The death of Ariel Sharon: Israel mourns the last of its founding generation of leaders

The former Prime Minister's life mirrored that of his country's recent history

Ariel Sharon, who died yesterday, will no doubt be mourned by many Israelis as the last of the country's founding generation of leaders, a veteran of its major wars since 1948 and an almost paternal guarantor of its security in his last years in office. Few, if any, Palestinians will take that benign view of the prime minister who never woke from the coma he fell into after a massive stroke eight years ago.

Many see him as the most inimical of all Israeli generals and leading politicians, a lethally brutal commander in Gaza and the West Bank, the minister who had the ultimate blame for the massacre of Palestinian refugees at the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps in Lebanon in 1982, and the principal driver of Jewish settlement in the occupied territories.

"I have to say that Mr Sharon left no good memories with Palestinians," the prominent Palestinian politician Dr Mustafa Barghouti told the BBC yesterday, in contrast to tributes from international leaders. "Unfortunately, he had a path of war and aggression and a great failure in making peace with the Palestinian people."

Sharon was an often bitterly controversial figure throughout a military and political career that spanned more than half a century. He was also responsible for the separation barrier, hated by Palestinians, that cut into the West Bank – deeply, in places. But he also went on to incur right-wing accusations of betrayal by unilaterally withdrawing the military and more than 8,000 settlers from Gaza in the summer of 2005.

Despite the significantly lower level of violence since his premiership, the Israeli leadership has actually shifted politically to the right since his stroke, which came after a year in which opposition within Likud to the Gaza withdrawal – opposition led by the country's present Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – prompted Sharon to lead a walkout from the ruling right-wing Likud party and form a new, more centrist party, Kadima.

Life in Gaza, described in 2010 by David Cameron as a "prison camp", remains miserably oppressive. But it does not alter the fact that Sharon's extraction of settlers from the territory remains the one precedent for the West Bank withdrawal that is a sine qua non of the lasting peace with the Palestinians which US Secretary of State John Kerry is currently trying to promote.

Long seen as one of Israel's most fearsome leaders on the nationalist far right as well as one of its most successful, and sometimes insubordinate, generals, Sharon was seriously wounded as a young officer in the 1948 Arab/Israeli war which established the state of Israel.

He then rose to further prominence in the 1950s as commander of the notorious Unit 101, a commando group responsible for reprisal operations after attacks by Arab guerrillas, including the heavily criticised Qibya raid which left 59 Palestinian civilians dead, including women and children.

The lowest point of Sharon's career came with the massacres by Phalangists of Palestinian refugees at Sabra and Chatila for which a judge-led Kahan commission held Israel "indirectly" responsible and recommended his dismissal as defence minister.

Sharon staged a political recovery in which he eventually assumed the leadership of Likud and became prime minister in 2001. As prime minister he presided over the military Operation Defensive Shield which brutally but effectively crushed the second Palestinian intifada. This uprising was one which he had arguably helped to provoke in 2000 by walking, under a 1,000-strong police escort and amid huge publicity, on the holy Jerusalem site known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Arabs as Haram al-Sharif, to assert Israeli control of the ultra-sensitive complex.

One unknown of current Israeli politics is whether Sharon – who 15 years earlier had famously urged settlers to "grab more hills, expand the territory" – would have followed the Gaza disengagement by using all his political and military authority to begin a similar withdrawal from the occupied West Bank. He gave no public sign of this before his stroke, and, indeed, Gaza disengagement was frequently justified at the time by some of his closest allies as a concession which would enable Israel to strengthen its grip on the West Bank.

Gaza disengagement in 2005 was carried out without any co-ordination with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. This deprived Fatah of a political dividend which might have prevented its subsequent electoral loss to Hamas. Nevertheless, the disengagement was a remarkable turnaround for a prime minister who had, in recent memory, declared that the Gaza Jewish settlement of Nezarim was as much part of Israel as Tel Aviv.

The stated intention of Ehud Olmert, Sharon's successor as Kadima prime minister, to begin unilateral disengagement from the West Bank was partly thwarted by the failure of the second Lebanon war in 2006 to inflict the lethal blow on Hezbollah he had appeared to promise. In a 2008 interview with The Independent, Dov Weissglass, who had been Sharon's closest aide throughout his premiership, said he did not believe that Sharon would have launched a military ground operation – as Olmert did – after the abduction of the two soldiers by Hezbollah which triggered the 34-day war.

He said in the interview that Sharon – a heavyweight in every sense and a hearty eater who peaked in the years before his stroke at 17 stone – had enjoyed his "wonderful last year" as prime minister. Mr Weissglass added that by the disengaging from Gaza, Sharon felt he had exorcised the reputation of being the "world's bad boy" and the "symbol of radical extremism".

Mr Weissglass is now a strong critic of the government's highly resistant approach to negotiations with Mr Abbas. This does not, of course mean that Sharon would be currently making a peace deal.

But by deserting Likud in 2005, Sharon at least elevated a strategic decision he saw as being in Israel's interests above the comforting unity of his political tribe. Benjamin Netanyahu has shown no sign of following this example. But unless he does so, the hopes of a just peace are slim indeed.

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