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, again was 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 the 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’s, 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.”
MAHONING VALLEY REACTION
Mahoning Valley leaders also mourned Sharon. “It’s obviously sad. Sharon is considered one of the founders of Israel and dedicated his life to its security,” said Bonnie Deutsch Burdman, director of the Youngstown Jewish Community Relations Council.
The area Jewish community joins the rest of the world in mourning his passing, she said.
Sharon probably was one of the most significant leaders of our time, she said, adding that he was known as a hard-liner and referred to as a lion, but had the capacity to think strategically and knew when to change.
Also expressing his sympathy Saturday was U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson of Marietta, R-6th, which includes Columbiana County and a portion of Mahoning County.
“I am deeply saddened by the passing of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and I stand with the people of Israel in this time of mourning,” he said in a prepared statement.
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.
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.
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 the creation of the state of Israel.
Speaking Saturday, Sharon’s deputy, Ehud Olmert, said Sharon’s legacy was far more complicated than critics say.
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.