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Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon Dead at 85

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Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon Dead at 85
Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon Dead at 85

Ariel Sharon, the tough Israeli leader who was the mastermind behind the disastrous invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza strip, has died, eight years after suffering a massive stroke that left him comatose for the rest of his life.

He was 85.

“My dear friend, Arik Sharon, lost his final battle today,” Israeli President Shimon Peres said today. “Arik was a brave soldier and a daring leader who loved his nation and his nation loved him. He was one of Israel’s great protectors and most important architects, who knew no fear and certainly never feared vision. He knew how to take difficult decisions and implement them. We all loved him and he will be greatly missed. I send my condolences to the Sharon family, may he rest in peace.”

Sharon was running for re-election as prime minister when he suffered the stroke on Jan. 4, 2006. Severe hemorrhaging caused significant brain damage, leaving him in a vegetative state. He lived the rest of his life under long-term care, a sad and quiet end to a vibrant and stormy career.

For decades, Sharon played a giant role in Israel’s military and political affairs, both loved and loathed for his controversial decisions and uncompromising ways.

He was an unabashed hawk who took a hard line against the Palestinians and embraced building Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank. Two of his most momentous decisions continue to reverberate across Israel and the Middle East.

As defense minister, Sharon engineered the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. The incursion left Israel embroiled with its northern neighbor for nearly 20 years and led to the formation and growth of Hezbollah, the Islamist group that is a sworn enemy of the Jewish state.

Sharon resigned as defense minister after a commission determined he was indirectly responsible for the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians by Lebanese Christian fighters in two refugee camps under Israeli control. And Sharon was prime minister when he ordered the withdrawal of Jewish soldiers and settlers from Gaza and parts of the West Bank — a radical shift from a lifetime of supporting the settler movement.

Sharon argued that it had become too difficult to protect the Jewish settlers there, and that the withdrawal would help bring about peace and secure control over parts of the West Bank settlements.

The controversial plan to “disengage” was carried out in 2005. More than 8,500 Israeli settlers were relocated. But the radical Palestinian group Hamas gained control of the territory. Israel eventually went to war in late 2008 to stop rocket fire from Gaza into Jewish communities.

Ariel Sharon was born in 1928 in what was then known as Palestine, to a Russian immigrant family with strong Zionist sympathies.

He joined the Jewish military underground and was among the first on the battlefield when war broke out with the Arabs in 1948 after the creation of the Jewish state.

Sharon was a successful leader and soldier, but he could be unorthodox and rebellious, and his climb up the ranks was marked by glory and controversy.

In 1953, he led a reprisal attack on the village of Qibya, in which dozens of Arab civilians were killed. But Sharon won acclaim as a commander in the 1967 and the 1973 Arab-Israeli wars for strategies that are still taught in military schools.

Sharon was first elected to Israel’s parliament in 1973. The killings in the Lebanese refugee camps forced him out of government, but not for long, and as housing minister in the early 1990s, Sharon built massive Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

He became prime minister after the failure of the Camp David talks in 2000, when Palestinian leaders rejected Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s unprecedented concessions.

Sharon presided during the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, which lasted years and left hundreds of Israelis and Palestinians dead.

Sharon himself was often blamed for helping to ignite the uprising by visiting a site in east Jerusalem sacred to Jews and Muslims alike when tensions surrounding the peace talks were at their highest. He further inflamed tensions by maintaining an apartment in the heart of the Muslim quarter of Old Jerusalem – and hanging a large Israeli flag from it.

As a response to the second intifada, Sharon’s government embraced building a security barrier separating the mostly Jewish populations of Israel and occupied territories in the West Bank from the Palestinians of the West Bank.

The barrier, which now twists and turns for hundreds of miles, has been successful in all but eliminating attacks inside Israel by Palestinian terrorists. Palestinian officials argue it has allowed Israel essentially to illegally annex Palestinian land.

Sharon decision to unilaterally withdrawal from Gaza stunned and infuriated political supporters who saw it as concession without getting anything from the Palestinians in return. Sharon then left the right-wing Likud Party to form a new centrist Kadima party. His stroke just months later ended his career.

Sharon’s doctors wanted nature to take its course. Sharon’s sons insisted that surgeons fight to keep the Israeli leader alive. Several operations saved Sharon’s life – and that he managed to live for so long afterward was something of medical marvel. But he never regained consciousness.

In a 2011 book, Sharon’s son Gilad revealed for the first time why he and his brother sought to keep their father alive. He told doctors of a dream he had years earlier.

“In that dream I was with my father in the hospital. He was lying in bed, surrounded by medical staff, and they had all either given up or lost hope and were about to leave, and my father didn’t say a thing, but he stared at me with this look, with those green-gray eyes of his, and I knew I would never give up, and that I simply would not leave him,” he wrote.

He added: “This was a dream I had when my father was healthy and strong and the scenario was completely divorced from reality. I did not tell a soul about the dream at the time, but now I shared it with them and my fear that it was happening now and that I would never be able to forgive myself if we did not fight to the end.”

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