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Death of Ariel Sharon elicits mourning, joy

Israel and world confront legacy of war, peace

Mourning Israelis gathered at the farm of Ariel Sharon on Saturday in Sderot.

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

Mourning Israelis gathered at the farm of Ariel Sharon on Saturday in Sderot.

SDEROT, Israel — When the Mark family heard the news about the death of Ariel Sharon on the radio Saturday afternoon, they immediately turned their car around and headed to his sprawling sheep farm here in the Negev desert, where he is expected to be buried on a hill next to his wife, Lily.

“I want our kids to remember this moment,” said Sharon Mark, 35, a mother of two from the southern Israeli city of Ashdod, “when the last of the giants and fighters died.”

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Mark was one of dozens of Israelis who flocked to the ranch in the hours after the former prime minister died at 85, as the nation — and the world — grappled with the mixed legacy of one of Israel’s most influential leaders.

It was a mourning long in the making: Sharon had been in a state of minimal consciousness since a stroke felled him eight years ago, and on Jan. 1 his organs began to fail.

Sharon’s death Saturday elicited a wide range of responses from Palestinians, but sadness wasn’t one: Some cheered and distributed sweets while others prayed for divine punishment for the former Israeli leader or recalled his central role in some of the bloodiest episodes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Palestinians widely loathed Sharon as the mastermind of crushing military offensives against them in Lebanon, the West Bank, and Gaza and as the architect of Israel’s biggest settlement campaign on lands they want for a state.

The news traveled quickly in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps in Lebanon’s capital of Beirut, where Israeli-allied forces slaughtered hundreds of Palestinians in September 1982, three months after Sharon engineered the invasion of Israel’s northern neighbor.

Sharon was fired as defense minister over the massacre, with Israeli investigators rejecting his contention at the time that he didn’t know the attack was coming.

‘‘Sharon is dead!’’ a 63-year-old Palestinian woman in Sabra said, pointing to a text message from her daughter. ‘‘May God torture him,’’ said the woman who only gave her first name, Samia.

Statements poured in from Israeli politicians, foreign diplomats, American Jewish leaders, Palestinian opponents, and critical human rights groups. The admirers, almost as a mantra, described him as a “brave soldier and military commander’’; detractors accused him of long-ago war crimes.

Many noted that his life and career had paralleled and been enmeshed with the development of his country, for better or worse.

“There are very few people whose actions have shaped and developed the state of Israel up until now in the way that Ariel Sharon did,” said Dov Weissglas, his former lawyer and adviser. “Today is the end of an era, the era of the first, the era of the giants, the era of the generation of leaders who fought in the war of independence.”

Tzipi Livni, Israel’s centrist justice minister and a Sharon protégé, described him as “a farmer, a fighter, and a prime minister who became a father of a nation.”

“But more than anything he was a man I loved,” Livni said in a statement. “We had eight years to say goodbye, and yet we couldn’t. We say goodbye to him now.”

Sharon was expected to lie in state Sunday at Israel’s Parliament building in Jerusalem, where an official memorial is scheduled for Monday morning. Burial is planned for Monday afternoon here on Anemone Hill, overlooking the Sharons’ Sycamore Ranch, where his sons were expected to eulogize him in a private service.

Vice President Joe Biden will lead the US delegation.

In a statement, President Obama said Sharon had dedicated his life to Israel. “We reaffirm our unshakable commitment to Israel’s security and our appreciation for the enduring friendship between our two countries and our two peoples. We continue to strive for lasting peace and security for the people of Israel, including through our commitment to the goal of two states living side-by-side in peace and security.”

While Israeli politicians of all stripes found something to praise Sharon for, Palestinians and others were blunt in their criticism. Hamas, the militant Islamic faction that leads the Gaza Strip, called the death “a sign of God’s punishment and a lesson to all tyrants.”

Mustafa Barghouti, a moderate member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s central council, told the BBC that Sharon had left “no good memories with Palestinians.”

“Unfortunately, he had a path of war and aggression and a great failure in making peace with the Palestinian people,” Barghouti said.

Al Manar, the satellite television station affiliated with the militant organization Hezbollah, used the headline “The Death of the Criminal of Sabra and Shatila” on its website.

Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, called it a “shame that Sharon has gone to his grave without facing justice” for, among other things, his role in the Sabra and Shatila massacres. She called his death “another grim reminder that years of virtual impunity for rights abuses have done nothing to bring Israeli-Palestinian peace any closer.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.
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