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Ariel Sharon, Israeli Warrior Who Vacated Gaza, Dies at 85

By Gwen Ackerman and Calev Ben-David
January 12, 2014 7:12 AM EST 221 Comments
Former Israeli PM Ariel Sharon
Former Israeli PM Ariel Sharon

Ariel Sharon, the Israeli warrior and former prime minister as famous for his ferocity in battling Arabs as for his turnaround decision to evacuate settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip, died yesterday. He was 85.

Sharon, who had been in coma since suffering a stroke in January 2006, died from multiple organ failure at Chaim Sheba Medical Center, near Tel Aviv. His casket, draped with the country’s blue-and-white flag, was mounted today on a black bier in the courtyard of the parliament in Jerusalem so Israelis could pay respects. He is to be buried tomorrow in a military ceremony at his ranch in the country’s southern Negev desert, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said in an e-mailed statement.

Admired as a military strategist while despised by Arab foes, the man nicknamed “the bulldozer” in the media left a legacy of controversy on and off battlefields from the early days of the nation’s existence.

Sharon “was first and foremost a warrior and a commander, among the Jewish people’s greatest generals in the current era and throughout its history,” Netanyahu said today at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, according to a statement from his office. “He was tied to the land; he knew that it had to be defended. He understood that above everything, our revival is our ability to defend ourselves by ourselves.”

U.S. Tribute

U.S. President Barack Obama extended his condolences to Sharon’s family and the country, calling the former prime minister a “leader who dedicated his life to the State of Israel.”

“We reaffirm our unshakable commitment to Israel’s security and our appreciation for the enduring friendship between our two countries,” Obama said in a statement.

Vice President Joe Biden, in a statement, said he would lead the U.S. delegation to Sharon’s memorial service.

Sharon was distrusted for defying commanders and criticized for his deadly raids against militants. A government panel found he bore indirect responsibility for the 1982 slaughter of hundreds of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

Israeli voters, yearning for a tough response to a Palestinian uprising, elected Sharon, who was popularly called Arik, prime minister by a landslide in 2001. Faced with a succession of suicide bombings, he authorized the killing of Palestinian militants and the reoccupation of West Bank cities. He was re-elected two years later.

Palestinians Denounce

“The Palestinian people remember today what this former prime minister did in battles and war to uproot us from our land, in particular what took place in Lebanon,” Wasel Abu Yousef, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee, said by phone.

Sharon, who parlayed cabinet positions to send tens of thousands of Jews to live on land the Palestinians want for a state, stunned Israelis by announcing his plan to evacuate Gaza after almost four decades. Withdrawal from four small West Bank settlements was also part of the proposal.

“The withdrawal from Gaza wasn’t to buy peace, but to resolve a security situation,” said Dov Weissglas, Sharon’s chief of staff. “Someone had to say the buck stops here. This was Sharon.”

In 2005, he ordered soldiers and 8,500 settlers to unilaterally leave the Gaza Strip and handed over the territory to Palestinian rule.

Gaza Pullout

The decision to leave Gaza won Sharon international accolades while causing an uproar among his power base. U.S. President George W. Bush hailed him at the time as “a man of peace” for being willing to make what Sharon called “painful concessions” to the Palestinians.

Bush, in a statement yesterday, said he was “honored to know this man of courage and call him friend. He was a warrior for the ages and a partner in seeking security for the Holy Land and a better, peaceful Middle East.”

“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,” U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron said yesterday.

Detractors accused him of betraying the settlement cause, and the withdrawal is still debated in Israel because it allowed Gaza militants greater freedom to attack its southern border.

No Discourse

“One thing, however, Sharon never succeeded in doing, not even when he evacuated Gaza to the last inch,” Israeli author Amos Oz wrote in the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper in 2006. “He never really sat down with the Palestinians to try to talk with them the way one neighbor speaks to the other neighbor.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who is overseeing peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, said that “it is no secret that there were times the United States had differences with” Sharon.

“But whether you agreed or disagreed with his positions -- and Arik was always crystal clear about where he stood -- you admired the man who was determined to ensure the security and survival of the Jewish State,” Kerry said in a statement.

In a later statement, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Kerry wouldn’t be joining the U.S. delegation at Sharon’s funeral due to previously scheduled meetings in Paris on the civil war in Syria and the Mideast peace process.

Beloved Ranch

Ariel Sharon was born on Feb. 26, 1928, in Kfar Malal, a farming village north of Tel Aviv that was then part of British-ruled Palestine. There, he developed a love of farming that lasted throughout his life, and the massive sheep and cattle ranch he later acquired in the southern Negev desert became a beloved retreat.

Sharon’s military career could have ended before it began, after he was badly wounded leading troops in the war over Israel’s 1948 creation. In his 1989 autobiography, “Warrior,” he described himself as “oppressed by feelings of frustration and disappointment” that Arab nations held on to east Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. Only 21, he was convinced Israel’s military leaders could have done a better job.

In the 1967 war in which Israel captured the three territories, Sharon’s armored division helped to seize the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt. He retired from the army in 1973, only to be recalled months later after Egyptian forces caught Israel by surprise and crossed the Suez Canal into Sinai.

Tactics Challenged

Taking charge of an armored division again, Sharon used attack-when-surrounded tactics that changed the course of the war when his forces broke through Egyptian lines to reach the canal. Even as his troops poured across the waterway, Sharon argued with Israeli generals who tried to hold him back.

His accomplishments as a strategist were offset by questions about his tactics. When he headed a commando unit charged with leading what Israel called reprisal raids in the 1950s, his men killed 69 civilians by blowing up houses in a village in the West Bank, then controlled by Jordan. He said he thought the buildings had been vacated.

He was reprimanded in 1956 for engaging with Egyptian forces in a battle that commanders deemed unnecessary. Dozens of suspected militants were killed in the 1970s when he was assigned to curb terrorism in Gaza. As defense minister during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, he changed the aims of a strike to root out Palestinian militants from southern Lebanon and sent Israeli troops charging as far north as Beirut.

Lebanese Massacres

While Sharon achieved his aim of evicting the PLO from its base in Lebanon, the massacres in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps by an Israel-allied Christian militia sparked an uproar that ultimately forced him out of the defense ministry. He said he couldn’t have anticipated the slaughter.

Sharon forayed into politics after the 1973 war, a wounded battlefield hero who was often greeted by cheering crowds calling him Arik, and crowning him “Arik, King of Israel.” He won a parliament seat in 1973, representing the opposition Likud party, which at the time opposed trading land for peace. He quit after a year of what he saw as tedious politicking.

Four years later, Sharon found his political calling, when Menachem Begin’s Likud party was catapulted to power. As agriculture minister in Begin’s government, he began building dozens of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza that he called essential for Israel’s security, defying international opposition to the settling of occupied land. Today, more than 550,000 Jews live in the West Bank and east Jerusalem among 2.6 million Palestinians.

Shrine Visit

While peace talks with the Palestinians were collapsing under Prime Minister Ehud Barak in September 2000, Sharon, then leader of Likud, paid a visit to a disputed shrine in east Jerusalem, to demonstrate Israeli sovereignty. The visit set off violent protests that evolved into a full-blown uprising against Israeli rule that killed about 1,000 Israelis and more than 3,300 Palestinians in four years.

Four months after the visit, Sharon unseated Barak in early elections. In 2003, he accepted the internationally sponsored road-map plan to peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

“At that time, deep in his heart, Sharon understood that a Palestinian state was a matter of time,” said Weissglas, the former chief of staff. “If it was doomed to happen, then he wanted to help shape it into an organized reality.”

Two Strokes

Seeking more flexibility to make peace with the Palestinians after the Gaza withdrawal two years later, Sharon formed a new party, Kadima. Two months before he could lead Kadima to March 2006 elections, he suffered the second of two strokes within weeks and was incapacitated by a brain hemorrhage. He was hospitalized for the rest of his life.

Sharon had two sons, Gilad and Omri, from his second marriage. Gur, an older son from his first marriage, died in 1967 at age 11 after playing with a gun belonging to his father. Omri Sharon was a member of parliament before being convicted of fraud in 2006 and serving five months in prison.

Sharon’s first wife, Margalit, died in a car accident in 1962. He married her sister, Lily, the following year. Lily Sharon died of lung cancer in 2000.

To contact the reporters on this story: Gwen Ackerman in Jerusalem at gackerman@bloomberg.net; Calev Ben-David in Jerusalem at cbendavid@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Charles W. Stevens at cstevens@bloomberg.net

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