Reflecting a lifetime of bitter struggles over the fate of Israel and the Palestinian territories, words of praise, but also contempt, followed the news of former prime minister Ariel Sharon’s death on Saturday.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the country would “forever” cherish the memory of the late leader, who passed away at a hospital near Tel Aviv aged 85.
“The State of Israel bows its head over the passing of former prime minister Ariel Sharon,” Netanyahu, who served as Sharon’s foreign minister and then finance minister between 2002 and 2005, said in a statement. “His memory will forever be held in the heart of the nation.”
President Shimon Peres also expressed his grief.
“My dear friend, Arik (Ariel) Sharon, lost his final battle today,” Peres said 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… He will be greatly missed,” he added.
However, Jibril Rajub, a senior official of the Palestinian party Fatah, said Sharon had been responsible for the death of former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and that the Jewish leader should have been tried as a war criminal by the ICC.
The rival Palestinian movement Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, labelled Sharon’s death a “historic moment,” marking the “disappearance of a criminal whose hands were covered with Palestinian blood.”
While despised by most Palestinians, it was Sharon who ordered the unilateral withdrawal of Israeli settlers from Gaza in 1995, earning him scorn from many close political allies and hawks at home.
‘Turning toward peace’
US President Barack Obama said he and First Lady Michelle Obama sent their condolences to the people of Israel after “the loss of a leader who dedicated his life” to their country.
Vice President Joe Biden will lead the US delegation for the memorial service and said he looked forward “to pay respects to the man and to pay tribute to the unshakeable partnership between the United States and Israel.”
Sharon will be buried at his ranch in the Negev desert in southern Israel on Monday, following a memorial service in parliament.
Former US President Bill Clinton said it had been an “honor to work with [Sharon], argue with him, and watch him always trying to find the right path for his beloved country.”
He said he and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton joined Israelis in “honouring his memory.”
French President François Hollande said Sharon was a “major actor” in the history of his country, who after a long military and political career had chosen to negotiate with the Palestinians.
A spokesperson for Angela Merkel said the German Chancellor was “mourning with the Israeli people”, adding that “with his courageous decision to withdraw the Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip, he took a historic step on the path to a deal with the Palestinians and a two-state solution.”
British Prime Minister David Cameron said Israel had lost an important leader, who as prime minister took “brave and controversial decisions in pursuit of peace.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Sharon had been an “outstanding statesman and military commander”, adding he would be remembered as a “consistent supporter of friendly relations between Russia and Israel.”
In a message conveyed by a spokesperson, the Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon said “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.”