NITZAN, Israel — As thousands paid tribute at the former Israeli prime minister’s coffin on Sunday, world leaders boarded planes to come and praise his courage — and sheer bold brass. But there were other voices to be heard here, for whom the name Ariel Sharon is more curse than blessing.
Palestinian youths at the Khan Younis refugee camp burned Sharon’s photograph and handed out candy in celebration of his death. A leader of the Fatah Party in Ramallah called him a war criminal. A spokesman for the Islamist group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, said Sharon’s hands were “covered in Palestinian blood.”
Sharp-edged assessments of his legacy were not confined to Palestinians. A leftist historian recalled Sharon’s disastrous invasion of Lebanon in 1982. A human rights activist branded Sharon a symbol of impunity for the Sabra and Shatila massacres in Beirut that year. But some of the harshest words came from supporters of Israel’s settler movement.
Orit Struck, a member of the Israeli parliament, called Sharon “one of the great builders of the land of Israel, and its greatest destroyer.” On a post on her Facebook page, she thanked God that Sharon was struck down by a stroke before he could return more land to the Palestinians. (Israel’s justice minister and lead peace negotiator, Tzipi Livni, who was close to Sharon, called Struck’s comments “evil.” Struck apologized).
A leader of the Jewish settlement movement, Dani Dayan, praised Sharon as “Israel’s greatest warrior since the Maccabees” and added: “He saved Israel by his virtuous crossing of the Suez Canal. He established thriving communities across our ancestral homeland, changing its landscape forever. He defeated Palestinian terror, against all odds.”
Then Dayan brought his tribute to an abrupt end, saying, “I prefer to stop the memories there, and not deal with the terrible mistake known as the Gaza disengagement.”
Sharon’s unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip in August 2005 was perhaps his biggest political gamble in a life of brash moves, which included joining the Jewish underground at 14 and building the security fence that separates Israel and the West Bank today. Formerly a zealous supporter of Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories, Sharon had once urged Israelis to “run and grab as many hilltops as they can to enlarge the settlements because everything we take now will stay ours.”
But in 2005, as prime minister, he ordered Israeli soldiers to forcibly evict some 8,000 Jewish settlers from two dozen communities in the Gaza Strip, ending the Israeli civilian and military presence inside the coastal enclave that Israel wrestled from Egypt in the 1967 war.
The ramifications of the Israeli withdrawal are still debated and felt.
Many of those Israeli evacuees maintain a simmering anger, and hundreds of families who were settlers in Gaza can be found living today in communities such as Nitzan, a kind of upscale refugee village built on sand dunes beside the Mediterranean Sea, just a 20-minute drive from the Gaza border.
“Welcome to my little piece of junk,” said Rachel Saperstein, who knocked on the side of her government-issued caravilla, Israel’s version of a FEMA trailer.
“It’s made of cardboard, you know,” she said.
Saperstein, 73, a retired English teacher at a girls’ school in the Gush Katif settlements in Gaza, has lived in her mobile home for eight years.
“Sharon could have been remembered as a brilliant general, a great leader. But what did he do before he was turned into a vegetable? He destroyed people’s lives,” Saperstein said as she sat in her little temporary home. “He sent Jewish soldiers in to drag Jews out of their houses.”
Here the evacuees kindle a deep sense of betrayal and loss — and they place the blame squarely on Sharon.
“I have very mixed feelings about him,” said Esther Lilintal, 76, whose job in the Gaza settlement was to help newcomers. “Until his turnaround, Sharon was a hero to us. He was much loved. The young men would carry him on their shoulders when he came to visit.”
Some of the residents here expressed open hatred for Sharon. Others have tried to forgive, but said they would never forget.
“When he had his stroke, many people thought, ‘Yes, he is being punished for what he did. He is getting his due,’ ” she said. “I understand that feeling very well.”
Sharon suffered a massive stroke six months after the Gaza withdrawal. He lingered for eight years in a coma until he died Saturday.
Residents here say they wonder what Sharon achieved by pulling out of Gaza. Israel and Hamas remain belligerents. They fought two brief but intensewars in 2008 and 2012. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu served as finance minister in Sharon’s government in 2005. He resigned over the Gaza pullout and warned that it was a mistake.
Mortars and rockets are routinely fired from Gaza, and Israel responds with artillery and missiles. Lilintal sent her husband looking for a mortar shell that they use as a flower vase. The round fell in their vegetable garden.
The couple moved into a nice modern home here three years ago, using their own money as well as funds the Israeli government gave the Gaza settlers as compensation. They need the space. They have 29 grandchildren and 32 great-grandchildren.
Others are not so fortunate. There have been many complaints about how the Gaza evacuees were treated after their eviction. The Nitzan community lacks permanent synagogues. The girls’ high school is not complete. Half the town looks like a California suburb under construction. The other half, with the mobile homes, looks like rural poverty.
“You want to know the legacy of Sharon? It is broken houses, broken community, broken people,” said Aviel Eliaz, 42, a community manager in Nitzan.
Eliaz said that almost nine years after the settlers were evicted, they are still battling government bureaucrats for compensation. He said that families lived with too many kids in spaces that were too small, that hundreds of families still were in mobile homes, that divorce had increased, that children had emotional problems.
“What Israel did to us after they evicted us was the disgrace,” Eliaz said, and he blamed Sharon.
“He planned every last detail of how to get us out” of the settlements in Gaza, “but he never planned for what to do the day after.”
Orly Halpern contributed to this report.