12 Jan 2014

Israelis mourn former PM Ariel Sharon

9:55 pm on 12 January 2014

Israelis are beginning a short period of mourning for former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon who has died aged 85 of heart failure after eight years in a coma.

Prime minister Ariel Sharon in 2005.

Prime minister Ariel Sharon in 2005. Photo: AFP (file)

The public will pay their respects when his body lies in state on Sunday before a private burial on Monday.

Israeli and world figures have paid tribute to a man who fought in four major wars before taking to the political stage.

But there was little sorrow among Palestinians who saw him as an enemy.

The head of the Sheba Medical Centre near Tel Aviv confirmed Mr Sharon's death on Saturday afternoon, the Jewish Sabbath, more than a week after it emerged that his health was in decline.

Mr Sharon was at the height of his political power when he had a massive stroke in January 2006.

A commander in the army from the birth of Israel in 1948, he held many of the top offices of state.

While serving in the military, he became a national hero during Israel's Six Day War with its Arab neighbours in 1967.

A BBC correspondent says it seemed there was hardly a moment of national drama in which he did not play a role.

Known as Arik, Mr Sharon entered politics after the 1973 war. His career was marked by his push for Jewish settlements on captured Palestinian land.

As defence minister, he masterminded an invasion of Lebanon in 1982 that led to a massacre of Palestinian refugees by Christian Phalangist militia in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut.

An Israeli commission of inquiry found that Mr Sharon bore personal responsibility for the massacre and he stood down as defence minister, but stayed in government.

It was not until 2001 that he came to power as prime minister, a year after a visit to Haram al-Sharif, the holiest mosque in Jerusalem, on the Temple Mount sparked a Palestinian uprising and an intifada.

Current prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was a great warrior:

Ariel Sharon on the Right Bank of the Suez Canal in 1974.

Ariel Sharon on the Right Bank of the Suez Canal in 1974. Photo: AFP (file)

"His memory will live forever in the nation's heart," a spokesman said on Twitter.

As prime minister, Mr Sharon presided over some of the most turbulent times in Israeli-Palestinian history, a Palestinian uprising that erupted after peace talks collapsed in 2000 and a subsequent tough Israeli military response.

He ended the Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip in 2005, but ordered the construction of a barrier to keep Palestinian suicide bombers out of Israel.

Born in Palestine on 26 February, 1928, to parents from Belarus, he was 17 when he joined the Haganah, a guerrilla group that fought in the 1948 war of independence and eventually became the Israeli army.

Comments from friends and foes

"My dear friend, Arik (Ariel) Sharon, lost his final battle today," said a statement from President Shimon Peres.

"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 said.

"He will be greatly missed."

Justice Minister Tzipi Livni described him as a "brave fighter, commander, leader, (a) farmer whose legs were firmly planted in Israel's soil".

British Prime Minister David Cameron said Mr Sharon took "brave and controversial decisions" in the pursuit of peace.

Former United States president Bill Clinton praised him as a leader who "gave his life to Israel".

Palestinian commentators say his path was one of war and aggression.

Dr Mustafa Barghouti said he left "no good memories with Palestinians".

Hamas said his death marked the "disappearance of a criminal whose hands were covered with Palestinian blood".

Hanan Ashwari of the Palestinian Legislative Council says the former general had always pursued a bloody policy.

"The legacy of Ariel Sharon has been very consistent for the Palestinians, it's one of violence and bloodshed and cruelty and massacres."

Sweets were handed out in Gaza as Palestinians celebrated the news.