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Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon Dies At 85

Israeli army colonel Ariel Sharonon February 16, 1966.
Reuters /Landov
Israeli army colonel Ariel Sharonon February 16, 1966.

Ariel Sharon, the former prime minister of Israel, has died, Shlomo Noy, the director of the Sheba Medical Center, where Sharon was being treated, said during a televised press conference.

The AP reports that during earlier statements, Sharon's son Gilad Sharon said, "He has gone. He went when he decided to go."

Haaretz reports that Sharon died Saturday after spending eight years in a coma.

He was 85.

Sharon was one of Israel's most iconic and controversial figures. Before being elected prime minister in 2001, he had served as one of the county's most lauded generals.

One of the defining moments of his career was the central role he played in the expansion of Jewish settlements in territories seized during the 1967 Six-Day War. But, then, in the the mid-2005, Sharon directed the complete withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlements from the Gaza Strip.

Edward Peter Djerejian, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, told CNN those two things show an evolution. When Sharon, a conservative hardliner and war hero, became prime minister, he realized the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could not be solved through military means alone.

Reporting from Jerusalem, correspondent Daniel Estrin filed this short remembrance for our Newscast unit:

"He was nicknamed 'The Bulldozer,' a hard-liner known to plow over his critics and get his way. Ariel Sharon served in Israel's independence war and nearly every major in Israel's history. He is credited with helping win the 1973 Mideast war, a crucial turning point in Israel's history. He resigned as defense minister following what is known as the Sabra and Shatila massacre of Palestinians in the 1982 Lebanon War.

"As a candidate for prime minister in 2000, he made a bold visit to a contentious Jerusalem holy site. The second Palestinian uprising erupted shortly after. In 2001, he was elected prime minister. For decades he championed Jewish settlements in captured territories. But in 2005 he led a dramatic withdrawal of settlers from the Gaza Strip."

The BBC reports that Sharon's body will lie in state at Israel's parliament on Sunday. A big state funeral is planned for Monday.

NPR's Mike Shuster has filed a full obituary. On this post, we'll note reaction to Sharon's death as we receive it.

Update at 2:19 p.m. ET. The Reaction In Gaza:

The BBC reports on the reaction in Gaza:

Hamas, Gaza's Islamist militant rulers since 2007, condemned him as a tyrant and said his death marked the "disappearance of a criminal whose hands were covered with Palestinian blood".

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

Update at 11:43 a.m. ET. 'Gave His Life To Israel':

President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a joint statement on the passing of Sharon:

"Ariel Sharon gave his life to Israel—to bring it into being, to sustain and preserve it, and at the end of his long service, to create a new political party committed to both a just peace and lasting security. It was an honor to work with him, argue with him, and watch him always trying to find the right path for his beloved country.

"Hillary and I join his fellow citizens in honoring his memory and offering our condolences to his sons and his family."

Update at 11:00 a.m. ET. Reaffirm Commitment:

In a statement President Obama sent his condolences to the family of Sharon and to the people of Israel, whom he said lost "a leader who dedicated his life to the State of Israel."

Secretary of State John Kerry issued a lengthy statement that reads in part:

"I remember reading about Arik in the papers when I was a young lawyer in Boston and marveling at his commitment to cause and country. I will never forget meeting with this big bear of a man when he became Prime Minister as he sought to bend the course of history toward peace, even as it meant testing the patience of his own longtime supporters and the limits of his own, lifelong convictions in the process. He was prepared to make tough decisions because he knew that his responsibility to his people was both to ensure their security and to give every chance to the hope that they could live in peace.

"During his years in politics, it is no secret that there were times the United States had differences with him. But whether you agreed or disagreed with his positions – and Arik was always crystal clear about where he stood – you admired the man who was determined to ensure the security and survival of the Jewish State. In his final years as Prime Minister, he surprised many in his pursuit of peace, and today, we all recognize, as he did, that Israel must be strong to make peace, and that peace will also make Israel stronger. We honor Arik's legacy and those of Israel's founding generation by working to achieve that goal."

Update at 8:48 a.m. ET. A Mess That He Cleaned Up:

We'll point you to a 2006 profile of Sharon written by Avi Shavit for The New Yorker.

Shavit takes a sober look at Sharon, from his time in the military, where he was an iron-fisted general, who was ruthless in his fight against terrorism and instrumental in the strategic expansion of settlements, to his older days, when he decided to withdraw from Gaza.

Two key paragraphs:

"Under his governance, Israel was weaned of the hope for an ideal end. It even came to realize that there would be no absolute peace or victory. Fundamentally, Sharon was a man of process. If he has left a legacy, it is the need for time—lots of time—because there is no way to reach peace with one abrupt act.

"In his cumbersome way, he said to the Israelis: I will withdraw. But he also said, I will withdraw very slowly. Shweiyeh shweiyeh, without haste, as an Arabic phrase used in Hebrew slang has it. And I'll rip them to shreds if they understand my withdrawal incorrectly and abuse it. Because I am not a liberal romantic. I am from here, and I will not be Mahmoud Abbas's sucker or Kofi Annan's sucker. I will do only what is good for us. And, just as in the nineteen-forties, fifties, and sixties I conquered land for us, now I will withdraw for us. And, just as in the nineteen-seventies, eighties, and nineties I settled the territories on our behalf, now I will evacuate for us."

Shavit concludes: "Israel was somehow fortunate, to have the person who made the mess try to clean it up."

Update at 8:22 a.m. ET. 'A Daring Leader':

In a statement, Israeli President Shimon Peres said Sharon was a "daring leader who loved his nation and his nation loved him."

He went on: "He was one of Israel's great protectors and most important architects, who knew no fear and certainly never feared vision. He knew how to take difficult decisions and implement them."

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Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.