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 on 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.
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.”
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.”
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 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.