Ariel Sharon, a past prime minister of Israel who was crucial in the disengagement from Gaza and the founder of the influential Kadima party, died today. He was 85.

Sharon suffered a debilitating stroke in January of 2006, a stroke that left the leader in a comatose state for the rest of his life.

Ariel Sharon was born February 28, 1928, in an agricultural village in pre-state Israel. His parents hailed from Belarus, fleeing Bolshevik forces to immigrate to British Mandate Palestine.

When he was just 10 years old, Sharon entered the youth Zionist movement Hassedeh, and joined the Gadna, the paramilitary youth battalion, at the age of 14. He was later a member of the Haganah, the predecessor to the IDF.

That commitment to service continued in Sharon’s early adulthood. He fought in the 1948 War for Independence, heading an elite group known as Unit 101, a special forces unit that led military raids against Jordan. Sharon also commanded paratroopers brigade Unit 202 in the Suez War of 1956.

Following the war, Sharon continued his service, simultaneously studying law at Tel Aviv University from 1958 to 1962.

Already a stalwart military figure, Sharon held rank in the Six Day War of 1967, which saw Israel expand its territory, and in the Yom Kippur War in 1973. By the late 70’s he was progressing into politics, acting as military adviser for Yitzhak Rabin and serving as agriculture minister and defense minister.

In 1982, after the Lebanon War, Sharon bore criticism over the Sabra and Shatile massacre, a violent event in which between 800 and 3,500 Palestinians in refugee camps were killed by Lebanese Maronite Christian militias.

An investigation into the slayings found the IDF indirectly responsible, as it held control over the area of the attacks, and Sharon as defense minister faced scrutiny for “ignoring the danger of bloodshed and revenge.” The incident led to Sharon’s dismissal from his defense post.

Sharon remained active in the Knesset, however, eventually becoming head of the powerful Likud party.

Sharon was elected prime minister in 2001. During his tenure, he endorsed the Road Map for Peace, an ambitious plan for peace with the Palestinians, which spurred a dialogue with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. He launched the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, maintaining sea and air control, a move that still holds today.

In November of 2005, Sharon founded the Kadima party, a leftist party that maintains great influence in the Knesset today. It was at that time that Sharon also launched his re-election campaign, and winter polls that year showed the premier was likely to clinch the post.

Sharon struggled with health problems for the majority of his adult life. On December 18, 2005, he suffered a mild stroke, but was released from the hospital after just two days. On January 4, 2006, he suffered a second stroke that would be the source of his final incapacitation. He underwent a series of lengthy operations, but remained in a coma for the rest of his life.

Sharon was voted the eighth greatest Israeli of all time in a 2005 Ynet poll, and a $250 million park in his honor is currently under construction in Tel Aviv. When completed, Ariel Sharon Park will be three-times larger than Central Park.

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