Ariel Sharon: soldier turned politician always ruthlessly determined

Former Israeli prime minister was the architect of Jewish settlement in the West Bank and Gaza

Former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, who had been in a coma since 2006, died in a Tel Aviv hospital on Saturday after suffering from a malfunction of several organs, including the liver, more than a week ago.

Always an outsider, and one of Israel’s most controversial figures, Mr Sharon(85), known by his nickname Arik, rose to prominence as a top officer in Israel’s army , participating in the country’s wars and earning a reputation as a leading military strategist.

He set up and commanded Unit 101, which carried out daring cross-border commando raids, setting a pattern emulated by Israeli army elite units ever since.

Handsome and adored by those who served under him, Sharon was the quintessential farmer-warrior envisioned by Israel's founding fathers. Prime minister David Ben- Gurion and defence minister Moshe Dayan both developed a fondness for Sharon and forgave his frequent insubordination as he rose through the military ranks.


Turned the tide
In the 1973 Yom Kippur Arab-Israeli war, Sharon, recently retired from military service, returned to fight on the southern front. He led the daring crossing of the Suez Canal by Israeli forces, trapping part of the Egyptian army, in an act that turned the tide of the war.

An iconic photograph of Sharon on the Suez Canal, head bandaged, became the lasting image of the war.

Entering politics after the war, he was instrumental in setting up the Likud, an alliance of right-wing parties led by Menachem Begin. As campaign manager in the 1977 elections he crafted the right-wing’s first electoral triumph in Israel.

Appointed agriculture minister by Begin, Sharon became the architect of the Jewish settlement drive in the West Bank and Gaza, setting up dozens of Jewish communities, in defiance of the international community.

He summed up his settlement policy at the time: “Everybody has to run and grab as many West Bank hilltops as they can to enlarge the settlements because everything we take now will stay ours. Everything we don’t grab will go to them.”

As a politician, Sharon exhibited the same ruthless determination that characterised his military career. He was known as “the bulldozer,” a man who cut corners but got the job done, trampling opponents along the way.

Appointed defence minister, he masterminded Israel’s controversial 1982 invasion of Lebanon, ostensibly to drive PLO forces 40 kilometres from Israel’s northern border, out of katyusha rocket range.

Grand design
Many still believe that Sharon lied to Begin as he pushed Israeli forces towards Beirut as part of his grand design to install a pro-Israel Phalangist government in Lebanon.

Sharon was forced to step down as defence minister after a commission of inquiry found him responsible for failing to prevent the massacre by Christian militiamen of Palestinian refugees in two Beirut refugee camps.

He was elected leader of the opposition Likud in 1999. The following year his visit to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount sparked Palestinian riots which developed into a violent uprising across the West Bank and Gaza, the second intifada.

He was elected prime minister in 2001 and, in response to a wave of suicide bombings, ordered Israeli troops back into West Bank cities and refugee camps to root out Palestinian militias.

Then came one of the most astonishing U-turns in modern Israeli history.

Unilateral disengagement
Sharon realised that Israel's hold on the Gaza Strip had become untenable and he ordered a unilateral disengagement, ending Israel's 38-year occupation. He pulled out the military and dismantled all 21 settlements, uprooting almost 8,000 Jewish residents.

The darling of the settler movement became a hate figure on the right and faced growing opposition within Likud.

He left the party soon after and established the centrist Kadima, but suffered a severe stroke in January 2006. He had been in a vegetative state since, breathing on his own but fed intravenously.

Sharon is survived by two sons, Omri and Gilad. After his first wife, Margalit, died in a car accident in 1962, he married her younger sister Lily, who died of cancer in 2000.

Margalit gave birth to a boy, Gur, who died tragically, aged 11, when a friend accidently shot him when playing with the Sharon family rifle.

Mark Weiss

Mark Weiss

Mark Weiss is a contributor to The Irish Times based in Jerusalem