Jerusalem: Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the provocative hard-line general who as defence minister was the architect of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the driving force behind its controversial settlement project, has died.
The 85-year-old has been in a coma and on life support since he suffered a massive stroke eight years ago while at the height of his political power.
Doctors announced last week his organs had begun to fail but said he was “fighting like a lion” to survive.
He lost that fight on Saturday in the Sheba Medical Centre near Tel Aviv.
Known as Arik to his friends, “Bulldozer” to his critics and the “Butcher of Beirut” to many in the Arab world, Sharon leaves behind a complicated and often tarnished political legacy.
“He was first and foremost a great and brave warrior,” Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said of Sharon, whose memory "will live forever in the nation’s heart.”
Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon, said “Ariel Sharon's life is intertwined with Israel’s history . . . he was a man of the land who dedicated his life to this country, making at times considerable sacrifices".
Finance Minister Yair Lapid mourned the death of the "brave soldier and commander in the battle field, and fearless leader in the political and diplomatic field as well as a personal friend".
There has been no immediate reaction from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, although a senior Fatah official released a statement branding Sharon a “criminal, responsible for the assassination of (former Palestinian Authority president Yasser) Arafat”.
“We would have hoped to see him appear before the International Criminal Court as a war criminal," said Jibril Rajoub, a senior Fatah official.
Hamas issued a statement saying: “Our people today feel extreme happiness at the death and departure of this criminal whose hands were smeared with the blood of our people and the blood of our leaders here and in exile."
Born in 1928 in Kfar Malal in Palestine, which was then under British Mandate, he joined the underground Jewish militia Haganah and went on to establish a reputation as a soldier prepared to use brutal force to fight Israel’s battles – in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, the 1967 Six-Day War, the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the 1982 Lebanon invasion.
An official Israeli inquiry found Sharon bore some responsibility for the massacre – committed by Israel’s far-right Christian militia allies – of between 800 and 3500 Palestinians in Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in the south of Beirut in 1982. He was forced to resign as defence minister over the findings.
He re-entered politics after the first intifada and as the Oslo accords with the Palestine Liberation Organisation collapsed, his provocative visit to the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City in 2000 sparking the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada.
Sharon pushed Israel’s program of settlement construction in the occupied West Bank and now 461,000 Israeli settlers live across the Green Line – a move considered illegal under international law and one that significantly complicates the negotiation of any final peace agreement with Palestine.
As prime minister, it was his cabinet in 2002 that decided to erect a physical barrier within the occupied West Bank with the stated aim of improving security for Israelis, a vast structure that is in parts an electronic fence and in some areas a six to eight-metre-high concrete wall flanked by barbed wire and security fences that runs to hundreds of kilometres, dividing Palestinian communities and cutting farmers off from their land.
In 2005 he took the controversial and unthinkable step of unilaterally removing thousands of settlers from the Gaza Strip, while concentrating on consolidating Israel’s hold on the West Bank via the expansion of its settlement program and the separation barrier.
Soon after that he abandoned his right-wing Likud Party and formed the centre-right Kadima Party, causing a political upheaval in Israel that would continue well after his catastrophic stroke the next year.
Sharon’s former senior aide, Raanan Gissin, described Sharon as “an icon in Israel”.
“I think he will go down in history as the person who shaped the nature of Israel and Israeli society for years to come,” Mr Gissin said on Ynet.
“Sharon was somebody who could deliver,” former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice told the Daily Beast. “You could trust him to do what he said he was going to do.”
Sharon never regained consciousness after his stroke on January 4, 2006.
Sharon’s coffin will be brought to the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, on Sunday where the public will be able to pay their respects. A state ceremony will be held there on Monday, which foreign guests, including US Vice President Joe Biden, Office of the Quartet Representative and former UK prime minister Tony Blair, as well as Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop, will attend. There will be a funeral procession to Mr Sharon’s farm, where a military funeral will be held.