‘Bulldozer’ Sharon fighting for his life
JERUSALEM - Israel's former premier Ariel Sharon, who was fighting for his life on Thursday, was an arch-hawk turned statesman who pioneered plans to redraw the nation's borders and revolutionised its political landscape.
Sharon's health has deteriorated, with his "vital organs" failing, the hospital where he has been housed since falling into a coma on January 4, 2006, said on Thursday.
The 85-year-old politician's extraordinary and controversial career stretches back more than half a century, when he made it his mission to safeguard national security.
He became convinced Israel needed to separate from the Palestinians and unilaterally determine its own borders.
After withdrawing Israeli troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip in September 2005 following a 38-year occupation, Sharon abandoned his rightwing Likud party to form a centrist grouping to fulfil what he saw as a historic calling.
But after he fell into a coma, the Islamist movement Hamas took control of Gaza, having routed forces loyal to moderate Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in June 2007, effectively setting up an Islamist territory on Israel's border.
Sharon was also known for Israel's controversial 1982 invasion of Lebanon that left around 20,000 people dead.
In 2006, a UN-brokered ceasefire took effect in Lebanon after a 34-day war between Israel and the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, created as a result of the 1982 invasion Sharon directed as defence minister.
Born in British-mandate Palestine on February 27, 1928, to parents from Belarus, Sharon summed himself up in the title of his autobiography: "Warrior".
He was first elected premier in February 2001, just months after walking across the disputed Al-Aqsa/Temple Mount compound in Jerusalem in an action that sparked the second Palestinian uprising.
While his administration was initially seen as the most hawkish in Israeli history, less than four years later it withdrew troops and settlers from Gaza, Palestinian territory occupied in the 1967 war.
Plaudits and implacable enemies
The pullout earned Sharon plaudits around the world, but also made implacable enemies of former friends and allies on the nationalist right.
But nothing could redeem Sharon in the eyes of his Palestinian foes. Shortly after his massive stroke in 2006, Hamas said the Middle East would be better off without him.
Likewise, his critics on the Israeli right regarded him as a sell-out whose strategy helped hand power in Gaza to Hamas.
Sharon first rose to prominence on the battlefield in Israel's wars against Arab states, acquiring a reputation for chilling reprisals and a maverick tendency to do whatever he wanted.
He served as a general in the 1967 Six-Day War and was recalled from retirement in the 1973 Yom Kippur War when he led his troops across Egypt's Suez Canal.
Dubbed "the Bulldozer" for his style and his physique, he is remembered by Arabs as the "Butcher of Beirut" for the massacres of Palestinian refugees at Sabra and Shatila by a Lebanese militia, while Israeli troops stood by.
It ultimately cost him his job -- he was forced to resign after being held "indirectly responsible" for the killings.
But he remained in the cabinet, rebuilding his reputation first as infrastructure and then as foreign minister before becoming leader of Likud in 2000.
In November 2005, he left Likud to form a new party, Kadima, frustrated by the hardliners opposed to the Gaza pullout and any further concessions in the occupied West Bank.
In doing so, Sharon effectively redrew the Israeli political landscape.
His gamble was vindicated in a March 2006 election when Kadima made Israeli history as the first new party to win its first election.
But his personal life was blighted by tragedy. His first wife Margalith was killed in a car crash in 1962.
His second wife, Margalith's younger sister Lily, died of cancer in 2001.
And one of his three sons died in 1967 after being shot while playing with his father's rifle.