Ariel Sharon dies after 8-year coma, leaving behind a complex legacy

Former Israeli PM who's died after 8 years in coma will be remembered as a warrior-politician who carved a controversial trail through history

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 January, 2014, 8:36pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 January, 2014, 5:38am

Ariel Sharon, who died yesterday aged 85, was one of Israel's most skilled but controversial political and military leaders whose ruthless methods earned him the nickname "The Bulldozer".

The veteran soldier fought in all of Israel's major wars before embarking on a turbulent political career in 1973 that ended dramatically in January 2006 when he suffered a massive stroke and fell into a coma from which he never recovered.

The Sheba Medical Centre that had been treating Sharon said last week that his health had been declining. His vital organs failed just before his death.

Long considered a pariah for his personal but "indirect" responsibility for the 1982 massacre of hundreds of Palestinians by Israel's Lebanese Phalangist allies in Beirut's Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, Sharon was elected prime minister in 2001.

One of the last members of the generation that founded Israel in 1948, he leaves a legacy that saw him push through a policy of separation from the Palestinians, orchestrate the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 and begin building the sprawling West Bank barrier in 2002.

Born in British-mandate Palestine on February 26, 1928, to parents from Belarus, Sharon was just 17 when he joined the Haganah, the pre-state militia that fought in the 1948 war of independence and eventually became the Israeli army.

Known throughout his military career for his boldness, Sharon also had a stubborn sense of independence. As head of the elite Commando Unit 101, he engaged in punitive reprisal raids against Arab forces, the most grisly of which ended with the deaths of 60 civilians in the Palestinian village of Qibya near Ramallah in 1953.

During the 1967 six-day war, when Israel seized the West Bank and Gaza, East Jerusalem and part of the Golan Heights, Sharon led a tank division. And six years later, during the 1973 Yom Kippur war, he was called out of retirement to lead troops across Egypt's Suez Canal, cementing his reputation as a war hero.

A year earlier, Sharon had left the military to enter politics, helping found the right-wing Likud party under the leadership of Menachem Begin, which surged to power in 1977.

As agriculture minister, he was instrumental in nurturing the growth of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.

In 1982, as defence minister, Sharon masterminded Israel's disastrous invasion of Lebanon, when troops besieged the Beirut headquarters of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. Although the PLO was forced out of Beirut, its leader, Yasser Arafat, escaped unharmed.

The Sabra and Shatila killings ended his term as defence minister after an official inquiry found him "indirectly responsible".

Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, regretted that Sharon never faced justice over his role in the Beirut camp killings. "His passing is another grim reminder that years of virtual impunity for rights abuses have done nothing to bring Israeli-Palestinian peace any closer," she said.

In 1999, Sharon took over Likud, then in opposition. On September 28, 2000, he made a provocative visit to the flashpoint Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem's Old City, sparking the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada.

Swept to power in 2001 by an electorate traumatised by suicide bombings, Sharon threw his weight behind the "war on terror", laying siege once again to Arafat, this time at his headquarters in Ramallah, which the Palestinian leader left only in 2004; he died in France soon after.

Ever the maverick, Sharon later broke with his life-long convictions and right-wing nationalist allies to push through an unprecedentedly bold plan to withdraw Israeli troops and 8,000 settlers from the Gaza Strip.

His decision to "disengage" from Gaza and its 1.5 million Palestinian inhabitants was motivated by the fear that demographic realities meant Israel would not be able to maintain a Jewish majority if it continued to retain seized territories.

Accused by former allies of treason over Gaza, Sharon abandoned his political home in Likud in November 2005 to found the centrist Kadima party with the idea of making further withdrawals from the West Bank. But on January 4, 2006, he suffered a massive stroke at the height of his political career.