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Israel, Palestinians and the world remember Sharon

World leaders have praised and questioned the legacy of Ariel Sharon in the wake of the former Israeli prime minister’s death. He had lingered in a coma since January 4, 2006, after suffering a massive stroke.

Sharon

died Saturday at a hospital near Tel Aviv after

his condition deteriorated following surgery

. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israelis would cherish Sharon's memory.

"The State of Israel bows its head over the passing of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon," Netanyahu said in a statement. "His memory will forever be held in the heart of the nation," added Netanyahu, who expressed "deep sorrow."

Sharon, 85, died at the Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer at about 1200 UTC on Saturday, officials and his son Gilad said. "That's it," his son said. "He is gone. He went when he decided to go."

'Displacement and crimes'

Sharon began his career in the military, becoming one of Israel's most famous generals. Among other things, he is credited with helping turn the tide of the 1973 Mideast war, leading a counterattack across the Suez Canal that trapped part of the Egyptian army.

Israel's right-wing government mourned a tough leader who employed military invasion, Jewish settlement building on captured land and, eventually, a unilateral decision to pull troops and settlers out of the Gaza Strip in 2005. The Palestinian group Hamas, however, announced that it welcomed former Israeli prime minister's death, calling him a "criminal."

"When the Palestinian people remember Sharon, they only remember pain, blood, torture, displacement and crimes," Salah el-Bardaweel, a spokesman for Gaza Strip ruling party Hamas, said in a statement to emailed to the press. "We will never feel sorry for his death," he added.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, with whom Netanyahu

has held US-sponsored peace talks

, had no immediate comment.

Over the years

Sharon proved a complicated figure for Israelis, Palestinians and the international community. Dubbed "the Bulldozer," Sharon first became prime minister in February 2001, just months after he provoked the second Palestinian uprising by walking through east Jerusalem's controversial site of the al-Aqsa mosque, known to Jews as the Temple Mount.

"Everyone there should move, should run, should grab more hills, expand the territory," Sharon said as foreign minister in 1998, calling on settlers to take over as much West Bank land as possible before any permanent territorial agreement with Palestinians. "Everything that's grabbed will be in our hands; everything that we don't grab will be in their hands."

Although his administration was initially seen as the most hawkish in Israel history, Sharon surprised friends and foes alike with his decision in 2005 to pull Israeli troops and settlers out of the Gaza Strip. Many Palestinians, however, still remember him as the "Butcher of Beirut" for the massacres of Palestinian refugees at the Sabra and Shatila camps in Lebanon by a Christian militia, while Israeli troops stood by. Israel's Kahan Commission found at the time that Sharon, then the defense minister, bore "personal responsibility" for the massacre.

View from afar

European leaders have largely paid tribute to the former prime minister.

"Ariel Sharon was an Israeli patriot who rendered a great service to his country," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said. "With his brave decision to withdraw Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip, he took a historic step towards reconciliation with the Palestinians and a two-state solution."

France's Francois Hollande and EU President Herman Van Rompuy offered condolences.

Former US President Bill Clinton and his wife, former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, also praised Sharon on Saturday.

"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 critical party committed to both a just peace and lasting security," the Clintons wrote in a joint statement.

mkg/dr (Reuters, AFP, dpa, AP)

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