Ariel Sharon drew praise from Israelis for buttressing security, respect from some world leaders for withdrawing settlements from the Gaza Strip, and scorn from Arabs who regarded him as a brutal antagonist.
Sharon, Israel’s prime minister from 2001 to 2006, died yesterday at age 85 from multiple organ failure after spending eight years in a coma following a stroke.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu focused on Sharon’s military career, lauding him as “one of the Israeli army’s outstanding commanders,” who played “a key role in the struggle for Israel’s security.” He didn’t mention Sharon’s 2005 evacuation of Israeli troops and settlements from Gaza, a policy Netanyahu opposed and one that created a rift between the one-time allies in the Likud party.
President Shimon Peres, who joined the Kadima party after Sharon left Likud and founded it, praised him as a “daring leader” who “knew how to take difficult decisions and implement them.”
Palestinian reaction focused on Sharon’s actions as a military commander, the politician who built settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, and the defense minister that an Israeli government panel said bore indirect responsibility for the 1982 slaughter of hundreds of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.
“The Palestinian people remember today what this former prime minister did in battles and war to uproot us from our land, in particular what took place in Lebanon,” Wasel Abu Yousef, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee, said by telephone.
U.S. President Barack Obama praised Sharon as a leader who dedicated his life to his country, and said the U.S. remains committed to finding peace for the Israelis and Palestinians.
“We continue to strive for lasting peace and security for the people of Israel, including through our commitment to the goal of two states living side-by-side in peace and security,” Obama said in a statement. “As Israel says goodbye to Prime Minister Sharon, we join with the Israeli people in honoring his commitment to his country.”
Sharon “was a warrior for the ages and a partner in seeking security for the Holy Land and a better, peaceful Middle East,” said former U.S. President George W. Bush, who together with the Israeli leader crafted a “road map” peace plan that unsuccessfully attempted to advance negotiations with the Palestinians.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel praised Sharon in a statement “as an Israeli patriot who served his country well. With his brave decision to withdraw Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip, he took a historic step down the path toward reconciliation with the Palestinians and toward a two-state solution.”
The American Jewish Committee said of Sharon that “while he fully understood the importance of military strength and strategic acumen to ensure Israel’s security in a turbulent region, he also displayed a political pragmatism that surprised his external and domestic critics.”
The Hamas Islamic movement, which rules Gaza and is classified as a terrorist group by Israel, the U.S. and European Union, said Sharon will be remembered for the pain he caused Palestinians.
“When the Palestinian people remember Sharon, they only remember pain, blood, torture, displacement and crimes,” Salah el-Bardaweel, a Hamas spokesman said in a statement. “He is a big criminal and we would never feel sorry for his death.”
The Egyptian daily Al-Masry Al-Youm published an editorial today labeling Sharon a “bloody butcher” whose “crimes and massacres committed toward Palestinians and Arabs stand witness to unrivaled racism and blood-thirstiness.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who is overseeing current peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, said in a statement that “it is no secret that there were times the United States had differences with” Sharon.
“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,” Kerry said.