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Former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon dies at 85

  • In this Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2005 file photo, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, left, speaks with second vice premier and Labor party leader Shimon Peres prior to a session in the Knesset, Israel's parliament, for the budget vote, in Jerusalem. Sharon, the hard-charging Israeli general and prime minister who was admired and hated for his battlefield exploits and ambitions to reshape the Middle East, died Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014. The 85-year-old Sharon had been in a coma since a debilitating stroke eight years ago. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty, FIle)

JERUSALEM — It was vintage Ariel Sharon: His hefty body bobbing behind a wall of security men, the ex-general led a march onto a Jerusalem holy site, staking a bold claim to a shrine that has been in contention from the dawn of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

What followed was a Palestinian uprising that put Mideast peace efforts into deep-freeze.

Five years later, Sharon was again barreling headlong into controversy, bulldozing ahead with his plan to pull Israel out of the Gaza Strip and uproot all 8,500 Jewish settlers living there without regard to threats to his life from Jewish extremists.

His allies said the move was a revolutionary step in peacemaking; his detractors said it was a tactical sacrifice to strengthen Israel's hold on much of the West Bank.

Either way, the withdrawal and the barrier he was building between Israel and the West Bank permanently changed the face of the conflict and marked the final legacy of a man who shaped Israel as much as any other leader. He was a farmer-turned-soldier, a soldier-turned-politician, a politician-turned-statesman — a hard-charging Israeli who built Jewish settlements on war-won land, but didn't shy away from destroying them when he deemed them no longer useful.

Sharon died Saturday, eight years after a debilitating stroke put him into a coma. He was 85.

Sharon was "a brave soldier and a daring leader who loved his nation and his nation loved him," President Shimon Peres, a longtime friend and rival, said in a eulogy. "He was one of Israel's great protectors and most important architects, who knew no fear and certainly never feared vision."

The man Israel knew simply by his nickname "Arik" fought in most of Israel's wars, gained a reputation as an adroit soldier and was the godfather of Israel's massive settlement campaign in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. More than any other event, perhaps, the public perception of the man was shaped by the massacres of Palestinians in the Lebanese refugee camps of Sabra and Chatilla by Christian militiamen allied with Israel during the 1982 invasion that was largely his brainchild.

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