JERUSALEM -- The death of former Israeli prime minister and military leader Ariel Sharon was met with emotional responses Saturday in Israel and the Palestinian territories; in some quarters eliciting cries of sorrow, in others, tears of joy.
“My dear friend, Arik Sharon, lost his final battle today,” eulogized President Shimon Peres, among the last surviving members of Israel’s founding generation. He called Sharon a brave soldier and a daring leader and one of Israel’s “most important architects.”
Peres said Sharon knew no fear and “certainly never feared vision.” He knew to take difficult decisions and implement them, the president said.
In Gaza, meanwhile, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri called the day historic. Sharon’s hands were “stained with the blood of the Palestinian people” in Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank, he said, calling Sharon a war criminal.
In the West Bank city of Ramallah, the Associated Press reported, some people publicly cheered the news of Sharon’s passing and distributed sweets.
Sharon’s tough-minded stances, marked by surprise shifts over the years, resulted in a panoply of opinions about his legacy.
Sharon was a longtime champion of Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories captured in the 1967 war. Yet many Israelis were stunned by his decision to uproot thousands of settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was a political adversary of Sharon’s and opposed his move to withdraw from the Gaza Strip in 2005, on Saturday emphasized Sharon’s key roles in security and government but did not mention the controversial disengagement. “His memory will be enshrined forever in the heart of the nation.”
Netanyahu recalled Sharon’s central role in the struggle for Israel’s security over the years. “He was, first and foremost, a courageous fighter and an outstanding general,” Netanyahu said.
The Israeli defense establishment “bows its head on this day,” said Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, who praised Sharon’s extraordinary military leadership that transformed the nation’s army.
Upon his passing, the army published rare archival material and images of Sharon throughout the years and battles.
Columnist Chemi Shalev wrote that Sharon’s legacy “defies definition” and is as full of contradictions as the man himself was. “He was the epitome of that dichotomic cliché ‘you either loved him or you hated him’”, Shalev said, noting many Israelis often felt both.
“On this evening, we will remember his greatness, and leave the controversy over his later acts for another day,” said Economy Minister Naftali Bennet, whose party supports the settlement movement and fiercely opposes compromise with the Palestinians.
The education ministry planned to dedicate school sessions to discussing Sharon’s life work and actions in the coming days, Israeli media reported.
Israeli lawmaker Orit Struck, a resident of the Jewish settlement in Hebron, called Sharon “among the greatest builders of Israel and one of its greatest destroyers.”
Senior Fatah official Jibril Rajub termed Sharon “a criminal,” and Fatah official Jamal Muheisen said Sharon “has committed atrocities against the Palestinian people and for this reason he stands today before God to pay for his crimes.”
Sobelman is a special correspondent. Special correspondents Rushdi Abu Alouf in Gaza and Maher Abukhater in the West Bank contributed to this report.