updated 01/11/2014 AT 11:30 AM ET
•originally published 01/11/2014 AT 9:20 AM ET
Ariel Sharon, the hard-charging Israeli general and prime minister – from 2001-2006 – 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.
In a statement Saturday, President Barack Obama said, “On behalf of the American people, Michelle and I send our deepest condolences to the family of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and to the people of Israel on the loss of a leader who dedicated his life to the State of Israel. We reaffirm our unshakable commitment to Israel’s security and our appreciation for the enduring friendship between our two countries and our two peoples. 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. As Israel says goodbye to Prime Minister Sharon, we join with the Israeli people in honoring his commitment to his country.”
Pragmatic Yet Controversial
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 defense 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.
For the full story on the life and career of Ariel Sharon, visit Time.com.
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.