living there in groups in makeshift tents [Bailey said]. They had been forced to leave most of their property behind. They told me that IDF officers had arrived at their encampments in the night, some with jeeps, others on camels and ordered them to leave at once.

I returned to El-Arish and spoke with a few officers of the military governorship who told me the Bedouin had been removed on Sharon's orders and Arik probably wants to use their land now for Israeli settlement.

Clinton Bailey
The expulsions took place over three nights in January 1972, Bailey told a group at his home the other night, and families were forced to march from their tents in the cold of night with virtually nothing to protect them from the elements.

The Bedouin took me to two temporary burial grounds where I recorded and photographed at least 28 graves, maybe 40, some very small. Obviously, some of the children and old people could not survive.

He told Pfeffer that, at least in one case where the Bedouin refused to leave, the IDF soldiers had fired in the air and began tearing up their tents. It was not until Bailey, with remarkable poise, took the case to Lt. Gen. David Elazar, the Chief of Staff, that the Bedouin were allowed to return, at which point the whole episode was buried under military censorship.

A few days later, Bailey was invited to meet Sharon in Beer Sheva:

Sharon was very friendly and told me how much he loves the Bedouin and visiting the Azazme tribe. He said 'I didn't know what happened to those Bedouin' though I knew it was his orders. I realized later he was trying to neutralize me and he had issued an order forbidding my entrance into all IDF bases in Sinai. I had to appeal to Dado [Elazar] to have that order rescinded.

Bailey was to become a lieutenant-colonel in the Civil Administration in the Territories and an advisor on Arab affairs to the Defense Ministry. He would meet Sharon a number of times.

He was always suspicious of me but he appreciated that I was a field man and wanted to see my maps and reports... I didn't really think about that at the time. I only wanted them to be allowed to go home and I was happy that happened. I'm not proud of this as an Israeli. 

You have to remember the situation then. No-one criticized the army and Sharon; the hero of the Six Day War was a demi-god, larger than life. I was a thirty-year-old researcher. The treatment of the Bedouin then was awful; they were constantly under suspicion and Sharon was Sharon--a man who always saw whoever stood in his way, especially Arabs, as expendable... He didn't care about civilians getting hurt in the way. They could have been temporarily evacuated in a humane way, with proper transport and shelter. But that just didn't occur to him.