FILE - In this Sunday Jan. 30, 2005 file photo, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon pauses during the weekly cabinet meeting in his Jerusalem office. The Israeli hospital treating Sharon said Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014 that the former prime minister has deteriorated further and he is now in ‘grave’ condition. Sharon, who has been comatose since suffering a stroke eight years ago, suffered a downturn in his health last week with a decline in key bodily organs.(AP Photo/Oded Balilty, Pool, File)

Jerusalem - Ariel Sharon, the trailblazing former Israeli general and prime minister who was in a coma for eight years after suffering a stroke at the height of his power, died yesterday at 85, his family and the government said.

Sharon’s son Gilad announced the death at the hospital where his father had been treated. Doctors there had warned his death was imminent after his health declined sharply last week.

Ministers in Israel’s government and the political opposition mourned a tough and wily leader who left big footprints on the region through military invasion, Jewish settlement building on captured land and a shock, unilateral decision to pull Israeli troops and settlers out of the Gaza Strip in 2005.

“The nation of Israel has today lost a dear man, a great leader and a bold warrior,” Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz said.

There was no immediate comment on the death from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, with whom Sharon’s Likud party successor, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has been holding US-sponsored peace talks. But in Gaza, the Hamas Islamists whose political fortunes rose with the Israeli withdrawal savoured Sharon’s demise.

“We have become more confident in victory with the departure of this tyrant,” said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zurhi, whose movement wants the destruction of the Jewish state. “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.”

Jibril Rajub, a senior official of the Fatah party, said: “Sharon was a criminal, responsible for the assassination of (Palestinian president Yasser) Arafat, and we would have hoped to see him appear before the International Criminal Court as a war criminal.”

Sharon was one of Israel’s most skilled but controversial leaders, whose ruthless methods earned him the moniker “The Bulldozer”.

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

Long seen as 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 premier in 2001.

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

Born in British-mandate Palestine on February 26, 1928, to parents from Belarus, Sharon was 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, as head of the elite commando unit 101, engaged in punitive reprisal raids against Arab forces.

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. Six years later, during the 1973 Yom Kippur war, he led troops across Egypt’s Suez Canal, cementing his reputation as a war hero.

A year earlier, he 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 Israeli settlement growth in the occupied West Bank.

In 1982, as defence minister, he masterminded Israel’s disastrous invasion of Lebanon, when troops besieged the Beirut headquarters of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).

Although the PLO was forced out of Beirut, its leader Yasser Arafat escaped unharmed, something Sharon said plagued him for decades.

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

In 1999, his political fortunes turned again as he took over Likud, then in opposition. On September 28, 2000, Sharon 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 to Arafat at his headquarters in Ramallah which he left only in 2004, dying in France shortly afterwards. Rumours he had been poisoned by Israel were denied.

Ever the maverick, Sharon later broke with his life-long convictions and right-wing nationalist allies to push through a 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 long be able to maintain a Jewish majority if it continued to retain territories seized in the Six-Day War.

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 notion of further withdrawals from the West Bank.

On January 4, 2006, he suffered a massive stroke at the height of his political career. Since then, his political legacy has split the right.

Away from politics, Sharon was a passionate farmer, but his life was blighted by tragedy. His first wife Margalith died in a car crash in 1962. His second wife, Margalith’s younger sister Lily, died of cancer in 2001.

One of his three sons died in 1967 after being shot while playing with a rifle, another went to jail over election campaign finances.

Weekend Argus

Sources: Reuters, Sapa-AFP