Former Israeli PM Sharon dies

JERUSALEM - Former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon died at 85 on Saturday, after eight years in a coma, Israeli media reports said.

Sharon, one of the country's most prominent military and political leaders for decades, served as prime minister between 2001 and 2006.

He suffered a massive stroke while campaigning for re-election on January 4 2006, in a race he had been tipped to win. His condition took a sudden turn for the worse on Jan 1 this year when he suffered serious kidney problems after surgery.

As prime minister from 2001-06, Sharon courted controversy and defied his critics throughout a long military and political career that had a profound impact on the Middle East.

Small in physical stature but forceful in personality, he was known by Israelis as "the bulldozer." In the Arab world he was labeled the "Butcher of Beirut" for leading Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon when he was defence minister.

At the creation of the Jewish state Sharon earned a reputation in the military for tactical brilliance on the battlefield and outspoken insubordination.

As a lawmaker he championed Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. As prime minister in 2005 he initiated Israel's first-ever removal of settlers from the Palestinian territories.

His critics would later charge that the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 opened the way for Palestinian rocket and mortar attacks on southern Israel.

No peace agreement was in place when the coastal enclave came under the control of the Islamist Hamas movement in 2007.

Sharon was popular at home but criticised abroad for his tough crackdown against Palestinian militants during the second Intifada. The Palestinian uprising began in 2000 amid a deadlock in the peace process and scores of suicide bombings in Israel.

His tenure also marked the building of Israel's security barrier along the West Bank. Palestinians said the wall that snaked deep into the territory they hoped would become part of their future state amounted to a "land grab".

Sharon turned from hawk to pragmatic leader in the minds of many when in 2005 he abruptly left the right-wing Likud Party he helped founded some 30 years earlier. Party hardliners smarting from the Gaza withdrawal had repeatedly thwarted his initiatives.

In his final days in office, Sharon was vilified as "a danger to Israeli democracy" by those who had once cheered him as "King of Israel".

Conversely, he was praised - often grudgingly - after the pullout from Gaza by former opponents who had once denounced him as a provocative right-wing hardliner.

Sharon was born Ariel Scheinermann on February 26 1928 in Kfar Malal, in then British ruled Palestine. His father was German-Polish and his mother Russian.

He served as platoon commander during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War sparked by the creation of Israel, and was severely wounded during the siege of Jerusalem. In the early 1950s Sharon took leave but was recalled to head the army's first special forces unit.

The unit mirrored its commander and earned a reputation for unorthodox tactics and a disregard for the rules. It merged with a paratrooper brigade, which Sharon commanded during the Suez Crisis in 1956.

Eleven years later Sharon, promoted to the rank of major-general, led armoured division in the Sinai in the decisive Six-Day War between Israel and neighbouring states. The war ended with Israel controlling the Gaza Strip, the Sinai Peninsula, the Golan Heights, and the West Bank including East Jerusalem.

Sharon retired from the army in 1973, entered politics and helped found the Likud. In October of that year, he was recalled to command a reserve division in the Yom Kippur War

He found a breach between the Egyptian forces in the Sinai desert and exploited it to cross the Suez Canal, a turning point in the war.

When the Likud won elections in 1977, Sharon was appointed agriculture minister and was instrumental in pushing through the government's settlement programme in the West Bank and Gaza.

A controversial choice for defence minister in 1981, his critics' fears seemed justified when he masterminded a costly and ultimately failed invasion of south Lebanon in 1982.

Israeli troops stood by as Christian militiamen killed Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps on the outskirts of the Lebanese capital.

The massacre earned Sharon the moniker "Butcher of Beirut" in the Arab world. An Israeli commission of inquiry found the Israeli army bore no direct responsibility for the massacre. It recommended, however, that Sharon resign from the defence ministry - which he did, angrily.

Gleefully written off by his opponents, Sharon languished in the political wilderness for years, filling several relatively minor cabinet posts, before then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed him foreign minister in October 1998.

Appointed leader of the Likud Party after Netanyahu was defeated in the 1999 elections, Sharon proved an effective leader of the opposition.

But his ill-judged visit to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif in September 2000 provided the spark for the Palestinian uprising. The site in Jerusalem is third holiest in Islam.

The uprising destroyed Israel's confidence in then prime minister Ehud Barak's ability to bring peace. In early 2001 Sharon, campaigning on the old Israeli mantra of "peace and security," was elected by a landslide.

He brought neither, but was re-elected in 2003.

Sharon warned that any peace deal would require Israel to make "painful concessions," and, in a highly unusual statement for a Likud Party leader, spoke of a Palestinian state on the West Bank.

Even so, his announcement in December 2003, that Israel would "disengage unilaterally" from the Palestinians, unless progress was made in the international road map peace plan, caught most observers by surprise.

Surprise turned to shock among right-wing supporters when Sharon made it clear in February 2004 that the disengagement would be from the Gaza Strip.

Israeli hawks were outraged, Sharon managed to get the plan passed by both his cabinet and parliament, ignoring the mounting political attacks from former allies.

"As one who fought in all of Israel's wars, and learned from personal experience that without proper force, we do not have a chance of surviving in this region which does not show mercy toward the weak I have also learned from experience that the sword alone cannot decide this bitter dispute in this land," Sharon said inOctober 2004.

Sharon was married twice. His first wife Margalit died in 1962 and second Lily in 2000. He is survived by sons Gilad and Omri. His first child died in his arms on the way to hospital after a rifle the boy was playing with discharged.

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