(Reuters) – Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the trailblazing warrior-statesman who transformed the region and was reviled by Arab foes over generations of conflict, died on Saturday at 85 eight years after suffering a massive stroke.
Sharon left major historical footprints on the Middle East through military invasion, Jewish settlement-building on occupied land the Palestinians seek for a state but also a shock, unilateral decision to withdraw from the Gaza Strip.
He died at Sheba Medical Center, near Tel Aviv, where he has been in a coma since being hit by a stroke at the pinnacle of his power as prime minister in January 2006. Doctors there had reported a precipitous decline in his condition last week.
“Arik was a valorous soldier and a bold statesman who contributed much to the security and building up of the State of Israel,” said President Shimon Peres, a former political ally of Sharon and, with the ex-premier’s death, the last of the Jewish state’s founders still in public life.
“Arik loved his people, and his people loved him,” Peres said, using the nickname of the famously burly and blunt Sharon with a distinctive rolling prizefighter’s gait. “He knew no fear and never feared pursuing a vision.”
Officials said Sharon, who took power in 2001 soon after the start of a second Palestinian uprising that raged until 2005, would be buried in a state funeral to which foreign dignitaries would be invited.
Palestinians accused Sharon of sparking their “Intifada” with a provocative visit to the al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City. And he embittered many with the Israeli army’s destructive sweep into self-rule areas of the West Bank in 2002 after a spate of Palestinian suicide bombings, and its siege of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in his Ramallah compound.
But he surprised many by withdrawing soldiers and settlers from Gaza in 2005 under a policy of “disengagement” from conflict and a pursuit of dialogue with the Palestinians.
The pullout, however, led to Gaza’s takeover by the Palestinian Islamist Hamas movement who, unlike the West Bank-based Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, spurns peace and co-existence with Israel.
“We have become more confident in victory with the departure of this tyrant (Sharon),” said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri. “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.”
Palestinians in Gaza were handing out sweets to passersby and motorists in celebration of Sharon’s passing.
A rancher in private life renowned for his big appetite, Sharon became known as “the Bulldozer” part for his headlong pursuit of hardline policies that included settlement expansion in territory Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war.
As a young paratroop officer in the 1950s, he championed night-time reprisals – one of which killed dozens of civilians in the village of Qibya – for cross-border Arab guerrilla raids on the fledgling Israel.
He was widely despised by Arabs over the 1982 massacre by Israeli-allied, Lebanese Christian militiamen of hundreds of Palestinian refugees in Beirut.
An Israeli state inquiry found Sharon, who as defense minister engineered Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon and war against Palestinian guerrillas there, indirectly responsible for the killings, and he was forced to resign his post.
Sharon’s devastating illness set in shortly after he quit the right-wing Likud party and founded a centrist faction with the declared aim of advancing peace with the Palestinians, whose 2000-2005 uprising he had battled as prime minister.
“Ariel Sharon is one of the most significant figures in Israeli history and as prime minister he took brave and controversial decisions in pursuit of peace, before he was so tragically incapacitated. Israel has today lost an important leader,” said British Prime Minister David Cameron.
“Ariel Sharon … has been a major actor in the history of his country. After a long military and political career, he made the choice to turn towards dialogue with Palestinians,” French President Francois Hollande said in a statement.
The current Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud, is in U.S.-sponsored peace negotiations with the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s West Bank-based administration, but they are mired in profound differences.
“The Palestinian people remember what Sharon did and tried to do to our people and their dream of forming a state,” Wael Abu Youself, a senior member of Abbas’s umbrella Palestine Liberation Organisation, told Reuters.
“Despite the settlements and wars that he launched against us, here and in Lebanon and with the war crime of Sabra and Shatila (camps), Sharon has departed and the Palestinian people remain on their land.”
Many Israelis will remember Sharon as a maverick military leader who fought in the 1948 war of Israel’s founding and went on to earn a reputation for trigger-happy disobedience, but also for battlefield bravery and brilliance.