ARIEL Sharon, the soldier-politician whose career helped shape modern Israel's history, died yesterday after eight years in a coma.
His death at the age of 85 set in motion plans for an elaborate state funeral and provoked a tributes and condemnation in almost equal measure.
Doctors at the Tel Hashomer Hospital's Sheba Medical Centre, near Tel Aviv, said the former Israeli prime minister, had passed away after showing "surprising strength" in the face of rapidly declining health.
Israelis had been alerted on January 1 that Mr Sharon's life was in danger after his kidneys and other vital organs began to fail as a result of an infection.
The former leader had been kept alive for the previous eight years by a complicated network of ventilators and feeding tubes. He had been in a persistent vegetative state since suffering a massive stroke in 2006 that inflicted severe brain damage.
As his two sons, Omri and Gilad, kept vigil by his side in recent days, doctors said Mr Sharon -- who was prime minister from 2001 until 2006 -- had battled to stay alive with the tenacity that marked his political and military career.
"He went when he decided to go," said Gilad Sharon, 46, Mr Sharon's younger son.
Procedures immediately got under way for a state funeral appropriate to his significance in Israeli history. World leaders will be invited to an event that will see the decorated former army general laid to rest beside the grave of his late wife, Lily, at his beloved ranch in the Negev desert.
During his career as a soldier and a politician Mr Sharon proved an influential but hugely divisive figure, earning bitter enemies among fellow Jews as well as Palestinians. Mr Sharon was a controversial figure even to Israelis throughout the Jewish state 65-year history. After fighting in Israel's 1948 War of Independence, he rose to further prominence in the 1950s as commander of the notorious Unit 101, a commando group responsible for reprisal operations after attacks by Arab guerrillas.
In a military career often characterised by recklessness and insubordination, he rose to the rank of general, fighting against Egypt in wars in 1956, 1967 and 1973.
His political career seemed doomed when he was forced to resign as defence minister after an official Israeli inquiry found that he carried "personal responsibility" for the massacre of between 800 and 3,500 Palestinians in Sabra and Chatila refugee camps in south Beirut in 1982.
Human Rights Watch said Sharon should have been put on trial for the killings, which were carried out by a Lebanese Christian militia.
After being politically written off, he made a surprise comeback as prime minister in 2001, months after the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada. This uprising was one which he had arguably helped to provoke in 2000 by walking, under a 1,000-strong police escort and amid huge publicity, on the holy Jerusalem site known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Arabs as Haram al-Sharif, to assert Israeli control of the ultra-sensitive complex.
He oversaw a bloody crackdown on Palestinian militant groups and gave the green light to build a massive 400-mile separation barrier through the West Bank, ostensibly to stop suicide bombers infiltrating into Israel.
The stroke that ended Mr Sharon's political career happened when he was arguably at the height of his political powers. His decision to evacuate 8,000 settlers and withdraw troops from Gaza in August 2005 split his Right-wing Likud party and prompted him to form a new centrist grouping, Kadima. He was preparing to lead the new party into a general election to fight on a peace platform at the time of his stoke.
Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's current prime minister said his memory would be "enshrined forever in the heart of the nation".
By contrast, Palestinians reacted with a mixture of anger. "We would have hoped to see him appear before the International Criminal Court as a war criminal," said Jibril Rajub, a senior official of the Fatah party.