Ariel Sharon, Israel’s eleventh prime minister, passed away on Saturday afternoon at the age of 85.
“That’s it. He’s gone. He went when he decided to go,” Sharon’s son Gilad announced at Sheba Medical Center, at Tel Hashomer near Tel Aviv. Sharon had been in a coma for almost exactly eight years since suffering a massive stroke.
“Ariel Sharon has passed away,” said Professor Shlomo Noy, spokesman for the hospital. For some time, said Noy, “he was considered to be in a state of minimal consciousness, with ups and downs in his medical condition, and minimal non-verbal communication.” On Saturday afternoon, Noy said, Sharon’s heart stopped, and he “slipped away peacefully” from the loved ones who had kept a vigil at his bedside. He was pronounced dead at 13:55.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu focused on his central contribution to Israel’s security as a general and as a political leader. Israel’s Education Ministry told schools to devote time during the coming week to lessons discussing Sharon’s life.
Sharon’s body will be placed at the Knesset plaza on Sunday from noon to 6pm for the public to pay their last respects, and there will be a formal mourning ceremony at the Knesset on Monday morning, attended by the nation’s leaders and notables.
His final journey will begin from the Knesset later Monday, when his body will be driven in an IDF command car from Jerusalem accompanied by six generals. His funeral — which will be both a state and a military ceremony, given Sharon’s twin military and political careers — is scheduled for 2:30 on Monday afternoon at his Shikmim Farm in the Negev, where he will be laid to rest alongside his wife Lily. The funeral itself will be a private event, not open to the public.
Gilad Sharon returned to the family farm shortly after announcing his father’s passing. Gilad, his wife and family went to the Hill of the Anemones (Givat HaKalaniot) facing the farm where Sharon is to be buried. Second son Omri later joined the mourners at the farm. Other members of Sharon’s family and closest friends gathered at the farm late Saturday to plan the funeral arrangements, in coordination with the relevant government authorities including the Knesset panel for state ceremonies headed by Likud minister Limor Livnat.
US Vice President Joe Biden is expected to head the American delegation to pay last respects.
Biden said he looked forward to the opportunity “to pay respects to the man and to pay tribute to the unshakeable partnership between the United States and Israel.”
The former prime minister had been fighting kidney failure and blood infection. Sharon had been in a coma since suffering a debilitating stroke in 2006.
“He was a hero,” said Marina Lipschitz, the chief nurse treating him at the hospital. “Even at the end, he continued to fight like a lion… I am certain that he didn’t suffer,” she added. She also praised his family, led by sons Omri and Gilad, for “never missing a day” at his bedside since 2006. “They did everything to improve his situation.”
“There were good and bad days” over the years of his hospitalization. “We were sometimes able to communicate with him” in the earlier years, Lipschitz said, and even later there was communication via “a raised eyebrow” and “a handshake.” Toward the end, it was not clear that he was aware of what was going on around him, she said, but in the earlier years “he definitely was aware.”
His condition, long stable, took a turn for the worse last week and doctors at Sheba had been issuing intermittent updates detailing his deteriorating condition.
Hospital director Zeev Rotstein said earlier in the week that “if we don’t see a change on the scale of a miracle, his situation will continue to get worse each day.”
His family remained at his bedside in his final days, the hospital said, and former soldiers who fought alongside him were among the well-wishers visiting.
“People come throughout the day, to talk, to support his sons at this difficult hour,” Rotstein said Monday.
Sharon had been hospitalized at Sheba for seven years.
Sharon was one of Israel’s most iconic and controversial figures. As one of Israel’s most famous generals, he was known for bold tactics and an occasional refusal to obey orders. As a politician he became known as “The Bulldozer,” a man contemptuous of his critics while also capable of getting things done.
As defense minister, he led Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, and was forced to resign the post after a commission of inquiry found him responsible for failing to prevent the massacre by Christian Phalangists of Palestinian refugees in Beirut’s Sabra and Shatila camps.
A prominent hard-line voice over the decades, he was elected prime minister in 2001.
In mid-2005, he directed a unilateral withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip, ending a 38-year military control of the territory. It was a shocking turnaround for a man who had been a leading player in building Jewish settlements in captured territories.
He bolted the Likud party soon after and established the centrist Kadima party, where he was joined by Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni. He appeared on his way to an easy reelection when he suffered a severe stroke in January 2006. His deputy, Olmert, took over and was elected prime minister a few months later.
Sharon had a first, small stroke in December 2005 and was put on blood thinners before experiencing a severe brain hemorrhage on January 4, 2006. After spending months in the Jerusalem hospital where he was initially treated, Sharon was transferred to the long-term care facility at Tel Hashomer Hospital. He was taken home briefly at one point, but was returned to the hospital, where he had been since.
AP contributed to this report.