In death as during his life, former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon elicits emotional reactions, both laudatory and critical.
His death on Saturday at age 85, after eight years in a coma, resurfaced old wounds, but also praise for his strength in leadership.
The same decisions that made him a controversial figure during his lengthy tenure as a military man and politician were back on display in the initial reactions to his death.
These moments include his role as defense minister during the 1982 war in Lebanon. During that conflict, he was held indirectly responsible by an Israeli inquiry in 1983 for the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. He was forced to resign.
He also raised ire in the Arab world by encouraging Israelis to build settlements on occupied Palestinian land, but later did an about-face and pushed for the historic withdrawal from settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, which were turned over to Palestinian rule for the first time in nearly four decades.
President Shimon Peres issued a statement eulogizing his “dear friend Arik Sharon,” calling him by his well-known nickname.
He said Sharon “lost his final battle today” and called him one of Israel’s “great protectors and most important architects.”
“He knew how to take difficult decisions and implement them. We all loved him and he will be greatly missed. I send my condolences to the Sharon family, may he rest in peace,” Peres said.
But Hamas, the Palestinian movement that runs Gaza, paints Sharon with a darker legacy.
“We deal with the death of Sharon as an end for the crimes he committed against the Palestinian people,” said Israr Almodallal, spokesman for Hamas in Gaza. “The biggest crime was the Sabra and Shatila massacre in Lebanon, and we deal with Sharon as a criminal person.
“We will not forgive Sharon any way or another,” he said.
Israel’s current defense minister, Moshe Ya’alon, in turn, praised Sharon’s military career.
“Ariel Sharon was first and foremost an extraordinary military commander that turned the (Israel Defense Forces) into an army that confronts the enemy and quickly prevails,” Ya’alon said in a statement. “He displayed his military leadership in the battlefield, both in battles against regular armies and in the fight against terrorism.”
Sharon was involved in every Israeli war going back to 1948, and he was remembered as a fierce fighter. He believed strongly that in order for Israel to survive, a strong army was needed.
He had a reputation as a hawk, but he moved in a more moderate direction as prime minister.
The office of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, released a statement focusing on Sharon’s shift toward negotiations with the Palestinians.
Sharon “will be remembered for his political courage and determination to carry through with the painful and historic decision to withdraw Israeli settlers and troops from the Gaza Strip. His successor faces the difficult challenge of realizing the aspirations of peace between the Israeli and Palestinian people,” the statement said.
French President Francois Hollande offered his condolences, also emphasizing his actions at the end of his career.
“After a long military and political career, he made the choice to turn towards dialogue with the Palestinians,” Hollande said in a statement.
Critics continued to evoke the 1982 war in Lebanon.
“It’s a shame that Sharon has gone to his grave without facing justice for his role in Sabra and Shatilla and other abuses,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “His passing is another grim reminder that years of virtual impunity for rights abuses have done nothing to bring Israeli-Palestinian peace any closer.”
Khaled Abu Al Noor, head of the Democratic Front, a Palestinian faction, described Sharon as “a murderer.”
“He is responsible for the massacre of many Palestinian children, women and elderly. We call on the international community to try him under international law even after his death.”
Sharon’s son, Gilad, thanked the people who cared for his father in the hospital and those who prayed for him.
“He was the one who decided when he would go,” Gilad said.
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