JERUSALEM » 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 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 today, eight years after a debilitating stroke put him into a coma. He was 85.
Sharon was "a brave soldier and a daring leader who loved his nation and his nation loved him," President Shimon Peres, a longtime friend and rival, said in a eulogy. "He was one of Israel’s great protectors and most important architects, who knew no fear and certainly never feared vision."
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. More than any other event, perhaps, the public perception of the man was shaped by the massacres of Palestinians 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 detested Yasser Arafat, his lifelong adversary, as an "obstacle to peace" and was in turn detested in the Arab world. Israelis called him a war hero. His enemies called him a war criminal.
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 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 hardline 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.
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 his own country’s. 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.
The withdrawal and the barrier, which left large West Bank settlement blocs on the Israel 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.
He 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, and at 14 joined the Haganah, the pre-state defense force. He commanded an infantry platoon during the 1948 Mideast war over Israel’s creation.
From early on, he had a reputation for breaking rules and defying odds.
Leading a ragtag band of soldiers, some of them Holocaust survivors just off the boat, Sharon stormed the Jordanian Arab Legion stronghold at Latroun, a key spot on the road to Jerusalem, during the 1948 war that followed Israel’s creation. He was badly wounded in the leg and bled for hours, surrounded by enemy soldiers. He once told The New York Times how he dragged himself into a ravine and drank mud mixed with blood.
"I know it’s a terrible thing. Because people will read it and they will say, ‘Look, he drinks also blood,’" he told The Times, 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.
The accolades mounted as well. Sharon received praise for his command of an armored division during the 1967 Mideast War, in which Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula.
His finest hour in uniform, as he described it, came in the 1973 Mideast war. Yanked out of retirement by an army desperate for leadership, he commanded 27,000 Israelis in a daring drive across Egypt’s Suez Canal that helped turn the tide of the war. A picture of a boyish-faced, 45-year-old Sharon, bloody bandage wrapped around his head, remains one of the most enduring images of the war.
Out of uniform, he used sheer force of personality to coerce a quarrelsome array of hawkish factions into forming the Likud, which four years later would be elected to power, ending 29 years of rule by the moderate Labor Party.
Sharon became a minister in Menachem Begin’s government, and clung to his hawkish views. When Begin negotiated the historic Camp David accord with Egypt, Israel’s first peace agreement with an Arab country, Sharon voted against it.
By the time Israel withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula under the accord, Sharon was Begin’s defense minister. Begin quipped that he was reluctant to give Sharon the job lest he "encircle the prime minister’s office with tanks."
But when it fell to Sharon to remove the Jewish settlements Israel had built in Sinai, he obediently ordered the protesting settlers to be dragged away and their homes bulldozed to rubble.
Now came one of the most controversial chapters of his tumultuous life.
In 1982 he engineered the invasion of Lebanon. It was portrayed as a quick, limited strike to drive Palestinian fighters from Israel’s northern border. Later it emerged that Sharon had a larger plan: to install a pro-Israel regime in Lebanon — a design that typified boldness to his friends and dangerous megalomania to his critics. The conflict quickly escalated, and Israel remained in Lebanon for the next 18 years.
That September, the Israeli military, controlling parts of Beirut, allowed members of the Phalanges, a Lebanese Christian militia allied with Israel, to enter the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Chatilla in Beirut to root out "terrorists." The militiamen systematically slaughtered hundreds of civilians, including women and children. The massacres sparked mass protests in Israel and abroad. An Israeli commission rejected Sharon’s contention that he didn’t know what was coming, saying: "It is impossible to justify the minister of defense’s disregard of the danger of a massacre."
He was fired as defense minister.
In his autobiography, Sharon said he was outraged by the findings. "It was a stigmatization I rejected utterly," he wrote.
Sharon stayed in the government as a minister without portfolio, and pledged to remain in public life. "When I saw the weakness of the leadership, the hypocrisy, the hatred within Israel among Jews, when I saw the developments throughout the Middle East, I thought that I simply had to stay," he wrote.
A journalist and friend, Uri Dan, predicted — famously and, as it turned out, accurately: "Those who didn’t want to see him as army chief got him as defense minister, and those who don’t want him as defense minister shall get him as prime minister."
In 1983, Sharon filed a $50 million lawsuit against Time Magazine for alleging that Sharon, while defense minister, had discussed avenging the murder of Lebanese President-elect Bashir Gemayel with Lebanese Christian militia leaders. Time said the discussion was held the day before the Sabra and Chatilla massacres. A six-member jury in New York concluded that the Time report was false but acquitted the magazine of libel, saying it published the report in good faith.
Later, an Israeli court rejected a libel suit filed by Sharon against the Haaretz daily over a 1991 article that claimed he misled Begin about his military intentions in Lebanon.
Sharon gradually rehabilitated himself, serving in parliament and using various Cabinet posts to build dozens of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza despite international protests.
As foreign minister in 1998, Sharon called on Jewish settlers to grab as much land as possible before a permanent territorial agreement was reached with the Palestinians.
"Everyone there should move, should run, should grab more hills, expand the territory. Everything that’s grabbed will be in our hands, everything that we don’t grab will be in their hands," he said.
He also played a leading role in the absorption of hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
Sharon’s demonstrative visit to the Temple Mount, or Haram as-Sharif, soon followed. Palestinian riots escalated into a full-fledged uprising that would claim more than 3,000 Palestinian lives and kill 1,000 Israelis.
In February 2001, with the fighting continuing and last-ditch peace talks collapsing, Israelis grew deeply disillusioned and inclined to lay all the blame on Palestinian leader Arafat. Yearning for a strong leader, they elected Sharon prime minister in a landslide.
Fighting continued throughout Sharon’s first term in office and he was re-elected in 2003 to a second term.
Later that year, with Israeli towns suffering a wave of suicide bombings originating in the nearby West Bank, the bulldozers once again went into action as Sharon began building a barrier of walls and fences.
In late 2003, he unveiled his "unilateral disengagement" plan — withdrawing from territory he no longer deemed essential to Israel’s security — without an agreement with the Palestinians.
"We are interested in conducting direct negotiations," Sharon said, "but do not intend to hold Israeli society hostage in the hands of the Palestinians," Sharon said.
He also confined Arafat to his West Bank headquarters in his final years before allowing the longtime Palestinian leader to fly to France in late 2004 shortly before his death. Arafat’s death gave him a new, more moderate Palestinian leadership to deal with.
In an earlier speech he dropped what for Israelis was a bombshell. For the first time he called Israel’s presence in the West Bank and Gaza an "occupation" and conceded that an independent Palestinian state was inevitable.
"Occupation is bad," he said in front of cameras to his shocked Likud lawmakers.
Still, the pullback that followed fell far short of anything offered by his predecessor or acceptable to even moderate Palestinians. Though Sharon had pledged during the current parliamentary campaign to restart peace talks, he also vowed until the very end to keep Jerusalem as Israel’s capital "for eternity."
Domestically, Sharon became the latest in a long line of Israeli prime ministers whose terms were marred by corruption probes. He was accused of improper fundraising and accepting bribes, allegedly paid to one of his sons, from a prominent real-estate developer, but never charged. His oldest son, Omri, however, later served seven months in prison for fraud convicted to campaign fundraising for his father.
Behind his gruff public demeanor lurked a dry wit, Old-World charm and a fondness for fine dining and classical music.
Sharon was widowed twice — he married the sister of his first wife after she died in an auto accident — and had two sons. A third son died in 1967 in a firearms accident.
Associated Press writers Ian Deitch in Jerusalem and Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City, Gaza Strip contributed to this report.