A career marked by stubborn resolve

ARIEL Sharon is a farmer-turned-soldier, a war hero-turned-politician, a hard-charging Israeli who built Jewish settlements on war-won land but didn’t shy away from destroying them when they collided with his bigger design.

In the twilight of a tumultuous life, this longtime opponent of concessions to the Arabs has ended up giving away territory and offering the Palestinians a state of their own.

His era has spanned the Middle East conflict from its early skirmishes through five wars, during one of which he was painted as his nation’s saviour, and in another as its disgrace.

His has been a life of stunning surprises, none bigger than his 2001 election as prime minister at 73, when he spent his first term crushing a Palestinian uprising and his second withdrawing from the Gaza Strip, giving 1.3 million Palestinians a degree of freedom from Israeli rule and sketching the vague outline of a final peace settlement with his Arab foes.

The man Israel knows simply as “Arik” has been one of its most charismatic and controversial figures during a public career spanning more than half a century.

He fought in most of Israel’s wars, gained a reputation as a military genius and was the godfather of Israel’s massive settlement campaign in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. He detested Yasser Arafat, and was detested in the Arab world.

Little he does is without controversy. Palestinians say the barrier disguises a land grab, and that the Gaza pullback is a prelude to tightening his grip on the West Bank. Their distrust of Sharon is heightened by memories of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon he engineered, which led to the slaughter of Palestinian refugees by Israel’s Christian Lebanese allies.

Sharon was born to Russian immigrant parents on February 27, 1928, in the farming community of Kfar Malal, 10 miles north of Tel Aviv.

A fighter for Israeli independence from age 14, he rose through the military ranks, his career studded with episodes of battlefield brilliance and acts of insubordination that often landed him in hot water.

His finest moment came with his daring thrust across the Suez Canal to help turn the tide of the 1973 Middle East war.

His worst was the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which he engineered as defence minister, resulting in the massacre at the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps.

Although he always denied being at fault, the massacre cost him his job.

An Israeli commission found him indirectly responsible for a massacre by Christian Phalangist soldiers through a failure to intervene.

But he gradually rehabilitated himself, rejoining the cabinet and leading a push to build dozens of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, despite international protests.

Out of office following his Likud Party’s election defeat in 1999, Sharon became an opposition legislator while spending more time at his sheep farm in southern Israel. But when a Palestinian uprising broke out following failed peace talks, Israeli voters surprised the world by electing Sharon, by now twice-widowed, in a landslide.

In his second term, he revealed a new political vocabulary, offering Palestinians the statehood he once regarded as anathema, and referring to Israel’s rule over the Palestinians as an “occupation” - a word he never used before.

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