Ariel Sharon dies at 85; Israel's controversial, iron-willed former leader

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JERUSALEM — Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the iron-willed army general who fought in nearly all of his nation's major wars and spearheaded Jewish settlement of Palestinian territories, then years later presided over Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, died Saturday. He was 85.

The controversial leader, who had been incapacitated since suffering a severe stroke in 2006, was moved in 2010 to his ranch in the Negev desert at the request of his family. In September he underwent abdominal surgery, but his condition worsened this month as his organs deteriorated.

Sharon's death at a hospital near Tel Aviv was announced by his son Gilad.

"That's it. He's gone. He went when he decided to go," his son said.

Sharon, often called "the Bulldozer" for his aggressive style, endured many ups and downs in his lengthy career, but at the end was lauded as one of Israel's greatest leaders.

"[Sharon] was a brave soldier and a daring leader who loved his nation and his nation loved him," Israeli President Shimon Peres said in a statement. "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."

Yet in the eyes of many Palestinians and even some Israelis, his actions were tantamount to war crimes; he was blamed for the massacres by Israel's Lebanese allies of hundreds of Palestinian civilians in southern Lebanon in 1982 and previous attacks in Jordan.

Sharon devoted decades to the dream of establishing a "greater Israel" by seeking to populate the West Bank and Gaza with tens of thousands of Jews and exhorting them to seize the hills. But in his eighth decade, the old warrior set about dismantling some of the settlements. He withdrew settlers from Gaza and four small West Bank settlements in 2005 and declared his belief that Israel's best chance for lasting security lay in drawing defensible borders and ultimately living side by side with a Palestinian state.

The shift infuriated Sharon's right-wing supporters and led him to abandon the hawkish Likud Party for a newly formed centrist party, Kadima. Just months later, Sharon suffered the stroke, leaving much of his agenda unfulfilled. Analysts still debate whether Sharon was intending to make peace with the Palestinians or unilaterally consolidate Israel's hold on the West Bank.

Most agree that the Gaza withdrawal did not turn out as Sharon had hoped. Weeks after he was stricken, the Islamist group Hamas won Palestinian elections, and it later seized control of the Gaza Strip, breaking with the rival Fatah party.

Two years later, prompted by a resumption of Hamas rocket attacks, Israel launched a 22-day military offensive in Gaza, killing 1,200 Palestinians and drawing an international outcry. The Kadima-led government was replaced by Likud, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in 2009.

Sharon, born Ariel Scheinerman to Russian immigrants on Feb. 27, 1928, lived his life in the bloody crucible of the Israeli-Arab struggle.

He grew up in Kfar Malal, a cooperative farm just north of Tel Aviv, where his father, a stern taskmaster, demanded that he work long hours in the fields. Samuel Scheinerman pushed his son to achieve academically and imbued him with Zionist principles built around the imperative of settling the land.

Sharon first tasted combat as a teenager in Israel's underground pre-state militia, the Haganah, and its strike force, the Palmach. He dropped out of college to join the Alexandroni Brigade in Israel's 1948 war for independence. He was wounded in the battle for Latrun, when Jewish forces fought to lift the Arab siege of Jerusalem, and would be injured twice more in Israel's wars.

Over the decades, he returned again and again to the battlefield as his country grew from an embattled statelet to a regional military power.

Forces under his command crushed the Egyptian army in the 1967 Middle East War, a conflict that brought Israeli control to East Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula (returned to Egypt in 1982). In that war, Sharon commanded Armored Reserve Division 138, leading it to the banks of the Suez Canal when fighting broke out in June, and playing a key role in the capture of Sinai from Egypt. As chief of the southern command in 1971, he defeated Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip in a series of raids, arrests, assassinations and the bulldozing of homes.

He retired from the army in 1973 and opened his political career by spearheading the unification of three right-wing parties into Likud.

But in October 1973, Sharon came out of military retirement to fight in the Yom Kippur War as commander of another armored division. This time, he crossed the Suez Canal and surrounded the Egyptian 3rd Army in a strategic counterattack that helped bring victory in a conflict that Israel's leaders initially had feared they were losing.

During his military career, Sharon clashed frequently with chiefs of staff and other officers as he sought to transform the Israeli army into a fast-moving, innovative fighting force that defended the nation by going on the offensive.

Although his record includes a long list of military honors, it also contains repeated condemnations from government officials and generals who found him too unpredictable and reckless to serve as chief of staff or hold other key posts. But he had an almost mesmerizing effect on the first generation of Israeli leaders, including Menachem Begin and David Ben-Gurion, the nation's first prime minister, who suggested that Sharon, while still a young soldier, take his more Israeli name.