Ariel Sharon, the tough Israeli leader who was the mastermind behind the disastrous invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and Israel's unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza strip, has died, eight years after suffering a massive stroke that left him comatose for the rest of his life.
Sharon was 85. He died at 7 a.m. ET at the Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer. According to hospital spokesperson, his family gathered at the hospital to be with him in this final moments.
"My dear friend, Arik Sharon, lost his final battle today," Israeli President Shimon Peres said today in a statement. "Arik was a brave soldier and a daring leader who loved his nation and his nation loved him. He was one of Israel's great protectors and most important architects, who knew no fear and certainly never feared vision. 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."
Former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton released a statement today on the passing of Sharon.
"Ariel Sharon gave his life to Israel -- to bring it into being, to sustain and preserve it, and at the end of his long service, to create a new political party committed to both a just peace and lasting security," the Clintons said in a statement. "It was an honor to work with him, argue with him, and watch him always trying to find the right path for his beloved country."
Sharon was running for re-election as prime minister when he suffered the stroke on Jan. 4, 2006. Severe hemorrhaging caused significant brain damage, leaving him in a vegetative state. He lived the rest of his life under long-term care, a sad and quiet end to a vibrant and stormy career.
For decades, Sharon played a giant role in Israel's military and political affairs, both loved and loathed for his controversial decisions and uncompromising ways.
He was an unabashed hawk who took a hard line against the Palestinians and embraced building Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank. Two of his most momentous decisions continue to reverberate across Israel and the Middle East.
As defense minister, Sharon engineered the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. The incursion left Israel embroiled with its northern neighbor for nearly 20 years and led to the formation and growth of Hezbollah, the Islamist group that is a sworn enemy of the Jewish state.
Sharon resigned as defense minister after a commission determined he was indirectly responsible for the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians by Lebanese Christian fighters in two refugee camps under Israeli control. And Sharon was prime minister when he ordered the withdrawal of Jewish soldiers and settlers from Gaza and parts of the West Bank -- a radical shift from a lifetime of supporting the settler movement.
Sharon argued that it had become too difficult to protect the Jewish settlers there, and that the withdrawal would help bring about peace and secure control over parts of the West Bank settlements.
The controversial plan to "disengage" was carried out in 2005. More than 8,500 Israeli settlers were relocated. But the radical Palestinian group Hamas gained control of the territory. Israel eventually went to war in late 2008 to stop rocket fire from Gaza into Jewish communities.
Ariel Sharon was born in 1928 in what was then known as Palestine, to a Russian immigrant family with strong Zionist sympathies.
He joined the Jewish military underground and was among the first on the battlefield when war broke out with the Arabs in 1948 after the creation of the Jewish state.
Sharon was a successful leader and soldier, but he could be unorthodox and rebellious, and his climb up the ranks was marked by glory and controversy.
In 1953, he led a reprisal attack on the village of Qibya, in which dozens of Arab civilians were killed. But Sharon won acclaim as a commander in the 1967 and the 1973 Arab-Israeli wars for strategies that are still taught in military schools.
Sharon was first elected to Israel's parliament in 1973. The killings in the Lebanese refugee camps forced him out of government, but not for long, and as housing minister in the early 1990s, Sharon built massive Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
He became prime minister after the failure of the Camp David talks in 2000, when Palestinian leaders rejected Prime Minister Ehud Barak's unprecedented concessions.
Sharon presided during the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, which lasted years and left hundreds of Israelis and Palestinians dead.