JERUSALEM - Ariel 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, eight years after a stroke left him in a coma from which he never awoke. He was 85.
As one of Israel's most famous soldiers, Sharon was known for bold tactics and an occasional refusal to obey orders. As a politician he became known as "the bulldozer," a man contemptuous of his critics while also capable of getting things done.
He led his country into a divisive war in Lebanon in 1982 and was branded as indirectly responsible for the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians at the Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps outside Beirut when his troops allowed allied Lebanese militias into the camps. Yet ultimately he transformed himself into a prime minister and statesman.
Sharon's son Gilad announced the death on Saturday afternoon. Sharon's health had taken a downturn over the past week and a half as a number of bodily organs, including his kidneys, stopped functioning, and doctors on Thursday pronounced his condition "grave."
"He has gone. He went when he decided to go," Gilad Sharon said outside the hospital where his father had been treated in recent years.
The life and career of the man Israelis called "Arik" will be remembered for its three distinct stages: his eventful and controversial time in uniform, his years as a vociferous political operator who helped create Israel's settlement movement and mastermind of the Lebanon invasion, then his successful term as a pragmatist prime minister, capped by a dramatic withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and curtailed at the height of his popularity by his sudden stroke.
The Gaza pullout culminated a gradual abandonment of the hard-line policies for which he was known. In the tumultuous summer of 2005, he pulled all of Israel's settlers and soldiers out of the seaside strip, having played a key role in putting them there in the first place. "The fate of Netzarim is the fate of Tel Aviv," Sharon had famously said, referring to a Gaza settlement, just three years earlier.
Characteristically, the move was unilateral; Sharon was dubious that much good could come of talks with the Palestinians.
Sharon painted his "disengagement" plan as a step to reduce friction between Israelis and Palestinians. It was accompanied by construction of a massive separation barrier in the West Bank. While presented as security measures, they also represented an admission of sorts that continued control of the fast-growing Palestinian population could threaten Israel's Jewish and democratic character.
A few months later he left the hawkish Likud party, which he helped found, and created the centrist Kadima as a vehicle for himself, planning to lead it to a third election victory. But a few months later - 77 years old, and considerably overweight - he suffered two strokes. The second one, in 2006, left him comatose in a Jerusalem hospital. His deputy, Ehud Olmert, became prime minister and led Kadima to victory in the election.
"Arik 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 of Sharon, said Saturday, using Sharon's nickname. "He was one of Israel's great protectors and most important architects, who knew no fear and certainly never feared vision."
Ariel Sharon was born to Russian immigrant parents on Feb. 26, 1928, in the small farming community of Kfar Malal, north of Tel Aviv. He joined the Haganah, the pre-state Jewish defence force, at 14 and later went on to command an infantry platoon during the 1948 Mideast war over Israel's creation. He was seriously wounded in battle with the Jordanian Legion over control of the road to Jerusalem.
By 1953 he was commanding Unit 101, a commando force formed to carry out reprisals for Arab attacks. After the slaying of an Israeli woman and her two children, his troops blew up more than 40 houses in Qibya, a West Bank village then ruled by Jordan, killing 69 Arabs, most or all of them civilians.
Three years later, after Israel's invasion of the Sinai Peninsula, Sharon was rebuked for engaging in what his commanders regarded as an unnecessary battle with Egyptian forces in which some 30 Israeli soldiers died.
But accolades mounted as well. His finest hour in uniform, as he described it, came after Egypt and Syria attacked Israel in the 1973 Mideast war. Sharon was brought out of retirement by an army desperate for leadership and commanded 27,000 Israelis in a daring drive across the Suez Canal, an operation that turned the tide of the fighting. A photograph of a boyish, 45-year-old Sharon, a bloody bandage around his head, remains one of the most enduring images of that war.
Sharon later became a Cabinet minister in the hawkish government led by Menachem Begin. When Begin shifted to the centre - much as Sharon would do decades later - and signed a peace agreement with Egypt that required an Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai, Sharon voted against it.
He served as Begin's defence minister, even though the prime minister once said he was reluctant to give Sharon the job lest he "encircle the prime minister's office with tanks."
Next came the episode that most assumed would end his political career.
In 1982, after a string of attacks by Palestinian gunmen based in Lebanon, Sharon engineered Israel's invasion of that country, portraying it as a quick, limited strike to drive Palestinian fighters from Israel's northern border.
Later it emerged that Sharon's plan had always been far more ambitious: He wanted to reach Beirut and install a regime that would make peace with Israel. That plan was concealed not only from the public, but also from the Cabinet ministers who had approved it. It was, some Israeli commentators said, the closest the country had come to a coup d'etat.
That September, the Israeli military, controlling parts of Beirut, allowed members of the Phalange, a Lebanese Christian militia allied with Israel, to enter the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Chatilla in Beirut to root out "terrorists." The militiamen systematically slaughtered hundreds of civilians, including women and children. The massacres sparked mass protests in Israel and abroad.
An Israeli commission rejected Sharon's contention that he had not known what was coming and he was fired, though his popularity and political clout left him in the Cabinet as a minister without portfolio. His political ambitions were crippled, but not destroyed.
"Those who didn't want to see him as army chief got him as defence minister, and those who don't want him as defence minister shall get him as prime minister," Sharon's longtime confidant, Uri Dan, presciently said in the wake of the commission report.
The fast operation Sharon had promised eventually left Israel mired in Lebanon for 18 years. It also led to battles in the courtroom.
In 1983, Sharon filed a $50 million lawsuit against Time Magazine for alleging that Sharon, while defence minister, had discussed avenging the murder of Lebanese President-elect Bashir Gemayel with Lebanese Christian militia leaders. Time said the discussion was held the day before the Sabra and Chatilla massacres. A six-member jury in New York concluded that the Time report was false but acquitted the magazine of libel, saying it published the report in good faith.
Later, an Israeli court rejected a libel suit filed by Sharon against the Haaretz daily over a 1991 article that claimed he misled Begin about his military intentions in Lebanon.
Over the years, Sharon rehabilitated his political career and used various Cabinet posts to build dozens of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, despite international protests. As foreign minister in 1998, Sharon famously called on Jewish settlers to occupy as much land as possible before a deal was reached with the Palestinians.
"Everyone there should move, should run, should grab more hills, expand the territory. Everything that's grabbed will be in our hands, everything that we don't grab will be in their hands," he said.
In 2000, as leader of the opposition, he paid a high-profile visit to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary. The tense site is holy to Jews and Muslims, and houses Islam's third-holiest shrine.
The visit came at a time of heightened tensions. Peace talks had stalled at a time when the sides were on the verge of an agreement, and Palestinian riots escalated into a full-fledged uprising that lasted years and claimed thousands of lives.
Critics said the visit was an act of recklessness at a time of rising tensions. Others maintained the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, who rejected an Israeli peace offer not long before, used the visit as a pretext to unleash the uprising.
Four months later, with suicide bombers exploding in their cities, Israelis elected Sharon by a landslide. The new prime minister led Israel's aggressive military response to the uprising, including a tough offensive in the spring of 2002 following an especially bloody Passover suicide bombing inside Israel, and had all but ended it by 2004.
At the same time, he began to soften his opposition to territorial withdrawals. He called Israel's presence in the West Bank and Gaza an "occupation" for the first time, conceded that an independent Palestinian state was inevitable, and spearheaded the Gaza pullout.
Domestically, Sharon became the latest in a long line of Israeli prime ministers whose terms were marred by corruption probes.
He was accused of improper fundraising and accepting bribes, allegedly paid to one of his sons, from a prominent real-estate developer, but never charged. His oldest son, Omri, however, later served seven months in prison for fraud convicted to campaign fundraising for his father.
Sharon, who lived on a ranch in southern Israel, was widowed twice. His second wife was the sister of his first, who died in a car accident.
He is survived by two sons. A third died as a child in a firearms accident in 1967.