Ariel Sharon's Death Sparks Strong Emotions Across Middle East

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon died Saturday at the age of 85. Israelis mourned the death of the celebrated politician and army general. But Palestinians reacted differently to the death of the controversial leader, who pushed for Jewish settlement of Palestinian territories.

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Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon died today at the age of 85. The controversial military and political leader had spent the last eight years in a coma following a stroke. From Jerusalem, NPR's Emily Harris reports.

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: Ariel Sharon was part of the nearly-gone generation of leaders who fought for Israel before the state's founding. That history built trust, says Israeli military analyst Jonathan Spyer.

JONATHAN SPYER: You know, Sharon was a man who Israelis turned to in moments of extreme national emergency.

HARRIS: Spyer says Sharon would do whatever he made up his mind to do, and sometimes that brought Israel victory, for example, in the 1973 Yom Kippur war.

SPYER: You know, he found that gap between the two Egyptian armies, he pushed across the Suez Canal and he reversed the course of the war. So it's one of those things where, yeah, on the one hand, this could be a potentially dangerous or unwelcome characteristic. On the other hand, timid and conformist military officers, you know, wouldn't have crossed the Suez Canal in 1973 and cut off the Egyptian Third Army, and Sharon did.

HARRIS: But Sharon's legacy is controversial even within Israel, because he changed his mind on big issues, says Israeli political analyst Eytan Gilboa. For example, Sharon championed building Israeli settlements on Palestinian territories occupied after the 1967 war, but in 2005, he pulled Israeli civilians and soldiers out of Gaza. He pushed troops further into Lebanon than the Israeli government planned in the 1982 invasion, but he drove Palestinian militants out of that country. Eytan Gilboa.

EYTAN GILBOA: The left, which opposed him and criticized him for the settlements and the war in Lebanon, praised him for the disengagement and his willingness to negotiate a peace settlement with the Palestinians.

HARRIS: Israel's right had mixed feelings too.

GILBOA: The right felt that by disengaging from Gaza and his willingness to allow the establishment of the Palestinian state, he betrayed the right ideology and claim for the entire West Bank and Gaza.

HARRIS: Palestinians see Sharon's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza as a strategic move to help Israel, not help create a Palestinian state. It wasn't a real withdrawal, says Palestinian politician Mustafa Barghouthi.

MUSTAFA BARGHOUTHI: Where Israel managed to achieve two goals, first, maintain control of the borders, of the sea and of the airspace, and at the same time separating Gaza from the West Bank.

HARRIS: Israeli settler activist Boas Haetzni also sees Sharon's Gaza pullout as a failure, but for different reasons.

BOAS HAETZNI: The situation today that the southern part of Israel is under cover of Hamas rockets, this is his present to Israel.

HARRIS: Early Israeli eulogies to Sharon have mentioned his dedication to the state and his military daring. Palestinians remember Sharon's visit to Islam's holiest spot in Jerusalem, widely credited with triggering the second intifada, his building of the separation barrier in and around the West Bank, and Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon led by Sharon, which included massacres in two Palestinian refugee camps. Although controversial, Sharon is widely seen as a leader who helped shape Israeli history. Ariel Sharon will lie in state tomorrow. His burial is planned for Monday.

Emily Harris, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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