JERUSALEM – It was vintage Ariel Sharon: His hefty body bobbing behind a wall of security men, the ex-general led a march onto a Jerusalem holy site, staking a bold claim to a shrine that has been in contention from the dawn of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
What followed was a Palestinian uprising that put Mideast peace efforts into deep-freeze.
Five years later, Sharon, who died Saturday at 85, was again barreling headlong into controversy, bulldozing ahead with his plan to pull Israel out of the Gaza Strip and uproot all 8,500 Jewish settlers living there without regard to threats to his life from Jewish extremists.
The withdrawal and the barrier he was building between Israel and the West Bank permanently changed the face of the conflict and marked the final legacy of a man who shaped Israel as much as any other leader. He was a farmer-turned-soldier, a soldier-turned-politician, a politician-turned-statesman – a hard-charging Israeli who built Jewish settlements on war-won land, but didn’t shy away from destroying them when he deemed them no longer useful.
Sharon died eight years after a debilitating stroke put him into a coma. His body was to lie in state at the parliament today before he is laid to rest at his ranch in southern Israel Monday, Israeli media reported. Vice President Joe Biden will lead the U.S. delegation.
Sharon suffered his stroke in January 2006 and fell into a coma. Over the past week and a half, doctors reported a sharp decline in his condition as various bodily organs, including his kidneys, failed. On Saturday, Dr. Shlomo Noy of the Sheba Medical Center near Tel Aviv said “his heart weakened and he peacefully departed” with relatives by his bedside.
His death was greeted with the same strong feelings he evoked in life. Israelis called him a war hero. His enemies called him a war criminal.
President Barack Obama remembered Sharon as “a leader who dedicated his life to the state of Israel.” Former President George W. Bush, who was in the White House during Sharon’s tenure, called him a “warrior for the ages and a partner in seeking security for the Holy Land and a better, peaceful Middle East.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a rival and harsh critic of Sharon, said: “His memory will be enshrined forever in the heart of the nation.” President Shimon Peres, a longtime friend and rival, said “he was an outstanding man and an exceptional commander who moved his people and loved them and the people loved him.”
The Palestinians, who loathed Sharon as their most bitter enemy, distributed candy, prayed for divine punishment and said they regretted he was never held accountable for his actions, including a massacre in the Lebanese refugee camps of Sabra and Chatilla by Christian militiamen allied with Israel during the 1982 invasion that was largely his brainchild.
“He wanted to erase the Palestinian people from the map ... He wanted to kill us, but at the end of the day, Sharon is dead and the Palestinian people are alive,” said Tawfik Tirawi, who served as Palestinian intelligence chief when Sharon was prime minister.
The man Israel knew simply by his nickname “Arik” fought in most of Israel’s wars. He detested Yasser Arafat, his lifelong adversary, as an “obstacle to peace” and was in turn detested in the Arab world.
Sharon had a life of surprises, none bigger than his election as prime minister in his twilight years, when he spent his first term crushing a Palestinian uprising and his second withdrawing from Gaza. The pullout in 2005 freed 1.3 million Palestinians from Israeli military rule and left his successors the vague outline of his proposal for a final peace settlement with Israel’s Arab foes.
Sharon opted for separating Israel from the Palestinians, whose birthrate was outpacing that of his own country. He gave up Gaza, with its 21 Jewish settlements, and four West Bank settlements, the first such Israeli pullback since it captured the territories in the 1967 Mideast war.
He also began building a snaking barrier of fences, walls, razor wire and trenches to separate Israel from the West Bank. The withdrawal and the barrier, which left large West Bank settlement blocs on Israel’s side, led many to suspect his real intention was to sidestep negotiations with the Palestinians and make it easier to hold onto what really mattered to him – chunks of the West Bank, with its biblical Jewish resonance and value as a buffer against attack from the east.
Sharon was born to Russian immigrant parents Feb. 26, 1928, in the farming community of Kfar Malal, 10 miles north of Tel Aviv. He commanded an infantry platoon during the 1948 Mideast war over Israel’s creation.
Leading a ragtag band of soldiers, some Holocaust survivors, Sharon stormed the Jordanian Arab Legion stronghold at Latroun, a key spot on the road to Jerusalem, during the 1948 war that followed Israel’s creation. He was badly wounded in the leg and belly, and bled for hours while surrounded by enemy soldiers.
His finest hour in uniform, as he described it, came in the 1973 Mideast war. Yanked out of retirement by an army desperate for leadership, he commanded 27,000 Israelis in a daring drive across Egypt’s Suez Canal that helped turn the tide of the war. A picture of a boyish-faced, 45-year-old Sharon, bloody bandage wrapped around his head, remains one of the most enduring images of the war.
As foreign minister in 1998, Sharon called on Jewish settlers to grab as much land as possible. Sharon’s demonstrative visit to the Temple Mount, or Haram as-Sharif, soon followed. Palestinian riots escalated into a full-fledged uprising that would claim more than 3,000 Palestinian and 1,000 Israeli lives.
In February 2001, with the fighting continuing and peace talks collapsing, Israelis grew deeply disillusioned and inclined to lay all the blame on Arafat. They elected Sharon prime minister in a landslide.
Fighting continued throughout Sharon’s first term and he was re-elected in 2003 to a second term.
In late 2003, he unveiled his “unilateral disengagement” plan – withdrawing from territory he no longer deemed essential to Israel’s security – without an agreement with the Palestinians.
He also confined Arafat to his West Bank headquarters in his final years before allowing the longtime Palestinian leader to fly to France in late 2004 shortly before his death.
Speaking Saturday, Olmert said Sharon’s legacy was far more complicated than critics say.
“Arik was not a warmonger. When it was necessary to fight, he stood at the forefront of the divisions in the most sensitive and painful places, but he was a smart and realistic person and understood well that there is a limit in our ability to conduct wars,” he said.
Sharon was widowed twice – he married the sister of his first wife after she died in an auto accident – and had two sons, Gilad and Omri. A third son died in 1967 in a firearms accident.