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Middle east

Ariel Sharon, controversial former Israeli prime minister, dies at 85

© AFP

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2014-01-11

Former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, one of Israel’s most controversial political figures, has died at the age of 85. Sharon had been in a coma since suffering a stroke on January 4, 2006.

A longstanding proponent of maintaining and expanding Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, Sharon is best known for his life-long commitment to bolstering Israeli security despite significant international criticism of his methods.

But one of his last political moves, ordering and overseeing the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, drew ire from fellow Israeli security hawks, who felt abandoned by one of their most prominent and emblematic leaders.

Sharon was born in British-mandated Palestine in 1928.

After joining underground paramilitary organisation Haganah (which later became the Israel Defence Forces), Sharon was a platoon commander in the Arab-Israeli war from 1948 to 1949.

He went on to fight in all of Israel’s wars, building a reputation as a skilled soldier and seasoned military strategist.

Sharon was in charge of a paratroopers’ brigade in the 1956 Suez War, and commanded a division in the Sinai in the Six-Day War (1967).

In 1973, after Egypt and Syria carried out a surprise attack on Israel, Sharon played an integral role in leading the retaliation, battling back Egyptian forces in the Sinai and helping secure an Israeli victory.

Sharon during the Yom Kippur War in 1973 (AFP).

The Sabra and Shatila massacres

Sharon's political career kicked off the same year, when he won a seat in Israel’s parliament (Knesset) as an MP from the right-wing Likud party, but resigned in 1974 to take a job as security advisor to then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Sharon was re-elected to the Knesset in 1977, and left again to be defence minister for former prime minister Menachem Begin in 1981.

In 1982, Sharon orchestrated the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in response to the shelling of northern Israel by the Palestine Liberation Organisation. Though the invasion was credited with bringing an end to the PLO’s use of Lebanon as a launch pad for attacks against Israel, it also resulted in the event that would make Sharon a particularly despised figure in the Arab world: the Sabra and Shatila massacres, in which Lebanese Christian militiamen killed hundreds of Palestinians in two Beirut refugee camps overseen by Israel.

After an Israeli legal investigation found Sharon indirectly responsible for the massacres, he was forced to resign from office in 1983.

Palestinian bodies in the Sabra refugee camp in 1982 (AFP).

A surprising late-career move

It was as housing minister in the early 1990s that Sharon oversaw the major push in the development of Jewish settlements in Gaza and the West Bank, another initiative that made him a target of fierce criticism on the international scene.

Palestinian anger at Sharon peaked again when he paid a highly publicised visit to a contested holy site in Jerusalem that Jews call the Temple Mount and Muslims know as Haram al-Sharif.

Palestinian rioting in reaction to the visit led to the start of the Second Intifada (uprising).

Sharon was elected as prime minister in 2001 by wide margins, entering the final phase of his career. He oversaw the construction of the West Bank barrier, citing the spike in suicide bombings by Palestinians during the Second Intifada as justification.

But in a move that surprised many who knew him as single-mindedly devoted to boosting Israeli strength and security, Sharon in 2005 ordered a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and dismantled four settlements in the West Bank. Faced with anger and incomprehension within Likud, Sharon left to form the centrist Kadima party.

Sharon was expected to win re-election, but he never emerged from the coma that followed his stroke in the early days of 2006.

Date created : 2014-01-03

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