Israel’s eleventh prime minister, Ariel Sharon, passed away Saturday afternoon at the age of 85 in Israel.
Sharon’s son Gilad announced the news of his father’s passing: “That’s it. He’s gone. He went when he decided to go.” Sharon died at Sheba Medical Center, at Tel Hashomer near Tel Aviv surrounded by family and former soldiers who fought alongside Sharon.
Spokesman for the hospital, Professor Shlomo Noy, said “He was considered to be in a minimal state of consciousness, with ups and downs in his medical condition, and minimal non-verbal communication.” Noy confirmed that Sharon died from heart failure and had been fighting a blood infection and kidney failure.
Since 2006, Sharon has been in a coma after suffering a completely debilitating stroke and has been hospitalized for the last seven years at Sheba hospital. Sharon was able to sometimes communicate with “raised eyebrow” and a “handshake.” However, the last several weeks saw Sharon’s condition deteriorate at a fast pace.
Sharon was born in a moshav (agricultural village) in central Israel under then British-Mandate Palestine. Son of Jewish refugees from Belarus, Sharon began his political and military careers at the young age of 10 as part of the “Gadna” paramilitary youth battalion.
Widowed twice, Shraon’s first wife, Margalit, died in May 1962 in a car accident. In October 1967, their son Gur died in a tragic accident when he and a friend were playing with a rifle in the Sharon home. After Margalit’s death, Sharon married her younger sister, Lily. Lily died of cancer in 2000 and both are survived by two sons, Omri and Gilad.
One of Israel’s most controversial yet well known figures, Sharon was a well decorated general in the Israeli army. As a politician, he was given the nickname of “The Bulldozer.” Sharon led the 1982 invasion of Lebanon as Defense Minister and was forced to resign his position when a commission found him guilty of not trying to prevent the massacre at the Sabra and Shatila camps.
Elected prime minister in 2001, Sharon’s most infamous political move was the unilateral withdrawal of IDF troops and Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005. Soon after, Sharon left the Likud party and created a more centrist political faction, Kadima, which was supported by Ehud olmert and Tzipi Livni.
World leaders have begun to pay tribute to “The Bulldozer.” U.S. President Barack Obama praised Sharon as “a leader who dedicated his life to the State of Israel.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who is expected to lead the U.S. delegation at Sharon’s funeral, commented: “I will never forget meeting with this big bear of a man when he became Prime Minister as he sought to bend the course of history toward peace, even as it meant testing the patience of his own longtime supporters and the limits of his own, lifelong convictions in the process.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Sharon “first and foremost, a courageous fighter and an outstanding general, and was among the IDF’s greatest commanders.” Netanyahu said that “His memory will be enshrined forever in the heart of the nation.”
Israeli President Shimon Peres eulogized his former friend: “My dear friend, Arik Sharon, lost his final battle 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.”
British Prime Minister David Cameron viewed Sharon as “one of the most significant figures in Israeli history.” Cameron said Sharon would be remembered for his “brave and controversial decisions.”
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called Sharon “a hero to this people” and praised him for “a life dedicated to the State of Israel” as a soldier and a statesman. Commenting on the 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, Ban said “Sharon will be remembered for his political courage and determination through the painful and historic decision to withdraw Israeli settlers and troops from the Gaza Strip. His successor faces the difficult challenge of realizing the aspirations of peace between the Israeli and Palestinian people.”
French President Francois Hollande praised Sharon’s decision “to turn to dialogue with the Palestinians.” Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper called Sharon a “renowned military leader” who “pursued the security of Israel with unyielding determination that was recognized by friend and foes alike.”
Former U.S. president Bill Clinton, in a joint statement with his wife former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, said Sharon “gave his life to Israel” and that “It was an honor to work with him, argue with him, and watch him always trying to find the right path for his beloved country.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin “highly praised Ariel Sharon’s personal qualities and his activities to protect Israel’s interests, noting a high respect for him among compatriots and his high authority in the international arena.”
However, as Israel mourns the passing of a great, Palestinian leaders are celebrating the death of the former prime minister. Leaders from both the Palestinian Authority and Fatah have called Sharon a “criminal” and blamed him for the death of Yasser Arafat. Officials in Gaza have hailed Sharon’s death as a “historic moment”, saying his death is “the disappearance of a criminal whose hands were covered with Palestinian blood.”
Sami Abu Zurhi, spokesman for Hamas, said: “We have become more confident in victory with the departure of this tyrant. 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.”
Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, has said “It’s a shame that Sharon has gone to his grave without facing justice for his role in Sabra and Shatila and other abuses.”
Israeli MK Orit Stock of the Jewish Home party had some blunt words upon the passing of Sharon: “The truth needs to be said. Sharon was one of the great builders of the land of Israel and one of its great destroyers. [It was] he who knew how to defeat terror and who turned all of southern Israel terror-struck…Alongside the thanks and appreciation for Sharon’s great contribution to the State of Israel, it’s impossible not to thank the lord almighty that Sharon was taken from public life before he managed to wreak on the residents of the West Bank and ‘greater Judea and Samaria’ the disaster he inflicted upon the residents of Gush Katif [the Gaza settlements] and the Gaza periphery.”
Sharon’s funeral is scheduled for Monday afternoon where he will be buried at his Shikmim Farm in the Negev, alongside his wife Lily. The public will be able to pay their respects all Sunday, where Sharon’s body will lie in state at the Knesset plaza.