Sharon, Israel's bulldozer in politics, dies at 85

Published on NewsOK Modified: January 11, 2014 at 5:16 pm •  Published: January 11, 2014
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JERUSALEM (AP) — 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.

His allies said the move was a revolutionary step in peacemaking; his detractors said it was a tactical sacrifice to strengthen Israel's hold on much of the West Bank.

Either way, 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 on Sunday 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.

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, 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."

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, gained a reputation as an adroit soldier and was the godfather of Israel's massive settlement campaign in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. He detested Yasser Arafat, his lifelong adversary, as an "obstacle to peace" and was in turn detested in the Arab world.

His career spanned the Middle East conflict from its early skirmishes through five wars, one of which left him hailed as his nation's savior, and another reviled as its disgrace.

He was a lifelong opponent of concessions to the Arabs who ended up giving away land and offering the Palestinians a state of their own.

His was 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.

After the Gaza withdrawal, Sharon shattered Israel's long-standing political divisions by leaving Likud, the hard-line party he had helped found three decades earlier. He created a new centrist party, called Kadima, or Forward, to support his efforts to reach a deal with the Palestinians and draw Israel's permanent borders. The party was cruising toward victory in upcoming elections when Sharon suffered his stroke.

The stroke and extended coma set off one of the strangest periods in Israel's political history. While his deputy, Ehud Olmert, quickly assumed office and led Kadima to victory in a subsequent, Sharon remained a visible presence.

Over the years, every development in his medical condition became front-page news. His sons tried to revive him by showing him family photos or bringing Sharon, who often joked about his huge size, his favorite foods. At one point, doctors moved him back to his family farm, only to return him to the hospital several days later. His son Gilad later said that his father could wiggle his fingers and move his eyes.

Marina Lifshitz, a nurse who treated Sharon, said that when she showed Sharon a photo of his late wife, Lily, she saw a tear in his eye. "It is very difficult to forget that," she said Saturday.

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.

"That's it. He has gone. He went when he decided to go," Gilad Sharon said afterward.

As a soldier, Sharon was known for daring tactics and occasional refusal to obey orders. As a politician, he was known as "the bulldozer," contemptuous of his critics, the man who could get things done.

This go-it-alone attitude also shaped his second term as prime minister. Expressing impatience with stalled peace efforts, 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.

He also began building a snaking barrier of fences, walls, razor wire and trenches to separate Israel from the West Bank, a project he initially rejected out of fear it would be seen as a tacit renunciation of Israel's claim to the West Bank.

Sharon sold the pullout as a security move. 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.

Sharon embodied the farmer-soldier image cherished by the pugnacious Jewish state that arose from the ashes of the Holocaust.

Sharon was born to Russian immigrant parents on Feb. 26, 1928, in the farming community of Kfar Malal, 10 miles (15 kilometers) north of Tel Aviv. He commanded an infantry platoon during the 1948 Mideast war over the creation of the state of Israel.

Leading a ragtag band of soldiers, some Holocaust survivors, Sharon took part in the unsuccessful May 1948 assault on the Jordanian Arab Legion stronghold at Latroun, a key spot on the road to Jerusalem whose Jewish district was blockaded by Arab forces. He was badly wounded in the leg and belly, and bled for hours while surrounded by enemy soldiers.

"I know it's a terrible thing. Because people will read it and they will say, 'Look, he drinks also blood,'" he said, laughing his trademark deep, hearty chuckle.

In 1953, he commanded Unit 101, a force formed to carry out reprisals for Arab attacks. After the slaying of an Israeli woman and her two children, his troops blew up more than 40 houses in Qibya, a West Bank village then ruled by Jordan, killing 69 Arabs. Sharon later said he thought the houses were empty.

After Israel's 1956 invasion of Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, Sharon was rebuked for engaging in what commanders regarded as an unnecessary battle with Egyptian forces. Some 30 Israeli soldiers died.

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