Former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, one of his nation’s most controversial and iconic leaders for a half-century — on and off the battlefield — died Saturday at the age of 85, of complications from a stroke eight years ago.
Sharon’s son, Gilad Sharon, announced his death Saturday afternoon outside the hospital where he was being treated. “He has gone. He went when he decided to go,” he said.
The death of Sharon, known by his nickname “Arik” to generations of Israelis, ends a tumultuous career that spanned the heights and depths of public life and Israeli history.
Sharon was a military leader who led Israeli troops against Arab armies in every war from independence in 1948 until his stroke 58 years later. He was defense minister in 1982, when Israel attacked Lebanon in an attempt to oust the Palestinian Liberation Organization and reduce Syria’s stranglehold over Lebanon. Sharon was forced to resign after Lebanese Christian militias sent into the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps to weed out the PLO murdered hundreds of Palestinian civilians.
A longtime passionate advocate of Israeli settlement of land he helped conquer from Jordan and Egypt, which Palestinians seek for a state,he forced Jewish settlers to leave Gaza in 2005, ending 38 years of military governance.
“Sharon combined brilliance and colossal failure” during his long and controversial career, said Edward Walker, U.S. ambassador to Israel from 1998 to 2000 and former president of the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank.
To Palestinians Sharon was not a hero, but a brutal operator who sought for years to destroy Palestinian Liberation Organization founder Yasser Arafat and eventually succeeded, said Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the PLO’s executive committee. Arafat died in 2004. The cause of death is disputed. His wife claims he was poisoned with radioactive polonium by Israel.
“To us he represents violence, militarism, preemptive moves, undermining the political process — and a long history of pain,” Ashrawi said.
Sharon had a first, small stroke in December 2005 and was put on blood thinners before experiencing a severe brain hemorrhageJan. 4, 2006.
After spending months in the Jerusalem hospital where he was initially treated, Sharon was transferred to the long-term care facility in Tel Hashomer, a suburb of Tel Aviv.
A hulking man who at times weighed more than 300 pounds, Sharon was a gigantic presence in Israel. He was dubbed “The Bulldozer” by Israeli media because of his former policy of clearing Palestinians from disputed land, his contempt for his critics and his ability to get things done.
After his stroke, Sharon was succeeded as prime minister by Ehud Olmert, his successor as leader of the centrist Kadima party. Sharon had rattled Israeli political circles by leaving the conservative Likud faction to form Kadima — marking one of the many unexpected twists and turns in his mercurial career.
Sharon, in his final years, had forged a close working relationship with President George W. Bush, who called Sharon a “man of peace” during a tough Israeli crackdown on Palestinian militants in 2002.
Michal Peri, a Jewish Jerusalemite, praised Sharon “for changing course” in mid-career.
“He was a fascinating man,” Peri, a teacher, said while doing her pre-sabbath shopping on Friday. “He was a war hero and general who established settlements but, when he felt it would help the nation, dismantled the settlements in Gaza. Sharon was a hard-core hawk, yet he transformed himself and, in the process, the country.”
Larry Derfner, a blogger who says Israel must relinquish all land it captured in war to the Palestinians, said Sharon was “a ruthless warrior and a gobbler of Palestinian land. Yet the last big thing he did in his career – remove Israeli settlements from Gaza – was to retreat from the very land he helped Israel conquer.”
The so-called disengagement “was a wrenching, cataclysmic event for Israel,” that might have been repeated in parts of the West Bank had Sharon not been sidelined by a stroke, Derfner said.
His withdrawal from Gaza and parts of the West Bank was aimed at creating the outlines of a Palestinian state and improving security for Israelis tired of decades of conflict.
To Palestinians, the unilateral disengagement was less about peace than it was about ridding Israel of “the security threat and the demographic threat (Sharon) saw in Gaza,” Ashrawi said.
“At the time we said any kind of withdrawal had to be done as part of negotiations, so there would be a handover,” she said. “But to Sharon everything was unilateral.”
The wisdom of his disengagement policy has proved unclear, as demonstrated by Israel’s periodic skirmishes with Hamas-backed militants in Gaza and ongoing tensions with Lebanon, from which Israel withdrew in 2000.
“Clearly this is a man who had second thoughts in the later years of his life,” said Ted Galen Carpenter, a foreign affairs analyst at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington.
“If the peace process is successful, he will be remembered as an important catalyst for peace,” Carpenter said. “If it’s not successful, he’ll be remembered more for the hard-line policies he adopted earlier in his career.”
Born to Russian immigrant parents in a farming community near Tel Aviv in 1928, Sharon joined the Jewish underground militia Haganah at age 14 to fight for Israeli independence from British rule.
He fought in the Arab-Israeli war of 1948-49 and quickly rose to prominence in the new nation’s military ranks. Sharon’s career would turn out to be marked by a series of stunning highs and desperate lows that made him a figure many Israelis either adored or despised.
Sharon rose to the rank of brigadier general and commanded a division during the Six-Day War in 1967 in which Israel captured East Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Golan Heights, the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza.
Perhaps his greatest military feat came in 1973, when he led a thrust across the Suez Canal that helped turn the tide of the war in the Middle East. The assault cut off Egypt’s 3rd Army. It also helped forge Sharon’s reputation as a war hero after his head was grazed by a bullet during fierce fighting.
Throughout his career, Sharon accumulated as many accolades for his heroics as controversies for his no-holds-barred leadership.
In 1953, he headed up Unit 101, an Israeli military force charged with carrying out reprisals for the slayings of an Israeli woman and her two children by Palestinian militants. His troops blew up more than 40 houses in a West Bank village, killing 69 Arabs, about half of them women and children. Sharon would contend later that he thought the homes were empty.
In 1956, he was rebuked by his superiors after sending troops on what his commanders later termed an unnecessary and unplanned battle with Egyptian forces on the Sinai Peninsula.
In 1982, while serving as defense minister, Sharon masterminded Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. Touted as a lightning strike to drive Palestinian militants from Israel’s northern border, the operation lasted 18 years. The Lebanon invasion was marked by the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians in two Beirut refugee camps by Israeli-allied Lebanese Christian militiamen.
Sharon denied being at fault for the action, which sullied his name with many Arab leaders, including then-Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat, who was ousted from Lebanon as a result of Israel’s invasion. Prime Minister Menachem Begin forced Sharon to resign after an Israeli tribunal found him indirectly responsible for the killings — a rebuke that would have ended most political careers.
Sharon slowly, methodically rehabilitated himself. He rejoined the Israeli Cabinet in the early 1990s as housing minister and oversaw the building of dozens of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. The presence of the settlements in the occupied territories was an issue that became a central dispute in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.
In 1998, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made Sharon foreign minister. The appointment led to Sharon’s election as leader of the conservative Likud Party after Netanyahu’s defeat in the general election in 1999.
After the collapse of the Camp David peace talks with Palestinians in 2000, Sharon led an effort to unseat Prime Minister Ehud Barak by charging that Barak had been ready to trade full Israeli control of Jerusalem for a peace deal with Palestinian leaders, who wanted to make East Jerusalem the capital of a future Palestinian state.
Sharon’s visit with hundreds of Israeli riot police to the al-Aqsa mosque compound in East Jerusalem – also known as the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism – was condemned by opponents who said he was prompting anger among Palestinians. But he said it was only right to assert his commitment to Israeli sovereignty over the site.
Some blamed the act for sparking a Palestinian intifada, or uprising, against Israel.
In the 2001 election that followed Sharon enjoyed a landslide victory — at the age of 73 — having campaigned on a promise to keep Jerusalem united and bring Israel “security and true peace.”
Sharon’s years as prime minister exhibited the dual, sometimes conflicting impulses of his long career. In his first term in office, he spent much of his time trying to crush the Palestinian uprising. In 2003, he began construction of a security fence separating Israel and the West Bank.
The fence eventually ended the regular transit of terrorists that were attacking Israel say supporters. The Palestinians, who called it a “separation barrier,” saw it is an effort to unilaterally set the borders between Israel and a future Palestinian state.
On the other hand, in 2005 Sharon withdrew Israeli settlers from Gaza and parts of the West Bank despite vehement opposition from many Israelis. The forced withdrawal pitted Israeli security forces against fierce though non-lethal civil disobedience by Jewish settlers.
In November 2005, as a result of dissent within Likud about the Gaza policy, Sharon left the party and formed Kadima, a more centrist bloc. Though Sharon was widely criticized during some of the more hard-line periods of his career, his legacy brought praise from world leaders for his efforts to seek a lasting peace in the region.
Aaron Miller, a former U.S. negotiator in Middle East peace talks, said Sharon’s political evolution mirrored that of most Israelis, who had grown weary of decades of war.
“If you don’t want to be too left or too right, come with me,” was Sharon’s appeal, said Miller, of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Contributing: Michele Chabin, Oren Dorell; Associated Press