Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who exerted a major influence in the modern development of the Jewish state and was reviled by many Arabs, has died at the age of 85.
Officials and his family said the divisive former general-turned-politician passed away on January 11, after spending the past eight years in a coma following a massive stroke he suffered in January 2006.
Professor Shlomo Noy of the Chaim Sheba Medical Center Rehabilitation Hospital told reporters that Sharon "was treated for over seven years in the medical center at the rehabilitation hospital. Throughout this period he was considered to be in a state of minimal consciousness with ups and downs in his medical condition and nonverbal, minimal communication."
Sharon's son, Gilad, said: "That's it, he is gone. He left when he decided to do so."
Reacting to the death, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a statement praising Sharon as a great leader and brave warrior whose "memory will be cherished forever" by Israelis.
In sharp contrast, the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, was quick to welcome Sharon's death, denouncing him as a war criminal who caused multiple disasters for the Palestinian people.
There was no immediate comment from Palestinian National Authority President Mahmud Abbas.
A statement of condolence has been issued by former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who was deeply involved in Middle East peacemaking efforts during his presidency.
Russian President Vladimir Putin also issued a statement of condolence, saying Sharon worked to defend Israel's interests, had influence in the international arena, and backed the deepening of Russian-Israeli ties.
Sharon was elected prime minister in 2001 after a landslide victory against former Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
For many Israelis, Sharon was a man of war who in later years evolved into a pragmatic politician -- a leader, they believed, who could deliver peace without compromising Israel’s security.
To Palestinians, Sharon was “the butcher," blamed for masterminding the 1982 massacres in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon.
Sharon's political career spanned some 30 years, in which he held several cabinet posts, including the foreign and defense portfolios.
He was known as a strident supporter of the Jewish settlement movement. But in 2005, he decided to withdraw from settlements in the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank, ending decades of Israeli military control in those zones.
Critics would later charge that the unilateral withdrawal made it easier for Palestinian militants to launch rocket and mortar attacks on southern Israel.
In 2007, the Islamist Hamas movement seized control of Gaza from the more moderate Fatah faction. Since then, the territory has seen repeated outbreaks of violence, while peace talks have foundered.
Sharon suffered a stroke in January 2006, amid a reelection campaign he was widely expected to win.
With reporting by Reuters, AFP, AP, and dpa