The death of Ariel Sharon: Tributes to a 'statesman' but scorn for a 'tyrant'

Israel's former prime minister polarises world opinion in death as much as in life

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The Independent Online

Ariel Sharon, who as a veteran of the 1948 war which established the state of Israel was the last prime minister from its founding generation, died yesterday afternoon at the age of 85 after lying in a coma for eight years.

Having been incapacitated by a stroke in January 2006, at the height of his political power, Sharon never awoke. His heart was said to have weakened before Sharon "peacefully departed" from his family who remained by his side at the Sheba Medical Centre near Tel Aviv.

Dr Shlomo Noy, a spokesman, said Sharon had been in a "state of minimal consciousness with ups and downs" for many years. He said: "During the past week, he struggled with surprising strength and determination against the deterioration in his condition and died peacefully." Earlier this month it had emerged that Sharon was suffering from renal failure and his poor health was failing. Gilad Sharon, his son, said that the former leader had "decided to go".

Sharon did more than any other leading politician to promote Jewish settlement in the occupied Palestinian territories. But he was also accused by right-wingers of betrayal after unilaterally withdrawing the military and 8,000 settlers from Gaza in the summer of 2005.

As would be expected for a man who loomed large over the Middle East for so long, his passing brought many messages and tributes from politicians around the world. While many praised the statesman for his decision to withdraw the Gaza settlers, those associated with the Palestinian cause expressed satisfaction over his death.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel, said that the country "bows its head" over the death, saying that Sharon's "memory will be enshrined for ever in the heart of the nation". He went on to praise Sharon's role as a "courageous fighter and an outstanding general".

Many in the country look back on Sharon's role in leading Israeli troops over the Suez Canal during the Yom Kippur war in 1973 between Israel and the armies of Egypt and Syria, seen as a significant contribution in pushing the forces back.

Using the nickname given to Sharon, President Shimon Peres, a former political ally and now the last founder of the Jewish state still in public life, said: "Arik was a valorous soldier and a bold statesman who contributed much to the security and building up of the state of Israel."

Among the modern leaders to pay tribute yesterday was David Cameron, who said Israel had "lost an important leader" who had taken "brave" decisions in the "pursuit of peace". The Labour leader Ed Miliband said his thoughts were with Sharon's family, adding: "Nobody can doubt the impact he had on Middle East politics."

The tributes from the United States were seen as more effusive. President Obama said he joined "with the Israeli people in honouring his commitment to his country". The US Secretary of State, John Kerry, who has in recent weeks been pursuing peace in Israel, said he had "admired" Sharon. Vice-President Joe Biden said he was looking forward to leading the country's delegation to the former prime minister's memorial.

It is thought Sharon's remains will lie in state in parliament in Jerusalem today. A memorial service will be held tomorrow morning following an afternoon funeral near Sycamore Farm, Sharon's residence in the south.

Other leaders were also quick to issue statements. Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, praised Sharon's "personal qualities and his activities to protect Israel's interest". François Hollande, President of France', said Sharon had been a "major figure in the history of his country". Both the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, and Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, praised his decision to withdraw settlers and troops from Gaza.

Ms Merkel's spokesman said that the "courageous decision to withdraw the Israeli settlers... took a historic step on the path to a deal with the Palestinians".

However, at the refugee camp of Ain al-Hilweh, south Lebanon, yesterday there was reported rejoicing at the news of Sharon's death. In Gaza, there were reports of sweets being handed out to motorists and passers-by at the refugee camp of Khan Younis, while the ruling Islamist faction Hamas predictably welcomed the departure of a "tyrant".

A polarising figure, Sharon was held responsible by the Palestinians for many deaths including refugees killed in the massacre at the Sabra and Chatila camps in Beirut in 1982 when he was Israel's defence minister. A Palestinian uprising that erupted in 2000 faced a brutal response from the leader after he was elected prime minister in 2001.

"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," said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri. "He wanted to erase the Palestinian people from the map," added Tawfik Tirawi, who served as Palestinian intelligence chief when Sharon was prime minister a decade ago. "He wanted to kill us, but at the end of the day, Sharon is dead and the Palestinian people are alive."